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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Argonaut Life and Character

By Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832–1918)

[From History of the Pacific States of North America. Volume XXIII. 1888.]

CERTAIN distinctiveness of dress and manner assisted the physical type in marking nationalities; but idiosyncrasies were less conspicuous here than in conventional circles, owing to the prevalence of the miner’s garb—checked or woolen shirts, with a predominance of red and blue, open at the bosom, which could boast of shaggy robustness, or loosely secured by a kerchief; pantaloons half tucked into high and wrinkled boots, and belted at the waist, where bristled an arsenal of knife and pistols. Beard and hair, emancipated from thraldom, revelled in long and bushy tufts, which rather harmonized with the slouched and dingy hat. Later, a species of foppery broke out in the flourishing towns; on Sundays particularly gay colors predominated. The gamblers, taking the lead, affected the Mexican style of dress: white shirt with diamond studs, or breastpin of native gold, chain of native golden specimens, broad-brimmed hat with sometimes a feather or squirrel’s tail under the band, top-boots, and a rich scarlet sash or silk handkerchief thrown over the shoulder or wound round the waist. San Francisco took early a step further. Traders and clerks drew forth their creased suits of civilization, till the shooting-jacket of the Briton, the universal black of the Yankee, the tapering cut of the Parisian, the stove-pipe hat and stand-up collar of the professional, appeared upon the street to rival or eclipse the prostitute and cognate fraternity which at first monopolized elegance in drapery.

Miners, however, made a resolute stand against any approach to dandyism, as they termed the concomitants of shaven face and white shirt, as antagonistic to their own foppery of rags and undress which attended deified labor. Clean, white, soft hands were an abomination, for such were the gambler’s and the preacher’s, not to speak of worshipful femininity. But horny were the honest miner’s hands, whose one only soft touch was the revolver’s trigger. A storekeeper in the mines was a necessary evil, a cross between a cattle-thief and a constable; if a fair trader, free to give credit, and popular, he was quite respectable, more so than the saloon-keeper or the loafer, but let him not aspire to the dignity of digger.

Nor was the conceit illusive; for the finest specimens of manhood unfolded in these rugged forms, some stanch and broad-shouldered, some gaunt and wiry; their bronzed, hairy features weather-bleached and furrowed, their deep rolling voices laden with oaths, though each ejaculation was tempered by the frankness and humor of the twinkling eye. All this dissolution of old conventionalities and adoption of new forms, which was really the creation of an original type, was merely a part of the overflowing sarcasm and fun started by the dissolution of prejudice and the liberation of thought.

A marked trait of the Californians was exuberance in work and play, in enterprise or pastime—an exuberance full of vigor. To reach this country was in itself a task which implied energy, self-reliance, self-denial, and similar qualities; but moderation was not a virtue consonant with the new environment. The climate was stimulating. Man breathed quicker and moved faster; the very windmills whirled here with a velocity that would make a Hollander’s head swim. And so like boys escaped from school, from supervision, the adventurer yielded to the impulse, and allowed the spirit within him to run riot. The excitement, moreover, brought out the latent strength hitherto confined by lack of opportunity and conventional rules. Chances presented themselves in different directions to vaulting ambition. Thrown upon his own resources midst strange surroundings, with quickened observation and thought, the enterprising new-comer cast aside traditional caution, and launched into the current of speculation; for everything seemed to promise success whatever course might be pursued, so abnormal were the times and place which set at naught all calculations formulated by wisdom and precedent. Amid the general free and magnificent disorder, recklessness had its votaries, which led to a widespread emphasis in language, and to a full indulgence in exciting pastimes. All this, however, was but the bubble and spray of the river hurrying onward to a grander and calmer future.

This frenzied haste, no less than the absence of families, denoted that the mania was for enrichment, with hopes rather of a speedy return to the old home than of building a new one. San Francisco and other towns remained under this idea, as well as temporary camps and depots for the gold-fields, whither went not only diggers, but in their wake a vast following of traders, purveyors, gamblers, and other ravenous non-producers to absorb substance.

The struggle for wealth, however, untarnished by sordidness, stood redeemed by a whole-souled liberality, even though the origin of this ideal Californian trait, like many another virtue, may be traced to less noble sources; here partly to the desire to cover up the main stimulant—greed; partly to the prodigality bred by easy acquisition; partly to the absence of restraining family cares. Even traders scorned to haggle. A half-dollar was the smallest coin that could be tendered for any service, and many hesitated to offer a quarter for the smallest article. Everything proceeded on a grand scale; even boot-blacking assumed big proportions, with neatly fitted recesses, cushioned chairs, and a supply of entertaining journals. Wages rose to a dollar an hour for laborers, and to twelve and twenty dollars a day for artisans. With them was raised the dignity of labor, sanctified by the application of all classes, by the independence of mining life, and by the worshipful results—gold.

A natural consequence was the levelling of rank, a democratic equalization hitherto unapproached, and shattering the conservative notions more or less prevalent. The primary range of classes was not so varied as in the older countries; for the rich and powerful would not come to toil, and the very poor could not well gain the distant land; but where riches lay so near the reach of all, their accumulation conferred less advantage. Aptitude was the esteemed and distinguishing trait. The aspiring man could break away from drudgery at home, and here find many an open field with independence. The laborer might gain the footing of employer; the clerk the position of principal; while former doctors, lawyers, and army officers could be seen toiling for wages, even as waiters and shoe-blacks. Thus were grades reversed, fitness to grasp opportunity giving the ascendency.

The levelling process left indelible traces; yet from the first the mental reservation and consequent effort were made to rise above any enforced subjection. The idea of abasement was sometimes softened by the disguise of name, which served also for fugitives from misfortune or disgrace, while it flattered imitators of humble origin. This habit received wide acknowledgment and application, especially in the mines, where nicknames became the rule, with a preference for abbreviated baptismal names, particularized by an epithet descriptive of the person, character, nationality; as Sandy Pete, Long-legged Jack, Dutchy. The cause here may be sought chiefly in the blunt unrestrained good-fellowship of the camp, which banished all formality and superfluous courtesy.

The requirements of mining life favored partnership; and while few of the associations formed for the journey out kept together, new unions were made for mutual aid in danger, sickness, and labor. Sacred like the marriage bonds, as illustrated by the softening of partner into the familiar “pard,” were the ties which oft united men vastly different in physique and temperament, the weak and strong, the lively and sedate, thus yoking themselves together. It presented the affinity of opposites, with the heroic possibilities of a Damon or Patroclus. Those already connected with benevolent societies sought out one another to revive them for the practice of charity, led by the Odd Fellows, who united as early as 1847….

Obviously in a community of men the few women present were very conspicuous. There were whole groups of camps which could be searched in vain for the presence of a single woman, and where one was found she proved too often only the fallen image, the centre of gyrating revelry and discord. In San Francisco and other large towns, families began to settle, yet for a long time the disreputable element outshone the virtuous by loudness in dress and manner, especially in public resorts. In the scarcity men assumed the heroic, and women became worshipful. The few present wore an Aphrodite girdle, which shed a glamour over imperfections, till they found themselves divinities, centres of chivalric adorers. In the mining region men would travel from afar for a glance at a newly arrived female, or handle in mock or real ecstasy some fragment of female apparel. Even in the cities passers-by would turn to salute a female stranger, while the appearance of a little girl would be heralded like that of an angel, many a rugged fellow bending with tears of recollection to give her a kiss and press a golden ounce into her hand. The effects of these tender sentiments remained rooted in the hearts of Californians long after the romance age, the only mellow trait with many a one, the only thing sacred being some base imitation of the divine image….

Distance did not seem to weaken the bond with the old home, to judge especially by the general excitement created by the arrival of a mail-steamer. What a straining of eyes toward the signal-station on Telegraph hill, as the time of her coming drew nigh! What a rush toward the landing! What a struggle to secure the month-old newspaper, which sold readily for a dollar! For letters patience had to be curbed, owing to the scanty provisions at the post-office for sorting the bulky mail. Such was the anxiety, however, that numbers took their position in the long line before the delivery-window during the preceding day or night, fortified with stools and creature comforts. There were boys and men who made a business of taking a place in the post-office line to sell it to later comers, who would find the file probably extending round more than one block. There was ample time for reflection while thus waiting before the post-office window, not to mention the agony of suspense, heightened by the occasional demonstration of joy or sorrow on the part of others on reading their letters.

The departure of a steamer presented scenes hardly less stirring, the mercantile class being especially earnest in efforts to collect outstanding debts for remittance. At the wharf stood preëminent sturdy miners girdled with well-filled belts, their complacent faces turned eastward. Old Californians they boasted themselves, though counting, perhaps, less than a half-year sojourn; many strutting in their coarse and soiled camp attire, glorying in their rags like Antisthenes, through the holes of whose clothes Socrates saw such rank pride peering. Conspicuous by contrast were many haggard and dejected faces, stamped by broken constitutions, soured by disappointment. Others no less unhappy, without even the means to follow them, were left behind, stranded; with hope fled, and having relinquished the struggle to sink perhaps into the outcast’s grave.

Housekeeping in these days, even in the cities, was attended by many discomforts. The difficulty of obtaining female servants, which prevailed even in later years, gave rise to the phenomenon of male house-servants, first in Irish, French, or Italian, and later in Chinese form. Fleas, rats, and other vermin abounded; laundry expenses often exceeded the price of new underwear; water and other conveniences were lacking, and dwelling accommodations most deficient, the flimsy cloth partitions in hotels forbidding privacy.

For the unmarried men any hovel answered the purpose, fitted as they were for privation by the hardships of a sea-voyage or a transcontinental journey. The bunk-lined room of the ordinary lodging-house, the wooden shed, or canvas tent, could hardly have been more uncomfortable than the foul-smelling and musty ship-hold. Thus the high price prevalent for board and lodging, as well as the discomforts attending housekeeping and home life, tended to heighten the allurements of vice-breeding resorts….

The miners were a nomadic race, with prospectors for advance guard. Prospecting, the search for new gold-fields, was partly compulsory, for the overcrowded camp or district obliged the new-comer to pass onward, or a claim worked out left no alternative. But in early days the incentive lay greatly in the cravings of a feverish imagination, excited by fanciful camp-fire tales of huge ledges and glittering nuggets, the sources of these bare sprinklings of precious metals which cost so much toil to collect. Distance assists to conjure up mirages of ever-increasing enchantment, encircled by the romance of adventure, until growing unrest makes hitherto well-yielding and valued claims seem unworthy of attention, and drives the holder forth to rove. He bakes bread for the requirements of several days, takes a little salt, and the cheering flask, and with cup and pan, pick and shovel, attached to the blanket strapped to his back, he sallies forth, a trusty rifle in hand for defence and for providing meat. If well off, he transfers the increased burden to a pack-animal; but as often he may be obliged to eke it out with effects borrowed from a confiding friend or storekeeper.

Following a line parallel to the range, northward or south, across ridges and ravines, through dark gorges, or up some rushing stream, at one time he is seized with a consciousness of slumbering nuggets beneath his feet, at another he is impelled onward to seek the parent mass; but prudence prevails upon him not to neglect the indications of experience, the hypothetical watercourses and their confluences in dry tracts, the undisturbed bars of the living streams, where its eddies have thrown up sand and gravel, the softly-rounded gravel-bearing hill, the crevices of exposed rocks, or the outcropping quartz veins along the bank and hillside. Often the revelation comes by accident, which upsets sober-minded calculation; for where a child may stumble upon pounds of metal, human nature can hardly be content to toil for a pitiful ounce.

Rumors of success are quickly started, despite all care by the finder to keep a discovery secret, at least for a time. The compulsion to replenish the larder is sufficient to point the trail, and the fox-hound’s scent for its prey is not keener than that of the miner for gold. One report starts another; and some morning an encampment is roused by files of men hurrying away across the ridge to new-found treasures.

Then spring up a camp of leafy arbors, brush huts, and peaked tents, in bold relief upon the naked bar, dotting the hillside in picturesque confusion, or nestling beneath the foliage. The sounds of crowbar and pick reëcho from the cliffs, and roll off upon the breeze mingled with the hum of voices from bronzed and hairy men, who delve into the banks and hill-slope, coyote into the mountain side, burrow in the gloom of tunnels and shafts, and breast the river currents. Soon drill and blast increase the din; flumes and ditches creep along the cañon walls to turn great wheels and creaking pumps. Over the ridges come the mule-trains, winding to the jingle of the leader’s bell and the shouts of arrieros, with fresh wanderers in the wake, bringing supplies and consumers for the stores, drinking-saloons, and hotels that form the solitary main street. Here is the valve for the pent-up spirit of the toilers, lured nightly by the illumined canvas walls, and the boisterous mirth of revellers, noisy, oath-breathing, and shaggy; the richer the more dissolute, yet as a rule good-natured and law-abiding. The chief cause for trouble lay in the cup, for the general display of arms served to awe criminals by the intimation of summary punishment; yet theft found a certain encouragement in the ease of escape among the ever-moving crowds, with little prospect of pursuit by preoccupied miners.

The great gathering in the main street was on Sundays, when after a restful morning, though unbroken by the peal of church-bells, the miners gathered from hills and ravines for miles around for marketing and relaxation. It was the harvest day for the gamblers, who raked in regularly the weekly earnings of the improvident, and then sent them to the store for credit to work out another gambling-stake. Drinking-saloons were crowded all day, drawing pinch after pinch of gold-dust from the buckskin bags of the miners, who felt lonely if they could not share their gains with barkeepers as well as friends. And enough there were of these to drain their purses and sustain their rags. Besides the gambler, whose abundance of means, leisure, and self-possession gave him an influence second in this respect only to that of the storekeeper, the general referee, adviser, and provider, there was the bully, who generally boasted of his prowess as a scalp-hunter and duellist with fist or pistol, and whose following of reckless loafers acquired for him an unenviable power in the less reputable camps, which at times extended to terrorism. His opposite was the effeminate dandy, whose regard for dress seldom reconciled him to the rough shirt, sash-bound, tucked pantaloons, awry boots, and slouchy bespattered hat of the honest, unshaved miner, and whose gingerly handling of implements bespoke an equal consideration for his hands and back. Midway stood the somewhat turbulent Irishman, ever atoning for his weakness by an infectious humor; the rotund Dutchman ready to join in the laugh raised at his own expense; the rollicking sailor, widely esteemed as a favorite of fortune. This reputation was allowed also to the Hispano-Californians, and tended here to create the prejudice which fostered their clannishness. Around flitted Indians, some half-naked, others in gaudy and ill-assorted covering, cast-off like themselves, and fit subjects for the priests and deacons, who, after preaching long and fervently against the root of evil, had come to tear it out by hand.

On week-days dullness settled upon the camp, and life was distributed among clusters of tents and huts, some of them sanctified by the presence of woman, as indicated by the garden-patch with flowers. For winter, log and clapboard houses replaced to a great extent the precarious tent and brush hut, although frequently left with sodded floor, bark roof, and a split log for the door. The interior was scantily provided with a fixed frame of sticks supporting a stretched canvas bed, or bolster of leaves and straw. A similarly rooted table was at times supplemented by an old chest, with a bench or blocks of wood for seats, A shelf with some dingy books and papers, a broken mirror, and newspaper illustrations adorned the walls, and at one end gaped a rude hearth of stones and mud, with its indispensable frying-pan and pot, and in the corner a flour-bag, a keg or two, and some cans with preserved food. The disorder indicated a bachelors quarters, the trusty rifle and the indispensable flask and tobacco at times playing hide and seek in the scattered rubbish.

The inmates were early astir, and the cabin stood deserted throughout the day, save when some friend or wanderer might enter its unlocked precincts, welcome to its comforts, or when the owners could afford to return for a siesta during the midday heat. Toward sunset the miners came filing back along the ravines, gathering sticks for the kitchen fire, and merrily speeding their halloos along the cliffs, whatsoever may have been the fortune of the day. If several belonged to the mess, each took his turn as cook, and preceded the rest to prepare the simple food of salt pork and beans, perhaps a chop or steak, tea or coffee, and the bread or flapjack, the former baked with saleratus, the latter consisting of mere flour and water and a pinch of salt, mixed in the gold-pan and fried with some grease. Many a solitary miner devoted Sunday to prepare supplies of bread and coffee for the week. Exhausted nature joined with custom in sustaining a change of routine for this day, and here it became one for renovation, bodily and mental, foremost in mending and washing, brushing up the cabin, and preparing for the coming week’s campaign, then for recreation at the village. Every evening also, the camp-fire, replenished by the cook, drew convivial souls to the feast on startling tales or yarns of treasure-troves, on merry songs with pan and kettle accompaniment, on the varying fortunes of the cards. A few found greater interest in a book, and others, lulled by the hum around, sank into reverie of home and boyhood scenes.

The young and unmated could not fail to find allurement in this free and bracing life, with its nature environment, devoid of conventionalisms and fettering artificiality, with its appeal to the roving instinct and love of adventure, and its fascinating vistas of enrichment. Little mattered to them occasional privations and exposure, which were generally self-imposed and soon forgotten midst the excitement of gold-hunting. Even sickness passed out of mind like a fleeting nightmare. And so they kept on in pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of their fancy, neglecting moderate prospects from which prudent men were constantly getting a competency. At times alighting upon a little “pile,” which, too small for the rising expectation, was lavishly squandered; at times descending to wage-working for relief. Thus they drifted along in semi-beggary, from snow-clad ranges to burning plain, brave and hardy, gay and careless, till lonely age crept up to confine them to some ruined hamlet, emblematic of their shattered hopes—to find an unnoticed grave in the auriferous soil which they had loved too well. Shrewder men with better-directed energy took what fortune gave, or combining with others for vast enterprises, in tunnels and ditches, hydraulic and quartz mining, then turning, with declining prospects, to different pursuits to aid in unfolding latent resources, introducing new industries, and adding their quota to progress, throwing aside with a roaming life the loose habits of dress and manner. This was the American adaptability and self-reliance which, though preferring independence of action, could organize and fraternize with true spirit, could build up the greatest of mining commonwealths, give laws to distant states, impart fresh impulse to the world’s commerce, and foster the development of resources and industries throughout the Pacific.

The broader effect of prospecting, in opening new fields, was attended by the peculiar excitement known as rushes, for which Californians evinced a remarkable tendency, possessed as they were by an excitable temperament and love of change, with a propensity for speculation. This spirit, indeed, had guided them on the journey to the distant shores of the Pacific, and perhaps one step farther might bring them to the glittering goal. The discoveries and troves made daily around them were so interesting as to render any tale of gold credible. An effervescing society, whose day’s work was but a wager against the hidden treasure of nature, was readily excited by every breeze of rumor. Even men with valuable claims, yielding perhaps twenty or forty dollars a day, would be seized by the vision and follow it, in hopes of still greater returns. Others had exhausted their working-ground, or lay under enforced inactivity for lack or excess of water, according to the nature of the field, and were consequently prepared to join the current of less fortunate adventurers.