John Steele was eighteen years old when he caught a case of gold fever. He made the overland trek from Wisconsin to California in 1850. A diligent diarist, he kept a journal on the trail and during his three years in California. Much later in life he turned his journals into two books: Across the Plains in 1850 and In Camp and Cabin. The experiences he relates are typical of the gold seeker: adventure, tedium, peril, humor, and plenty of everyday detail. Join me as I highlight a few of Steele’s adventures.
It was late September when Steele and his trail mates arrived in California and passed through Nevada City, “which was little else than a row of canvas-covered houses on either side of the emigrant road in the valley of Deer Creek.” (Across the Plains in 1850, p. 224)
They had no money, tools, or provisions, and they were hungry, so they immediately began looking for work.
Having ascertained that wages, for those who worked in the drifts on Coyote Hill, were sixteen dollars a day, we felt happy at the prospect. Gold seemed to be abundant everywhere, except in our pockets, and we had faith to believe they would soon be replenished.In Camp and Cabin, p. 120 (Lakeside edition, see below)
Steele could find no one to hire him that first morning. At noon he went to a bakery and bought a little loaf of bread “only a fair-sized biscuit.” The price was 50 cents and Steele only had 35 cents in his pocket, but the baker took pity on him. “Take the loaf; fifteen cents is nothing in California.”
The next day Steele decided to look for work in the deep mines. “In anticipation of immediate work, and of probably descending into some damp, cool shaft, I put on my wamus of striped bed-ticking, such as was then worn in the lead mines of Wisconsin.” Good move, as we shall see.
And what is a “wamus”, I hear you ask. Not a word I am familiar with, but the dictionary definition is “a heavy cardigan jacket, loosely knit and belted, or a durable, coarse, outer jacket.”
Hearing a man say that he had just finished his shaft, and was redy to begin drifting, I applied to him for work. My boyish appearance was not assuring, and my sun-burnt face told that I had just arrived at the mines. He eyed me for a moment and inquired, “What do you want a day?”
“Just what you think I’m worth; in fact, I wouldn’t mind working for my board until I get acquainted.”
He simply said, “No,” and went on counting a pile of blocks for timbering. (p. 123)
Wrong answer. The next minute came another man asking for work, “a slender, sickly-looking man.” He said he wanted sixteen dollars a day and was hired. (Never undersell yourself.)
Approaching another shaft, which indicated readiness to begin drifting, I inquired, “Do you want a drifter?”
“Yes, what’s your wages?” “Sixteen dollars a day.”
“That seems pretty steep.” “It’s for you to say.”
“Where are you from?” “Wisconsin.”
Just then a stranger to us both chimed in, “When you see a boy from Wisconsin wearin’ them togs, he’ll do in the mines anywhere.”
“All right,” said the mine owner, “go to work and we’ll see how it pays.” (p. 124)
Wearing his wamus jacket, the uniform of a Wisconsin lead miner, paid off for Steele, although he had no mining experience whatsoever. From talking to miners he had learned something of the trade, and he successfully secured the timbers at the bottom of the shaft and mined it for three weeks. The mine paid out handsomely and the mine owner cheerfully paid Steele for his work. It was the beginning of his mining career.
(I am using the Lakeside Classics edition, published in 1928. Steele’s account is bound together with Echoes of the Past About California, by General John Bidwell.)