Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How I Dug a Little Deeper Into California Gold Rush History and Recreated a Few "Eureka" Moments of My Own

Contemporary Comment on the Gold Rush Adventure
A Topical Mid-19th Century Textile
Image Source Unknown
     I'm the first to admit that I am in love with my State's history. I mean come on already, there is no place like this place. It's no surprise that California was gutsy enough to declare itself a State before Congress had even voted on it. Fueled by the instant wealth of the Gold Rush, cities were created, literally overnight, that rivaled the established trading centers of the east that had taken 100 years to build. California has an almost mythical history that transports the curious reader to an unbelievable time of wonder. What saddens me is that in the minds of so many people our Gold Rush history has been reduced to a few time-worn cliches. Even worse,  it's been dismissed by some modern apologist / historians as a greedy slug-fest of drunken, racist and murderous Anglo Americans. Don't get me wrong, mid-19th century California could be brutal and no place for the timid or the weak.  A lot of what went on is hard for us to swallow, let alone understand with our modern sensitivity and high moral ideals of fairness but just for the moment let's think of the Gold Rush as one of the greatest adventures in human history. Why not, a lot of the participants did and freeley expressed their experiences in hundreds of accounts of which dozens have been published. It was one of the few times, if any, in history when common people from around the world had the chance to aquire real wealth through their toil. The same toil that earned them a $1 or less a day back home. Who can deny that a long time ago, in a far off place called California, the bottom fell out of the everyday world and the world has never been the same since.

Hispanic Miners Panning With a Batea
and Digging With a Bar
Image Courtesy Library of Congress
    Over many years, my wife and I have accumulated a sizeable library of Gold Rush titles. Reading the accounts sets my imagination to wonder about the lives of these gold seekers. Being the material culture junkie that I am, I'm naturally fascinated with objects that breathe life into my understanding of the Gold Rush experience. In the next four or so posts, I'm going to explore several of these objects that spoke to me of the uniqueness of the events and the people who helped develop one of the richest and most interesting places on earth.

      My first Gold Rush post will explore the tools of the common Hispanic miner. For some unknown reason, this little tidbit of history has been ignored and neglected so I think it deserves a closer look. Some of the earliest miners to arrive in California after the discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, were Spanish speaking. Many of them were professional miners from regions like Sonora, Mexico. These Gambusinos knew their trade well and applied their skills using proven tools, some as ancient as Native America itself. There weren't all that many knowledgeable miners in the very begining of the Rush and many greenhorns learned the trade from watching these experts and even using their tools.  According to John S. Hittell's "Mining in the Pacific States of North America" published in 1861, "They (Hispanics) seldom use any other tools except the small crow-bar, which is pointed at both ends, the batea and the horn spoon, with which they scrape and rake the soil, after first loosening it with the bar."

Original Batea
(note the tin patch over a crack)
Image Courtesy of the Oakland Museum
of California

     The first of these tools we will explore is the wooden Batea (bah-tay-yuh) or gold bowl. This style gold pan is pure native technology, found in South America and parts of Asia, (where it is called a Dulang).  Bateas are large and can be used as winnowing trays for dry mining, wherein the miner tosses the rich, dry earth into the air or carefully shakes it over the edge of the bowl and lets the wind separate the waste dirt from the heavy gold. Jacques Antoine Moerenhout noticed Mexican miners dry washing the gulches above the American River and wrote about them in his letters to the French Authorities. His observations took place only a few months after the January discovery. Morenhout was the French consul in California and his detailed reports are an amazing account of the immediate riches that were harvested very early in the Gold Rush. He also gives an accounting of his personal attempt at using a Batea to pan for gold. Bateas are excellent for wet washing the dirt as well, as I can speak from personal experience although I'm still trying to master the dang thing.

"Mexican Bowl" Illustration
Hutchings' California Magazine
September 1860
Modern Ecuadoran Indian With His Batea
an Ancient Tradition Continues
Image Source Unknown
             In order to create my own Batea, I began to gather information and immediately discovered that there was considerable latitude in their design. This came as no surprise as they are handmade objects following a basic traditional form. Almost every local museum, up and down the Mother Lode, has at least one original Batea in their collections. From "Basic Placer Mining", Special Publication 41, California Division of Mines & Geology, I learned that Bateas ranged from 15 to 24 inches in diameter and had an inside angle of from 150 to 155 degrees. What makes them work as a gold pan is that they are generally cone or bowl shaped, with a low center, serving as a trap for the gold. For my Batea, I settled on 18 inches and 150 degrees. From an associate, I scored a block of seasoned pine that was 20 inches square and 4 inches thick. To rough out the back side, I used a hatchet and hollowed out the inside with a wide gouge and inshave. To reduce the weight and follow the original examples I had surveyed, I tried to keep the finished thickness to about 1 inch in the center, tapering to 3/4 - 5/8 inch at the edge. I did not over-finish the surface as the tool marks are part of its creation and authenticity.

     Next thing I needed to add to my Hispanic miner's tool kit, was their short, iron digging bar. According to Hittell, it was a light, small crow bar, pointed at each end. This tool basically took the place of a pick. Luck would have it, my friend and fellow historian Nick Kane owns an original Mexican digging bar and was gracious enough to let me copy it. George Cantrell, my blacksmith / friend, did his usual awesome job on my replica. The round bar is 24 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. One end is tapered to a chisel wedge and the other end is shaped to a point with 4 tapered sides. This copied the original design to a T and you can see how it relates to a period pick in the way it's shaped.

Horn Spoon Described as a "Scoop" in
Hutchings' September 1860
     Last but not least in the kit was the horn spoon. A simple miner's tool that has taken on epic status due to Sid Fleischman's book, "By the Great Horn Spoon". This book tops the reading list of almost every 4th grader in the State of California and for better or for worse is a fun and rousing tale of a young boy, Jack, in the Gold Rush. Once Jack found out what the spoons were for, he was determined to get one and thus the title ( In truth, the title is an ancient Scottish oath by which one swears on the Big Dipper constellation). The ever helpful Hittell describes this classic tool as half a bullock horn, from 6 to 8 inches long and up to 3 inches wide. Because of the natural curve of the horn, there is a low center and many times the spoons were used to wash a little rich earth to see if it was a good prospect. For my replica, a nice thick cow horn produced a decent copy example, comparing well to surviving originals I have seen.

     Now for one final note, my three replica tools can rightly claim the status of "Movie Stars" as they were featured in the 2006 American Experience film "The Gold Rush". I was a paid consultant on the film and lucky for me the director, Randall MacLowry of Yellow Jersey Films, was a stickler for authenticity. All three tools were used in the scene recreating the begining moments of Antonio Franco Coronel's staggering harvest of 134 ounces of gold in three days ! Can you even imagine that ? It's one of my favorite scenes in the film, you should check it out. Look for the solid "brass" nuggets. A little movie magic courtesy of George Cantrell.


My Replica Batea, Digging Bar and Horn Spoon
Muy oro aqui amigo?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jim,

    I had a little time and decided to go through your blog. I'm lost!!! :)

    We had a couple of those horn spoons, but I don't know where they are at now. I never knew what they were and didn't even ask. I'm 60 and this was back in my childhood. They looked more like the B&W photo...kinda like canoes. I'll have to see if I can locate them.

    Bob - with the gold poke.