California Gold Rush, 1850s

First of all, I should like to confess that I always wanted to be a prairie girl.

Thanks to stories like Little House on the Prairie, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Kirsten (and the rest of the American Girl Kirsten Larson series), and Far and Away, the first two-thirds of my life were filled with the dreams and second-hand experiences of American Pioneers.

In the past ten years, my love of history has never waned, though my involvement in living history groups took me farther back in time to Medieval Europe instead of the American Frontier.

Since coming to live with my sister and her family here in California, my exposure to the Frontier – and most particularly the Old West – Culture has increased by a landslide. I am surrounded by it here. My brother-in-law has worn cowboy boots on a daily basis for as long as I’ve known him, and longer. At least a quarter of their dvd collection is made up of Westerns. They have a family membership to the Autry Center of the American West. Twice a month a group of friends comes over for a game of Deadlands (a Weird Old West role playing game). There is no lack of love for the frontier in this house.

Last week my mother flew out here from the east coast so that she, my sister, her family, and I could drive up to visit my grandparents, who recently moved to Santa Rosa, which is, for those not familiar with the state, quite a bit farther north than L.A., farther even than San Francisco. After our visit in Santa Rosa, we continued on through the region, stopping in San Francisco to see some friends, and then taking a detour, as we made our way back south, to tour California’s Gold Rush Country.

This journey took us through historic locations such as Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, which contains the actual location of the first gold nugget discovery in 1848, which spurred the gold rush, and also houses a meticulously constructed replica of Sutter’s Mill, which once stood along the adjacent creek; Jackson’s old main street and National Hotel, as well as the Catholic Cemetery, with its odd plot system (I have yet to research its origins) where we spotted a lovely little bluebird sitting on an iron gate; and most memorably the Columbia State Historic Park.

Old Columbia houses modern adaptations of historic general stores, ice cream parlors, saloons, as well as an old fashioned bowling alley, fire station, jail, school house, and the Wells Fargo & Co. Bank, all in the original buildings of stone and timber. Columbia is “the best preserved of all of the old mining towns in California’s Gold Rush Country,” according to Leslie A. Kelly’s Traveling California’s Gold Rush Country, a Falcon Guide.

While in old Columbia, my sister and brother-in-law booked passage for the lot of us on a Wells Fargo stage coach ride (approximately 15 minutes around the outskirts of town), including the special ticket allowing me to ride up front with the driver in the traditional Shot Gun position. (The only shooting I did was with my Nikon. We left the gun work to my four year old nephew and his prized six-shooter, a birthday gift found in the Autry’s museum gift shop.) Although this was my second ride on a Wells Fargo Wagon, (graduates of Wells College, in Aurora, NY, ride in the coaches on the morning of their May graduation ceremony), it was by far the more exciting. My feet did not reach the footrest at the front of the wooden carriage, but swung like a child’s, and my knuckles were white from clinging to the metal rail beside the seat and around the carriage roof where luggage would have sat, as we trundled down the dirt road, all without seat belts, escaping highway men and motion sickness alike. Columbia was truly an exciting place.

At one of our small town stops, at the visitors’ center in Angel’s Camp, our mother bought for my sister and me a really awesome book called Italians of the Gold Country by Carolyn Fregulia, from the Images of America book series.

Spurred by our interest in genealogy (Annika and I are half Sicilian from our father’s side) and our interest in the period, this book looked pretty fascinating. Although our direct lineage has always lived on the east coast (a great uncle came out to California around the time our great grandparents were settling in Pennsylvania) and arrived too late for the Gold Rush (1903 and 1912), the experiences of other Italian immigrants and the insight into the culture of our ancestors is quite intriguing.

Beyond the connection to a little piece of my own heritage in the “Little Italy” communities of Gold Rush Country, this book gives a wonderful view generally of what life was like for the people of the Mother Lode. When I read about the work done by the people of gold country I started thinking about how it would be to actually live in one of those communities, and what exactly it would involve. The book lists a great variety of fields in which the Italian people prospered. Occupations included:

shopkeepers, merchants, saloon keepers, shoemakers, barbers, carpenters, stonemasons, boarding house keepers, vintners, farmers, miners, school teachers, cattle ranchers, blacksmiths, restaurateurs, bankers, lawyers, politicians, fisherman . . .

Imagining life as it was in the 1850s, on this frontier, in gold rush mine towns, brings to mind all sorts of questions and ideas about life out here, back then. The main question I have is this:

Who would I have been? What would have been my livelihood? I thought about it and came up with this:

I would most likely run a boarding house, providing lodging, food, and possibly even laundry, to the miners and other workers of the town, for an approximate fee of $1 or $2 a week. It seems likely, at least in the Italian regions, that I might provide locally made wine with home cooked meals.

It is doubtful, however, that I would offer slot machines in my facility, as some other boarding houses did, as I do not approve of gambling.

And how about you? Who would you have been in 1850s Gold Rush country?

%d bloggers like this: