Life in the Mines. Few gold rushers went to California intending to stay. Most hoped to become rich and return home to family and friends. Both those who came to stay and those who hoped to return found the mining camps to be lonely places. In some parts of the West there were more than a hundred men for every white woman, and children were nearly as scarce. A California author recorded a song that expressed the miners’ loneliness:
Our friends all so kind we have left far behind,
Our wives and our little ones too,
And those who have not any little [ones] got
Have sweethearts or wives, most true.
We see the gold shine in the damp, cold mine;
It cheers and rejoices our eyes,
for with it we mean at home to be seen
’Neath our own native sun and skies.
A Rare Sight
Women were a rare sight in the mining camps. In Pen Knife Sketches; or, Chips of the Old Block (1853) Alonzo Delano recalled the excitement in a mining camp caused by the arrival of a woman:
We knew that delays were dangerous, so shouldering our picks and shovels, pistols and rifles, and taking a bottle or two of guardiente, we marched to the new tent, in file, our leader whistling “Come haste to the wedding,” and gave three cheers and a discharge of firearms. The alarmed occupants rushed to the door to see what was up. Our captain mounted a rock, and addressed the amazed husband in something like this strain:
“Stranger, we have been shut up here so long that we don’t know what is going on in the world, and we have already forgotten what it is made of. We have understood that our mothers were women, but it is so long since we have seen them, that we have forgotten how a woman looks, and being told that you have caught one, we are prospecting to get a glimpse.” The man, a sensible fellow, by the way, entering into the humor of the joke, produced the animal, when the nine cheers, a drink all around, and a few good natured jokes, we quietly dispersed.
Seeking Entertainment. Mining was difficult and dangerous work, and when the week was over, miners sought entertainment. Like other men of the time, they enjoyed drinking, gambling, bull- and bearbaiting, and horse races. Diarists and travelers commented on the dances of the miners. Because women were rare in the camps, dances might be nearly all-male affairs. Men danced with each other in couples, with one man wearing a scarf or patch pinned to his clothes to indicate that he was, temporarily, a “lady.” The few white women in California recalled that their scarcity made them popular. Luzena S. Wilson recalled that “the feminine portion of the population was so small that there was no rivalry in dress or fashion, and every man thought every woman in that day a beauty. Even I have had men come forty miles over the mountains, just to look at me, and I never was
called a handsome woman, in my best days, even by my most ardent admirers.”
Gretchen Adel Schneider, “Pigeon Wings and Polkas: The Dance of the California Miners,” Dance Perspectives, 39 (Winter 1969): 4–57;
Elliott West, Growing Up With the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989).