Posts Tagged ‘Nevada mining camps’

31 December

A Dangerous Occupation

 A Dangerous Occupation

In 1850 California, rumors of new gold finds and “easy pickins” were rampant and rarely had any truth to them.  On the rare occasion a rumor was legitimate, big companies or large groups of like-minded men quickly moved in buying claims for very little (or just running off whomever was there) and were not shy about using deadly force to keep other prospectors far away.  Claim jumping or just outright stealing a miner’s gold dust was not unusual – even if it meant ending his life.  As there was no law within a hundred miles, the one with the most men, guns and knives usually won.  So, in addition to all the inherent dangers and uncertainties facing a single prospector and his mule, finding gold was only the beginning of his worries.

Undaunted by these facts, Muriel’s great grandfather, Samuel Penfield Taylor, used his grub stake to buy mining tools and walked some 150 miles east of San Francisco, into the remote hills surrounding the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. At some point during his trek, Samuel panned for gold around streams at Hawkins Bar, near Tuolumne, California. What he found there were several rival ethnic groups and companies literally at war.

The Spanish American war had just ended. Although California wouldn’t officially become a territory of the United States until late 1850, this bad blood was carried up the mountain as newly arrived American miners forced the native Mexican miners at gunpoint out of their camps and even hung a few to make their point.  The “Sonoranians,” as the Mexican miners were called, relocated at the other end of town not far away and tensions continued with frequent gunfights.

Even among the same ethnic groups there were clashes.  Two Chinese companies, the Tuolumne County Sam Yap Company and the Calaveras County Yan Wo Company, were both claiming the same mining areas and the resulting was violence frequent and deadly. This escalated into the Tong War of 1856 when over 2,500 Chinese men took to the streets.  The Sam Yap clan brought long pikes, butcher’s knives and tridents to the fight.  Yan Wo had purchased 150 muskets with bayonets in San Francisco, so the battle didn’t last long.

We can only assume that Samuel Taylor stayed clear of all of this and went about his business panning for gold.  When he returned to San Francisco in 1851, Samuel exchanged his 6,173 pennyweight of gold nuggets and dust and received $5,691.99 – not the fortune he was hoping for, but a handsome sum in those days.

Having had enough of gold prospecting, Samuel saw the city’s rapid growth and, with some partners, built a sawmill and opened a lumberyard on the corner of Drumm and California Streets in San Francisco.  It was so successful, he had a hard time keeping up with the demand.  In order to find a sustainable source of trees to mill, he hopped on his horse one day and rode north.  It wasn’t long before he found a vast, virgin forest of the tallest and widest trees he had ever seen. What intrigued him even more was the large creek that flowed through the forest. Seeing such a great source of power surrounded by a seemingly unlimited supply of wood made Samuel rethink his plans for the trees.

To make his vision come true, he needed additional capital and equipment not available in the west. There was also something else in the east that still piqued his interest of a more personal nature. Returning to San Francisco, Samuel booked passage on the next ship headed for New York.

24 December

The Grub Stake

The Grub Stake

The last time we checked, Samuel Penfield Taylor was sitting on the dock of the bay contemplating his future. His trip from New York had taken a lot longer than expected and he didn’t have enough money to go prospecting.  He also found that life in 1850 San Francisco was as dangerous and chaotic as it was exciting. In just over a year it had gone from being a sleepy port town to the largest town west of the Mississippi River and the 5th largest in the United States. The harbor was so full of vessels there was no place for arriving ships, as upon entering the bay most of the crews immediately jumped overboard, swam to shore and went looking for gold. This left the ships marooned and unable to leave since they didn’t have a crew. The captains took to kidnapping (shanghaiing) able bodied men and forcing them into their service.

Along with tens of thousands of prospectors, came the gamblers, outlaws, murderers and politicians who took full advantage of the situation.  Crime and corruption were rampant.  As there was no meaningful law enforcement, Committees of Vigilance were formed to deal with the situation. This private militia lynched at least a dozen people, kidnapped hundreds of Irishmen and members of the government militia and forced numerous elected officials to resign.  The Committee of Vigilance was popular with the public, especially when they turned their attention to the Chinese immigrants which sparked several race riots.  Contempt for the Chinese increased even more when one of the ships from China arrived carrying cholera.  With no proper health care facilities, the epidemic was devastating to the growing San Francisco population.

As most everything had to come by ship and much of the world’s available fleet (over 500 ships) was stranded in the bay with no crew, prices for everything from shovels to mules skyrocketed.  Compared to the eastern part of the United States, food sold for as much as two thousand times more in San Francisco.  A slice of bread sold for a dollar – if it had butter, two dollars.  If someone was lucky enough to have an egg they could demand almost any price, which brings us back to Samuel seeing something bobbing up and down in the Pacific Ocean.

Samuel retrieved the hogshead (a crate equaling about 1-1/2 barrels) and found it was full of eggs. Most likely it had fallen off one of the ships in the harbor.  With the last of his money, he purchased a side of bacon and opened an outdoor restaurant that consisted of a couple of planks laid on some discarded wooden boxes. Over an open campfire, Samuel cooked the eggs and bacon for a crowd of hungry prospectors that had been attracted to the smell. By the time the last meal was served, Samuel had his grub stake and headed for the hills – his dream of fortune still alive.

9 December

Again Daddy!

Again Daddy

August, 1904 – Manhattan, Nevada

At a very early age my Father and I came to an understanding.  It was unspoken and so obvious that we probably never even thought about it much.  It just made perfect sense and was in everyone’s best interest.  The understanding was that the less Mother knew about our shenanigans – the better.

The problem was that Mother was no fool and knew that Father and I were too much alike in our love of thrills and adventure, so every time he and I shared a knowing smile or look, she became suspicions and the questions started.

The time that got us in the worst trouble was one day at the mine when the men were bringing silver ore out of a deep shaft with a bucket attached to a log and pulley system.  After much cajoling and begging, I talked Father into letting me ride the bucket down the shaft.  I know, just the thought of doing this would normally terrify children and most adults, but I think we’ve already established that “normal” does not apply to me.

The shaft was probably only 50 feet deep, but felt like a thousand. Squealing with joy, I loved the feeling of falling into the darkness and then being pulled back to the top.

“Again Daddy!” I must have yelled at least a dozen times.  With me urging them on, each time they went a little faster and my squeals of delight grew louder.  I remember the men shaking their heads in disbelief that a small child could be so fearless.  Finally, insisting they had work to do, they put a stop to my riding the bucket and I was forced to play on the surface the rest of the afternoon, but I did talk them into one last ride just before they quit work for the day.

As we walked into the house that evening, Mother took one look at the big grin I was trying to hide and my rust covered clothes and the interrogation began.  Father, knowing that in the end she would find out everything, quickly confessed all.  Mother was not one for yelling or high drama, so in a calm, yet forceful tone, informed Father that if he ever put her daughter in danger like that again she would immediately divorce him.

Father promised her and even kept that promise for several days before I talked him into letting me ride the bucket again.

I wasn’t a girl to be denied her thrills.  That never changed.

6 December

Where’s the Mother Lode?

Where’s the Mother Lode?

July, 1904 – Manhattan, Nevada

For some strange reason it seems the older I get – the better I remember my childhood. Some of it really does seem like only yesterday. Maybe when one gets old, the mind dumps the life’s junk and retains only the important things.

One of my very favorite childhood memories has to do with my Father teaching me to spit. Mother considered it very unladylike, but it was for a very good reason.  Some days I got lucky and Father took me with him to search for silver. I am not sure if it was more him wanting my company or Mother needing a break from me.  Either way I loved those days, tramping through the hills and valleys with my favorite man in the world.

He would stop once in a while and pick up a rock, spit on it, wipe the dirt away and then examine it closely.  I, of course, had to be just like him so I would do the same.  I wasn’t a very good spitter at first and would usually miss the rock entirely. This didn’t slow me down though. I would wipe the dry dirt from the rock the best I could and, with a very serious face, examine it closely just like my Father did having no idea what I was looking for. When he tossed his rock away, I would throw mine too. We would walk some more and do it all over again.  It was great fun and I soon became very talented spitter.

He explained to me that we were looking for the Mother Lode and they were usually found near outcroppings where rocks stuck up out of the desert. When, in a very adult manner, I explained this to my Mother, I added that I didn’t even know rocks came in crops and had mothers.  They laughed.  I made them laugh a lot.  I liked that feeling and decided to expand my audience. The men who were working with my Dad became my captive audience, and I spent hours telling jokes and performing my little songs and dances for them as we sat around the campfire in the evenings.

One day when we were out on one of our adventures, Father picked up a rock that he didn’t toss away, but instead opened his canteen and poured a lot more water on the rock, rubbing at it till it was thoroughly clean.  Calling me over, he showed me the pretty, glass-looking thing on one side of the rock he called quartz. What excited him most was the spider web of shiny silver running through the other side of the rock.  He told me that we had found a clue where that mother lode might be hiding.  I remember being so excited.  For the rest of the day we worked our way up the draw examining rocks. Most got tossed back, but several others got put into his pouch, including one that I found.

That evening we made our way home with the good news.


4 December

Home Sweet Home

Home Sweet Home

June, 1904 – Manhattan, Nevada

My parents had spent their entire lives living among the tall redwoods and green, lush environment of Northern California, so the barren desert of Nevada was a far cry from anything any of us had ever experienced.

Yet here we were, not a tree in sight, living on shifting sand that was crawling with ants whose bite stung like the dickens, coyotes who howled all night long and herds of rattlesnakes.  I know, rattlesnakes don’t travel in herds, but it seemed as if there was one coiled up ready to strike every time you turned around.

Mother was like a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I swear she didn’t settle down for at least the first year, always on the lookout for something that was just waiting to do us in. She frequently reminded me that a coyote’s favorite meal was little girls who wandered too far away from camp.  This kept me close to our tent – for a little while anyway.

The wind was relentless and often blew all day and all night, making everything feel and taste like dirt.  Clean became a matter of perspective. The days were often blazing hot and were followed by nights that chilled you to the bone.  I don’t remember Mother complaining much – at least not where I could hear her. But it had to be difficult going from the comfort of “city life” to a desolate, unfriendly world where survival could not to be taken for granted.

Father and Uncle Harry used what little resources were available to make the camp as comfortable as possible.  In the evenings and on Sundays Father worked building us a little stone house.  It would be the better part of a year before it was finished, so Mother set about making the tents and dirty camp into a place where her family could be comfortable and safe.

Mother had agreed to leave behind the comforts of city life, but not the things she considered absolute necessities.  She had carefully packed and, when her husband wasn’t looking, put in the overstuffed covered wagon fine china, silver flatware, linens, lamps, antique furniture and numerous other items she considered critical for a proper home and entertaining. As we struggled to cross the mountains, I am sure if Father and the mules had figured out all the things she had packed, there would have been quite a trail behind us of discarded china and furniture.

Mother was thrilled that all her ‘necessities’ arrived unbroken. I’m not sure who she was expecting to drop by our tent for dinner – but that was Mother, always planning and not about to be caught unprepared to do her duty as a proper wife and hostess. Undaunted by the dismal and with great hope for a bright future, Mother unpacked her beloved finery and did her best to turn that little tent into a lovely home.

You know, I have lived and stayed in palaces, stately mansions and the best hotels all over the world, but for me one of my favorite homes was that tiny tent in the middle of nowhere, as it provided a seemingly never-ending chance for adventure.