"Diggins" California 1849

Liverpool Mercury, Feb 8th 1850

California, The Land of Gold

Description of life in the "diggins" from a letter received by a gentleman of this city from his brother at present at San Francisco :-

" I embarked on the 30th of August on board the New Jersey of Boston, which called at Callao for water. She had 210 passengers on board. I paid $80 passage money, and expected to live well, but, was very much deceived, the paupers in your workhouse live much better than we did on this voyage. We arrived at this land of gold, San Francisco, on the 11th of Oct. This ship was a very good one and sailed well, the whole range of the vessel from fore to aft, was thrown open so as to make one long room, with berths built three deep down both sides, and along the middle, and long tables between them. The passengers were divided into messes, about 16 in each, each mess had a captain to serve out provisions, one had dined first, and the other after, and the same regulations were observed at all meals, so that there was not so much confusion at these times as might be expected, as each one knew his place. The vessel belonged to a company called the "Suffolk and California Mutual Trading and Mining Association", consisting of 200 members, at $200 each. They brought out provisions, mining tools, a brick house, 2 or 3 wooden ones, besides tents etc. There were several passengers who did not belong to the company, who paid $150 each, passage money, and three more besides myself they took on board at Callao. The president of the association is an Englishman. There are men of all trades belonging to the company, and as they had a forge on board, made some very beautiful things in the shape of knives, pistols etc. One man made a very handsome drinking cup and a pair of scales out of some skulls he picked up at the ruins of Old Callao.

Before I give you an account of California, and the manners and customs of its inhabitants, let me impress on your mind that, I am going to state the exact truth, without the slightest exaggeration, as all I shall speak of has either come under my own observation, or has been related to me by persons on whose integrity I can rely. California is not a bubble, the accounts you have received in England have not been exaggerated. I have seen more gold here than I ever saw before, have been in company of men fresh from the diggins, and I feel how far my description will fall short of the reality, which must be seen before it can be understood or believed.

We anchored in the bay of San Francisco on Thursday, Oct 11th, 1849, about 6 in the evening. We did not go on shore that night, and could not see the town as we lay about a mile off, but we could see the hill studded with tents, and about 300 sail of vessels in the bay, which is very fine and capable of containing many thousands. In the morning we went on shore, there were so many to go, that it was late before I got off. We landed on the beach and walked through a sort of wood to the top of a hill, where we had a fine view of the town, and it is certainly a most imposing scene from that distance, it stands on a slope between hills, running down to the water's edge, and occupies about half as much ground as Worcester. Built in a straggling manner are all sorts of houses, two or three brick buildings, some tents, others iron, but principally wood, and some of these tastefully decorated. Every where building is going on, some stores open with goods on sale, and the upper part of the house unfinished, plenty of them with no roof on at all, and a great many wood houses with canvas tops. When we got into the town the scene was changed, everybody seemed in a state of great excitement, all intent on something. The streets, as you might expect are ankle deep in mud or dust. They had, had heavy rain two days before, and the tents and houses in the lower parts were a foot deep in water, offal, of all sorts of filth lying about the streets breeding vermin, and emanating stenches. The weather here is extremely hot in the day time, but cold at night. One of our men, named HOGAN, an Irishman, got employment in about 10mins after we reached the city, to help to move some timber at the moderate wages of $1 an hour. Carpenters and Blacksmiths are much wanted at $16 a day, and labourers of any sort at $14 a day. I was perfectly astonished.

There was a crowd of folks in the principal streets of all nations and costumes, Peruvians, Chilians, Chinese, Dutch, French, English, Irish, Italians, Jews [in great profusion] Sandwich Islanders, North Hollanders, Yankees and natives. Some from the diggings, others going, but all looked the same in one respect, clothes dirty, unshaven, uncombed and face unwashed, time is too valuable to do these little offices for themselves. In almost every other house there is a gambling table, and I believe there is more gambling carried on here than at any other place on the face of the earth. Everybody has gold, they loose it with great philosophy, and go back and get more.

To give you an idea of the rents here, the Park House Hotel, a wooden building, rent out almost as large as the Angel at Sidbury, but a very different looking place, rents for $128.000 per year. They charge $10 and $15 per day for board and lodging, and a quarter of a dollar for a glass of ale, wine or spirits. The gambling houses are worth visiting if you wish to study human character, there is no distinction of class there, you see dirty looking boys staking their $20 on a card some as high as $1000. One man just came from the mines with $6000 he had got there, staked it all on one throw, and won, he then determined to keep what he had, and is going home by the next steamer.

I walked to the graveyard to see that, by the side of a hill without palings or a church near, but with plenty of graves, and a man digging fresh ones as hard as he could. Told me they generally buried from 7 to 10 a day, and he got the graves ready for them beforehand. The people die like dogs of dysentery and fever, the water produces the former, it is thick and white, and very bad, but very dear. I saw a tea kettle full sold for a quarter of a dollar, the regular price is half a dollar per gallon. I saw two of our men at work in a slaughter house by the graveyard, in the midst of the hides, cow's heads and all sorts of filth, smelling dreadfully, with millions of maggots and blue flies about. They were drawing water out of a well, and were getting a dollar an hour. Rents for small stores here are about $2000 per month. Our galley, carried on shore, would no doubt fetch from $1000 to $1500 to let us lodgings, and it is not much larger than a good sized German packing case. All other kinds of goods are very cheap here, there are auctions every day, and all descriptions of goods are sold cheap at them, but again, if you go to a store and want an article, no matter what, they will ask $10 for it, but if you took such an article to them to sell they would offer you a dollar for it, that is the system here, if you want a thing you must pay for it pretty dearly, and if you wish to dispose of it you can get nothing for it.

Sacramento City is about 150 miles from here, they charge about $30 for the journey and you are allowed 100lbs of luggage. The diggings range from 60 to 100 miles from there. You can go by regular conveyances, but they charge enormously and in addition to your fare, they charge 25 cents per pound of luggage, and in the winter season as much as a dollar per pound. I have just been talking to a man who has come down, he tells me there are many dangers to encounter on the journey to the golden region, such as Indians, who are not particular about taking a man's life should he fall in their way, rattlesnakes, grisly bears [he saw a man on horseback attacked by one, the horse was dreadfully torn] panthers, wolves, and, worse than all "chills" for he says people fall sick with these and generally die under twelve hours.

October 24th, I cannot get anything washed here under $6 per dozen, the regular charge is from $7 to $8.

An old man who came out with us to see a son of his, who has been out here about 14mths, found him worth $15,000 most of which he got in the mines. This must in a short time be the greatest city on the Pacific, therefore anyone who has health and strength and a trade, would do well to come. At the same time there are more real hardships to encounter than anyone can imagine who has never been out of England, they must sink all ideas of comfort, for it cannot be bought here at any price. The police regulations are very strict, goods of every description are lying about the streets, and we seldom hear of robberies, if they catch a thief they cut off his ears, for a second offence he is lashed almost to death and branded, for a third they shoot him. It is remarkable there is very little drunkenness here, but the frightful extent to which gaming is carried makes up for it. Spirits are sold here daily by auction, very cheap. I have been very fine. French brandy sold at one and a half dollars per gallon by the 100 gallons, and inferior as low as one dollar a gallon for the same quantity. A whole hogshead of bread was sold yesterday for one and three quarter dollars, and pork as cheap or cheaper than at Boston. The fact is steerage is so dear that persons who bring large quantities must sell at any price, still for all this I cannot get a dinner at one of the eating-houses under one and a half or two dollars.

Oct 27th, I have seen several persons today who arrived last night, both from the Stockton and Sacramento mines, they tell there is much sickness, particularly at Sacramento, I understand persons can get pretty comfortably up to Stockton mines from here for about $70, if they do not take much luggage. They go by steam-boat, from hence to Stockton in 13hrs for $30, or by sailing vessel for $16, and find their own provisions, but this latter is a very uncertain conveyance, you may get there in two days, or may be 5 or 6, and passengers have to live on deck all the time, for they are small vessels, the holds full of freight, and the decks generally crowded with passengers. I understand the diggings or mines range from 60 to 100 miles beyond Stockton. There are regular waggon conveyances, and the parties who come by the boats from San Francisco generally walk in a body with the team which conveys their luggage, and for which they pay a half dollar per pound. The worst of this part of the journey is, that there are sand deserts from 8 to 12 miles across, and not a drop of water to be met with, and one mile in a country like this, where there is no road, is worse than three miles the distance in England.

I am lodging now in the house of a gentleman I met in Lima. He came out here some weeks before me, and has taken a wooden house, which he has opened as a board and lodging-house. His regular charge is $20 per week, I pay him [for he has favoured me a little] $16. I will try to describe it to you, it is about 15ft wide and 30ft deep, merely a frame of wood covered with canvas, and lined with calico, divided into three rooms, the first a shop, with a door in the centre, and two open window places, in which are sold cigars, wine, spirits etc, next to this shop, and about twice its size is a dining-room, and through that is the kitchen. On each side of the shop is a sort of cupboard, containing 6 sleeping berths, about 6ft long by 2ft wide, from the dining-room is a ladder to the attic, or whatever you may call it, the part over the shop is boarded over, and partitioned so as to contain six mattresses, the part over the dining-room is only boarded about 7ft up the centre, so as to admit light from their canvas roof to the room below. On the boarded part are about eight mattresses, so you can see they can accommodate upwards of about 20 boarders, for the persons belonging to the house sleep in the dining-room, and it is not an unusual thing for them to have, in addition, 6 or 8 casual lodgers. For this house the proprietor has to pay $800 per month rent, two cooks at $150 each, $20 per load for wood, $1 per quart of milk, half dollar per lb of potatoes. Beef is not so dear as other things, if you take a quarter it can be bought for $15 for 100lbs. At this boarding-house they have no room for our chests, so we have to send them to a regular storehouse and pay one and a half dollars per month for storage.

I am very much disappointed in this country for one thing, I expected to find it nice and cool, I certainly never found it hotter in the West Indies, again I thought vegetation was fine here, on the contrary, everything looks barren and desolate beyond the town, and there is no fruit grown within a considerable distance from here, so the fruiterers charge a quarter of a dollar for two small wretched pears you would not pick up in England, and one dollar for a bunch of grapes. These are the only kinds of fruit I have seen here, and if I may judge from the quantities of silver piled on the fruit stalls it must be a profitable trade. I believe a man with a barrow full of apples, worth about 1s in Worcester, would realise $100 here for them. There is no other place on earth where money is so plentiful, or thought so little of as here. Soon does a man get used to earning plenty, that, I assure you, numbers of labourers prefer being idle, or depending on odd jobs, to earn $5 a day when it is offered to them. They will not work so low.

Any person who has $1000 to speculate with just now could make $20,000 in a year, there never was such a time or place for making money since the world began as this is, if a man has a little capital to start with, the fact is, the market is so completely glutted with goods and food that there is no place to store them, the rainy season is coming on, and the auctioneers must sell at any price. Now the news of this glut has reached the States three months since, so that the shipments will be very small for some time to come, consequently every description of food must increase very much in value, particularly pork and flour, and it would be a good speculation to buy at very low prices, and store aboard some hulk for the present. I fancy there must be a great change here soon, the arrivals are so numerous, at all events there will be plenty of work for some time to come for carpenters, blacksmiths and masons, while for shoemakers and tailors there will be little or nothing to do, the three first and capitalists are the only parties I should recommend to come out here to be certain of doing well.

There is plenty of gold her [St Francisco] but that easily to be got at has been taken, they have to work hard to get any now, and still, I am told some men will average their ounce per day. Why even the native bricks contain gold, they are made about 5 miles from here, are red, and much softer than the English bricks. I saw a broken one and noticed something glisten, I picked it up and found it to contain minute particles of gold. I then broke another, and found it to contain more than the first. California is a rock covered with soil from 2 to 12ft deep, they have to dig down to this rock, and if they strike a crevice are almost sure to find gold. Of course they have to wash all the soil, common tin bowls for washing, about 14ins in diameter, are sold here for $3 each. Everything it is possible to conceive is carried on here to get money, at all the gambling and coffee-rooms they have some sort of music, so that anyone who can play an instrument, no matter how indifferently can earn up to $10 per night. There is a party of serenaders here, who charge $2 admission, a conjuror who charges $5, and a handsome circus, just finished, is to be opened this week with an efficient company.

There is a good hospital for the sick, but the charges are exorbitant, yet no doubt are considered low here, for a single room $16 per day, two in a room $10, and in wards $5 per day, an extra charge for surgical cases and cases of insanity. I have paid here a quarter of a dollar each for eggs, and a dollar for a dose of salts. I have just seen a party of Chinese carpenters erecting a house in their native style, I believe it is intended for a Chinese hotel.

Five men belonging to the American navy have been tried on board the United States flag ship Savannah, for mutiny and attempting to murder one of the officers. They wanted to be off to the diggings. They were all condemned to die on the yard arm. The Commander in-Chief commuted the sentence against three, and the other two poor fellows were hung on the 23rd inst, one at the fore-yard of the United States frigate Savannah, the other at the fore-yard of the United States schooner Ewing, in the presence of all the American vessels on the station. I send per same post a paper of to-day, Oct 30th, published here, in which you will see we have a code of laws established, and it will, perhaps, give you an idea of the magnitude of the business transactions of St Francisco.

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