The California Road Scholar Talks About Mining

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April 1, 2013 · Posted in Commentary 

Mural in the Martinez, California post office. "The Road to El Dorado, painted by Edith Hamlin and Maynard Dixon in 1939.


By Phyl Van Ammers

The quicksilver, gold and coalmines in this state helped create its cities and transformed its legal, political, economic and environmental landscape.

A petroglyph at Hickison Recreation Center in Nevada on Highway 50 shows stick figures that have enormous heads.  They look like sticks with light bulbs on top. Behind them in one collection of stick figures a line represents mountain by inverted VVVVVV, an ideogram rather like saw teeth. “Sierra” in Spanish means both mountain range and saw.  “Nevada” means snowfall, descent of snow, a heavy fall of snow, or white as snow.


John McPhee, in his Assembling California (1993) writes:

“For an extremely large percentage of the history of the world, there was no California…of the varied terranes and physiographic provinces that we now call California nothing whatever was there.  The continent ended far to the east, the continental shelf as well.  Where California has come to be, there was only blue sea reaching down some miles to ocean-crustal rock, which was moving, as it does, into subduction zones to be consumed.

“The major geologic events that created the Sierra Nevada began a little over 200 million years ago when the granitic rocks that make up most of the Sierra Nevada began emerged from the crust from below. The Mother Lode, heart of the gold producing region, is a 200km (130mi) zone running along a fault that separates two of the accreted terranes. The gold probably originated near volcanic vents in the ocean and was deposited in the marine metamorphic rocks that were accreted onto the North American plate. The gold, along with silica and other minerals, was then dissolved and concentrated in water under extremely high temperatures during the emplacement of the Sierra Nevada granitic rocks, and the superheated fluid was injected into cracks and fault zones, primarily in the metamorphic rocks. The silica hardened to produce quartz veins in which the gold deposits were embedded.”

Gold Country lies on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, reaching down to the Sacramento Valley.  It was to the 25,000 Chinese who heard about the discovery of gold “gam saan,” which means Gold Mountain.  The United States became “Gold Mountain.”

The Gold Rush transformed the state.   Immigrants to California inundated the state either in search of gold or to make a fortune from the Argonauts.  The social, legal and political responses transformed the state and created – out of shacks, a presidio and a mission in the case of San Francisco and out of an embarcadero in the case of Sacramento – two vibrant cities.

The Chinese were among the first groups to rush to the mines.  On February 2, 1848, less than ten days after James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill on the lower reaches of the American River three Chinese arrived in San Francisco on the American brig Eagle.  Two of them immediately went up into the mountains and reports indicate found a piece of gold weighing 240 pounds.  Two hundred and thirty five Gam Saan Hak (Gold Mountain travelers) arrived in California within a year.  In 1852, 20,026 arrived in the Big Port (San Francisco).

“With a pillow on my shoulder, I began my perilous journey:

Sailing a boat with bamboo poles across the seas,

Leaving behind wife and sisters in search of money,

No longer lingering with the woman in the bedroom,

No longer paying respect to parents at home.”

Joaquin Miller (Cincinnatus Hines Miller), in his novel First Fam’lies of the Sierras (1876):

“Every five years there is a curious sort of mule caravan seen meandering up and down the mining streams of California, where Chinamen are to be found.  It is a quiet train…In this train or caravan the drivers do not shout or scream.  The mules, it always seemed to me, do not even bray.  This caravan travels almost always by night, and it is driven and management almost altogether by Chinamen…These mules, both in coming and going out of a camp, are loaded with little beech-wood boxes of about three feet in length and one foot square…This is the caravan of the dead.”

“Not a Chinaman’s chance,” a once popular phrase suggests the reality that the Chinese did not have good luck with American law.  Brett Hart, in “An Episode of Fiddletown” (1873) describes the experiences of Ah Fe:

“On the road to Sacramento he was twice playfully thrown from the top of the stage-coach by an intelligent but deeply intoxicated Caucasian….At Hangtown (Placerville now) he was beaten by a passing stranger, purely an act of Christian supererogation.  At Dutch Flat he was robbed by well-known hands from unknown motives.  At Sacramento he was arrested on suspicion of being something or other, and discharged with a severe reprimand – possibly for not being it, and so delaying the course of justice.  At San Francisco he was freely stoned by children of the public schools; but by carefully avoiding these monuments of enlightened progress, he at least reached in comparative safety the Chinese quarters, where his abuse was confined to the police….”

In the case of The People of the State of California v. George v. Hall (1854) the California Supreme Court established that Chinese Americans and Chinese immigrants had no rights to testify against white citizens.

The ruling effectively freed Hall, a white man, who had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of Ling Sing, a Chinese miner in Nevada County. Three Chinese witnesses had testified to the killing.

The ruling extended California Criminal Procedure’s existing (1850) exclusion, “No black or mulatto person, or Indian, shall be allowed to give evidence in favor of, or against a white man.” The Hall court held that either “Indian” denoted anyone of the Mongoloid race or that “black” applied to anyone not white.

The ruling made it impossible to prosecute white violence against anyone who was not white.

The environmental consequences of mining — discounting the legal, political and economic changes that resulted in corollary changes – devastated the mountains and the valley below.  High-pressure water cannons washed hillsides into sluices that used mercury to trap gold but let the soil away.  More than three times the amount of earth moved to make way for the Panama Canal entered California’s rivers and left behind twenty tons of mercury every mile.  Rivers overflowed the banks and poisoned the land, reducing California’s forests and grasslands.

Jack London wrote about the Klondike in his story “All Gold Canyon,” but the environmental story was the same in Alaska as it was here.

“Feverish with desire, with aching back and stiffening muscles, with pick and shovel gouging and mauling the soft brown earth, the man toiled up the hill. Before him was the smooth slope, spangled with flowers and made sweet with their breath. Behind him was devastation. It looked like some terrible eruption breaking out on the smooth skin of the hill. His slow progress was like that of a slug, befouling beauty with a monstrous trail.”

American judges and lawyers not only knowingly ignored the American obligations under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo’s agreement to respect Mexican citizens’ property rights; they also ignored Anglo-American common law as well.  Professor Peter Reich summarized the legal transformation as follows:  “This disregard for applicable precedent promoted industrial entrepreneurship at the expense of public access and of the environment.”

On January 9, 1884, a United States Circuit Court banned the flushing of debris into streams and rivers.

John Muir’s writing convinced the U.S. government to protect Yosemite and Sequoia in the Sierra Nevadas.  He was the Sierra Club’s first president.

If you were to remove the word “sublime” from Muir’s writing, much of what remains is “God,” “transcendent,” “glory,” “glorious,” “luminous,” “home” and “the.”  I exaggerate.  He wrote a lot more than that, and he wrote clearly and well.

One dictionary meaning of sublime is “of such excellence, grandeur or beauty as to inspire great admiration or awe.”  Another meaning is “to elevate to a high degree of morality or excellence.”

For Muir, nature was God and home.  His references are often Biblical, but his opposition to the destruction of wildness sounded as Americans destroyed wildness, as the maw of capitalism devoured and continues to devour California, and his voice continues to resonate, as did Henry David Thoreau’s in his Walden, with a cry against greed.

Google maps instruct the literary scholar to take the 680 over the Carquinez Bridge to the 80. Muir wrote,

“ Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. The multitude of mixed, novel impressions rapidly piled on one another make only a dreamy, bewildering, swirling blur…”

A good time to go to the Sierras is at the end of January.  In the dead of winter the flat black night skies are succeeded by flat gray skies in the areas in and around the Delta.  Monotonous days follow monotonous nights.  The Christmas lights on houses brighten urban streets with unreasonable hope but by the middle of January homeowners take down their improbable tableaux of Santa Claus playing poker with reindeer and their illuminated wire reindeer slowly bending and raising their heads.

Leave Concord on Highway Four, the “John Muir Highway,” which begins in Martinez.  Most of the road is bare orchards housing developments with houses all painted shades of ochre and beige. Go through Stockton to the Five Freeway, once called “The Golden State,” leave the Five at Sacramento and headed through the 50 to Placerville, passing oak woodlands until the mountain ecology prevails.

The bare limbs of trees are lichen covered.  The lichen looks like verdigris.  If you find a branch and touch it, the lichen looks like little oak leaves and feels like thin sponges.  Lichens are organisms consisting of fungus and a blue-green alga that gets food, water and minerals from the air. If you look closely at the moss growing on trees and rocks, you see it is really tiny ferns and every once in a while a big fern emerges from the side of a rock.

Ahead stand the Sierras mantled in snow that is full of light.  Writing in the spring but before global warming, Muir wrote:

“At your feet lies the great Central Valley glowing golden in the sunshine, extending north and south farther than the eye can reach, one smooth, flowery, lake-like bed of fertile soil. Along its eastern margin rises the mighty Sierra, miles in height, reposing like a smooth, cumulous cloud in the sunny sky, and so gloriously colored, and so luminous, it seems to be not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top, and extending a good way down, you see a pale, pearl-gray belt of snow; and below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple and yellow, where lie the miner’s gold-fields and the foot-hill gardens. All these colored belts blending smoothly make a wall of light ineffably fine, and as beautiful as a rainbow, yet firm as adamant.”


Muir, like his admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson — to whom Muir wrote in 1872, “We will travel like them lingering about rockwalls & brows— waving softly along glacial curves from mountain to mountain, from dome to dome, halting about the skirts of forests, poising on slender peaks in full exposure to the powers of fountain light. If you come in June we will witness grand upheavals of mountain ranges in the sky, cloud Sierras close allied to the granite at their feet. We are a kind of cumulus cloud ourselves, sun-thrilled vapors condensed at this terrestrial temperature to degrees that we call solid & liquid. Sky clouds may come as glaciers & go about the mountains dense as we.”  His glaciers now recede, even in winter.

Among The Gold Country’s cities and towns is Auburn, which has a wonderful late nineteenth century courthouse and restored Old Town.  Amtrak trains stop in Auburn.

The Empire Mine State Historic Park and North Star Mine are in Grass Valley, still the home of poet Gary Snyder.  Tall conifers close in on the road from Auburn to Grass Valley.  Hertz, Enterprise and Budget rent cars in Auburn.

Films and television shows shot in Sonora include: The Covered Wagon (1923) – the first epic western, The Johnstown Flood (1926) –Clark Gable and Carole Lombard were extras —The Charge of the Light Brigade (1935), Dodge City (1939), High Noon 1952), Hopalong Cassidy (1952), Death Valley Days (1953), Apache (1954), Belle Star (1980), Bonanza (1952), The Lone Ranger (1956), Lassie (1961), East of Eden (1981).

Placerville is on U.S. Route 50 where it crosses State Route 49.  Its first name was Dry Diggin’s because miners moved cartloads of dry soil to water to separate the gold.  In 1849, the town became “Hangtown,” You can go deep into the mountain at Gold Bug Park.  Placerville is the only municipality in California to own a gold mine.

Mark Twain – who came after the Gold Rush, based his short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” on a story he claimed he heard at the Angels Hotel in Angel’s Camp in 1865.  The event is commemorated with a Jumping Frog Jubilee each May at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, just east of the city.    A statue of Mark Twain stands in Utica Park.  You can read the story on-line at

Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868) is also available on-line:  Roaring Camp is an old Gold Rush mining camp on the Mokelumne River just outside the town of Pine Grove, down the road from Jackson near Highway 49.

Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith wrote The Shirley Letters, letters she wrote from the Indian Bar and Rich Bar mining camps to her sister “back in the states” between 1851 and 1852, first published in The Pioneer in San Francisco from January 1854 to December 1855.  She signed them Dame Shirley.  H.H. Bancroft felt Brett Hart took the stories for “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp” from her letters.

The following comes from Smith’s  “Letter the Fourteenth,”

“This fifteenth day of March has risen upon us with all the primeval splendor of the birth-morn of creation.  The lovely river, having resumed its

crimson border (the so long idle miners being again busily at work, glides by, laughing gayly, leaping and clapping its glad waves joyfully in the golden sunlight.  The feathery fringe of the fir-trees glitters like emerald in the luster-bathing air.  A hundred tiny rivulets flash down from the brow of the mountains, as if some mighty Titan, standing on the other side, had flung athwart their greenness a chaplet of radiant pearls.”

A wonderful work of fiction that most people thought was a real journal is Chauncey L. Canfield’s, The Diary of a Forty-Niner (1906), copyrighted

by Turtle Point Press in 1992, which the “editor” purportedly found.   In his “diary,” the miner writes:  “It’s been no such winter as ’49 and ’50.  About a quarter as much rain and only a foot of snow, which melted nearly as fast as it fell.  The nights are frosty, but the middle of the day is warm and the grass is up six inches.  Nevada is getting to be quite a town.  There are more than one hundred frame buildings beside a lot of tents and log cabins and they are talking about building a theater.  There is another town down the ridge, called Rough and Ready and it’s as lively as Nevada.  They hung a nigger there last week for stealing.  It’s a queer thing how well we get along without any courts or law.  ….Most of the cases are mining disputes and a miners’ jury decides these.  Stealing is punished by a whipping and banishment (Note from PvA:  Except, it appears, if you are not white)….”

Until the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a small Mexican town.  William Heath Davis visited the California coast in 1831 when he was nine years old aboard the trading bark Louisa, one of the many vessels that combed California trading spots: San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterey and San Francisco.

About his 1833 trip to San Francisco, Davis wrote:

“We anchored in a cove known as Yerba Buena.   Telegraph Hill was then called Loma Alto (“tall hill”).  At that time there were some half dozen barks from Atlantic ports trading along the California coast, Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands….

“Otters were then numerous in the bay and their skins plentiful.  Trade at that time was practically all barter – tallow and hides, sea otter and beaver skins being the currency….

“In 1835 the Mission Dolores, now on Sixteenth Street, San Francisco, was then located about a mile from the site of the town of Yerba Buena. In August the population was estimated at two thousand Indians, many of them having been taught trades as blacksmiths, shipwrights, carpenters, tailors, etc. The Mission then owned tens of thousands of cattle, sheep, horses.”

(William Heath Davis, Sixty Years in California, (1889) full text available online at

There were about a dozen houses and fifty residents in Yerba Buena by 1844. But in 1846 the Hudson Bay Company sold its holdings and left; a move that largely cut down the number of settlers. Towards the close of 1846 there were about ninety buildings, shanties, adobes and frame houses, and about 200 people lived in the town.

Up to January 1847, the little village of shacks and occasional buildings between Sacramento and Washington streets, and from Stockton Street to the bay — which then came up to the present Montgomery Street — was known as Yerba Buena, renamed San Francisco.

Sutter’s Mill-Marshalls Gold Discovery Park is on Back Street in Coloma.

At the museum, you can learn how to pan gold.  Nearby, you can white water raft down the Feather River.

John August Suter (later “Sutter”) learned Spanish and English during the years he operated a store in Burgdorf, Switzerland.  Instead of going to jail for his mounting debts, he abandoned his wife and five children and fled on a French passport to New York City.  After many adventures, he arrived in Coloma and established “New Helvetia” (New Switzerland).  Sutter employed Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, Kanakas, and Europeans at his compound, which he called Sutter’s Fort; he envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous.

Sutter employed carpenter James Wilson Marshall to build a sawmill.   On January 24, 1848, Marshall examined the channel below the mill and noticed shiny flecks in the channel bed.  Sutter and Marshall initially kept the discovery secret but the news leaked out.

Sutter wrote later, “Everyone left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress.”

California entered the union in 1850 as a “free” state, but thousands of Southerners traveled to Gold Rush California with slaves.  Proslavery state legislators passed laws that protected slaveholding rights and vitiated the state’s antislavery constitution.

Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins, known as the “Big Four” built the Central Pacific Railroad and developed California’s railroad system between 1861 and 1900.  Huntington and Hopkins came west and established a hardware company.  Stanford moved west to start a grocery business with his brothers, and Crocker was a dry goods merchant.  Enriched by the miners, the Big Four supported Abraham Lincoln and the new Republican Party.

In the first three and a half years of the American Civil War, $173,083,098 passed through the Port of San Francisco from the gold mines and the Nevada Comstock silver lode.  This immense wealth fed the Union coffers in its battles against the Confederacy.

Mary Hallock Foote lived in a California near San Jose with her mining engineer husband and their children.  Her first novel was The Led Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp (1883).  The following is from her short story, “The Exile.”

“Nicky Dyer and the schoolmistress sat upon the slope of a hill, one of a low range overlooking an arid Californian valley. These sunburnt slopes were traversed by many narrow footpaths, descending, ascending, winding among the tangle of poison-oak and wild-rose bushes, leading from the miners’ cabins to the shaft-houses and tunnels of the mine which gave to the hills their only importance.”

The “arid” California valley may have been the Santa Clara Valley, although it was not arid.   She lived with her husband at the New Almaden quicksilver mine near San Jose in 1876. Her illustrated correspondence about New Almaden, “A California Mining Camp”, appeared in the February 1878 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. New Almaden also features in her memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, which Wallace Stegner later fictionalized in his masterpiece Angle of Repose.

The Cornish camp was about halfway up the hillside from the Santa Clara valley.  The miners lived in cottages with white picket fences.  The camp contained a general store, schoolhouse, mining office and a boarding house.

Cornish miners also worked in the Black Diamond mines near Nortonville and Cornwall, California, beginning in 1855.  Only low-grade coal came out of the mines, but the energy from that coal helped build northern Californian cities.   Both towns are now part of Pittsburg, California.

Professor Brewer briefly writes about the coal to the east of Mt. Diablo in Up and Down California, a journal about the Field Expedition (1860-1864).



Books and articles to read for the trip:


William J. Brewer, Up and Down California, digitalized by the Internet Archive in 2011.  (The Yale University Press, 1922)


Richard H. Dillon, Fool’s Gold: The Decline and Fall of Captain John Sutter of California


Ida Rae Egli, editor, No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of Early California (Heydey Books 1992)


Mary Hallock’s Foote writing can be read on-line at


Andrew C. Isenberg, Mining California: An Ecological History. (Hill and Wang, 2005).


John C. Lammers, “The Accommodation of Chinese Immigrants in Early California Courts,” Sociological Perspectives, Vol.31, No. 4 (October 1988) pp 446-465.


Darlis A. Miller, Mary Hallock Foote: Author-Illustrator of the American West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002)


The Sierra Club link offers John Muir’s writing.

(Retrieved 3/26/2013).


Peter L. Reich, introduction to “A Compilation of Spanish and Mexican Law in Relation to Mines and Titles to Real Estate, in Force in California, Texas and New Mexico,” by John Arnold Rockwell, Rockwell’s work originally published in 1852, from the series Foundations of Spanish, Mexican and Civil Law, published by The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd. (2011)


Peter Reich, “Western Courts and the Privatization of Hispanic Mineral Rights Since 1850: An Alchemy of Title,” Columbia Journal of Environmental Law, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1998)


Jeffrey P. Schaffer, The Tahoe Sierra:  A Natural History Guide to 112 Hikes in the Northern Sierra.  (First edition 1975, Wilderness Press)


The Shirley letters are available free on-line.


Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (Penguin, 1992)


James Bradley Thayer, A Western Journey with Mr. Emerson
Kennikat Press, Port Washington, N.Y., 1971, pp. 88-109 (F866.T37.1971) (Reprint of the 1884 Edition, Little, Brown, & Co., Boston) (814.3E532T)
Xiao-Huang Yin, Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s (Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois, 2000)




John Muir National Historic Site, located in Martinez.

John Muir wilderness Area

John Muir trail


Black Diamond Mines Regional Preserve, located between Concord and Pittsburg.

The New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum ocated in the Casa Grande at 21350 Almaden Road in New Almaden.

Marshall’s Gold State Historic Park in Coloma

Highway 50 in January from Sacramento to South Lake Tahoe.

Yosemite National Park

Charles Crocker’s mausoleum in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland

Chinese Temple and Museum Complex in Oroville (1500 Broderick Street).  Have lunch at Tong Fong Low.

Sierra Club hikes, e.g.,


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