The Luck of the Early California Gold Miners

Most of my historical posts this year have been about the Oregon Trail, because I’m working on another novel about an emigrant wagon train to Oregon. But this post is about the Gold Rush, the subject of my last novel, Now I’m Found.

Gold prospector, 1850, photograph from Wikimedia Commons

In April 2016, I wrote a post entitled “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” in which I wrote about what it took for the early prospectors to be successful in California.  Most of the early miners did not gain fortunes by picking nuggets off the ground, but a few did. And others made money by slowly panning flakes from streams or by digging ore out of the ground. Many of the most successful men (and women) were merchants and others who made their money off the prospectors, rather than those who mined the gold themselves.

My recent visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead, South Dakota, showed me how lucky the few early Gold Rush prospectors who earned their fortunes from panning for gold were. The town of Lead (pronounced LEED) is in the gold mining region of the Black Hills. Gold was discovered there in 1876, and the Homestake Mining Company ran a mining operation there for over a century until it closed its operations in 2002.

The early Dakota prospectors engaged in placer mining, using pans and rockers and sluices, like the California Gold Rush prospectors. However, larger mining companies soon moved into the Black Hills, and the industry became mechanized.

The Black Hills Mining Museum has a few displays of the early mining techniques, but focuses primarily on the underground machinery of large-scale gold and silver mines. The tour guide at the museum did an excellent job of explaining how mining was done through the 20th Century. The Homestake Mining Company operated its mine for 125 years, then closed when the price of gold could no longer cover the increasing cost of extracting the ore from the earth.

That yellow metal bin holds one ton of rock. On average, it took four of those bins for the Homestake Mining Company to obtain 1 ounce of gold.

One statistic impressed me the most: Throughout the Homestake Mining Company’s 125-year operating history, on average it took four tons of ore to produce one ounce of gold. That’s 8,000 pounds of rock to yield one ounce of gold.

My earlier post on “How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?” was written in terms of dollars. So after my visit to the Black Hills Mining Museum, I translated the dollars of those early miners’ success into ounces. The price of gold in 1850 was $20.67 per ounce. In the early Gold Rush years, $10,000 was a decent fortune. Therefore, at 1850 prices it took a little less than 500 ounces of gold to have $10,000.

Five hundred ounces doesn’t sound like a lot. That’s less than 32 pounds. There are many stories of miners toting around 100-pound bags of gold dust.

But at the average yield of the Homestake Mining Company (8000 pounds of ore to find one ounce of gold), that’s 4 million pounds of ore (or 2000 tons)!

And some of the early California miners made more than $50,000, equivalent to 2500 ounces of gold . . . or 20 million pounds of ore at the Homestake rate of production.

It’s a good thing that in the early Gold Rush years in California, some lucky prospectors could simply pick nearly pure gold nuggets off the ground or out of the streams. They didn’t have to move anywhere near 4 million pounds of ore to find their fortunes. They were in the right place at the right time, and California—and the United States—changed as a result.

What odd facts of history impress you?

Posted in History, Travel and tagged , , , , , .

Leave a Reply