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Contrary to the generally accepted opinion of the present day the typical miner during the period of the California gold rush was not a lawless, uncouth individual whose days were spent in gun fights and his nights in robbery or debauchery. True, there were “bad actors” in the region—both male and female and many of their escapades are notorious. Yet, in addition to not being typical of the population here at that time, the antisocial elements did not assume any degree of prominence until the richness of the area was proven. By that time lawless elements from the world over had arrived in quest of the “easy pickings” which can always be obtained from the more gullible of an established citizenry. Their prominence in the historical tapestry of the Mother Lode Country is due primarily to the fact that their exploits were “news.” And because they were “good copy” they have been played up with the passing of the years while the more prosaic activities of the great majority, somewhat colorless by comparison, were neglected.
Generally speaking the average miner was an honest, law abiding individual concerned primarily with ways and means of obtaining gold; of realizing the hopes that had brought him to California, which had required so much effort and personal sacrifice. True, his outward manner was often harsh and rough and in the mines he usually presented a rugged appearance —booted, bearded, with a thatch of unkempt hair crowned by the typical black slouch hat of the day, and wearing homespun trousers and a calico or flannel shirt—all of which were generally and unmistakably in need of washing and repair. But then the rough life he led and the heavy labor it required precluded the possibility of anything but occasional washing. And beards—well, it was the custom of the day for men to be bearded. Besides who had time to shave anyway, or wash clothes for that matter, as long as gold was to be reclaimed from the earth? Cleanliness was practically a luxury under such circumstances. The niceties of civilization could wait! Yes, the average miner was rough and ready in manner and appearance, and while he was anything but gentle his character was infused with a high regard for honesty and the laws of common decency. His opportunities, his difficulties and troubles, his victories and disappointments, his constant battle against the elements in a comparatively primitive land, and the dealings of his fellowmen were all direct and unbending in nature., Thus his reactions were equally direct. There was no established legal procedure in operation here when the horde of gold seekers arrived. The better elements set such procedures up for the protection of their rights in accordance with local needs. If they dealt harshly with offenders such actions were usually the only solution under the conditions at the time.
Soft dispositioned men would not have been attracted to the gold fields in the first place. The miner of the time would little afford to give much consideration to the fine points of what we feel are essential in a definition of the term “civilization,” but he was not unappreciative of those factors. He merely adapted himself to conditions as he found them, met them on their own terms, accepted them when necessary, and improved them when—and if—possible. The great majority of the men who came to California during the gold rush had been reared in established communities. They had thus been “exposed” at least to the social customs of the times and had grown up in an atmosphere of respect for the practical values embodied in an adherence to law and order.
Most of the argonauts were in the prime of early manhood—young, vigorous, and adventurous. They were the only ones who would be inclined to gamble their future in a distant land. They were also the only kind of men who could hope to cope with the numerous problems involved. Thus the type and character of these gold seekers was screened at the source. They came from all walks of life and from all grades of society. There were rich and poor, highly educated as well as those with little formal schooling, skilled and unskilled. But in the mines they were merged into a common picture of men grubbing for gold or serving those who so labored.
The miner worked long and arduous hours at backbreaking labor. Those who had expectations of an easy avenue to fabulous wealth were quickly and rudely disappointed. A few “struck it rich.” Many had only broken health and bitter failure as their reward. And while the average return was greater than that which they would have achieved at home on the prevailing wages of the day their costs were also high. Many sought their living here in the more prosaic but generally more certain and less exhausting manner of supplying the miners with their varied needs—food, clothing, tools and equipment, transportation, and amusement.
With respect to the latter the miner’s tastes—except in the larger towns— were satisfied by simple and impromptu means. A large share of his time not immediately occupied by mining was spent in ministering to his physical needs—that is by washing and mending clothes, repairing equipment, and preparing the meager and often unbalanced, indigestible requirements of the “inner man.” But when he did relax his activities generally took a turn toward group singing, and a miner who could play a fiddle, guitar, or banjo was much in demand. The songs they sang usually featured the trials and tribulations of their existence, gave vent to thoughts of home, or played up the more amusing events and personalities of the region. Practical jokes figured prominently in their relaxation also. Occasionally the miner felt the need of letting down in grander style. For this he journeyed to the nearest larger settlement where opportunity for ready made diversion was greater. Here he found the inevitable saloon, the fandango hall, an occasional theatrical performance by one of several troupes that toured the Mother Lode towns in the ’50s, and—during a brief period until outlawed or until the humbuggery of the spectacle became too evident for even the tastes of recreation starved miners—perhaps a bull and bear fight. Lodges and other community activities of a similar character figured prominently in the recreational picture, and the constant danger of disastrous fires brought about the development of fire companies that competed with one another and thus served a social and recreational as well as protective need in various communities.
During the early days of the gold rush women were scarce in the Mother lode Country. Most miners were single or had left their families at home. Thus miners’ dances in the early days were often characterized by the humorous spectacle of booted, bewhiskered men dancing with one another. The “ladies” in such affairs were usually designated by simply tying a handkerchief about one arm of a required number of individuals. Under such conditions it was inevitable that the Mexican fandango halls would prosper. Such was especially true in the Southern Mines. Although most of these places were conducted with a fair degree of proprie[t]y, events that occasionally transpired were the source of some trouble and for these lapses the fandango halls were widely condemned in the press of the time.
But as time wore on the Mother Lode Country gradually stabilized. Many miners who had families at home sent for them and others who had known girls in distant places did likewise. The few marriageable women in the region were, of course, quickly snapped up and not a few girls made the long journey west with the avowed purpose of husband hunting as their objective. The effect of this trend is obvious. The Mother Lode Country was gradually transformed from a rugged, almost womanless, pioneer region to one that could at last afford to consider and develop the “niceties” of civilization that it had lacked in the first days of the gold rush.
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