colorful period in America's remarkable early history is the gold rush era. In the late 1800's the discovery of gold triggered a flood of immigrants into the country, all intent on making their fortune. These miners shaped the early history of America, and created a great deal of the legend that surrounds the era of the "Wild West." While some of the legends of lawlessness and debauchery are clearly exaggerated, life in the mining towns of the gold rush era was clearly rough and ready.
This paper will examine life in the mining camps of the gold rush era. This will include a look at the people who made up the camps, the general atmosphere, as well as prostitution, gambling, general lawlessness, and the role of religion within the mining camps. The demise of the mining camps will be examined in the context of the development of the railroad and the emergence of the Settlement Act. In addition, the fate of many of these mining camps as ghost towns will be discussed, including threats to their continuing existence, and hopes for their preservation.
The Gold Rush in the United States
The California gold rush officially started in 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered gold near Coloma, California. News of Marshall's discovery soon spread by word of mouth to natural skepticism, but when President James Polk lent credence to Marshall's discovery in late 1848, people flooded into California in unprecedented numbers, each with the hope of making it rich in the gold fields (Library of Congress, Gold). Polk noted, "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by authentic reports of officers in the public service" (PBS). Almost 100,000 people came to California in 1849, most of them searching for gold (Library of Congress, Gold).
Gold was soon found in other states, including Nevada, Texas, and Alaska. Like in California, people flooded into these states in the hope of making their fortune. In Nevada, the start of the gold rush is attributed to find by the French Claude Chana, who discovered gold in Auburn Ravine in 1848 (Baumgart).
The gold rush in Alaska started between 1896 and 1897, when gold was found in Canada's Yukon Territory in the Klondike. BY 1898 most of the most prosperous fields were claimed in the Klondike, as miners flooded into the area. Soon, hopeful miners began to spill into the state of Alaska, and major strikes were found in Nome (1898) and close to Fairbanks (1902).
The gold rush was an opportunity for many men to make a life for themselves that they could never hope to obtain in their home countries. J.S. Holliday, the author of The World Rushed In describes the lure of the gold rush in these personal terms: "(a would-be miner) talks to his wife and says: 'look if I go to California for one year or even less than that -- I can come home with ten thousand dollars. I can pay off the mortgage, I can get out from under your father. I can stop this miserable job that I have. We can send the children to school. We will have what we want. We will have all the promise of America. Not over a lifetime but over a few months" (PBS).
The Mining Camps
Mining camps often seemed to pop up overnight, following word of a gold strike. As America's gold fever grew, mining camps sprung up almost overnight to cater to their basic needs, including accommodation and food. Over fifty gold-mining camps were erected in the chaos of Alaska's gold rush (Library of Congress, Gold Rush). Assay offices, saloons, and stores were often little more than canvas tents with false fronts made out of wood. Rock and stone in towns where gold panned out often slowly replaced these tents, and ore continued to be dug (CmdrMark).
Many mining camps had a short existence. As quickly as many mining camps sprang up, they were taken down again if gold did not materialize. Of the mining camps, Prentice Mulford noted, "The California mining camp was ephemeral. Often it was founded, built up, flourished, decayed, and had weeds and herbage growing over its site and hiding all of man's work inside of ten years" (Koeppel). Once the gold was gone, there was no reason for miners to stay in the remote locations. Many miners moved on to the next rumored gold rush, leaving their former mining camps deserted, and left to the elements, bringing rise to the modern phenomenon of gold rush towns.
The miners themselves were often a rough-and-tumble lot, who lacked many of the social niceties common in more established towns. Samuel Clemens notes, "They were rough in those times! They fairly reveled in gold, whiskey, fights, and fandangoes, and were unspeakably happy. The honest miner raked in from a hundred to a thousand dollars out of his claim a day, and what with the gambling dens and other entertainments, he hadn't a cent the next morning if he had any type of luck" (PBS).
The gold rush town gave these young men a sense of freedom from the normal rules of society. Out from under the wings of their parents and Eastern civilization for the first time, many of these young men broke free from social constraints. J.S. Holliday, author of "The World Rushed In" notes, "The phrase that I like to use is there were no "hometown eyes" watching them -- no mothers, fathers uncles, in-laws, preachers, teachers, neighbors. There is the freedom of anonymity. If you are anonymous, you can dare to behave in a way that you would never behave under the gaze, under the supervision of home -- and all the weightiness that home puts upon you" (PBS.com).
The gold rush was a great equalizer of men. The gold was accessible to anyone with a pick axe, a shovel, and a streak of good luck. In this environment, as cultures and races mixed, the miners soon established a new, frontier society. JS Holliday noted, "There's no government. There's no wire. There's no order. There's none of the normal obstacles; political obstacles. The California Gold Rush is there, open, free. There is no military force here to impose any rules. There's no taxes collected, no tax collectors. There's no judicial system. There are no boundaries, there's no rules. It's there, it's free" (PBS).
Mining camps were often "places to avoid -- were it not for the gold. Places that were wild, open, free" (PBS). Lawlessness was the order of the day in most of the early mining towns. Class society had disappeared in the mining towns, and this anonymity brought pure freedom.
The absence of white women in the early mining towns of the west is a fact often overlooked in popular culture. Harriet Crandall, the first white woman to come to Auburn notes of a meeting with some miners, "They had been up there about a year, and when they saw me they nearly went crazy. You see they had not seen a white woman for so long, and they said that sometimes they had never expected to see one again." The woman-starved miners wanted only one thing. "Nothing would satisfy them but we must camp right there and I should cook dinner for them" (Baumgart).
Women were rare in the early mining camps, if not non-existent. Famously, an early miner charged $5 for miners to come to his wedding, since the sight of women was so rare. The early mining towns offered a rare opportunity for many women to make money of their own. Washing clothes sometimes brought $8 per dozen, and a boarding house would bring in $200 a week (PBS).
The influx of miners to the mining camps brought some important lessons in supply and demand. Mining towns were often places where the free market ran rampant. In California, the forty-niners (as miners were called) could earn twentyfive dollars in a day, much of which was spent on basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter. Dried food like beef jerky was available, but fresh vegetables were rare (PBS). Steamboat operators could earn close to a staggering $40,000 per month bringing miners to the fields. Among them, the famous entrepreneur Sam Brannan bought up every carpet tack in California, charged outrageous prices, and made a fortune.
Early in the gold rush era, mining towns often suffered greatly for the lack of basic supplies, and as such also lacked many of the more stereotypical trappings of the gold rush era like formal brothels and gambling houses. This was remedies later in the gold rush era, prostitution and gambling became well-known features in mining towns. The town brothel became as well established an institution as the town saloon or general store. Gambling was rampant, and many miners lost their fortunes. As the gold rush continued, jails were built to contain criminals.