Magazine article Humanities

Season of Dashed Hopes

Magazine article Humanities

Season of Dashed Hopes

Article excerpt

By 1852, the average daily yield for placer miners was less than a third of what it had been in 1848-just $6, down from a high of $20 in the year following the gold discovery. Frustrated miners were sure the decline was even steeper.

In 1851, A. W. Genung wrote home from Toulumne County that he had given up on making his "pile" quickly. Genung believed that "the first digging of the river banks and beds of the creeks ... gave from four to six ounces a day," or $64 to $96. Provisions ran $5 a day, and a glass of whiskey cost $2. "The second digging and washing," he wrote, "which I arrived in time to get a parting glance at, gave from one to 2 ½ ounces per day," or $16 to $40. Daily provisions went for $3, and a glass of whiskey sold for 50 cents. Now, he thought, an individual miner made only $4 or $5 each day. Daily provisions cost him a dollar, and a glass of whiskey set him back 12 or 13 cents.

Genung predicted that the area would "all be worked over again at one or two dollars per day," adding, "I don't wish to be here then." An 1853 correspondent to the San Joaquin Republican wrote: "California, is herself, no more. The mines are much too crowded for all to do well."

Most Chinese gold seekers arrived in California during this season of dashed hopes, taking up placer claims others abandoned. Perhaps because they had missed the earliest days of the Gold Rush, or perhaps because most could not communicate easily with their disappointed neighbors, or perhaps because circumstances in their homeland were dire, Chinese miners did not seem to share white men's pessimism. As late as 1858, an Amador County newspaper reported that Chinese men were digging gold not at some remote foothill stream but at the creek that ran right through the center of Jackson, the county seat. Although this was ground that had been "worked over at least a dozen times," the paper said, the men were making "from $2.50 to $8 per day to the hand" and showing off specimens that weighed from an ounce to six ounces each.

In 1854, a Mariposa County paper noted that the Guadalupe mining district had "gone over to China," and that the men there were making from $3 to $5 per day. And in Calaveras County in 1856, a newspaper remarked that in just three months, Chinese miners had bought up over $21,000 worth of claims along the Mokelumne River. Employing the name Anglo Americans used for all Chinese men in California, "John Chinaman," the paper noted that such purchases proved the value of the area mines, since "John is a good judge of diggings, a close prospector, and a successful miner."

Over the course of the 185Os, river mining increasingly became the province of Chinese gold seekers. In the last days of 1850, Timothy Osborn, mining along Little Humbug Creek noted in his diary that a group of Chinese men had set up camp nearby. This early-arriving Chinese party mined in the same area and probably used the same methods Osborn did, shoveling bucket after bucket of gold-bearing dirt and washing it out in a rocker.

Although he had been in the diggings only six months, Osborn was tired of it all: "I am sick... of the dog life of a miner ... and would give all I have to be at home... and forget the word California and never hear it spoken again!" He left the diggings for good just days later, settling in the supply center of Stockton.

Meanwhile, Chinese men poured in to the areas white men like Osborn left behind. A Mariposa newspaper noted in 1857 that Chinese men were busy working the bed of the Merced: "The whole flat along the river has been staked off by them." Rumor had it that these miners recently had unearthed a seven-pound piece of gold. Such a lump would have been worth almost $1,800.

True or not, reports like these must have galled white men who had given up on gold as well as those who hung fire in the mines. For those who left the diggings, Chinese miners' accomplishments belied the Anglo axiom that the placers were all but played out. …

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