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Tuesday, November 27, 2012


In 1848, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold on the banks of the American River in California. He was supervising the construction of a sawmill on the Sutter property. Remarkably, his discovery was met with little interest at first. Early alleged discoveries had been disappointing. Nine days later the treaty ending the war between Mexico and the U.S. was signed and California was ceded to the United States. Neither government knew about Marshall’s discovery. If they had known what was about to happen, peace negotiations may have gone differently.

The Great California Gold Rush was about to begin. The little port town of San Francisco (population 812) exploded. Ships carrying thousands of novice miners and merchants began to arrive. Fields were abandoned half planted, houses were deserted half built. By the end of 1849, California’s population grew from 12,000 to 100,000 of which 32,000 came by ship (plus 3,000 deserting sailors) and 42,000 came overland. You were considered a “49er” whether you were a miner or not.

Life was hard in the mining camps of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Homesickness and intense loneliness plagued the miners who were separated from their families and friends. They sought ways to escape the harsh life in the gold camps, and do almost anything to relieve the tedium of their work. So what was it that the 49ers did for fun?

Drinking and gambling topped the list of fun activities of nearly every miner. Most mining camp gambling halls were not much more than canvas stretched over poles. They served liquor at inflated prices. Every kind of card playing and betting was allowed, and the miners who had luck in finding gold would spend thousands of dollars on games of chance. They believed that the supply of gold would never run out. Even young boys would be allowed to place bets. Gambling also included shooting billiards or ten-pin bowling. The stakes were high and fights were frequent.

Miners in some camps formed social clubs. One famous club was the “Clampers.” They kept no membership records; they were too busy having fun. Their primary function was to recruit new members, charge them a large initiation fee, then drink up the proceeds during the initiation ceremony.

The spectator sport of “Bear and Bull” fighting appealed to many. Admission was charged to each match where a bear (often a grizzly) would be chained close to a bull in hopes of seeing the animals engage in combat. The two were usually interested in avoiding each other however. Once, a frightened bear broke loose from its chain and scurried up a nearby tree. The tree was filled with miners not willing to pay the admission charge. The miners scrambled, fell, or jumped and the bear had the tree to himself within seconds.

On Sunday evenings, the miners would visit the dance houses and gambling halls; or gather to watch Dr. Collier’s Troupe of Model Artists, consisting of scantily clad women. Most of the women were not selected for their beauty but for their stamina. To meet the “fancy women” one had to journey to San Francisco.

Some itinerant musicians travelled to the camps, and a few canvas tent theatres were built. Entertainment was humble. The miners would form their own performing all-male companies to take a stab at the classics.

But the large saloons and theatres existed some distance away, in Sacramento or San Francisco. The vaudeville-like playbills could feature musicians, singers, actors, an opera, or possibly a Shakespeare play. The Eagle Theatre in Sacramento was the focal point for regional entertainment. Lola Montez, Edwin Booth, and Lotta Crabtree earned the largest audiences. During the rainy season, when the adjacent river flooded, those patrons in the orchestra pit seats would be treated to a bath in addition to a show.

Occasionally missionaries tried to bring godliness to the mining camps lamenting that “the utter recklessness, the perfect abandon with which they drink, gamble, and swear is altogether astounding.” They didn’t make much difference. It wasn’t until the arrival of miners’ wives and other female relatives a few years later that brought an end to the unruly activities of gold rush entertainment.

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