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The Old-Time Miners

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By Charles Carroll Goodwin in 1913

 

 

Wagon Train, 1847We all have, I hope, high and sincere reverence for the Pioneers; for those men and women who began their western march almost three hundred years ago; first in grotesque little ships across the Atlantic, and made their first stopping places on the eastern shore of the ocean; then a little later began to push their way against the wilderness and the savages; as one generation sank into the earth another took up the slow march, pursuing its way until the deep woods gave place to smiling homes all the long way to and beyond the Mississippi.

 

Looking back we remark a few of their achievements, the unremitting labor of their lives; the courage that bore them up; the poverty that bound them around in merciless coils; the self-sacrifices which they accepted as a matter of course; the tenacity with which they never failed to assert that their free citizenship should never be trenched upon; the carrying with them the little red school house; the high manhood, the divine womanhood which upheld them as they pushed their way.

All these and other characteristics shine out as we look back over the trails they blazed and mark the temples they up-reared, and to the eyes of the minds of all Americans, they make a picture of enchantment, not one tint of which fades as the years advance and recede.

But there came a time when the order of a hundred and fifty years was changed. Though for more than two hundred years the race had been toiling; though their heroic work had transformed a mighty section of the new world; though an empire of measureless natural wealth had been explored, the country was poor in that thing called money, the one thing that electrifies enterprise and provides a just reward for toil.

There came a whisper that on the other shore of the continent gold had been discovered. This was swiftly confirmed by succeeding news, and then the exodus began.

Within a few months there were tossed upon that western shore two hundred and fifty thousand men. They were nearly all young men, and every state of the then union was represented.

The journey had steadied and broadened them. Whether by the long trek across the continent, whether by lonely ships around Cape Horn, or through the scramble and the rush by the pestilential Isthmus, they all had taken on new ideas by the experience they had been through.

As a rule they were all more or less home boys and the best of them had a full quota of provincialism.

But this last melted away faster than it had ever before in any country.

The secret was that the mothers they kissed when they left home were American mothers, and as the differences among American mothers are the differences of environment, it did not require long for their sons to recognize that fact.

Many of the new comers stopped on the seashore or in adjacent valleys, but I am not dealing with those today. It is the company which never rested by the sea or in the soft valleys, but hurried to the hills. For them nothing would do but the native gold. The art of extracting it was simple and quickly learned. And when at night the clay's proceeds were panned and cleaned and weighed, the miner held it before his eyes and invented the phrase: "That's the stuff."

 

 

 

Miners prospectingAnd who were these miners? They were as a rule just American boys and young men. They had come from every field, from every school; they were, so to speak, the nation looked at through the big ends of the opera glass.

All recognized that they were living in a land that had no government, but they got together in the different camps and resolved that while there was no law, there should be order, and that every man should be secure in what was rightly his.

Petty criminals fought shy of those camps. Sometimes there were disputes over business affairs. When they could not be settled privately a court was quickly convened; a juror was never questioned about any bias or prejudice that he thought he entertained or whether he had formed or expressed any opinion. He was simply asked if he could hear the case and decide according to the law and evidence. If he promised that, it was enough.

 

Some of those trials were most picturesque. Will Campbell was mining in a ravine a mile or two outside of Downieville [California]. One morning three or four miners came to him where he was at work, and one said : ''Mister, did you back in the states study law?'

Will replied that he did. Then it was explained to him that a big Pennsylvania Dutchman was trying to claim the ground that one of the boys owned, that a trial had been set for that afternoon, and they wanted Campbell to go to camp and try the case for them. Campbell replied, "All right, if one of you chaps will work my ground while I am gone, I will go." This was agreed to and Campbell went to the camp, tried and won the case. He told me about it later, after he had become an eminent lawyer and judge.

He said: I was nineteen years old. I had just graduated; all the practice I had ever had any experience in was in the moot courts in the law school. I did not know a vast amount of law, but I had brought all my gall with me to California, and I suppose my argument that day was one calculated to scare away a mountain lion, if he was an old and wary one and wished to avoid trouble.

'I have never since experienced the self-satisfaction that was mine as I emerged from that room and walked out on the cleared space in front of the building. Many people congratulated me and I swallowed it all as though it was my due. At last the big Dutchman came along and said : 'Mister Campbell, dot vas one great speech vot you made today.' 'Ah,' I replied, 'do you really think so, Uncle Billie ?'

'Yaw, I tinks so.' he said. 'It just lacked but von ding to make it one very great speech.'

'You really think so, Uncle Billie?' I responded; 'and pray what did it lack?'

'It lacked sense' was the curt answer. 'The boys heard it and it cost me all the dust I had mined for a week previous, to get out of camp. I have heard of it from time to time ever since. But it did me lots of good. I have never since talked as learnedly as I did on that day. You see, the ordinary intellect can only stand about so much."

 

 

Continued Next Page

 

Downieville, California, 1865.

Downieville, California, 1865.

This image available for photographic prints and downloads HERE!

 

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