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All hail to the prospector, for without him, there would be few gold mines. There always has been and there always will be disappointments. Even in 1857, when gold seemed nearly everywhere in these hills, the following lament appeared in the Mariposa Gazette of January 6th:
“On a beautiful morning, a small company of ‘honest miners’ might have been seen wending their weary way through the chaparral and over the mountains, enquiring for the best route to Sweetwater Creek and occasionally singing snatches of songs, something like this:
‘ ’Tis an old Forty-niner, who toils his life away,
His prospects slim, his claims being worked before,
He once was light-hearted, he’s now sighing all the day,
Oh, Forty-nine, come again once more,
’Tis the song, the sigh of the miner,
Forty-nine, Forty-nine, come again once more,
Many years we have wandered upon this dug-out shore,
Oh, Forty-nine, come again once more’.”
Again, on January 9, 1864, the following, written by Burrell Belts, appeared in the Mariposa Gazette:
“Back to his lonely camp at close of day,
The luckless miner wends his weary way,
In pensive study, whereon earth to make
Another raise, a small provision stake.
Uncombed, unwashed, unshaven and unshorn
His clothes in strips by chaparral are torn,
Toes peeping from his boots, and battered hat,
Tired, wet and weary as a drowned rat.
How changed from him we in the city knew,
In stove-pipe beaver and a long-tailed blue,
Cigar in his mouth and carpet-sack in hand
By steamer bound to California land.
“His store of wood collected for the night,
To dry his clothes and cook his little bite,
A broken shovel fries his meat and bakes
A hasty mixture of unleavened cakes:
An oyster can for teapot will suffice
And pine or fir trees Hyson’s place supplies.
His supper over, he improves a chance
To patch with flour-sack his demolished pants.”
In later years, at the request of the author, Virgie Bates put her actual mining experiences on Saxon Creek, to rhyme, as follows:
“Through lack of employment, we went on the bum,
Our money had dwindled to quite a small sum,
We fell for a story, it’s ever so old
And took to the hills to prospect for gold.
To us from the city, it was quite a thrill
To lead simple lives with never a frill,
We poked round the mountains in our patched jeans
And stowed away with relish, our bacon and beans.
Unfriendly the natives, no advice would they give,
Since mining was rotten, asked how we would live.
Running a drift cost money and so
‘Twould maybe be better if we went below.
They couldn’t bluff us, we decided to stick,
Built us dip-boxes and worked in the creek.
We didn’t rate much but washed out the means
To buy our tobacco and bacon and beans.
Cinched up our belts and rolled our own smokes,
Resentment flared high when we were called jokes,
Might say we struck it, we didn’t by heck,
Dame Fortune to us was a pain in the neck.
A miner’s life is a strenuous game,
You would hardly term it the pathway to fame.
You never can tell what tomorrow may bring
So we’ll eat bacon and beans and to our luck sing.”
Gold mining has always been alluring. Those engaged in it have a peculiar mental complex, they are continually expecting and hoping for something exciting, a “strike”, as they call it. No other class would work day in and day out, with pick and shovel, or drill holes, in solid rock, if there was not some potent influence driving them on.
John Hite was one of the successful prospectors, illustrating the old saying, “a miner may be a pauper in the morning but a millionaire at night”. It is the experience of such men, as John Hite, which still urge prospectors to continue their search for the precious metal.
The history of his life is fascinating. Starting out on the prospecting trip, in 1861, which culminated in his great discovery, he was furnished a sack of flour and a few provisions by Michael Cashman, a merchant of Coulterville.
At a time when his provisions were almost exhausted, and after a scramble up and down the rugged mountains, through thickets of chaparral and greasewood that were almost impenetrable to a grizzly bear, and at a moment when hope was almost extinct, the lucky star of his good fortune directed him to the outcroppings of a ledge which exhibited gold in quantities to attract more than ordinary attention. It was located on the south fork of the Merced River, within a few miles of Major Savage’s first trading post and within a few miles of the spot, where in 1857, a company of miners were heard lamenting for the good old days of forty-nine to return.
A few sacks of selected rock, conveyed to the river and pounded up in a mortar, yielded sufficient to warrant the outlay necessary for the construction of an arastra. A tunnel was run into the mountain fourteen hundred feet and then extended several thousand feet in various directions. His first mill was a ten stamp, which was carried away by a flood. This was replaced by a twenty stamp mill, which was subsequently increased to a forty stamp, run by water power:. He erected a good hotel, store and other buildings and planted a garden, comprising two acres, which produced a great variety of vegetables. A fountain played in every direction and the whole scene was one of beauty. The money employed in making these improvements was all taken from the mine under the sole direction of John Hite, showing him to be a man of extraordinary ability.
He was a tall handsome man, industrious, hard-working, active and energetic. His mine made him a millionaire and he invested heavily in San Francisco real estate and in ranch property throughout the State. At the turn of the century, when he was seventy years of age, with white hair and evidently on the decline, he became defendant in the famous Hite divorce case, in which Lucy Hite, an Indian woman, was plaintiff.
Lucy, at the time of the trial, was about fifty years of age, her hair white, otherwise her age was not apparent as she was sprightly in her action and of modest demeanor. The trial was one of the famous cases of the day and was held in the Court House in Mariposa. Over one hundred witnesses were called.
The following is a summary of the plaintiff’s testimony: “I know John Hite. I was married to him a long time ago. I never was married to any but John Hite. It is true I lived with Jerry Gibbs, not married to him and we had a son. I also lived with Yankee Jim. Most time John Hite want to take me home. First time John Hite came for me, I went with him. I left John Hite, he no talk to me that time about marry me. Next time, he sent Bill Stanley, said if I come back, he would marry me. John Hite say make me wife. He no want me to go away. As soon as I got there, he want marry me. I was sitting in his lap. He said to me, ‘Conna me oha; meena conna longa’, in Indian language, all means ‘you my wife; I your husband’. I repeated the words ‘conna me oha; I your wife’. Hite said, ‘meena conna longa, I your husband’. After that I lived with him as his wife. I had one child, died small.”
It was brought out in the testimony that John Hite had for many years furnished her with a comfortable ranch home, paid all her bills, and had paid $100 a month to Tom Gibbs, her son by Jerry Gibbs. The Court awarded her $16,000 plus $5,000, for attorney and other expenses incurred by her. The suit was evidently started by Tom Gibbs to get possession of a big amount of money. Encouraged by lawyers, he influenced his mother to instigate the suit, which many believe was against her wishes. Of the $16,000, Tom secured possession of $10,000 from his mother and lost it all in about a year, mainly in poker games.
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