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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Eureka Moments Revisited, Part 2, Exploring the Mysterious Origins of the Gold Rush Rocker / Cradle

         The intention of this post is to peel away some of the layers of speculation and hopefully shed a little light on the possible origins of the Gold Rush mining machine known in California as the Rocker or Cradle. When I had my carpenter's shop in Columbia State Historic Park (1998-2008), it was my "stock in trade" to build and sell authentic replica Cradles. Over the years I sold hundreds of copies of a plan I developed to build a smaller version, based on the original measured drawing by Joseph G. Bruff ( "Gold Rush", Vol. 1, pg 424). One of my favorite patterns of a period Cradle, was the one described by Israel Pelton Lord in his Gold Rush journal ( "At the Extremity of Civilization", pg. 221). It had all the attributes of a classic "coffin bottomed" Cradle and was small enough to be portable. I used a replica of Lord's Cradle for many years to teach mining history to 4th Graders by giving demonstrations in front of my shop, complete with dirt, water and of course....gold!.

Hands-on California History Lesson
Yours Truly and Eager 4th Graders

                                  What is a Cradle or Rocker ?

     For those that don't know, here is one description of a Cradle from 1861, my additions to the description are in italics, ( "Mining in the Pacific States of North America", John S. Hittell, pg. 129) "It resembles, in size and shape, a child's cradle, has similar rockers, and is rocked in a similar manner; whence the name. The cradle box is a wooden trough, about twenty inches wide and forty long, with sides four inches high. The lower end is left open ( the cradle is placed on a slope with the open end being lower). On the upper end sits a hopper or riddle, which is a box twenty inches square, with sides four inches high, and a bottom of sheet iron or zinc, pierced with numerous holes, half an inch in diameter ( the hopper is where you put the dirt and by pouring water on it and rocking the machine, begin the process of separating the gold from the surrounding earth). Under the hopper is an apron of wood or cloth, which slopes down from the lower end of the hopper to the upper end of the cradle box ( the apron deflects the dirt that washed through the hopper, forcing it to the back of the machine). A strip of wood an inch square, called a riffle bar, is nailed across the bottom of the cradle box, about its middle, and another at its lower end ( the riffle bars are like little dams to trap the heavier gold as it is released from the surrounding earth on its way to the open end). Under the bottom of the cradle box are nailed two rockers, so that a rocking motion may be given to the machine." One thing worth noting here is the size of the machine, rather small and very portable but that might not be the way they started out. Read on !

Basic Tools of the Gold Rush Miner
Note the Cradle at the Bottom
Drawing by Fritz Wikersheim, Circa 1850
Image Courtesy Bancroft Library

     It's generally agreed upon by historians, that the Cradle was introduced to California by the Georgia miner Issac Humphrey, who built the first one sometime around March 9th, 1848, on the American River( Bancroft, "History of California" Vol. VI 1848-1859, Chapter V, pg. 67).  It was recently brought to my attention by my friend Nelson Snook, that there is a noteworthy challenge to this supposed fact, that deserves attention. What I'm interested in exploring besides who gets the credit, is the origin of the machine itself. Granted, it saw service in the Georgia Gold Rush of 1829 but it wasn't invented there and certainly not by Humphrey, as some have claimed. I feel that the European miners who participated in the Georgia Gold Rush would certainly have used the technology they brought with them, but how did it all come together in California?

                           The Challenge to Humphrey

      The challenge to Issac Humphrey's title as the "first" to employ a cradle in California, comes from one of the Mormon laborers working on Sutter's mill. James Stephens Brown was an eyewitness to the beginnings of the Gold Rush and he wrote in his reminiscence, ( "California Gold", pg 14) published in 1894, " Alexander Stephens dug out a trough, leaving the bottom round like a log.........he commenced to rock the trough, which led to the idea of a rocker.......The rocker above mentioned led to the renowned gold rocker; I am under the impression that Stephens did make the first rocker ever used in California." Brown doesn't actually say when this happened and is only under the impression that this was the first rocker.

     Henry William Bigler ( another eyewitness) noted in his diary ( "Bigler's Chronicle of the West", Erwin G. Gudde, pg. 109) that "Elie (Alexander) Stephens dug out a wooden dish that he used to wash in..." This recounting of the mill workers using whatever was available for mining tools, is dated April 13, 1848, more than a month after Humphrey was cradling on the American River. Kenneth Owens in "Gold Rush Saints" (pg. 128) speculates "...Alexander Stephens, who had perhaps spent time in western Georgia's placer mining districts..." could quite possibly have built the first cradle, as Brown claimed. Stephens was actually from North Carolina and it's possible he might have participated in the region's gold rush.  We may never know for sure who deserves the full credit for the first cradle, as there may have been several "firsts" as the mining region expanded beyond the American River.

     So, what exactly did a North Carolina / Georgia cradle look like? The best account I have found to date comes from the "American Journal of Science and Arts", 1st series XIII, 1828 ("Remarks on the Gold Mines of North Carolina", Charles E.Roth, pg 208-209) " A rocker is a simple machine, made of inch,or three quarter inch plank, in the shape of a cylinder equally divided lengthwise. A common barrel thus bisected would, in form, make two of these rockers, though they would be rather smaller than is common. The rocker is placed on two poles, laid on the ground parallel with each other, and crosswise to the rocker, one near each end, so as to make it rock easily and regularly." The text goes on to describe the use of a dipper for adding water and a common hoe to stir the saturated earth as it moves along the incline. There is no mention of a sieve and / or riffles to catch the gold. It states that the fine gold was picked out with the point of a knife! What is fascinating to me is the primitive simplicity of this rocking trough even though more advanced machines existed before and during this time. Read on for more !

                                  The Earliest Origins of the Cradle

16th Century Gold Mining
Book VIII, Page 326
De Re Metallica

      The most compelling evidence I've uncovered for the origin of the cradle, comes from the first mining technology handbook, printed in 1556. Georgius Agricola published "De Re Metallica as a "Biographical Introduction, Annotations and Appendices upon the Development of Mining Methods, Metallurgucal Processes, Geology, Mineralogy & Mining Law from the earliest times to the 16th Century." It would have been too easy to open the book and find my proto-Cradle, but what I did discover instead was that the European Renaissance miner, used  machines that would have been recognizable to any 49er. Most appear to be simple sluices with staged riffles and some have attached riddle boxes or sieves at the upper end. I feel these machines have an ancestoral connection to what would become the Cradle and even the Long Tom, but the Tom's history is another story.

17th Century Gold Mining
From "The Miner's Own Book"
Note the Rocking Riddle Box

     Another enticing piece of the puzzle is in "The Miners' Own Book : California Mining ", published in 1858. On page 28 is an illustration of Placer Mining two hundred years ago. That would put it at 1658, a little later than De Re Metallica. It looks like the engraving might have been taken from an original illustration but no source is given. What makes this important is that the miners are rocking what appears to be the riddle box, suspended from chains. This addition of motion is a strong clue for the "rocking" aspect of our Cradle.

Oscar Willis' Ore Washer
Patented Sept. 5, 1832
Image Courtesy Google Patent Search

     Chris Worick of the Lumpkin County Georgia Historical Society suggested I look into early mining machine patents that pre-date the California Gold Rush. I discovered that several were the result of the Southern mining experience. Oscar Willis' "Ore Washer" patented Sept. 5, 1832 ( pat. 7222X) caught my eye, as it had many of the features of the 1658 apparatus and suggests that the earlier knowlege was available and understood.

      In the 1658 illustration's associated text, we have the perfect statement regarding the so called advancement of mining technology, ".....that most new discoveries are mere recoveries of things of value from the oblivion of past ages." So, in closing I would say that the Cradle's ancestry is very likely multi-cultural as it's clearly a child born of the world-wide pursuit of the "yellow stuff" but its actual origin might be lost in the murky shadows of the past. I'll just keep looking for clues.

                                      The First California Cradle

        So, what did that first Cradle built by Issac Humphrey or even Stephens really look like ? There is evidence that it may have been a little different than what we are use to seeing in later period images. Since no one was there with a camera or sketch pad when the Gold Rush was revolutionized with machinery, we must rely on someone's observations. My friend Derek Manov reminded me to dig into the highly detailed letters written by U.S.Consul to California, Thomas O. Larkin. ( "The Larkin Papers", Vol. VII, pg. 301-302)  Larkin wrote in a letter to James Buchanan (Sect. of State), dated June 28th, 1848, " These men...had two machines, each made from one hundred feet of boards,......made similar to a child's cradle ten feet long without ends." Later in the same letter he says, " I at last purchased a log dug out, with a riddle and seive made of willow boughs on it..... . My Californian has told me since, that himself, partner and two Indians obtained with this canoe eight ounces ...."

     Another reliable witness to the earliest cradles, was Jacques Antoine Moerenhout. Monsieur Moerenhout was the French consul at Monterey and when he heard about the discovery of Gold on the American River, he booked it to the diggins' as soon as he could. His reports back to the French goverment are full of details about those amazing first months of the Gold Rush. Moerenhout's observations are a little later than Larkin's and it appears that he is seeing less rude machines with metal riddles instead of woven willows. He states,("The Inside Story of the Gold Rush", part 2, pg. 18)  ".....these are wooden troughs or boxes that have exactly the form of a dugout canoe, but open at one end. This trough or dugout is 12 or 14 feet long and inside it pieces of wood or ribs are nailed or fastened, running across it at intervals of a foot or 15 inches, exactly like the ribs of a boat.......On top, at the front of the machine is affixed another box which is about two feet long of the same width as the machine and fits on it. At the bottom of this box is an iron grate or simply a sheet of copper, tinplate or iron (perforated) with holes from half to three-quarters of an inch in diameter."  What got me excited about these descriptions were the references to"dugout canoes" when describing the Cradle's forms and their enormous lengths.

A Miner With His Very Primitve Cradle
That Appears to Be a Dugout Log
Drawn By John Woodhouse Audubon in 1850

     In another account, Henry Vizetelly ( "Four Months Among the Gold-Finders, Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold District", Chapter X) wrote in his diary, ".... building our cradles, or "gold canoes," as the Indians called them.....". Once again, Vizetelly's words support the idea that the "canoe" reference was understood. What I'm getting from this, is that these earliest Cradles ( and possibly later ones) were apparently crafted from hollowed-out logs ( like a dugout). Also, because of the natural roundness of the log, they could be rocked easily (no need for added rockers). They were apparently larger and more primitive than the later, more portable and carefully constructed versions, yet more sophisticated (with riddles and riffles) than the 1828 North Carolina versions. The rapid evolution of this machine in the California gold fields, was likely due to the increasing availability of sawn lumber, the restless prospector's need for mobility and his determination to improve on past technology.

      By late 1849-50, the Cradle's status as the primary mining tool of choice in California was soon diminished by more efficient devices like the Long Tom , but it continued to be used in small scale mining operations for many years to come by Chinese miners and others. The cradle, with its highly recognizable form, continues to this day to evoke the very spirit of a Gold Rush and as those 4th Graders always tell me, it's just "way cool"  fun to work one.

 The Chinese in California
Were Known to Favor Cradling 
Which They Excelled At 

1 comment:

  1. Jim,

    Also take a look at "California Gold: an authentic history of the first find" by James Brown (found it on Google books). According to the book, he was there with Marshall at the discovery of gold. He also describes one of their party (Alexander Stevens)as digging out a log trough and rocking it back & forth. Its the authors impression this was the first one in California. Looks like they would dump the gravel from the bottom of the trough into a tub for later seperating. But it looks any '48er' would probably be using a log instead of milled lumber. Also mentioned was the scarcity of tin pans.

    Another early method mentioned is staking out a sheet, then piling on the dirt on the uphill end and dumping water on it to wash away the dirt.