Working the Mines

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

While uncommon, a few of the men mining claims or creeks actually struck it rich, especially in the early days of the gold rushes. But for most of the men who traveled to California, Nevada, Alaska, and the other gold fields, the work was hard and the reward small. Men stood in freezing creeks for hours every day, panning through the water in search of tiny flakes of gold.  Tunnels were drilled or dug into mountains at great risk to the miners, and digging took place in horrifying physical conditions. Disputes between rival claimants also led to violence that claimed lives, often in the generally lawless boomtowns that sprang up around reported discoveries of gold. The belief was that the gold, freely available to whoever could get ahold of it first, was the ultimate signifier of the American dream—that these miners were seizing for themselves their unalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In reality, their painful drudgery was rarely rewarded, and the miners who were partially responsible for the expansion of America and taming of the West often abandoned their dreams of easy riches for the taking, or followed them fruitlessly from gold rush to gold rush until they were no longer able to take part in the grueling work.