Learning Center >> California Gold Rush >> Life

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  Life of a 49er

Many people arrived in California expecting to immediately become rich and live a life of leisure. They didn't get what they expected.

Searching for Gold:

In the early days of 1848 and 1849, it was not uncommon for a miner to dig $2000 of gold a day. But the average miner might be lucky to find $10 per day.

As time went on the easy gold was all found, Although some made it rich, most of the others were lucky if they made enough to eat. After 1852 most of the surface gold was mined, panning for gold was no longer profitable.

Thousands of miners died on the journey or in the diggings. Many died from disease, or from accidents such as drowning in a river.

This picture shows a 49er with his mule and supplies (Source: Library of Congress).


Camping and Housing:

Most miners lived in tents and cooked their food over an open fire. Meals were usually beans, bacon or local game cooked over an open fire.

Most camps and mining towns were canvas tents or wooden buildings. Fires were very common. Many camps and towns were completely destroyed by fire. Some several times.

Heavy rain and snow during the winter months made for very difficult living and mining conditions. Most miners spent the winter in San Francisco or some mining town.

Sickness and colds were common from sleeping on cold, damp ground. The food was not very nutritious resulting in generally poor health. Scurvy was common from lack of fruits and vegetables. Sanitation was poor and miners seldom bathed or washed their clothes.

Family and Friends:

Most miners came by themselves, leaving their families at home. Many young miners suffered from home sickness from being alone.

Some families did make the trip to California. Many miners formed friendships and communities with other travelers. Card games, gambling and betting were common ways to pass the time.

This picture shows a group of travelers setting up camp (Source: Library of Congress).

Cost of Living:

The success of finding gold drove up prices for everything. While the average worker might make $6 to $10 per day, food and supplies could cost much more than.

Many people spent 6 months earnings, or more, getting to California. When they arrived, they could not afford basic supplies.

To the right are several prices lists of goods from 1849 (Source: Library of Congress).


Some miners decided that the riverbeds under flowing rivers has gold like the dried up creeks. They built dams to redirect the water so they could mine the river bottom (Source: Library of Congress).


EARLY CALIFORNIA PRICES CURRENT.--Delano's "Life on the Plains and at the Diggings," gives the following as the prices paid at Lassen's Ranch, on September 17, 1849:
Flour, per 100 pounds .......... $50.00
Fresh beef, per 100 pounds .......... 35.00
Pork, .......... 75.00
Sugar, .......... 50.00
Cheese, per pound .......... 1.50

H. A. Harrison, in a letter to the "Baltimore Clipper," dated San Francisco, February 3, 1849, gives the following price-list:
Beef, per quarter .......... $20.00
Fresh Pork, per pound .......... .25
Butter, per pound .......... 1.00
Cheese, per pound .......... 1.00
Ham, per pound .......... 1.00
Flour, per barrel .......... 18.00
Pork, per barrel .......... $35 to 40.00
Coffee, per pound .......... .16
Rice, per pound .......... .10
Teas, per pound .......... .60 cents to 1.00
Board, per week .......... 12.00
Labor, per day .......... $6 to 10.00
Wood, per cord .......... 20.00
Brick, per thousand .......... $50 to 80.00
Lumber, per thousand .......... 150.00

William D. Wilson, writing to the "St. Joseph Valley Register," on February 21, 1849, gives the following schedule of prices at Sutter's Fort:
Flour, per barrel .......... $30 to $40.00
Salt Pork, per barrel .......... 110 to 150.00
Salt Beef, .......... 45 to 75.00
Molasses,.......... 30 to 40.00
Salt Salmon .......... 40 to 50.00
Beans, per pound .......... .20
Potatoes, .......... .14
Coffee, .......... 20 cents to .33
Sugar, .......... 20 cents to .30
Rice, .......... 20 cents to .30
Boots, per pair .......... $20 to 25.00
Shoes,.......... 3 to 12.00
Blankets .......... 40 to 100.00
Transportation by river from San Francisco to Sacramento, he says, was $6 per one hundred pounds. From Sacramento to the mines by team at the rate of $10 for every twenty-five miles.

John H. Miller, writing to the "St. Joseph Valley Register," October 6, 1849, gives the following prices at Weberville, 60 miles from Sacramento:
Wagons .......... $40 to $80.00
Oxen, per yoke .......... 50 to 150.00
Mules, each .......... 90 to 150.00
Board, per meal, $1.50, or per week .......... 21.00
Beef, per pound .......... 40 cents to .75
Salt Pork, per pound .......... 40 cents to .75
Flour, per pound .......... 25 cents to .30
Sugar, per pound .......... 30 cents to .50
Molasses, per gallon .......... $2 to 4.00
Mining Cradles .......... $20 to 60.00
Mining Pans .......... $4 to 8.00


  Foreign Miners

Many of the gold seekers arrived from countries other than the United States.

Foreigner Camps:

During the early days of the gold rush everyone expected to become rich. No one was bothered by others finding gold. Foreigners mined along side of everyone else.

In the early 1850s as gold became more difficult to find, all that changed. United States citizens became unhappy with foreigners mining U.S. gold.

Foreigners finding gold made them angry and jealous. Foreigners such as the Chinese, Europeans, Mexicans, South Americans and even Native Americans were driven out of mining camps and forced to set up camps of their own.


  Law and Order

In the early days during the gold rush there was very little crime. Everyone believed they would become rich. There was no need to steal from anyone else. But, all that changed...

Law and Order:

By the early 1850s, the gold rush had attracted a less desirable crowd. Crooks, bandits, claim jumpers, professional gamblers and others came to take advantage of the wealth.

California was even a state, yet. There were no laws. Anyone who found gold was quickly surrounded by other prospectors. Claim laws had to be set. In some camps, a claim was on 10 square feet, and each person was allowed one claim. Camps set up claims officers to patrol mines and settle disputes.


California was even a state, yet. There were no laws. Anyone who found gold was quickly surrounded by other prospectors. Claim laws had to be set. In some camps, a claim was on 10 square feet, and each person was allowed one claim. Camps set up claims officers to patrol mines and settle disputes.

Taking someone else's claim, or "claim jumping," was common. Swindlers would also "salt" the ground, scattering a little gold around and then sell the land for lots of money. Violence and crime were on the rise. Law and order was in the hands of the people. Punishment for crimes was often fast and simple. Small crimes were punished by flogging with a whip. For more serious crimes, such as robbery and murder, the punishment was hanging.

Lynchings were common, when mobs would get out of control and hang someone without a trial.

Vigilantes: The government could not control the crime. People set up vigilante groups to track down criminals and ensure justice.


  After the Gold Rush

After the gold rush many mining towns became ghost towns, deserted by miners heading for Nevada. But, by this time California had established a growing economy of farming and industry.

Before the Gold Rush:

Before the gold rush, California was largely populated by missionaries and Native Americans. The total population of California was about 2000 non-natives. By late 1849 there were about 15,000 people, and in 1850 about 20,000 people. By 1853 there were over 300,000 people living in California.


California after the Gold Rush:


The gold rush brought economic prosperity to California. Farms, ranches, stores, restaurants and other businesses that grew to serve the miners continued to take advantage of California's rich agriculture and thriving industry and commerce.


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