The Mother Lode and the Great Blue Lead

Across the gold country of California it became clear to early miners that the gold still locked into the quartz rock was in the natural state that it first was deposited. Thus the more angular the placer gold was then the closer to the original vein it had been found, and the farther from the source the more rounded and smaller the gold would appear, with the small scales and dust likely to have been carried the longest distance. The early miners discovered that the main original deposits were in quartz or limestone veins located from one thousand to four or five thousand feet above sea level along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The best example of these lodes is the famous Mother Lode that ran from Amador County to Mariposa and which, along with the limestone belt that ran to the east, constituted the great wealth of the Southern mines.

Argonaut Mine Jackson CA

In the Northern mines there were many quartz lodes full of original gold such as those in Grass Valley and Nevada City, and Sierra, Yuba and Butte Counties. Just as in the south the rivers of the Northern Mines cut through these lodes with tremendous erosive force and carried with them the gold that they deposited into the bars and gravel beds downstream. But it soon became clear that this was not the only source of the placer gold. The mines of the north were underlain by gold bearing gravel channels often many hundreds of feet deep that ran perpendicular to the rivers and were a primary source of this placer gold. These gravel channels were thought to be dead or ancient rivers by the early miners.

Hydraulic mining operation near French Corral CA

The most noted of the beds was the Great Blue gravel channel, or Blue Lead, that ran sixty-five miles southeast from the northern border of Sierra County to Forest Hill in Placer County. The existing portion was about as long as the Mother Lode but in the north it was covered by lava deposits and in the south it has either washed away or been covered in other deposits. It was a quarter of a mile wide and ran parallel to the Sacramento River and about fifty miles to the east. The elevation of the bed was 4700 feet in the north and 2700 in the south and many smaller branches ran into or across it, much like the Blue and Gray Channels around Placerville. There were also a number other channels similar to the famous Blue Channel.

The greater portion of the gravel in these ancient channels was quartz and just below where the modern rivers cut through the gravel channels was where the richest of the placer gold deposits could be found. Not only did the river carry gold from the quartz veins that it had cut through, but it also carried the gold from the ancient quartz gravel beds and then deposited the whole of its wealth along the now famous bars and flats where in the early days of the gold rush fortunes were scraped from crevices in the rock with a knife or a spoon or washed out with pan or cradle from lucky holes where it had been dropped by the high water of winter rains long past.



  1. I loved the line about the spoon. I am trying to wrap my mind around all the various places and ways the gold was deposited and the subsequent ways men used to get it out. Lots to think about.

    • The early miners thought a lot of the gold deposits were early river beds that ran north and south but it seems more like they were the result of tectonic activity. Mother earth spewed a lot of gold all aver the place over a long, long time. And every place men found the gold they had to figure out how to recover it. What they did is truly amazing.

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