Nicholas Dawson in ’49

After spending almost three years in California, Nicholas Dawson returned to the States by way of Mexico. He went back to Arkansas, where he had formerly taught school, and there he found a former pupil, Margaret Wright, who was now a young lady. After teaching in Louisiana for a year, he married Miss Wright in 1848 and settled down to teaching. But California would soon be calling him again.

In 1849, the gold fever broke out in Arkansas. My brother-in-law and some neighbor boys taking it, I was begged to go along. After thinking it over—my state of health, my excellent health on my former trip to California, my poverty, the help I might be to the boys—and my wife giving her consent and agreeing to remain with her parents, I agreed to go.

He and his friends went down to Texas and took the southern route through Mexico and up through California, brown with drought. They arrived at the Mariposa diggings, the southernmost of the mines, in November 1849. Seeing the high prices of goods at the diggings, Dawson proposed to go back to Stockton for supplies while his companions built a cabin.

His observations of California paint a picture of the typical life of a forty-niner. Here are a few of his adventures and remarks:

On packing supplies:  This was a tough trip for me, as it rained every day, and my blankets and saddle blanket would get wet; but I pushed on to Stockton, bought flour, meat, and blankets, and struck back on foot driving the packed animals ahead of me. It was still raining. At night I covered the meat and flour with the new blankets, and exposed my own carcass to the weather. Sometimes an animal would bog down, and I would nearly bog myself in getting the pack to dry ground.

On the miners’ self-government: They were allowed to govern themselves, which they did so effectually that gold dust was stuck up in a crack in the wall, and flour and meat worth $1.50 per pound were left in the open cabin, when you knew that miners were likely to pass by any hour of the day. Nothing was ever stolen. They adopted claim laws also: a person was allowed to stake off a rod square, and as long as his tools were in it, the claim remained sacred, but on removal of the tools, it could be jumped by anyone.

California-Gold-MinersDawson was in partnership with three other men. One of the men took the mules and went off to pack freight, another went hunting in the hills and brought back deer meat to sell, and Dawson and a man named Lewis dug for gold.

Miners’ luck: Lewis and I had miners luck—some days taking out an ounce or more a day, but most of the time nothing, as we would be removing the top dirt from our claim, or prospecting for another claim, sometimes sinking several holes to the bed rock before finding a claim that would pay.

They started out panning, and later switched to rockers. They also tried the old Mexican method of winnowing dry dirt to recapture any gold flakes.

Miners’ homes: We were not making a fortune fast, though we toiled early and late, and in all kinds of weather; nor easily. A miner can rarely keep dry while washing gold, and in winter it is a disagreeable job. The winter of ’49 was very rainy, and snow frequently fell in the diggings when in the plain below it would only rain. The winter shelter for a miner was a log cabin; a house made of canvas stretched on light frames or post in the ground; or more frequently, a tent with a chimney to it, all put up by the miner himself.

Recreation: For those who did not play cards, the only recreation was visiting neighboring cabins for a chat. We rarely asked each other’s names, but only where from; and it was, “How are you, Missouri?” “What’s your luck, Arkansas?”


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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