A burly, bearded mountain man in a plaid shirt and rolled up trousers is the picture that most people think the typical early Californian gold miner was like. However, historically speaking, the average age of a forty-niner was twenty-two. Many miners actually were minors! They came from the East with their older brothers, cousins, schoolmates, and neighbors from all areas with one quest: to find a quick fortune!
For most, this was a one-way ticket. They were usually looking to marry, build homes, and start families, coming back within a year or two to do so. They thought they would be finding gold right away and brought with them just enough money to make the trip, stake a claim, find shelter, buy tools, and store up a short supply of food . . . but that wasn’t enough to last the whole season.
They came with the shirts on their backs and high hopes of going home wealthy and building their dreams. However, it wasn’t much of a dream standing in the freezing cold water up to ten hours a day, seven days a week, with their food continuously running out. Just to earn enough for supper, they had to pan at least two ounces of gold dust each day! In the Gold Rush communities during the 1850’s food prices were incredibly high, it didn’t “pay” to eat: four dollars for an orange, one dollar for an egg or slice of bread, and two dollars for slice of bread with butter.
The Rough and Lonely
The wildlife roamed freely and peacefully along the banks of the South Fork American river in the great Coloma Valley. The miners, however, were in a rush. They streamed into central California from the Oregon trail, having left Independence Rock by the fourth of July. Most of the young miners were able to make it to the Coloma Valley by early to mid-autumn when the first hint of winter began hanging in the air. By that point, there was very little time to settle their claim, get shelter ready for the winter, and store up food and supplies for the coming months. The money was running out, food supply was almost gone, and soon they were very alone out on their claim with other miners miles away.
Hope still to be found
January brought on the harshest part of the winter. The cold, damp air hung by the river’s shore and the water was incredibly cold and frigid. All of this and a poor diet brought on many new illness and diseases. Help was scarce and the danger of claim jumpers and robbers had miners worried. Young miners may have felt the hopelessness of their isolation, however some happened to settle among some very welcoming Indians who had lived off the land for years. Spring began to show with warm air and the great Coloma Valley burst into life again. Despite the harshness of the job and lifestyle, youthful miners held onto the bits of hope that they had and continued on with their search for gold!