An excerpt of a letter from Augustin Hibbard to his brother William about his early days in California and gold mining experience, September 4, 1850.
In this letter, Canadian Augustin Hibbard describes in detail his experience as a gold prospector. He relates his impressions of San Francisco, journey to the gold mines via Sacramento, encounters with fellow miners and local Native Americans, and attempts to find his fortune in gold. This excerpt begins as Hibbard is describing his arrival in the gold fields near Coloma, California.
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Coloma I found to be a very pretty location in a vally [valley] on the
the south fork of the American river about 20 miles above its junction with that stream. The town then consisted of two or three canvass houses and some twenty or thirty tents. I went next morning to the Sutter Mill and saw the race in which the gold was first discovered. While there I heard the race, the gold, and the men who discovered it. Most bitterly cursed by a poor wretch, who said, that he had given up a business at home that supported himself & family comfortably, and sacrificed property to raise enough to support the family while here, and a thousand dollars to bring out with him. His thousand dollars were gone, and his health lost. [Sickly] and destitute as he was, he knew not what to do. I gave him a trifle for but a small sum, I had, thinking that soon, I might be in the same situation.
This, my dear brother, is only one out of many cases of the same that I have witnessed. After looking about a few days (which is here called prospecting) we commenced digging for gold, and we soon found that, although, in imagination it might be agreeable work, yet in reality, it was the most laborious and in the majority of cases the most unsatisfactory [occupation] that men could be engaged in. This no doubt may seem strange to you, for I am well aware what kind of reports go home from this country. In many instances, the most unblushing false-hoods might be traced to vile speculations. In others, (and rarely it is that they occur) where a man is fortunate enough during the mining season, (which is from 6 [to] 8 months, to take out from 20 to [$50000] it is trumpeted abroad in such a manner as to give reason to suppose that all in the region where that raise was made, are doing about or equally as well. Thus these reports go home, and people come out here [assured], that they, are certain of doing the same.
But alas, how woefully are they disappointed, for I [tell] you that it is the truth for I know it to be the case. That not one in 500 make $50000 a year. And not more than one in a hundred, that makes more than his expenses. We were fortunate enough however to fall in with a party of men who had found very good diggings, they took us to the place and were very kind in giving us all necessary instructions. At first we could only make from 3 to $5.00 a day which would hardly board us but in a short time we improved so that we could make from 12 to 16 dollars a day.
After working about a month I was taken sick with the fever & ague. It was then & not until then that I realized what I had sacrificed in coming here. Instead of the soft couch, with the hand of affection to arrange the pillow for my [your] burning head, it was a blanket or two spread upon the ground & the hands of strangers that ministered to my wants. Often in my troubled dreams was I at home receiving all those attentions which I so much needed and awoke to find myself alone in the tent burning with fever, parched with thirst and no one to give me a drink or to [m] relieve me in any way. The poorest kind of medical attendance was all that could be procured, and all the alleviating necssaries [necessaries], and petits soins which a sick person needs were out of the question, they could not at that time be procured. After laying on my bed a month I got better and in strolling about got acquainted with a family from Missouri by the name of Hamilton. Mrs. H. was very kind to me. And to her & a kind of providence I owe my life. Having got somewhat better, the party that I was with having got out of diggings that would pay were obliged to go and look for others one offered to remain with me, but I did not think it necessary, I was so much better. They therefore left with the intention of
being two weeks absent. The next day after they left I was seized with a relaps [relapse] of the fever attended by inflamations [inflammations] of the kidneys, and for three days remained alone in my tent and probably would have died alone had it not been for Mrs. Hamilton. She thought of me and as she did not see me walking about, as I had been the week previous and knowing that I was alone she thought I was ill and came to see me. God only knows what my feeling were when I heard the voice of Mrs. H. outside of the tent, calling me, to know whether I was within or not. A visit from an Angel of Heaven could not have been more welcome. It quite unmaned [unmanned] me, for before she came my heart was full to overflowing with a sense of my lonely and wretched condition. This [drop] of kindness was too much, and it was only by my sobs that I could thank her. It was six weeks long long weeks that I lay up[p]on my bed burning with fever and racked with pain. I thought I should die and wrote a letter to Ashley to be sent by a friend in case that I did. But a mercifull God saw fit to spare me a while longer, and through Him and Mrs. H., I was once more restored to health, but alas poor in spirit, poor in body, and poor in purse.
The rainy season was then close at hand and I knew not what to do to enable me to lay in the provisions necessary to keep me through it. The party that I had come to the mines with had broken up and part had returned to San Francisco. After some trouble I succeeded in finding a trader amongst the miners who offered me something more than my board for my services during the rainy season. I had decided to accept it, when I came acrost [across] one of the party with whom, I had left San Francisco. He told me that he had enough to live upon during the rainy season for both of us, and that as I was not able to work, I should not work until I was.
But should winter with him. I thankfully accepted his offer and we have remained together ever since. He is a Frenchman by the name of Keenan. I first got acquainted with him in Mexico. We wintered in the mountains about ten miles from Coloma, where there were very good [ravine] diggings. I worked very little during the winter, although in the course a month or two, the mountain air had completely restored me to health, as I did not like to expose myself to a return of the chills & fever. I had, had enough of them.
Shortly after I had gone to the mountains with Keenan I was picking some 8 or 10 dollars out of a crevasse in the bed rock of a ravine, one day, when two or three men came along prospecting they sat down where I was working and asked me if I thought there was a right smart chance for gold in them diggings, I told them I thought there was a small sprinkling of it round there. Which they did not doubt as they said they had made up their minds that there was a heap of good diggings in that quarter from the show they had seen. After this interesting conversation had taken place one of them asked me what state I was from. I told him that unfortunately I was form no state, but from the province of Canada. They then told me that there was a man from that country camped near them that he was from Montreal and had come acrost [across] the plains. I asked them if they knew his name, they said that all they knew was that his company called him charley. I asked [didn’t] they think it was Perry, one of them after thinking awhile said he thought he had heard him called by that name.
I immediately threw down my pick. Sheathed my crevassing knife. Saddled the mule and started to find Perry. I was told that