Meet Horace Snow, young Yankee in California, seeking gold and enjoying an existence far different from life in old New England.
The Forty-Niners and the other gold seekers of the 1850s were for the most part literate men, and so there is no shortage of journals and collections of letters written by them, telling of their experiences in the goldfields. But seldom do I come across a book as lively and entertaining as the “Dear Charlie” Letters: Recording the Everyday Life of a Young 1854 Gold Miner . . . As Set Forth by Your Friend, Horace Snow. This book is a publication of the Mariposa County Historical Society and is available from Amazon.com and probably at the Mariposa Museum.
Horace Snow (and what a classic New England name that is) was born in New Hampshire in 1831. He studied to be a schoolteacher at the Massachusetts Normal School, but in 1853, at the age of 22, he set out for California to find his brother Hiram, whom he had not seen for three years, and maybe some gold too. He wrote numerous letters to his friends back home, but his most faithful correspondent, a “true chum,” was his friend Charlie Fitz.
What I like about his letters is his descriptions of life in the goldfields. Here he is, cheerfully telling about their log cabin:
I am living in an old fashioned log cabin about twelve by fifteen feet. It is very secure against any enemy, being built up of large logs and well mossed. We have only one door and one window to our rustic mansion, choosing darkness rather than light, you see. The internal arrangements are very tasty, myself having control. Our cabin is divided into two parts, inside and out. The inside being all in one room and also the out.
Now, in America, you use wood for floors, which decays and has to be repaired, but we have a slab from Mother Earth, durable and always in its place. Somehow or other our patent stove happens to be a huge fire place. How pleasant it seems to build up a right smart fire and get up in front of it and talk over old times.
Our window is a small trap door which we use as a cat hole. Instead of reposing on soft down, we rest our weary limbs on a piece of canvas attached to two poles. Everything in our cabin is just as handy as can be. Each one has his own space and a place to put his own things.
Our domestic family consists of four hens, one dog, and a cat. The dog keeps thieves away at night, the cat takes care of the rats and mice and the hens furnish us with eggs; therefore, you see, we have something for them all to do. Eggs usually are three dollars per dozen, though now only one and a half. Taking all things into consideration, we are getting to be quite independent. Own a house, barn, some stock, plenty of land, and all the wild animals we can catch.
Eggs, by the way, back in the States, would cost more like a nickel apiece. Prices were high in the mines.
Here is the Mariposa Museum’s replica of a miner’s cabin. Crowded but cozy, as you can see.