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Present at the Beginning of the Gold Rush: Journalist Edward Gould Buffum Pans Gold in California, 1848

Edward Gould Buffum (1820–1867) went to California in 1846 as a soldier in a New York regiment during the Mexican War. There, Buffum and his regiment helped wrest California from Mexico. After his discharge from the army, Buffum remained to pan gold in the area around John Sutter’s sawmills where it had just been discovered. A journalist by profession, Buffum recorded his experiences in a book, Six Months in the Gold Mines, from which this excerpt comes. He commented with wonder that men in the California gold mines earned one hundred dollars per day on average. To understand what a fortune this was, consider that women working as domestic servants in northeastern cities at this time earned between four and seven dollars per month.

Next morning early, in better spirits than we had enjoyed for a week previously, we started for Yuba River. About a mile from the camping-place we struck into the mountains, the same range at whose base we had been before travelling, and which are a portion of the Sierra Nevada. The hills here were steep and rugged, but covered with a magnificent growth of oak and red-wood. As we reached the summit of a lofty hill, the Yuba River broke upon our view, winding like a silver thread beneath us, its banks dotted with white tents, and fringed with trees and shrubbery.

We had at last reached the “mines,” although a very different portion of them than that for which we started. We turned out our tired horses, and immediately set forth on an exploring expedition. As my clothing was all dirty and wet, I concluded to indulge in the luxury of a new shirt, and going down to the river found a shrewd Yankee in a tent surrounded by a party of naked Indians, and exposing for sale jerked beef at a dollar a pound, flour at a dollar and a half do., and for a coarse striped shirt which I picked up with the intention of purchasing, he coolly asked me the moderate price of sixteen dollars! I looked at my dirty shirt, then at the clean new one I held in my hand, and finally at my little gold bag, not yet replenished by digging, and concluded to postpone my purchase until I had struck my pick and crowbar into the bowels of the earth, and extracted therefrom at least a sufficiency to purchase a shirt. The diggings on Yuba River had at that time been discovered only about three months, and were confined entirely to the “bars,” as they are called, extending nearly a mile each way from where the road strikes the river, on both its banks. The principal diggings were then called the “upper” and the “lower diggings,” each about half a mile above and below the road. We started for the upper diggings to “see the elephant,” and winding through the hills, for it was impossible to travel all the way on the river’s bank, struck the principal bar then wrought on the river. This has since been called Foster’s Bar, after an American who was then keeping a store there, and who had a claim on a large portion of the bar. Upon reaching the bar, a curious scene presented itself. About one hundred men, in miner’s costume, were at work, performing the various portions of the labour necessary in digging the earth and working a rocking machine. The apparatus then used upon the Yuba River, and which has always been the favourite assistant of the gold-digger, was the common rocker or cradle, constructed in the simplest manner. It consists of nothing more than a wooden box or hollowed log, two sides and one end of which are closed, while the other end is left open. At the end which is closed and called the “mouth” of the machine, a sieve, usually made of a plate of sheet iron, or a piece of raw hide, perforated with holes about half an inch in diameter, is rested upon the sides. A number of “bars” or “rifflers,” which are little pieces of board from one to two inches in height, are nailed to the bottom, and extend laterally across it. Of these, there are three or four in the machine, and one at the “tail,” as it is called, i. e. the end where the dirt is washed out. This, with a pair of rockers like those of a child’s cradle, and a handle to rock it with, complete the description of the machine, which being placed with the rockers upon two logs, and the “mouth” elevated at a slight angle above the tail, is ready for operation. Modified and improved as this may be, and as in fact it already has been, so long as manual labour is employed for washing gold, the “cradle” is the best agent to use for that purpose. The manner of procuring and washing the golden earth was this. The loose stones and surface earth being removed from any portion of the bar, a hole from four to six feet square was opened, and the dirt extracted there from was thrown upon a raw hide placed at the side of the machine. One man shovelled the dirt into the sieve, another dipped up water and threw it on, and a third rocked the “cradle.” The earth, thrown upon the sieve, is washed through with the water, while the stones and gravel are retained and thrown off. The continued motion of the machine, and the constant stream of water pouring through it, washes the earth over the various bars or rifflers to the “tail,” where it runs out, while the gold, being of greater specific gravity, sinks to the bottom, and is prevented from escaping by the rifflers. When a certain amount of earth has been thus washed (usually about sixty pans full are called “a washing”), the gold, mixed with a heavy black sand, which is always found mingled with gold in California, is taken out and washed in a tin pan, until nearly all the sand is washed away. It is then put into a cup or pan, and when the day’s labour is over is dried before the fire, and the sand remaining carefully blown out. This is a simple explanation of the process of gold-washing in the placers of California. At present, however, instead of dipping and pouring on water by hand, it is usually led on by a hose or forced by a pump, thereby giving a better and more constant stream, and saving the labour of one man. The excavation is continued until the solid rock is struck, or the water rushing in renders it impossible to obtain any more earth, when a new place is opened. We found the gold on the Yuba in exceedingly fine particles, and it has always been considered of a very superior quality. We inquired of the washers as to their success, and they, seeing we were “green horns,” and thinking we might possibly interfere with them, gave us either evasive answers, or in some cases told us direct lies. We understood from them that they were making about twenty dollars per day, while I afterwards learned, from the most positive testimony of two men who were at work there at the time, that one hundred dollars a man was not below the average estimate of a day’s labour.

On this visit to Foster’s Bar I made my first essay [attempt] in gold-digging. I scraped up with my hand my tin cup full of earth, and washed it in the river. How eagerly I strained my eyes as the earth was washing out, and the bottom of the cup was coming in view! and how delighted, when, on reaching the bottom, I discerned about twenty little golden particles sparkling in the sun’s rays, and worth probably about fifty cents. I wrapped them carefully in a piece of paper, and preserved them for a long time,—but, like much more gold in larger quantities, which it has since been my lot to possess, it has escaped my grasp, and where it now is Heaven only knows.

The labour on Yuba River appeared very severe, the excavations being sometimes made to a depth of twelve feet before the soil containing the gold, which was a gravelly clay, was reached. We had not brought our tools with us, intending, if our expedition in the mountains had succeeded, that one of our party should return for our remaining stock of provisions and tools. We had no facilities for constructing a machine, and no money to buy one (two hundred dollars being the price for which a mere hollowed pine log was offered us), and besides, all the bars upon which men were then engaged in labour were “claimed,” a claim at that time being considered good when the claimant had cleared off the top soil from any portion of the bar. We returned to our camp, and talked over our prospects, in a quandary what to do. Little did we then dream that, in less than six months, the Yuba River, then only explored some three miles above where we were, would be successfully wrought for forty miles above us, and that thousands would find their fortunes upon it.

We concluded to return to the Embarcadero , and take a new start. Accordingly, next morning we packed up and set off, leaving at work upon the river about two hundred men. Having retraced our steps, we arrived at Sutter’s Fort in safety on the evening of November 30th, just in time to find the member of our party whom we had left behind, packing all our remaining provisions and tools into a cart, ready to start for the “dry diggings” on the following morning.

The history of John A. Sutter, and his remarkable settlement on the banks of the Sacramento, has been one of interest since California first began to attract attention. Captain Sutter is by birth a Swiss, and was formerly an officer in the French army. He emigrated to the United States, became a naturalized citizen, and resided in Missouri several years. In the year 1839 he emigrated to the then wilderness of California, where he obtained a large grant of land, to the extent of about eleven leagues, bordering on the Sacramento River, and made a settlement directly in the heart of an Indian country, among tribes of hostile savages. For a long time he suffered continual attacks and depredations from the Indians, but finally succeeded, by kind treatment and good offices, in reducing them to subjection, and persuading them to come into his settlement, which he called New Helvetia. With their labour he built a large fort of adobes or sunburnt bricks, brought a party of his Indians under military discipline, and established a regular garrison. His wheat-fields were very extensive, and his cattle soon numbered five thousand, the whole labour being performed by Indians. These he paid with a species of money made of tin, which was stamped with dots, indicating the number of days' labour for which each one was given; and they were returned to him in exchange for cotton cloth, at a dollar a yard, and trinkets and sweetmeats at corresponding prices. The discovery of the gold mines of California has, however, added more to Sutter’s fame than did his bold settlement in the wilderness. This has introduced him to the world almost as a man of gold, and connected his name for ever with the most prized metal upon earth. He is quite “a gentleman of the old school,” his manners being very cordial and prepossessing.

Sutter’s Fort is a large parallelogram, of adobe walls, five hundred feet long by one hundred and fifty broad. Port-holes are bored through the walls, and at its corners are bastions, on which cannon are mounted. But when I arrived there its hostile appearance was entirely forgotten in the busy scenes of trade which it exhibited. The interior of the fort, which had been used by Sutter for granaries and storehouses, was rented to merchants, the whole at the annual sum of sixty thousand dollars, and was converted into stores, where every description of goods was to be purchased at gold-mine prices. Flour was selling at $60 per barrel, pork at $150 per barrel, sugar at 25 cents per pound, and clothing at the most enormous and unreasonable rates. The principal trading establishment at this time was that of Samuel Brannan Co. Mr. Brannan informed me, that since the discovery of the mines, over seventy-five thousand dollars in gold dust had been received by them. Sutter’s Fort is in latitude 35 33‘ 45“ N., and longitude 121 40’ 05” W.

With all our worldly gear packed in an ox-wagon, we left Sutter’s Fort on the morning of the 1st of December, and travelling about seven miles on the road, encamped in a beautiful grove of evergreen oak, to give the cattle an opportunity to lay in a sufficient supply of grass and acorns, preparatory to a long march. As we were to remain here during the day, we improved the opportunity by taking our dirty clothing, of which by that time we had accumulated a considerable quantity, down to the banks of the American Fork, distant about one mile from camp, for the purpose of washing. While we were employed in this laborious but useful occupation, Higgins called my attention to the salmon which were working up the river over a little rapid opposite us. Some sport suggested itself; and more anxious for this than labour, we dropped our half-washed shirts, and started back to camp for our rifles, which we soon procured, and brought down to the river. In making their way over the bar, the backs of the salmon were exposed some two inches above water; and the instant one appeared, a well-directed rifle-ball perforated his spine. The result was, that before dark Higgins and myself carried into camp thirty-five splendid salmon, procured by this novel mode of sport. We luxuriated on them, and gave what we could not eat for supper and breakfast to some lazy Indians, who had been employed the whole day in spearing some half dozen each. There is every probability that the salmon fishery will yet prove a highly lucrative business in California.

Next morning we packed up and made a fresh start. That night we encamped at the “Green Springs,” about twenty-five miles distant from Sutter’s Fort. These springs are directly upon the road, and bubble up from a muddy black loam, while around them is the greenest verdure,—the surrounding plain being dotted with beautiful groves and magnificent flowers. Their waters are delicious.

As the ox-team was a slow traveller, and quarters were to be looked for in our new winter home, on the next morning Higgins and myself were appointed a deputation to mount two horses we had brought with us and proceed post-haste to the “dry diggings.” We started at 10 A. M., and travelled through some beautiful valleys and over lofty hills. As we reached the summit of a high ridge, we paused by common consent to gaze upon the landscape and breathe the delicious air. The broad and fertile valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin lay stretched at our feet like a highly coloured map. The noble rivers which lend their names to these rich valleys were plainly visible, winding like silver threads through dark lines of timber fringing their banks; now plunging amid dense forests, and now coming in view sparkling and bright as the riches they contain; the intermediate plains, here parched and browned with the sun’s fierce rays; there brilliant with all the hues of the rainbow, and dotted with the autumnal flowers and open groves of evergreen oak. Herds of elk, black-tailed deer, and antelope browsed near the mountain sides, on the summit of which the eagle builds his eyry. The surrounding atmosphere, fragrant with delightful odours, was so pure and transparent as to render objects visible at a great distance, and so elastic and bracing as to create a perceptible effect on our feelings. Far in the distance the massive peak of Shaste [Shasta] reared its snow-capped head, from amid a dense forest, fourteen thousand feet into the sky. We arrived at what was then called Weaver’s Creek, about dusk. About a dozen log houses, rudely thrown together and plastered with mud, constituted the little town which was to be our winter home, and where we were to be initiated into the mysteries, pleasures, and sufferings of a gold-digger’s life. A pretty little stream, coursing through lofty oak and pine-covered hills, and on whose left bank the settlement had been made, was the river that had borne down the riches which we hoped to appropriate to our private uses. It was a beautiful afternoon when we reached it. The sun was just declining, and, resting upon the crest of the distant Sierra Nevada, seemed to cover it with a golden snow. The miners were returning to their log huts with their implements of labour slung over their shoulders, and their tin pans containing the precious metal in their hands. We learned that the “dry diggings” for which we had started, were three miles further into the mountains, that there was a great scarcity of water, and that but very little could be accomplished before the commencement of the rainy reason. Finding some old friends here, who generously offered us a “chance” upon the mud floor of their log cabin, we remained with them for the night, and stretching our blankets upon the floor and lighting our pipes, were soon engaged in an interesting conversation on the all-absorbing topic.

Next morning our party arrived with the team, and from the representations of our friends, we concluded to remain at Weaver’s Creek, and pitched our tent on the banks of the stream. Our teamster’s bill was something of an item to men who were not as yet accustomed to “gold-mine prices.” We paid three hundred dollars for the transportation, about fifty miles, of three barrels of flour, one of pork, and about two hundred pounds of small stores, being at the rate of thirty dollars per cwt. This was the regular price charged by teamsters at that time, and of course there was no alternative but to pay, which we did, although it exhausted the last dollar belonging to our party. But there, before us, on the banks of that pretty stream and in the neighbouring gorges, lay the treasures that were to replenish our pockets, and the sigh for its departure was changed by this thought into a hope that our fondest wishes might be realized in our new and exciting occupation.

Source: Edward Gould Buffum, Six Months in the Gold Mines (Philadelphia, Lea and Blanchard, 1850), 49–58."