Buffalo Express
18 December 1869

Around the World: Letter No. 5

California -- Continued


In one little corner of California is found a species of mining which is seldom or never mentioned in print. It is called "pocket-mining" and I am not aware that any of it is done outside of that little corner. The gold is not evenly distributed through the surface dirt, as in ordinary placer mines, but is collected in little spots, and they are very wide apart and exceedingly hard to find, but when you do find one you reap a rich and sudden harvest. There are not now more than 20 pocket miners in that entire little region. I think I know every one of them personally. I have known one of them to hunt patiently about the hill sides every day for 8 months without finding gold enough to make a snuff-box -- his grocery bill running up relentlessly all the time -- and then I have seen him find a pocket and take out of it a thousand dollars in two dips of his shovel. I have seen him take out $3000 in two hours, and go and pay up every cent of his indebtedness, then enter on a dazzling spree that finished the last of his treasure before the night was gone. And the next day he bought his groceries on credit as usual, and shouldered his pan and shovel and went off to the hills hunting pockets again happy and content. This is perhaps the most fascinating of all the different kinds of mining, and furnishes a very handsome percentage of victims to the lunatic asylum. Honest toil and moderate gains in shops and on farms have their virtues and their advantages. When a man consents to seek for sudden riches he does it at his peril. [No charge.]

Pocket hunting is an ingenious process. You take a spadeful of earth from the hill-side and put it in a large tin pan and dissolve and wash it gradually away till nothing is left but a teaspoonful of fine sediment. Whatever gold was in that earth has remained, because, being the heaviest, it has sought the bottom. Among the sediment you will find half a dozen shining particles no larger than pin-heads. You are delighted. You move off to one side and wash another pan. If you find gold again, you move to one side further, and wash a third pan. If you find no gold this time, you are delighted again, because you know you are on the right scent. You lay an imaginary plan, shaped like a fan, with its handle up the hill -- for just where the end of the handle is, you argue that the rich deposit lies hidden, whose vagrant grains of gold have escaped and been washed down the hill, spreading farther and farther apart as they wandered. And so you proceed up the hill, washing the earth and narrowing your lines every time the absence of gold in the pan shows that you are outside the spread of the fan; and at last 20 yards up the hill your lines have converged to a point -- a single foot from that point you cannot find any gold. Your breath comes short and quick, you are feverish with excitement; the dinner-bell may ring its clapper off, you pay no attention; friends may die, weddings transpire, houses burn down, they are nothing to you; you sweat and dig and delve with a frantic interest -- and all at once you strike it! Up comes a spade full of earth and quartz that is all lovely with soiled lumps and leaves and sprays of gold. Sometimes that one spadeful is all -- $500. Sometimes the nest contains $10,000, and it takes you three or four days to get it all out. The pocket-miners tell of one nest that yielded $60,000 and two men exhausted it in two weeks, and then sold the ground for $10,000 to a party who never got $300 out of it afterward.

The hogs are good pocket hunters. All the summer they root around the bushes, and turn up a thousand little piles of dirt, and then the miners long for the rains; for the rains beat upon these little piles and wash them down and expose the gold, possibly right over a pocket. Two pockets were found in this way by the same man in one day. One had $5,000 in it and the other $8,000. That man could appreciate it, for he hadn't had a cent for about a year.

In Tuolumus lived two miners who used to go to the neighboring village in the afternoon and return every night with household supplies. Part of the distance they traversed a trail, and nearly always sat down to rest on a great boulder that lay beside the path. In the course of thirteen years they had worn that boulder tolerably smooth, sitting on it. By and by two vagrant Mexicans came along and occupied the seat. They began to amuse themselves by chipping off flakes from the boulder with a sledge-hammer. They examined one of these flakes and found it rich with gold. That boulder paid them $800 afterward. But the aggravating circumstance was that these "Greasers" knew that there must be more gold where that boulder came from, and so they went panning up the hill and found what was probably the richest pocket that region has yet produced. It took three months to exhaust it, and it yielded $120,000. The two American miners who used to sit on the boulder are poor yet, and they take turn about in getting up early in the morning to curse those Mexicans -- and when it comes down to pure ornamental cursing, the native American miner is gifted above the sons of men.

I have dwelt at some length upon this matter of pocket mining, because it is a subject that is seldom referred to in print, and therefore I judged that it would have for the reader that interest which naturally attaches to a novelty.


Speaking of sagacity it reminds me of Dick Baker, pocket miner of Deadhorse Gulch. Whenever he was out of luck and a little downhearted, he would fall to mourning over the loss of a wonderful cat he used to own (for where women and children are not, men of kindly impulses take up with pets, for they must love something.) And he always spoke of the strange sagacity of that cat with the air of a man who believed in his secret heart that there was something human about it -- may be even supernatural.

I heard him talking about this animal once. He said, "Gentlemen, I used to have a cat here, by the name of Tom Quartz, which you'd a took an interest in I reckon -- most any body would. I had him here 8 year -- and he was the remarkablest cat I ever see. He was a large gray one of the Tom specie, and he had more hard, nat'ral sense than any man in this camp -- and a power of dignity -- he wouldn't a let the Gov'ner of California be familiar with him. He never ketched a rat in his life -- 'peared to be above it. He never cared for nothing but mining. He knowed more about mining, that cat did, than any man I ever see. You couldn't tell him nothing about placer diggings -- and as for pocket mining, why he was just born for it. He would dig out after me and Jim when we went over the hills prospecting, and he would trot along behind us for as much as five mile, if we went so far. And he had the best judgment about mining ground -- why you never see anything like it. When we went to work, he'd scatter a glance around, and if he didn't think much of the indications, he would give a look as much as to say, 'Well, I'll have to get you to excuse me,' and without another word he'd hyste his nose into the air and shove for home. But if the ground suited him, he would lay low and keep dark till the first pan was washed and then he would sidle up and take a look, and if there was about six or seven grains of gold he was satisfied -- he didn't want no better prospect'n that -- and then he would lay down on our coats and snore like a steamboat till we'd struck the pocket, and then get up and superintend.

"Well, bye and bye, up comes this quartz excitement. Every body was into it -- every body was picking and blasting instead of shoveling dirt on the hill side -- every body was putting down a shaft instead of scraping the surface. Nothing would do Jim, but we must tackle the ledges, too, and so we did. We commenced putting down a shaft, and Tom Quartz he begin to wonder what in the Dickens it was all about. He hadn't ever seen any mining like that before, and he was all upset, as you may say he couldn't come to a right understanding of it no way -- it was too many for him. He was down on it, too, you bet you-- he was down on it powerful -- and always appeared to consider it the cussedest foolishness out. But that cat, you know, he was always agin new fangled arrangements -- somehow he never could abide 'em. You know how it is with old habits. But by and by Tom Quartz begin to git sort of reconciled a little, though he never could altogether understand that eternal sinking of a shaft and never panning out any thing. At last he got to coming down in the shaft, hisself, to try to cipher it out. And when he'd get the blues, and feel kind o' scruffy, aggravated and disgusted -- knowing as he did, that the bills was running up all the time and we warn't making a cent -- he would curl up on a gunny sack in the corner and go to sleep. Well, one day when the shaft was down about 8 foot, the rock got so hard that we had to put in a blast -- the first blasting we'd ever done since Tom Quartz was born. And then we lit the fuse and clumb out and got off about 50 yards -- and forgot and left Tom Quartz sound asleep on the gunny sack. In about a minute we seen a puff of smoke bust up out of the hole, and then everything let go with an awful crash, and about four million tons of rocks and dirt and smoke and splinters shot up about a mile and a half into the air, and by George, right in the midst of it was old Tom Quartz going end over end, and a snorting and a sneezing, and a clawing and a reaching for things like all possessed. But it warn't no use, you know. it warn't no use. And that was the last we see of him for about two minutes and a half, and then all of a sudden it begin to rain rocks and rubbage, and directly he come down ker-whop about ten foot off from where we stood. Well, I reckon he was p'raps the orneriest looking beast you ever see. One ear was sot back on his neck, and his tail way stove up, and his eye-winkers was swinged off, and he was all blacked up with powder and smoke and all sloppy with mud and slush from one end to the other. Well sir, it warn't no use to try to apologize -- we couldn't say a word. He took a sort of a disgusted look at hisself, and then he looked at us -- and it was just exactly as if he had said -- "Gents, May be you think it's smart to take advantage of a cat that 'ain't had no experience of quartz mining, but I think different" -- and then he turned on his heel and marched off home without ever saying another word.

"That was jest his style. And may be you won't believe it, but after that you never see a cat so prejudiced agin quartz mining as what he was. And by and bye when he did get to going down in the shaft agin, you'd a been astonished at his sagacity. The minute we'd touch off a blast and the fuse'd begin to sizzle, he'd give a look as much as to say, 'Well, I'll have to get you to excuse me,' and it was surprising, the way he'd shin out of that hole and go for a tree.

"Sagacity? It ain't no name for it. 'Twas inspiration!"

I said, "Well, Mr. Baker, his prejudice against quartz mining was remarkable, considering how he came by it. Couldn't you ever cure him of it?"

"Cure him! No. When Tom Quartz was sot once, he was always sot -- and you might a blowed him up as much as 3 million times and you'd never a broke him of his cussed prejudice agin quartz mining."

The affection and the pride that lit up Baker's face when he delivered this tribute to the firmness of his humble friend of other days will always be a vivid memory with me. -- Mark Twain

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