Buffalo Express
11 December 1869

Around the World: Letter No. 4

California -- Continued


But they were rough in those times! They fairly reveled in gold, whisky, fights and fandangoes, and were unspeakably happy. The honest miner raked a hundred to a thousand dollars out of his claim a day, and what with the gambling dues and the other entertainments, he hadn't a cent the next morning, if he had any sort of luck. They cooked their own bacon and beans, sewed on their own buttons, washed their own shirts -- blue woolen ones -- and if a man wanted a fight on his hands without any annoying delay, all he had to do was to appear in public in a white shirt or a stove-pipe hat, and he would be accommodated. For those people hated aristocrats. They had a particular and malignant animosity toward what they called a "biled shirt."

In his sketch entitled "The Luck of Roaring Camp," Mr. Bret Harte has deftly pictured the roughness and lawlessness of a California mining camp of the early days, and also its large-hearted charity and compassion -- for these traits are found in all true pioneers. Roaring Camp becomes blessed by the presence of a wandering, sickly woman and her little child -- rare and coveted treasures among rude men who still yearned in secret for the mothers and sisters and children they loved and cherished in other days. This wanderer -- the only woman in Roaring Camp -- died, and the honest miners took charge of the orphan little one in a body. They washed it and dressed it and fed it -- getting its garments on wrong end first as often as any other way, and pinning the garments to the child occasionally and wondering why the baby wasn't comfortable -- and the food these inexperienced nurses lovingly concocted for it was often rather beyond its capabilities, since it was neither an alligator nor an ostrich.

But they meant well, and the baby thrived in spite of the perilous kindnesses of the miners. But it was manifest that all could not nurse the baby at once, and so they passed a law that the best behaved man should have it for one day, and the man with the cleanest shirt the next day, and the man whose cabin was in the neatest order the next, and so on. And the result was, that a handsome cradle was bought, and carted from cabin to cabin, according to who won the privilege of nursing that day -- and the handsome cradle made such a contrast to the unhandsome furniture, that gradually the unhandsome furniture disappeared and gave way for a neater sort -- and then ambitious male nurses got to washing up and putting on clean garments every day, and some of them twice a day -- and rough, boisterous characters became gentle and soft-spoken, since only the well-behaved could nurse the baby. And, in fine, the lawless Roaring Camp became insensibly transformed into a neat well-dressed, orderly and law-abiding community, the wonder and admiration of all the mining world. All this, through the dumb teaching, the humanizing influence, the uninspired ministering of a little child.


In those days men would flock in crowds to catch a glimpse of that rare and blessed spectacle, a woman! Old inhabitants tell how, in a certain camp, the news went abroad early in the morning that a woman was come! They had seen a calico dress hanging out of a wagon down at the camping ground -- sign of emigrants from over the great plains. Everybody went down there, and a shout went up when an actual, bona fide dress was discovered fluttering in the wind! The male emigrant was visible. The miners said:

"Fetch her out!"

He said: "It is my wife, gentlemen -- she is sick -- we have been robbed of money, provisions, everything, by the Indians -- we want to rest."

"Fetch her out! We've got to see her!"

That was the only reply.

He "fetched her out," and they swung their hats and sent up three rousing cheers and a tiger; and they crowded around and gazed at her, and touched her dress, and listened to her voice with the look of men who listened to a memory rather than a present reality -- and then they collected twenty-five hundred dollars in gold and gave it to the man, and swung their hats again and gave three more cheers, and went home satisfied.


A year or two ago I dined in San Francisco with the family of a pioneer, and talked with his daughter, a young lady whose first experience in San Francisco was an adventure, though she herself did not remember it, as she was only two or three years old at the time. Her father said that, after landing from the ship, they were walking up the street, a servant leading the party with the little girl in her arms. And presently a huge miner, bearded, belted, spurred, and bristling with deadly weapons -- just down from a long mining campaign in the mountains, evidently barred the way, stopped the servant, and stood gazing, with a face all alive with gratification and astonishment. Then he said, reverently:

"Well, if it ain't a child!" And then he snatched a little leather sack out of his pocket and said to the servant:

"There's a hundred and fifty dollars in dust, there, and I'll give it to you to let me kiss the child!"

That anecdote is true.

But see how things change. Sitting at that dinner table, listening to that anecdote, if I had offered double the money for the privilege of kissing the same child, I would have been refused. Seventeen added years had far more than doubled the price.


And while upon this subject I will remark that once in Star City, in the Humboldt Mountains, I took my place in a sort of long, post-office single-file of miners, to patiently await my chance to peep through a crack in a cabin and get a sight of the splendid new sensation -- a genuine, live Woman! And at the end of three-quarters of an hour my turn came, and I put my eye to the crack, and there she was, with one arm akimbo, and tossing flap jacks in a frying pan with the other. And she was 165 years old, and hadn't a tooth in her head. However, she was a woman and therefore we were glad to see her and to make her welcome.


It was somewhere in the neighborhood of Mono Lake that the wonderful Whiteman cement mine was supposed to lie. Every now and then it would be reported that this mysterious Mr. W. had passed stealthily through Esmeralda at dead of night, and then we would have a wild excitement -- because he must be steering for his secret mine, and now was the time to follow him. In less than three hours after daylight all the horses and mules and donkeys in the vicinity would be bought, hired or stolen, and half the community would be off for the mountains, following in the wake of Whiteman. But W. would drift about through the mountain gorges for days together, in a purposeless sort of way, until the provisions of the miners ran out, and they would have to go back home. I have known it reported at eleven at night, in a large mining camp, that W. had just passed through, and in two hours, the streets, so quiet before, would be swarming with men and animals. Every individual would be trying to be very secret, but yet venturing to whisper to just one neighbor that W. had passed through. And long before daylight -- this in the dead of Winter -- the stampede would be complete and the camp deserted, and the whole population gone chasing after W. I ought to know, because I was one of those fools myself.

But it was enough to make a fool of nearly any body. The tradition was that in the early immigration, twenty years ago, three young Germans, brothers, who had survived an Indian massacre on the Plains, wandered on foot through the deserts, avoiding all trails and roads, and simply holding a westerly direction and hoping to find California before they starved or died of fatigue. And in a gorge in the mountains they sat down to rest one day, when one of them noticed a curious vein of cement running along the ground, shot full of lumps of shining yellow metal. They saw that it was gold, and that here was a fortune to be acquired in a single day. The vein was about as wide as a curb stone, and fully two-thirds of it was pure gold. Every pound of the wonderful cement was worth well-nigh $200. Each of the brothers loaded himself with about twenty-five pounds of it, and then they covered up all traces of the vein, made a rude drawing of the locality and the principal landmarks in the vicinity, and started westward again. But troubles thickened about them. In their wanderings one brother fell and broke his leg, and the others were obliged to go on and leave him to die in the wilderness. Another, worn out and starving, gave up by and bye, and lay down to die, but after two or three weeks of incredible hardships, the third reached the settlements of California exhausted, sick, and his mind deranged by his sufferings. He had thrown away all his cement but a few fragments, but these were sufficient to set everybody wild with excitement. However, he had had enough of the cement country, and nothing could induce him to lead a party thither. He was entirely content to work on a farm for wages. But he gave W. his map, and described the cement region as well as he could, and thus transferred the curse to that gentleman -- for when I had my accidental glimpse of Mr. W. in '62, he had been hunting for the lost mine, in hunger and thirst, poverty and sickness, for twelve or thirteen years. Some people believed he had found it, but most people believed he hadn't. I saw a piece of cement as large as my fist which was said to have been given to W. by the young German, and it was of rather a seductive nature. Lumps of virgin gold were as thick in it as raisins in a slice of fruit cake. The privilege of working such a mine about one week would be sufficient for a man of reasonable desire. -- Mark Twain

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