Last year I recounted the story of James Marshall finding a gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848. He looked down into the mill race and saw the bright and glittering metal.
Like Marshall’s original find, many of the early gold discoveries were made by men who simply spotted the precious metal in or along the streams of central California. These first Gold Rush miners in California engaged in placer mining. A “placer” is a mineral deposit found in gravel or sand, generally on the surface of the earth or in water. The gold deposits were created by erosion of the rock that had contained the metal, and the heavy metal became concentrated through the movement of water or gravity.
All the early placer miners had to do was pick the gold flakes or nuggets by hand, either off the land or from water—they didn’t really need to know anything about mining.
Some men did find gold nuggets just lying on the ground. But more often, they found the gold in rivers and streams. They used pans or buckets or baskets to swish the water around, letting the heavy metal fall to the bottom. The miners scooped the bottom dirt from the water into his container, swirled it around, then poured the water out. The miner had to pick through the dirt to find the gold flakes—since gold is heavy, it tended to remain in the pan.
It was hard work, as the men had to stand in cold water all day long, generally stooping and bearing the weight of pans of water and gravel. It was back-breaking labor.
In addition to the fast-running streams, gold was also found in beds of gravel along hillsides and in ravines, where dirt had washed after rainstorms or spring floods. The argonauts also used placer mining to find flakes and nuggets in veins in the rocks, which was harder than finding the gold in the rivers and streams. Still, it was easier to find the gold on the surface or along the edges of ravines than digging deep into the earth. Almost all the gold found in the early days had been exposed to water at some point and washed to where it was easily discovered by men who were motivated to look.
Later on, “dry diggings” became more frequent, where the miners used knives to pick the gold out of cracks in the rocks. In addition, they brought water to the hills to wash the gold out of the dirt artificially, as the rivers and streams did naturally. But dry diggings were harder than simple placer mining, unless one found a solid vein of gold.
In future months this year, I’ll write more about rockers and long-toms and sluices—other ways of getting the gold out of the hills. And I’ll write about the laws, written and unwritten, observed and unobserved, that governed the mining fields of the California Gold Rush.
Today, tourists and a few adventurers still pan for gold in California (and elsewhere in the U.S. where there have been gold finds). Just like the 1848 miners, all that is needed is a pan and a place to store the gold you find. Of course, all the easy pickings have already been found. Or have they?
For more about the early days of California gold mining, see
And there are many other stories written by the early miners.
Have you ever panned for gold? Did you enjoy it? Did you find anything?