In the early days of California gold mining, when it was easier to dig for gold than to steal it, and almost everybody was peaceful, men would gather in the evenings, either in a remote camp or in one of the many rustic inns that sprang up along the trails and, in the twilight time between supper and bed, swap tales of their many adventures. Most of these wonderful stories are lost to us today and so too is that special insight into the lives and characters of the men who came to mine for gold that their tales would have provided. Bayard Taylor, a reporter for the New York Tribune sent to California by Horace Greeley in 1849 to report on the mines, said that he could have easily written a small volume on the experiences he heard of during his four day stay along the Mokelumne River, and regretted that he never did so.
Yet a few accounts have survived. One, in particular revolves around a log cabin on a pine-covered ridge between the middle and northern forks of the American River along the road to Nevada City known as the Grizzly Bear House. A canvas cloth with the name of the inn painted in black letters a foot and a half high graced the front wall while the skin of a large bear was nailed to the side. Inside at one end of the cabin was the bar, a narrow board about three feet high behind which were two or three decanters, several kegs of liquor, a tumbler of cigars, assorted bottles of champagne, and a box of tobacco. A couple of benches and a table sat in the center of the room and stacks of flour bags and other provisions were piled in the corners. Among the trees outside in the rear, under an awning, was a cook stove that constituted the kitchen where the evening meal of beefsteak, tea and week old bread was prepared.
After supper the men gathered near the fireplace, lit their pipes and swapped stories. Here the owner of the inn told of his experiences hunting a grizzly when, after he’d shot the animal twice, the bear charged him. He ran, reloading his rifle as he did, then turned and fired a third round into the bear’s left eye but still the bear kept after him. Again he reloaded on the run, then turned and shot out the right eye. But the bear dropped down to all fours and continued after him using his sense of smell. Here someone interrupted the innkeeper with laughter. ‘Did you ever kill a bear?’ the storyteller retorted then went on to relate how he’d climbed up a tree and continued to pepper the grizzly until it finally fell, riddled with shots. We will never know if this was the same bear whose skin adorned the wall of the inn.
After the stories the men moved to the center of the cabin where each man spread his blankets and lay down, some sleeping in their boots while others used them as a pillow. Early the next morning all the men rose and took care of their morning rituals in front of a tin basin that sat on a keg next to an open water barrel. Hanging nearby was a mirror so small that a man could only see one eye at a time and attached to it by a string was a comb for those who were without. Then most of the men enjoyed a morning drink while the cook laid the table for breakfast.
John Putnam is the author of Hangtown Creek, a thrilling saga of the early California gold rush.