“The most laborious business I know of”


This letter is in the McKinstry collection, but I don’t know who wrote it. Possibly it is by the Mr. McCall mentioned in Bidwell’s letter of 24 June 1848. It gives another view of Bidwell and Dickey mining on the Feather River. It’s a long letter, and I won’t quote all of it. This is just the opening sentences. It looks like the letter-writer is writing from Sutter’s Fort.

New Helvetia  July 1st ‘48

Dear Sir,

Your two favors of 22d & 27th June I found on my desk last night on my arrival from the mountains after an absence of eight days. I was in hopes that I should have found you here on my return, I have brought down a letter from Mr. Bidwell which I send annexed which will explain to you the situation of the business on the mountains. It was my second visit to the camp I find it entirely different from what I expected it to be. The country is so rough that it is impossible to employ hands, in fact it is actually necessary to work in person which is the most laborious business I know of.

Mr. Dickey and Bidwell have been very industrious but not very successful as you will see from his statement. Mr. Dickey positively refuses to be engaged in the business with partners while on the mountains. I explored the Yuba river and the South fork of Feather river but can find no suitable place for working machines and the Indians do nothing working among the rock. Could a suitable place be found Mr Bidwell and myself could probably bring two hundred Indians in the field but now we find that 6 or 8 hands are more than we can employ profitably.

I have no doubt could I be kept supplied with a stock of goods say to the amount of 8 or 10,000 dollars I could make much more than I could by gold digging but as at present it appears that it is not convenient for you to furnish the goods and I therefore have concluded to go to digging say for some two months. I am more strongly convinced that a large and profitable business could be done at this point and I flatter myself that I could compete with anyone now engaged. The work of mining is too severe for my constitution and I do not think I can stand it long. The weather on the mountains is much warmer than in the valley there are already a number of severe cases of bilious fever on the Feather river, one I brought down, others to low to remove.

Hard labor, hot weather — it’s no wonder that this writer and many others aspired to be merchants rather than miners.

And what was bilious fever, you ask? It was a common diagnosis in the 19th century for any fever that was accompanied by symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. “Bilious” meant the condition was thought to arise from disorders of bile in the liver. It could have been any number of diseases; very commonly it was malaria.


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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