In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — 2

John Steele was a well-educated, Bible-reading, poetry-loving, and seemingly mild-mannered young man. But in the California goldfields a man had to be prepared for anything. Sometimes the answer to a problem was a pistol.

Once he and his friends had earned enough to buy their own tools, they went prospecting on their own and did pretty well, until Steele got sick. Weeks later, after his recovery, he went back to Nevada City to collect the back wages owed him by his first employer, a Mr. Dinkler.

Nevada City in 1852. California State Library

Dinkler turned out to be a slippery character.

When I quit work for Mr. Dinkler he paid me only part of my wages, saying, when he had time to wash the gravel, within a few days, he would pay the rest. Weeks had passed, and now, after three days’ failure to find him, I began to suspect he was trying to evade me. . . Again and again, when a time was set to meet him, where his workmen said he expected to be, he failed to appear. It was reported that though he had taken large quantities of gold from his mines, he would never pay a dollar if he could help it. (p. 146)

Finally Steele caught the elusive Mr. Dinkler early one morning at his mine. He claimed to not have the gold on him, and Steele countered that any shopkeeper would loan it to him. They went to a shop.

I explained to the merchant the circumstances, that I was about to leave, and would he not be so kind and obliging as to loan the money to Mr. Dinkler for a few days.

“Certainly,” said the merchant, “I could advance the money, but I believe he has it, and if he won’t pay you without trouble, he won’t pay me.”

This seemed to settle the matter and a look of satisfaction came over Dinkler’s face as he turned to go out. There was still another resort, and I resolved to frighten him into payment.

I sprang before him to the door, and presenting a pistol, with a loud voice ordered him to “Stop! Now sir, I’m going away this morning, but this matter must be settled first; you can pay it now, or never have another chance.”

His voice trembled as he shouted, “Don’t! Don’t shoot!” And springing to the counter, upon which stood scales for weighing gold, he drew from his pocket a large buckskin purse of the shining metal, weighed out the amount of my claim, and handed it to me. (pp. 147-48)

The drama and the shouting attracted a crowd of men, who gathered round and told Dinkler, “No, Fred, it’s your treat; you intended to cheat that boy out of his wages; now you shall treat the crowd; set out the cigars.”

And that’s how John Steele got his wages, and all the other men got their cigars.

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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2 Responses to In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — 2

  1. Jodie says:

    Such a great story, Nancy! Thank you for sharing all of your research in such a fun to read manner. I look forward to your posts, and the accompanying photos. I especially like your style of storytelling and the use of primary document quotes. This is how I tried to engage my students, with journals and diaries and artifacts they could hold. I only wish I had had access to these little treasures (your posts) when I taught 4th and 5th grades! How fun it would have been to share snippets of the past every week in this way!
    Jodie Dillman

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