"Entertainment" in the Gold Camps of the American West (Part 1)
Miners found little to entertain themselves in the gold camps of the American West, no matter where those "boom or bust" camps were. Undoubtedly the same holds true for most of the gold camps that sprang up throughout the known world once gold was discovered nearby. Wherever the camps may have been, however, one thing was certain. The miners worked like dogs during the day but had little to do in the evenings or in their "free" time.
A Day in the Life
Miner Alonzo Delano used a bit of sardonic humor to describe the typical day he and other miners experienced in the California Motherlode placers of the early 1850s:
"At dawn he bounds up from his coarse blankets spread on Mother Earth and as it is his day to cook, he is doing housework and only fills up hours of leisure with his pick, shovel, or rocker as a kind of knitting work. The other boys are on the gravel bar. Dig, dig, pick, shovel, undermine and roll over huge rocks, and bail water...a worse than treadmill operation. Lug dirt in a bag 10 or 20 rods, and rock too and not to the tune of 'Barney Rock the Cradle.' For here the poor miner cries oftener than the child, cleaning out the black sand, broiling under the scorching sun at noon, shivering with cold at night. The poor, weary miner joyfully hears the glad call to supper and after scanning the few (in most cases) shining flakes which almost hide themselves in the crevices of his pan, throws himself down upon his blankets to dream of home and friends...the only time he is truly happy. Home and friends! I am an old miner myself and if I don't change the subject I shall cry to myself. And so one day passes as another, except Sunday and that is regarded as a day of rest. Then it is that he stitches up the saddest rents in his clothes, sews on a stray button, and washes a shirt or two. He reads an old worn-out newspaper or any paper he can get hold of (advertisements and all) calls on his friends to chat about new diggings somewhere else, or if he is included as too many are, is asked to 'buck the tiger' at a monte bank till every cent of his blood-earned gold is squandered."
Books, tracts, magazines, and newspapers were in short supply in most early gold camps. One old timer recalled that he paid a silver dollar for an old Farmer's Almanac and proceeded to read it during the winter months "through and through, forwards and backwards, sideways and upside down, and by spring I had acquired such a knowledge of astronomical science that I could locate all the signs of the Zodiac blindfolded, stand on my head and calculate eclipses, not to mention being able to foretell the weather for more than 10 years ahead." You'd have to be a real knot in a length of hardwood to not see the humor in this telling, but at the root of his pithy statement is the simple fact that entertainment of any sort was in very short supply in the gold camps. And that included books, although most miners carried a Christian Bible with them to the goldfields. But as for libraries, personal or otherwise, such things were nonexistent. Of course this mattered little to those among the miners who were illiterate or nearly so. And many fit this bill...
Bucking the Tiger
As Alonzo Delano pointed out earlier, one of the most prevalent (and perhaps most destructive) forms of entertainment was the vice many miners of old gold camps were warned about by their parents and preachers...gambling. Gambling was a constant in every gold camp of the American West, not matter how small it was or how loosely consolidated it might be. After a hard day's work in the mines there were always card games in progress on blankets laid out under a tree or within a dimly lit canvas tent where miners played poker, monte, or faro...usually with gold dust or nuggets as the main form of currency. Later on, as gold camps made the transition to "boom towns," these simple, mostly friendly small-stakes games became full-blown enterprises underwritten by professional gamblers, con men, and sharp-eyed saloon and gambling hall proprietors. Along with them these "entrepreneurs" brought new games of chance including roulette, craps, and high-stakes poker games that were often rigged or minded by hustlers, cheats, or card "sharps." Many a successful miner was laid low by choosing these forms of entertainment as his mainstay. Even the most prudish of miners who quoted passages in the Bible about the evils of being a sinner or who looked askance at his comrades throwing their hard-earned gold away at the tables were often led astray out of sheer boredom. Gold mining was then (and remains) the work of slaves and peasants and beasts of burden in its greatest sense. Life in the early gold camps was harsh at best, and for some it became totally debilitating. Drinking and gambling were the two biggest vices in the early gold camps, and it goes without saying that getting drunk was not entertainment per se...it was a release, a means to forget a menial existence or who or what you'd left back home, or simply to cut loose and raise a bit of hell. But the bottom line is that drinking and gambling or hell raising left many miners in the early camps broke and destitute if not shot dead in a heated argument or strung up from the nearest tree for thievery or "criminal intent."
Bad Things are Bound to Happen
A Chilean miner named Vicente Perez commented on the "entertainment" that guns provided in the early camps by stating, "Pistol and rifle shots rag out everywhere. Everyone in the camp took aim at a target from time-to-time without first troubling to ascertain where his bullets might stop. Most unexpected detonations came at nightfall, possibly to make sure the shooter was fully protected by arms, or possibly because guns were being cleaned and reloaded. After all, no American miner lies down to sleep without first having performed this unavoidable duty." But I think Senor Perez is being too kind here in many respects. Stray bullets often strike stray targets so if guns were used as a form of entertainment by some in the early camps, their foolishness and lack of responsibility with those firearms undoubtedly led to the early demise or crippling of some poor souls in the immediate vicinity. Of course firearms were a must in the early gold camps regardless. Their main roles were to be used for hunting and protection...not only from wild animals but from human predators as well. However, when gold, guns, alcohol, and gambling losses are all mixed together, some very bad things are going to happen. And happen they did in the early camps...more frequently than not.
There's more to come so stay tuned...
(c) Jim Rocha 2018
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