“Dear Charlie” — Prices

Horace Snow wrote his old friend Charlie in September 1854 and included a list of grocery staples that they bought to lay up for the coming winter. Many miners moved down out of the hills to the cities like Stockton or Sacramento during the winter, but Agua Frio must have been comfortable enough to stay year-round.

Dear Charlie:

Seated on my three-legged stool before the old rustic table, I am happy to have health, materials, time and a mind to give you a few more details of my experience in California. . . . .

We are now laying in our winter’s provisions and getting up our winter’s wood. We can purchase provisions cheaper now than any other time and also cheaper by the quantity. In doing this we capture two birds and come a “Yankee game,” as the Southerners say. Twenty dollars is worth saving if your relatives are well off! — say two thousand miles off! I will tell you our kinds with prices and quantity annexed, just for a novelty.50 lbs. butter @ .40 (cents per pound)
2 bbls. (barrels) flour @ $18.00
1 bbl. crackers @ $10.00
50 lbs. sugar @ .20
12 lbs. chocolate @ .36 (they drank chocolate as a breakfast drink)
1 doz. boxes yeast powder $5.00
15 lbs. candles @ .40
30 lbs. lard @ .20
50 lbs. of beans @ .10
and about $20.00 for extras, making a little bill of $122.00. This we calculate will last us until sunny spring begins to dawn and then we hope our pockets will look agreeable.


A typical ad for provisions, from the Marysville Daily Herald, 2 September 1853

These prices may look low to us, but to Charlie they would have seemed high. Back in Massachusetts he could buy a barrel of flour for half the price that Horace paid in California. Sugar was 8 cents a pound, not 20 cents. He could get fresh butter for 25 cents a pound, not only cheaper but better quality than the rancid butter that came round the Horn to California.

You can get a pretty good idea of what the three men ate from this list. Lots of beans, and bread they baked themselves. Meat they would have either hunted or gotten from a butcher. Did they ever have fresh vegetables or fruit? I don’t know, but I hope so. Otherwise they’d be coming down with scurvy, as many miners did.



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“Dear Charlie” — A Gold Panning Contest

californiagoldrush1Horace Snow tells of a competition he and his brother took on, just to liven things up in the summer of 1854. They decided to take turns washing out pans of gold to see which one of them could wash the most gold out of a single pan. He says they did this for several days without there being much difference in the amounts they each washed out, “the biggest pan being $5.00.”

But then—

This day when we came to the ledge my brother began to pick around — it being his turn — and accidentally struck a place which looked nearly yellow with gold!! He jumped for the pan and began to fill it and I looked on. I saw by the dirt that he would take the palm from my honored head and began to remonstrate against his selecting the dirt in such a way and also for rounding up his pan so. But this was no use!

Perhaps he was complaining that his brother was overfilling his pan with dirt.

Finally I offered him a dollar to let me wash the pan. He was bound to wash the pan and away he went. He returned in a few moments and how much do you guess he obtained. Only $19.75!

Now chum Snow wasn’t idle by no means while he was gone and accidentally discovered him a place but when he saw his brother’s gold he thought ’twas no use, for $19.75 was a tremendous pan. However, Snow kept on picking and in a short time got him a pan. Our competition had become very great, so much so, that my brother had to go and see me wash it, for fear that I should come some game upon him. The pan when washed, the gold dried and weighed and, Charlie, how much do you reckon I had? Only the pitiable sum of $48.50!! Wasn’t I tickled!

Then went on to wash out one more pan and got $23.75, “making in all $92.00 in three pan, and all in one day!”

$92.00 for maybe an hour’s work was a magnificent return on their labor — several thousand dollars in today’s money.  No wonder Snow was so tickled. Not every day was so rewarding, but they were doing well. In this same letter of October, 22, 1854, Horace Snow expresses his contentment with his lot:

Charlie, you cannot think of how well we are situated. We have the best cabin, the best table, the best bunks, the best dishes, the most books and more conveniences than any other cabin in Agua Frio Camp. Sometimes I think that I could spend my days here, only give me plenty of [news]papers and enough to read.

Sounds good to me!


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“Dear Charlie” — Three Cheers for Snow


Nearly every account of any man who came to California to get rich mining for gold will say that after a few months, or weeks, or days in the goldfields the fellow gave up the attempt and turned to “mining the miners” as a storekeeper, lawyer, doctor, teamster, or just about anything else that didn’t involve standing in an ice-cold creek or shoveling dirt all day. But some miners did stick to it, and some made money at it, and not all of them lost their gold to card sharps and loose women.

Horace Snow was one of those men, along with his brother Hiram and their partner Charles Spear. Horace rejoiced in telling his friend Charlie about his financial progress. He had come to California owing money to his brother and to a Mr. Plympton who had loaned him the money to attend the Normal School in Massachusetts. He owed these and other men $267 when he came to California: “Wasn’t that a pretty little sum to accompany a poor, unsophisticated person into such a dissipative country as this?”

But after a year and half he could boast that he had cleared all his debts. Moreover, he had sent

$50 to Father, $12.50 to Sister, and furthermore, have got $100 at interest, besides owning one half of a good Cabin and cooking utensils, one half of three claims, the same interest in a good stock of mining tools . . . Now Charlie, I don’t wish to be boisterous or ungentlemanly, but let us throw off a little of our superfluous hilarity and give three cheers for Snow. Therenow, HURRAH! HURRAH!! HURRAH!!!

As a basis for comparing how much he had gained by his labor, $100 then would be worth at least $3320 today. Measuring Worth has a variety of answers, depending on what you are trying to measure. It get complicated. The relative worth of that $100 could be  $3,320.00, or as labor value $25,400.00 (using the unskilled wage) or $52,600.00 (using production worker compensation) or an income value of $56,400.00. No wonder Horace was chuffed.

Even that little $12.50 he sent to his sister was worth at least $415.


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“Dear Charlie” — A Day in the Life

Horace Snow spent most of his almost two years in the California goldfields in Agua Frio, a little mining camp in Mariposa County. On October 9th, 1854 he wrote to Charlie Fitz to “tell you of one day in our lives.”


Vignette from The Pioneer Ten Commandments, Courtesy of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

[This] morning I awoke very early and was thinking about — well, I have forgotten what — when all at once a big rat who was running along the logs missed his calculations and fell smack into my stationary box. This aroused me from my calm content and in less than one minute I was up, had a candle lit and after him with a sharp stick — for I always keep one beside me expressly for this purpose. I hunted him around the flour barrel, the dutch oven, the pile of wood, but at last he got away from me, “knowing better the ropes” and made good his escape.

Not having violated the 13th Commandment [does anybody know what that was? –ed.], I now built a fire and began to prepare breakfast. I first put some water on to heat to wash the dishes with, for just as we were done with supper last night, our nearest neighbor made us a a call and so we deferred until morning, though this was against one of our regulations. As soon as the water was hot, I put the chocolate on and washed the dishes.

I had not need to cook this morning as we had beans yesterday and they were not all gone. Bread we always bake night beforehand. Therefore, before the first rays of sun peeped over the hills, I had breakfast all ready, which frugal meal consisted as follows: beans, boiled ham, bread, butter, cheese, chocolate, cold water, boiled rice, sugar, with pepper, vinegar and salt. And true to say, I was the only person up to enjoy the warm breakfast and morning air. However, by relieving them of a few blankets, I soon had them before the fire!

Breakfast being over, we put the unconsumed food in the cupboard, which, by the way, is a Natick shoe box,* turned our plates the other side up, changed out woolen shirts and went to work, which time was about sun half hour high. We picked and shovelled until noon — our guide being the shade of a tree — when my brother brought a pail of water. I built a fire and Spear set the table. Dinner the same as breakfast, tea substituting for chocolate.

Afternoon the same as forenoon and when night came my brother made the bread, Spear washed the dishes, and I boiled the rice. We had rice and molasses for supper, with a sprinkling of biscuit and butter. As we have no milk, we use molasses in its stead. The day passes this way and all for a little Money!

They were industrious and sober Yankees, and they were doing quite well at finding gold and saving money.

*Natick, Massachusetts was a center of shoe-making, especially the heavy boots and brogans worn by miners and other laborers.


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“Dear Charlie” — Jury Duty

Gold miners were no more eager to serve on a jury in 1854 than most citizens are today, although they rarely had to show up for more than one day. Horace Snow writes:

April 4th: Tomorrow I am obliged to go to Mariposa, having been summoned as a juror. I endeavored to avoid being called upon but the sheriff caught me and there is no doing otherwise. The miners are determined not to go if they can possibly help it, as they get nothing for pay. As soon as they see an officers coming, the shovels drop very quick and such running and skulking would beat the Indians.


“The man with a red shirt,” a colored photograph of a forty-niner

You see there were four of us in a store when the Sheriff rode up and we all made for the back door but he was right after us. I got within about four feet of a large hole when he saw me and screams, “Your name, Sir, the man with a red shirt,” and kept right on after the others, but he only caught two of us, two running around one side of the store and two the other.

He got caught again later that year.

December 4th:  Yesterday, while picking away in my claim, a gentleman appeared before me and says, “Your name, Sir?” “What?” says I. “Please give me your name?” By this time I knew what was up and says my name is Snow.

“Your first name, if you please,” says he, “and be quick, for the other boys are all running and I want to catch them.” “Horace C. Snow, sir” says I. Then says he, “Mr. Snow, I warn you to appear at Mariposa tomorrow morning at ten o’clock to serve as a Grand Jurorman, whereof fail not, or suffer the penalty of the law.” –and away he ran to catch some of the other boys who had, unintentionally, of course, gone in search of something. The boys were too sharp for him and he only got two of seven.

Miners, as a general thing, are much averse to sitting upon a jury. They get no pay, (not enough to bear expenses), besides losing their time and disarranging their work. You would laugh to see the miners take to the bushes when the Sheriff makes his appearance on the creek.


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“Dear Charlie” — What’s for Dinner?

Young men of the 19th century  were not accustomed to doing their own cooking. They had mothers, wives, or boarding house landladies to take care of that. But in the goldfields and mining camps, men had to fend for themselves. Horace Snow took delight in describing his prowess at the cookstove.


He especially took pride in his baked beans, a New England staple:

By the way, when I commenced this epistle, I commenced cooking some beans and now I have them parboiled and pork in, all ready for baking; therefore, I shall not be disturbed for a short time. You see, I am learning several lessons that you will not get at the Traveller Office [where Charlie worked]. Only think of working all day, going home at night, rolling up your sleeves, making biscuits, doughnuts, flap jacks, frying pork or ham, washing dishes, and all such things as pertain to domestic duties!  . . . What an accomplished young man I shall be when I return.

Horace is learning what life was like for a working woman!

The next day he writes:

My bake beans are splendid. Would that you were here to eat some. Eat some out of a tin plate, with an iron spoon. How much better they would relish then eaten from nice china ware and from a table loaded down with the edibles, the fragrance, all of which rush upon the olfactory nerves, thus destroying the flavor of “my good bake bread!” Think of me when you eat bake beans.


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“Dear Charlie”

md1260381293Meet Horace Snow, young Yankee in California, seeking gold and enjoying an existence far different from life in old New England.

The Forty-Niners and the other gold seekers of the 1850s were for the most part literate men, and so there is no shortage of journals and collections of letters written by them, telling of their experiences in the goldfields. But seldom do I come across a book as lively and entertaining as the “Dear Charlie” Letters: Recording the Everyday Life of a Young 1854 Gold Miner . . . As Set Forth by Your Friend, Horace Snow. This book is a publication of the Mariposa County Historical Society and is available from Amazon.com and probably at the Mariposa Museum.

Horace Snow (and what a classic New England name that is) was born in New Hampshire in 1831. He studied to be a schoolteacher at the Massachusetts Normal School, but in 1853, at the age of 22, he set out for California to find his brother Hiram, whom he had not seen for three years, and maybe some gold too. He wrote numerous letters to his friends back home, but his most faithful correspondent, a “true chum,” was his friend Charlie Fitz.

What I like about his letters is his descriptions of life in the goldfields. Here he is, cheerfully telling about their log cabin:

I am living in an old fashioned log cabin about twelve by fifteen feet. It is very secure against any enemy, being built up of large logs and well mossed. We have only one door and one window to our rustic mansion, choosing darkness rather than light, you see. The internal arrangements are very tasty, myself having control. Our cabin is divided into two parts, inside and out. The inside being all in one room and also the out.

Now, in America, you use wood for floors, which decays and has to be repaired, but we have a slab from Mother Earth, durable and always in its place. Somehow or other our patent stove happens to be a huge fire place. How pleasant it seems to build up a right smart fire and get up in front of it and talk over old times.

Our window is a small trap door which we use as a cat hole. Instead of reposing on soft down, we rest our weary limbs on a piece of canvas attached to two poles. Everything in our cabin is just as handy as can be. Each one has his own space and a place to put his own things.

Our domestic family consists of four hens, one dog, and a cat. The dog keeps thieves away at night, the cat takes care of the rats and mice and the hens furnish us with eggs; therefore, you see, we have something for them all to do. Eggs usually are three dollars per dozen, though now only one and a half. Taking all things into consideration, we are getting to be quite independent. Own a house, barn, some stock, plenty of land, and all the wild animals we can catch.

Eggs, by the way, back in the States, would cost more like a nickel apiece. Prices were high in the mines.


Here is the Mariposa Museum’s replica of a miner’s cabin. Crowded but cozy, as you can see.

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