In 1849, while there was a lot of drinking among the miners, it was noted that there were very few regular drunks as yet. Confirmed sots from the east were not able to make the hard journey west and the men who were here had not had time yet to develop a strong dependency. The great majority of drinking was what the miners called treating where if a man was asked to join a friend in some drinks he was expected to return the favor the next time they met. But a natural outgrowth of treating was the drinking binges that would last for days or even as long as a week. Men would consume brandy at a half an ounce of gold per bottle or champagne at an ounce a bottle as freely as water and proceed from saloon to store to tent, yelling and shouting, waving knives and firing at anything they fancied, while other men galloped through town on their horses often at the peril of the lives of everyone.
Dame Shirley, the pen name for Laura Clapp, told of a drinking spree that happened at Indian Bar on the North Feather River. Here the winter snow stopped mining activity for long periods and left the residents with little to do. Shirley glowingly described these men as “among the most generous, hospitable, intelligent and industrious in the world.” But at nine o’clock on Christmas evening during an oyster and champagne supper at the Humboldt House, the best hotel in the area, and after the speeches, songs and toasts were finished, the men began to dance and continued dancing for three days, growing wilder and noisier by the hour. By the fourth day, when most were confined to lying in heaps on the barroom floor, they began an unearthly bellowing. Some barked like dogs, others roared like bulls and some hissed like a snake, too far gone to even imitate normal behavior.
Among these revelers were some of the most respected men in the town, many who had never been drunk before. Even those who had kept themselves away from this riotous scene were not allowed to stay sober. The drunks formed a mock committee of vigilance and anyone who appeared too clear-headed would be hauled before a sham court on a ridiculous charge and duly sentenced to treat the crowd. Most had the good sense, and good humor, to do so. Before the end of the holiday week exhaustion finally overtook the celebrants but on New Year’s Day, after a grand dinner at nearby Rich Bar, a similar spree broke out that was followed by even more drinking binges at other camps up and down the river.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.