A Glimpse of the Goldfields


Here are two letters, written in July 1849, that give a glimpse of life in the goldfields on the Feather River. They were written by John C. Buchanan, who worked for John Bidwell and evidently supervised his diggings at Bidwell Bar when Bidwell was elsewhere. I can find nothing else about Buchanan — he doesn’t show up on Butte County censuses, for instance.

Buchanan wrote a letter to Bidwell, and enclosed another letter addressed to Dr. John Townsend in San Francisco. The first letter is in the Bidwell papers at the California State Library, and the second I found in the Townsend papers at the Society of California Pioneers.

Feather River July 4th 1849

Friend Bidwell

Do me the favor to place the enclosed letter addressed to Dr. Townsend in the hand of some person who will trouble himself with its safe delivery. Mr. Tucker paid me $300 will pay the balance some other time.

The fourth is a prodigiously warm and dull day with us, the diggers are all too lazy to dig and Hamilton is indisposed to day.

Cacama ran away last night, taking with a blanket not his own, and a small quantity of Gold from Rafael pocket. It would have been much better to have worked him at a Machine though the Bar is very poor in many places. Yesterday with two machines I made $32.00 horrible. To day a number of Rush bottomers passed up the River hunting Gold. I fear the River will be so overrun that we shall do but little in Indian Trade with out extraordinary exertions, bring up 12 dry good Brands. I neglected to place on the Memorandum a few pounds of Nails small size.

Seal my letter to Townsend. It is only stuck together with paste.

In haste

Yours &c

Jn. C. Buchanan

don’t forget steel Pans

Here is the second letter, to Townsend. Note how in both letters Buchanan remarks on the “laziness” of the Indian workers and the unwelcome influx of gold seekers.

Feather River, July 5th, 1849

Dear Doctor

A short time before leaving San Francisco I left in the hands of Mr. B. S. Lippincott the sum of $2040 in Gold dust at $16.00 pr oz. He is also indebted to me in the sum of $1800 Bal due on Pueblo Lots sold him making in all thirty-eight hundred and forty dollars for which I neglected to take any obligation or anything to show that the Amt. is due me. I believe him to be a man of too high a sense of honor to take advantage of confidence reposed in him. Yet in case of accident such matters should be properly attended to. As I shall not have an opportunity of seeing him for several months, I must beg the favor of you to obtain from him the amount as above with such interest as he thinks proper to pay, and deposit it with some responsible merchant in order that I may get it immediately upon reaching San Francisco as I shall be likely to want it very much.

My operation here in company with Bidwell, I apprehend will prove rather unprofitable. We have already been at an expense of $10,000 procuring supplies. Out of a Band of 320 head of Cattle we have already lost two thirds, which is a very severe loss, as Beef alone will command the Indian trade which though extensive is not very large. The mining region here seems to be filled up with Gold Seekers, many of whom are sadly discouraged, particularly the Oregon boys [?] , not a few of whom have already gone back. I wish they would all go.

I hear nothing transpiring in this part of California worthy of notice. There seems to be more peace and quietness among us here than in many other parts of the mineral region owing I presume to the scarcity of the Yellow dirt, which seems to breed more mischief than anything else. On Yuba very rich diggings have been found high up the River and many adventurers are already on their way from the [?] we had of the mountains last summer. I should judge there will be some hard climbing and perhaps some necks broken this summer.

My health continues very good although I have been most sadly tormented with innumerable boils from head to foot. Old Job would have had his patience sorely tried had he been as much tormented as myself digging gold at the same time.

I have made enquiries after You repeatedly of late, but have never had a word of intelligence. Therefore suppose you have had too much good sense to expose yourself among the mountains & outlaws this summer, and doubtless have been more profitably employed in San Francisco. I left in the hands of George McKinstry at Sutterville $225. requesting him to send you the amount in April last and presume you have obtained it if not, draw on him for that sum which will be paid at sight. I gave your horse and the old pack for an American man [one?]* which was stolen from me, a few days after the exchange at his claim, though she was tied close to the head of my Bed my slumbers were very profound and the Rascal a daring one.

I must close and go look after my Indian diggers who will not fail to cease working when I am off the Bar. Should you meet with an opportunity of forwarding a letter I should be most happy to hear from You.

Your friend

Jn. C. Buchanan

*He definitely wrote the word “man” here, but the sentence makes more sense if had written “one”, i.e., he traded the old horse and pack for an American horse, which was stolen.


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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