"Entertainment" in the Gold Camps of the American West (Conclusion)

Other than the unrelenting monotony of hard work day after day, miners in the early gold camps of the American West had little in the way of entertainment. In this post we'll take a look at some other forms of "entertainment" the old timers indulged in.

Animals for Sport

Both the untamed creatures of the wild and domesticated animals were the focus of certain forms of entertainment in the gold camps at various times. For example, one very popular entertainment in the California goldfields was the bull and bear fight. More often than not this spectacle occurred in a crudely erected arena on any given good-weather Sunday (the miners' "day off") and was attended enthusiastically by miners from both near and far who could, of course, bet on their favorite. Both the bear (often a California grizzly) and the bull were chained to posts in close enough contact with each other that they could "spar" with one another, although in other instances the bull was free to roam the arena. Exactly how the miners acquired a bear is left open to your imagination since the historical record says nothing about this aspect of the fight, but rest assured these "bull and bear" fights did take place as more than one personal account mentions their popularity among the miners of the day. However, the animals involved in these fights often responded in less than enthusiastic fashion. In one particular instance a miner described a "fight" where the bear was so frightened of his snorting opponent that he managed to break the chains holding him and fled, clambering up the nearest oak tree...which proved somewhat problematic. You see, this particular tree was filled with cheapskates who had refused to pay the arena admission price and hoped to get a free view of the fight from their elevated position. Their response to the bear's intrusion was swift: "Some let go and plunged to earth while others slipped down through the outer branches crashing and howling. It looked as if the old bruin had jumped into a pond and driven out all the frogs."

Great Fun for All

Another popular animal-oriented entertainment in the early gold camps out West was horse racing. And, like most of the "entertainment" chosen by the miners, it provided a good opportunity to lay down a wager or two. Most of these horse races were what are called "sprints" in horse racing parlance and large groups of miners (and various hangers on) were in attendance. Alcohol was usually in attendance as well, and often tempers flared between various bettors as well as the riders themselves. There is more than one account of a losing rider using his lash on his opponent both during and after a race. Of course, this was all good sport to the miners in attendance who whooped and cheered as they watched this sort of punishment being meted out, or who turned on each other when the races were not as interesting as they thought they should be. All in all however, it was considered good fun by all and rarely did things erupt into meaningful violence. Not a few miners in the gold camps also "adopted" or made pets of the wild critters in the immediate environs with blue jays, raccoons, chipmunks, squirrels, and other animals or birds trained to become erstwhile companions. The antics of these little beasties provided great fun and entertainment for many a lonely miner and were well cared for.

Fraternal Orders

Small groups of miners also formed fraternal clubs that provided various forms of entertainment including wild initiation rites. Although these clubs or "societies" were ostensibly formed to assist others miners in need in the camps (or their families), their primary function was to recruit new members, charge them exorbitant initiation fees, and then proceed to drink up the proceeds thus gained. Members were given fancy sounding titles and secret handshakes and code words were employed to give each fraternal order member a sense of being special or part of a greater whole. Most of these early gold camp fraternal orders went by the wayside as miners moved on to other diggings or crossed the last great divide, but some thrived and became prominent in those mining communities that actually did't go bust. And, as they became more formal, gold camp fraternal clubs actually did help many a down-n'-outer or the widows and children of men who died in the mines or from violence or disease. At any rate, the establishment of various fraternal orders provided another means of relieving the tedious monotony of working the mines.

Amateurs and Professionals

Early on in the gold camps some miners of a more creative bent actually staged theatrical or musical "entertainments" complete with aspiring thespians and fiddle and banjo players. Despite their crudely amateur nature and lack of adequate stages or settings, these "concerts" or theatrical productions were widely attended just the same. Here is a miner's description of one of these performances. "Several acts were filled with the usual amount of fighting and terrible speeches, but the interest of the play is carried to an awful height by the appearance of two specters clad in mutilated tent covers and holding sperm-whale candles in their hands. At this juncture a miner in home-spun female attire throws himself (her?) into an attitude in the middle of things. Why this happens no one can say as it makes no sense whatsoever and has no connection to this tragic concoction at all. Afterwards, I left this grand performance shaking my head and thinking the playwright must've been on a howling bender." Later on as some of the bigger gold camps transformed themselves into towns, "professional" groups of actors or  musicians made their way through the various camps. Their talent and production values were much improved over the previous account of the specters clothed in tent cloth and they drew large audiences of miners from near and far. Among the performers of the day were such luminaries as the actor Edwin Booth (John Wilkes Booth's brother) who had performed all over Europe and the Eastern United States, Lola Montez (who was actually of Irish descent), and the entertainer and comedienne Lotta Crabtree. When performers such as these showed up at a camp, all activity came to a halt as the town folk and miners jockeyed for the best seats in the house.

(The beautiful and often unrestrained Lotta Crabtree.)

Spectator Sports

Of course, the most popular entertainment for miners in the more developed gold camps could be found in what as then called the "local gambling hell" (as opposed to gambling hall). Strong drink, games of chance, and eventually women of ill repute were the main attractions and provided dubious forms of entertainment for miners both young and old. Fights were common in these establishments and sometimes escalated into gun play and even murder. The early camps were without any formal law to speak of, so the miners tended to take things into their own hands and either hung the culprit outright or, at the very least, gave him a good tar and feathering and sent him (or her) on their merry way never to  return. Again, life was harsh in the early gold camps and claim jumping, theft, or murder were dealt with immediately and just as harshly as the life the miners lived. Even criminals of the female variety could expect the same treatment despite their claims to being the "fairer sex." Lynchings, hangings, and tar and feathering often became spectator sports in the camps and some miners took righteous pleasure in this form of "entertainment." Others, perhaps of weaker stomachs or kinder dispositions, stayed at camp and avoided these events like the black plague.

Transient Lives

Whatever the entertainment offered them, most miners in the early gold camps were eager to see, hear, or experience anything that would take their minds off their loneliness and the unending drudgery that placer or hard-rock mining afforded them. Most of them didn't realize how transient their lives were as diggings became "played out" or veins became "pinched." Some remained where they were, others moved on to other diggings, and quite a few simply went home. As one old timer so eloquently put it, "Many of those I knew or worked alongside of were played out long before the diggings themselves did the same. Some had given themselves over to strong drink and gambling, while the spirits of others were nearly broken from work that resembled that of the slaves of Egypt's Pharaohs. Others such as myself grew stronger under the unrelenting toil and the heat, and cold, and sickness. As I look back as an old man I would do it all again were I given the chance. That's the miner's madness, you see?"

My best to each and every one of you.

(c) Jim Rocha 2018

Questions? E-mail me at jr872vt90@yahoo.com


  1. JR, I would sure have liked to see that bear go up the tree at those guys! We had one climb into our hunting stand once....gets exciting fast!
    There is a place not far from here, by the mining ghost town of Leesburg, called "Racetrack Meadows" for that very reason. Lotta......Hmmmmm.......I can see why they liked her!
    I hope you had a great labor day weekend.

    1. Yep Gary, that bear and bull thing was some form of entertainment for sure!


Post a Comment