How They Lived

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Courtesy the Idaho State Historical Society, via the Mountain West Digital Library.

Around the big strikes, boomtowns sprang up—hastily established settlements of miners populated largely by men who abandoned prevailing Victorian social customs, law, and order. Occupants of these towns mixed classes and races in ways that very rarely happened in older established cities. Native Americans, Asian and European immigrants, and American citizens interacted with each other on a daily basis, lubricated by the giddy promise of wealth and, often, copious amounts of alcohol. The relative absence of women led men to feel entitled to behave differently than they would have in “polite society”—most women in the towns were prostitutes or Native or immigrant women who belonged to classes that were not afforded the same respect as the middle-class white women many of these men had left behind. Violence was disturbingly common; boomtowns had incredibly high rates of homicide during their relatively short existences. Conveniences were incredibly expensive, as retailers used lack of supply, difficulty of access, and high demand to charge exorbitant prices for basic foodstuffs or clothing. At smaller mining claims, life was even rougher—often the miner and his family (if they were with him) lived in quickly constructed shacks in the wilderness miles from neighbors and were forced to fend for themselves. Personal accounts from the time outline the severe hardships miners and boomtown inhabitants faced in their quest for gold.