In Camp and Cabin

John Steele came to California in 1850 as a young man of eighteen. He spent three years as a gold miner in California before returning to his home in Wisconsin, where he studied for the ministry and became a preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He kept a journal  during his time in the gold fields and in later life he published his memoir, In Camp and Cabin, based on those journal entries. The experiences he relates are typical of many a gold seeker, with all the adventure, tedium, peril, humor, and everyday detail one might expect.

Here is his description of getting mail at the post office in Sacramento:

The Post Office in San Francisco, 1849. Crowds were worse in Sacramento.

Our first visit was to the post office. I am quite sure that at this  time there  was not a post office in the mines. Letters for miners were addressed to Sacramento, and of course the mail  arriving here was immense, and when we reached the office the crowd was too great for us to approach the delivery during the day.
The next morning we were there an hour before the time of opening, but the crowd seemed just as great as ever, so we retired again . . .
Saturday, March 29. . . . However, we resolved to make one more effort to get our mail.
The condition of this post office is altogether unique. It opens at eight in  the morning and closes at eight in the evening. There is a delivery window for nearly every letter  of the alphabet, and at each  there is a row of people, often reaching more than around the block. When so many come in person for their mail it is simply overwhelming, and when it come time to close the office, the lines break up, each to take his chance another day. But as hope deferred makes the heart sick, so, many who came a great distance and waited long, are compelled to turn away still enduring their anxious suspense.
Monday, march 31.  This morning about one o’clock we arrived at the post office and found a large number in waiting. The line facing the S window already extended halfway around the block.bidwell-ltr-sutters-mill
Taking my place in the line, I waited until the office opened, and as the line in front melted away, moved forward. Of course each one of our little company sought the delivery according to name. This put us in different lines, and as we approached the window men came and tried to buy a place in the line, offering twenty-five and fifty dollars, and I was told even a hundred dollars had been  paid for a place near the delivery. The one who sold his place stepped from the line and went to the extreme read, or else waited until the office closed and night had shortened the line, and again found a place. Many who were near the delivery when the office closed, remained, holding their place until it opened in the morning.
At last I reached the delivery, and the busy clerk, after looking over a vast pile of mail matter, handed out what belonged to me. Gladly I got out of the way, and hurrying to our room, scanned the familiar writing, and with a strange tremor read the first letters I had received from home and friends since leaving them more than  a year before.

A detail from Charles Nahl, Sunday in the Mines. The miner inside the cabin is writing a letter.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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