Cincinnati Skyline

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Some of the early gold camps are so deep in ravines, gulches, caverns, and canyons that the light of the winter sun never reaches the miners’ tents. If you have no tent, you live in a hole in the ground. Your backpack includes a blanket roll, a pick, a shovel, a gold pan, maybe a small rocker in which to sift gravel, a coffeepot, a tobacco tin, saleratus bread, dried apples, and salt pork. You sleep beside your fire. When you get up you “shake yourself and are dressed.” You wear a flannel shirt, probably red. You wear wool trousers, heavy leather boots, and a soft hat with a wide and flexible brim. You carry a pistol. Not everyone resembles you. There are miners in top hats, miners in panama hats, miners in sombreros, and French miners in berets, who have raised the tricolor over their claims. There are miners working in formal topcoats. There are miners in fringed buckskin, miners in brocaded vests, miners working claims in dress pumps (because their boots have worn out).

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There are numerous Indians, who are essentially naked. There are black miners, all of them free. As individual prospecting gives way to gang labor, this could be a place for slaves, but in the nascent state of California slavery is forbidden. On Sundays, while you drink your tanglefoot whiskey, you can watch a dog kill a dog, a chicken kill a chicken, a man kill a man, a bull kill a bear. You can watch Shakespeare. You can visit a “public woman.” The Hydraulic Press for October 30, 1858, says “Nowhere do young men look so old as in Calfornia.” They build white wooden churches with steeples.

-Assembling California, John McPhee

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