“We did tolerably well washing the sands”

Another 1848 letter from John Bidwell to George McKinstry.

Feather River below first camp

Saturday 24th June 1848

Dear Mc,

Mr. McCall arrived yesterday morning and brought two letters from you dated the 20th inst. We spent the remainder of the day in search of a place to construct a washing machine, but did not succeed in finding one. McCall and Dickey go again today to look at another place.


Washing machine? Bidwell means this: cradle

A machine for washing gold out of sand, by rocking it in a “cradle.” His first one must have been a rather crude version.


Not this: washingmachine

            Last week we did tolerably well washing the sands along the river – we made something not far from $1000 – This week we have done but little – The first camp above where we were when you came to us, was good – the first day of our arrival there we took out not less than 300 dolls. – but the place soon became exhausted it being small, and we have not been able to find as good a one since – In fact if Mr. McCall had not arrived I should have sent an express to you yesterday. We are not making over $50 per day with all our Indians – and if we do not find a good place in one or two days at most, I want to go down either to Yuba or the American Fork. So I think that the boat had better not be sent up until we determine, or if it is already on the way when you receive this, have it detained at Hock.

According to the website Measuring Worth, $1000 dollars in 1848 would have a purchasing power of $31,000 today. Not bad for a week’s work. Even that $50 a day was equivalent to $1550. The forty-niners, however, would soon find out that prices were high in California and a thousand dollars in gold wasn’t as much as it sounded like it was.

I am expecting this letter will find you of the road up, but thought you might dispatch the boat ahead with direction to pass on up from Hock. I have written a few lines to Mr. Cameron, requesting him to detain the boat until you receive my letter. I shall expect you to either come or send an answer to this, stating your opinion of going below etc. I am entirely out of coffee; I would like a few more shirts having sold nearly all of these which I brought up. I see plainly that we cannot keep goods in camp to supply miners unless we can find a place where we can establish ourselves permanently for some time or are better provided with means of transportation. I cannot leave camp or I would meet you at Hock. If I were certain that you would be there I should come down any how. If you come you can find camp by asking any of the Indians along the river mentioning my name.

Yours etc.  J. Bidwell

Maybe Bidwell hadn’t settled at Bidwell Bar yet; he seems to be moving around quite a bit. A permanent place of business and reliable transportation are concerns.

Duncan E. Cameron was employed at Sutter’s Hock Farm, but other than that I know nothing about him.

All the men who were already established on ranches in the valley used Indian labor when they went seeking gold. They usually brought along natives that they had already established a working relationship with. They saw their role as one of supervising and organizing, rather than the harder labor of digging and panning.

Bidwell had a reputation for treating his Indian workers fairly, but many others did not. There is no doubt, of course, that from our perspective, the Indians were being exploited as labor by all the white settlers. But Bidwell used persuasion and payment instead of coercion. Indians were paid in food, blankets, shirts, and desirable items like sugar, knives, and beads.

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.
This entry was posted in George McKinstry, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to “We did tolerably well washing the sands”

  1. John Gallardo says:

    As always, such a delightful read, and so informative! THANKS! -John Gallardo

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