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The 49ers - “We’re here - Now what?”
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:23:10 PM Views: 7135

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in February, 1999
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   Last time, we covered some of the hazards and adventures experienced by many of those adventurers traveling to California in 1849. This time, we call your attention to some of the living conditions found here when they arrived.

   Since the trip across the country by wagon took the better part of six months to accomplish, the new arrivees would find themselves in California in late October or November. While the winters in California are generally milder than those back east, weather conditions in the mountains could be absolutely brutal for those who had traveled lightly to save time, or those who had been forced to give up many of the amenities they had brought with them such as stoves and other heavy objects, due to the necessity of lightening the load to prevent working their draft animals to death.

   Since they had been camping all along the way to California, it was natural that they would continue the camping lifestyle if the weather was good, at least, they thought, until they could gather a pile of nuggets. Harsh reality often set in just as the weather turned cold and rainy, and they discovered that the tent they had been using to sleep under was woefully inadequate to provide them protection from the cold and wet. Setting about to provide better conditions could involve the building of a crude shelter of branches covered with bark or canvas. If any of the miners had brought carpenter’s tools with them (and many of them did), trees could be cut and fashioned into a log cabin. Roofs could be covered with split cedar shakes and fireplaces could be made of rocks and mud. This would be considered by many of the miners to be very fine housing, indeed, often equal to what they had left behind in the “states.”

   Even at this early stage of mining in California, the division of labor would separate men into producers and providers. Producers, miners who had found some gold, would often pay providers, those who could build a cabin, to do that kind of work for them. Many men found out right away that the life of a miner was not for them, and they turned to ways to use skills they already had to provide income that would not involve the many hours of standing in cold water, sifting sand for a few grains of color. The average miner probably made no more that one-half to one ounce of gold, or from $8 to $16 from a full day of literally back-breaking work. While this was a lot more than a back-home farmer could have earned (about $300 to $500 a year), the cost for the basic foodstuffs and equipment needed for survival in California was very high, compared to prices in the states.

   It soon became evident to some not-too-successful miners that the other miners would need food, mining supplies, blankets, clothes, and even entertainment. It was often true that the first building of a substantial nature in a camp would be the ubiquitous trading post. Usually run by a disillusioned miner, the store offered many of these necessities of life, even providing credit for those who had found promising locations to mine. The store owner often became the most trusted man in camp. He could be called upon to settle disputes, and even served as what passed for the law in some communities. His store would probably become the social center of the camp, and the most profitable portion of his business would be the bar. Cheap whiskey, and lots of it, would make many men poor, but a few would profit from the manufacture, distribution and sale of spirits.

   Another large business was that of providing room and board to those who were wont to move around from town to town in search of the ever elusive “big strike.” Boarding “houses,” often not much more than a tent, and “hotels,” sometimes only even bigger tents, sprang up wherever needed to house the ever-moving miners. Some of the early residents made far more money than miners ever would by providing meals, often in a tin plate nailed to a plank and swabbed out by a filthy rag after each man ate the beans or stew sloppily ladled out by the proprietor.

   Supplies would be transported by even another group of men who had found that mining was not the lifestyle they had dreamed it would be - teamsters. There were, even at this early time, many places in California that had such necessities, and as the need to move them around to the miners arose, so did the need for mule and ox teams and wagons. This led to even more divisions of labor; those who could build and maintain wagons, and those who could raise and train animals for the yoke. It was also often the case that these individuals became much wealthier than they ever could have as miners.

   Transporting goods on the water from San Francisco or Sacramento to the mines became another entire industry formed in response to the needs of the miners. Men who had been sailors could still make a living by that means, as they were able to move goods up the rivers to Sacramento, Marysville or Stockton.

   Of course, since there were some men who were in the wholesale business, and could order, pay for and maintain a large inventory of supplies, there was also a need for banks, as the money began to flow from the mines to the rest of the world. The men who began these businesses usually became much wealthier than the miners.

   Within a year or so of the discovery of gold by James Marshall, enterprising speculators had placed entire shiploads of goods on the high seas bound for California. Soon, miners could choose from some of the finest and most exotic foods available anywhere in the world, if they had the gold dust to pay. Locally, there was a need for the raising of fresh vegetables and meat, and the laundering of clothes. An interesting aside here: clothing was sometimes bundled up and sent to China for laundering. It seems incredible, but this happened often, particularly in communities close to the ocean, where ships would fill up empty spaces at cheap rates.

   And since, where there is money to be had, it seems certain that within a few months would appear some who would provide the miners with the opportunities to gamble and strike it rich that way. Along with the gamblers would appear the “soiled doves,” to provide companionship, even if only for a few hours. Many of the fortunes to be made in California came by way of providing such services to the miners. Other forms of entertainment would come as traveling companies of actors would set up in a town for several nights. Even such grisly forms of entertainment as a bear and bull fight would attract hundreds of spectators. The bear, usually a grizzly, would be staked in the center of a ring while the bull would be free to run. The miners were starving for news from back home, too. Books, magazines and newspapers would often be passed around the entire community until they were no longer readable.

   Later, as gold became harder to find, and mining ceased to be an individual effort, company mining would be the norm. This would provide the need for a whole new list of needed services. Lawyers, doctors, machinery manufacturers, road builders, brick makers, masons, lumbermen and even just plain laborers would all be needed. There was a need for all manner of workers, and all of them needed the services of one another as the society became more diversified.

   When, eventually, the families of the early miners came to California, there also came a need for schoolteachers, ministers, seamstresses and the like. The need for family housing provided work for many of the unsuccessful miners who had retained their skills as carpenters.

   Gold had provided the glue which stuck the society together, but the true wealth of California lay not only in its mineral worth, but in the productivity of its people. Farming, ranching and manufacturing soon became big business, as sales of California’s products to the rest of the world began to even out the trade balance. Real estate transactions by themselves would create much more wealth than gold ever did. Farming, too, would provide more money for California’s people than gold ever would.

   Successful early miner John Bidwell, one of California’s first citizens, would use his gold dust for the purchase of farming and ranching property, and he became one of the State’s wealthiest and most influential men.

   John M. Studebaker came from Indiana with $68 and worked in Placerville, repairing wagons and making wheelbarrows. He saved $8000 and returned home five years later to join his brothers in one of the most successful carriage-making businesses in the country. The company later produced Studebaker automobiles.

   Seeing the miner’s need for news, a Nevada City miner named George Hearst took his earnings from mining and invested in the newspaper business, later leaving a fortune to his son, William Randolph Hearst.

   Such men as Sam Brannan, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker made fortunes from the merchandising businesses. The latter four would become wealthy enough to back the construction of the first transcontinental railroad. Levi Strauss, as another example, seeing the need for sturdy clothing, made his fortune producing and marketing denim pants made with superior quality. Look at any old picture of miners and notice that virtually all of them wore a hat. Hat making became a big business in itself.

   However, not everyone who made their fortune in California was able to keep it. Early entrepreneur Sam Brannan died in poverty. Both John Sutter, who started it all, and James Marshall, who found the gold at Sutter’s sawmill, should have been enriched by the experience, but both died in poverty. Many others who would have been considered successful eventually succumbed to various misfortunes such as cholera, accidents, gunshots and even demon rum. Some, while not actually dying, became so addled by their experiences that they became the object of ridicule. Witness the saga of Joshua Norton, a successful merchant in San Francisco, who, with a single bad investment in a shipload of rice, lost his business and probably his mind. He was to wander the streets of the city for many years thereafter, proclaiming himself the “Emperor of California and Protector of Mexico,” and he lived off the handouts of strangers.

   There are few statistics available on the number of men who were killed, either accidentally, or as a result of violence by other men, and who were buried anonymously in California. Add to this the not insignificant toll of life taken by the hardships of the trip to get here, and the many that died of disease, shipwreck, and so on. Considering all this, it is no surprise that there was even a need for Undertakers, as the society became more civilized.

   More on the life of the early Californians next time.

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