The kindness of early gold miners

During the years of Mexican rule in California life for those who lived there was slow and relaxed, but with the large influx of American settlers that began in 1844 and soared to great numbers in 1849 that easy-going culture was quickly supplanted by the active and enterprising pioneers eager to make a better life for themselves. This resulted in a rapid Americanization of California and the unparalleled growth that led to statehood in 1850. Men, strong in body and in spirit, rapidly spread across the land digging ditches, tunnels and shafts, building dams and turning the course of rivers, harnessing the hydraulic power of water to literally move mountains and all in their pursuit of gold. But in addition to their determined industriousness these men were also endowed with a generous and kind demeanor.

Gold mining in a riverbed

It was a hot summer day in 1848 in a ravine where at least thirty hardy men were hard at work digging and panning ore from the earth when a young boy of sixteen or so came along, tired, footsore and penniless. The lad sat along the riverbank and silently watched the men work, misfortune painted clearly on his long face. At last one miner took notice of the boy and his condition and yelled out to his companions, “Boys, I’ll work an hour for that chap if you will.” Every man around readily agreed and the fervor of his work increased. At the end of the hour, as all of the miners crowded around him, the grateful boy was presented with one hundred dollars in gold dust. Then the men made out a list of the tools and supplies the lad would need to mine for himself and sent him to a nearby store. Meanwhile they staked out a good claim so that when he returned he could ‘paddle for himself’ as the saying went in those days.

J D Borthwick, A mining camp

Several years later J. D. Borthwick, while traveling along the Middle Yuba River, tells of meeting a young man on his way from Downieville to the camp of friends some thirty miles away. That evening they both stopped at the same hotel but when dinner was served the boy wasn’t at the table. It was soon found that he had no money and was too proud to take a meal without paying for it. But when the hotel owner found out about the boy’s situation he castigated the young man sharply for going supperless simply because he happened at the time to be ‘strapped’ or ‘dead broke’, as the miners variously called the boys condition, and insisted that he accept the hospitality of the hotel. And as the young man enjoyed his meal he was regaled by stories of how the other guest, each and every one of them in turn, had once been in a similar situation and, thanks to the kindness of strangers, been made welcome to everything he needed.



  1. That’s so sweet it brings tears to my eyes. And it’s so true. That sort of kindness to those down on their luck was part of the “Code of the West,” and extended into the Great Depression when men by the thousands rode the rails looking for work. Although the “yard bulls,” the rail yard police, would roust them and run them off, other railroad men (like my father) would go out and warn them when the yard bulls were coming.


    • Yeah, it’s a sweet post, Carol, but I think this started with the grueling trek across the country or maybe even before. There were three major routes to California, around the horn, across Panama, or overland. Mostly it was the rich who went by ship around South America, And while there were a lot of well-to-do who went by Panama this was favorite route for gamblers, cheats and all who were looking for the easy way. Those who came overland were usually from pioneer stock who had been moving west anyway. The trip was an ordeal beyond the expectations of almost everyone. No one made it to California without both giving and getting help along the way. These were the men who could withstand the rigors of mining and they were the type of men who would gladly help a stranger in need.

  2. I believe the men and others probably saw themselves in those less fortunate. I also think that people, given the chance are basically pretty good folk. This also brought a smile to my heart.

    • There were differnt kinds of men in the early gold rush. The pioneer types who came across the country and were used to the hardships of the land were more apt to help others. Those who came from the cities ususally arrived by ship and were more independent. They also had a rougher time with the hard work of mining.

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