Another quality of the early gold miners in California, in addition to their perseverance and energy, was their readiness to undertake and prosper in any kind of business that promised a good return. Mining, with all its toil, was considered a dignified and respectable profession, but so too was any occupation that yielded a good return. There were lawyers, doctors, merchants, senators, mayors and ministers all clad in wool shirts and heavy boots, knee deep in muck and mire, hard at work in the mines every day. But if the prospects of gain were better then none these men were too proud to drive an ox team, cut wood or wash dishes.
One older miner, Samuel C. Upham, who had arrived along the Calaveras River in the fall of 1849, was stricken by a severe case of rheumatism after about a month of hard work and compelled to give up mining. He headed to Stockton and inquired at a large tent that passed as the city hospital, but finding the cost of thirty-two dollars a day for his board and care too steep he turned instead to a bottle of Opodeldoc—a liniment made from soap and herbs—that he had bought in Philadelphia for a quarter, and it cured him.
Still, he was afraid that if he returned to the mines he would suffer a relapse of his rheumatism so he began to buy tools, clothing and supplies from miners returning from unsuccessful ventures and resold them at a great profit to enthusiastic new miners who had just come to the gold country. Unfortunately the heavy winter rains of 1849 put a stop to his new business and Upham moved on to San Francisco. Since he had no place to sleep in the city he bought the galley from one of the many abandoned ships in the harbor and had it moved to Happy Valley, then a pile of sand dunes and tents filled with about a thousand miners along Market Street between First and Third Streets.
Now that he had a shelter Upham looked around for a way to make money. He soon noticed there was a shortage of pickles so he gathered up all the old pickle bottles he could find and cleaned them. Then he bought a barrel of salted cucumbers and a half a barrel of cider vinegar and filled his bottles. Within a week he’d sold the cucumbers and cleared a profit of three hundred dollars. Then he bought up all the tobacco pipes around, or, as they would say back then, he ‘made a corner’ in that branch of trade. But twenty-four hours later Upham had sold the pipes for a profit of one hundred and fifty dollars. Soon afterwards Upham accepted a regular job as bookkeeper for the Pacific News at a salary of one hundred dollars a week and one would expect he was now able to move into better living quarters.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.