Development of Mining Codes in the California Gold Rush


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group of miners

A group of Gold Rush miners

One of the topics I’ve had to research for my work-in-progress is the mining laws of California at the time of the Gold Rush. Essentially, there were no laws. In January 1848, when gold was discovered, California was under the control of the U.S. Army, which had taken California from Mexico in the Mexican American War.

There were serious questions as to whether Mexican land grants were valid. And in the areas where gold was found, there hadn’t been a lot of Mexican land grants. In fact, Johann Sutter, who was building the mill where gold was first found, sent representatives off to Monterey to confirm his land rights.

The Native Americans did not hold land individually, and the whites who came to seek gold thought of it as open territory. It was each man for himself.

GoldRush miners 1856 print

1856 print of Gold Rush miners

I was surprised when my research indicated how small the land claims were. Many were only ten feet by ten feet. The prospectors hunted for gold by panning in creeks and by digging with knives and shovels on dry land.

When they could no longer find gold by panning and digging, men banded together to use more effective means of processing the dirt, like rockers and long-toms, which required more space.

Despite the violence that old Western movies show us, the first miners typically resolved their disputes themselves, which is how the practice of staking claims developed. Staked claims were generally respected, at least as long as men stayed on their claims.

Over time, each area where prospectors congregated because of a gold find figured out ways to police themselves. They developed local codes that they enforced to keep each other and newcomers in line.

As “Dame Shirley” (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) described it to her sister back home,

First, let me explain to you the ‘claiming’ system. As there are no State laws upon the subject, each mining community is permitted to make its own. Here, they have decided that no man may ‘claim’ an area of more than forty foot square. This he ’stakes off’ and puts a notice upon it….If he does not choose to ‘work it’ immediately, he is obliged to renew the notice every ten days; for without this precaution, any other person has the right to ‘jump it’….There are many ways of evading the above law. For instance, an individual can ‘hold’ as many claims as he pleases if he keeps a man at work in each….The laborer…can jump the claim of the very man who employs him…[but] generally prefers to receive the six dollars per diem, of which he is sure…[rather than] running the risk of a claim not proving valuable….The labor of excavation is extremely difficult, on account of the immense rocks…[in] the soil. Of course, no man can work out a claim alone. For that reason…they congregate in companies of four or six, generally designating themselves by the name of the place from whence the majority of the members have emigrated; for example, the ‘Illinois,’ ‘Bunker Hill,’ ‘Bay State,’ etc., companies. In many places the surface soil, or ‘top dirt,’ ‘pays’ when worked in a ‘Long Tom.’

It wasn’t until the unruly Forty-Niners arrived and the gold fields became overrun that claim jumping became a real problem. Unscrupulous people who wanted to sell their claims, would “salt” them by scattering gold on the land.

When crimes were discovered, the miners meted out harsh and speedy justice. Small crimes were punished by flogging, more serious crimes—including robbery and murder—resulted in a quick hanging. Sometimes mobs lynched a man without bothering with a trial.

As an attorney, I loved reading law review articles about these early mining codes. Most people might find them dry, but they appealed to me, and gave me the level of detail I wanted to write my novel. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Of course, the first-person accounts, such as the one from Dame Shirley quoted above, were also fun to find as I researched.

When have you been surprised to learn something about history?

Sirius Driving


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20150427_125846 - Dad's Mazda 5

My dad’s Mazda, now mine

After my father died, I purchased one of his cars. It was a 2012 Mazda 5—nothing fancy, but I had a 2009 Mazda 5, which I liked. When I was out in Washington State to manage my parents’ estates, I drove my dad’s Mazda 5 between his house on the Olympic Peninsula and my other relatives’ homes in the Seattle area. I was comfortable in it. It drove just like mine, but had a better trim level and interior features. I figured I could buy his Mazda, sell mine, and get a newer, better car for not much money. And that’s what happened.

My father had a Sirius contract for the car. He and I rode together a lot in that Mazda between his home and my mother’s assisted living. As soon as he turned on the engine, the music began. He often hummed along.

My dad loved music—particularly classical and country. His Sirius presets included a couple of country stations, a classical station, another for opera, and NPR. When I drove the car after his death, I didn’t know how to find any other Sirius stations, so I left the presets where they were.

But I didn’t listen to the country. I’ve hated country music ever since my father insisted the family watch Hee-Haw every week of my childhood. How I hated that show! So I kept the Sirius tuned to the classical stations and NPR as I drove my father’s car and thought of him.

My dad’s Sirius contract ran out in April of last year, about the time I bought his Mazda. I didn’t renew the contract, because I’m too cheap. Perhaps in the wilds of the Olympic Peninsula, where radio stations are few and staticky, it made sense. But in urban Kansas City, I wasn’t about to pay for satellite radio for my car.

Moreover, I prefer driving in silence. I’ll turn on NPR if I’m driving during rush hour and the news is on. And on long road trips I might listen to music to help me stay awake. But most of the time I prefer my own thoughts to the chatter on the air.

I only listened to the radio after my dad died because the Sirius stations he had selected reminded me of him. Driving his Mazda (now mine) around Kansas City, I’ve mostly kept the radio off.

My parents get more mail at my house than my husband and I do. I put in a change of address form for them after my father died, so that their mail would come to me as their executor. That change of address expired early this year, and any mail sent to their old address no longer is forwarded to Kansas City.

But all the advertisements and catalogs somehow picked up on their address change. I get stuff from advertisers they haven’t bought from in a decade or so.

And Kansas City retailers have discovered them also. My mother gets ads for hearing aids every week. And my father is solicited regularly to move to a local retirement community. Most of this junk mail goes straight to my recycling bin.

sirius logoThen a notice from Sirius addressed to my father arrived at my house. Sirius was turning his service back on, in the hopes he would renew his contract. So on May 18, the date their offer began, I tuned to Sirius on the Mazda’s radio. Sure enough, there it was.

I flipped through the presets—all my father’s stations still there. For the last several days, I’ve been listening to classical music and thinking of my father humming along. But I still won’t listen to country.

What music reminds you of loved ones you have lost?

May 18, 1980, Eruption of Mt. St. Helens


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For most of the 1979-1980 school year, my parents lived apart. My father had started a new job in Bellevue, Washington, and my mother remained in Richland, Washington, with my younger sister and brother who were in school there. My sister was in her sophomore year of high school, and my brother was in eighth grade. (If I’m calculating correctly—I was not living with them any more; I was married and had recently moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to start my new job.)

My father traveled back to Richland many weekends that year. He would leave Bellevue after work on Friday and drive to Richland, a distance of about 200 miles. On Sunday he returned to his Bellevue apartment. My dad was always an early riser, and was often on the road around 5:00am.

Mt. St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980

Mt. St. Helens eruption on May 18, 1980

May 18, 1980, was one of the mornings Dad was up and out of the Richland house early. He was across the Cascades mountain pass before 8:32am, when Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano had been venting steam for a couple of months, and a bulge had developed on the north side of the mountain. Despite these warning signs, no one could predict when it would blow, and the eruption on May 18 was a surprise.

All the highways through the Cascades were closed, as ash rained down on Washington State. If he hadn’t been on the road so early, my father would have been stuck on the eastern side of the pass, unable to get back to Bellevue.

The mushroom cloud of ash was forty miles wide and fifteen miles high. The prevailing winds blew the ash toward Richland that morning at sixty miles an hour. The debris had crossed Washington and reached Idaho by noon.

In Richland, the ash came down so thick my brother could collect it from the lawn. He kept a baby food jar full of ash for many years. I wonder if he still has it.

The May 1980 eruption was far from the first display of power from Mt. St. Helens. I learned in researching this post that the 1840s were also an active period for the volcano. In late 1842, settlers and missionaries witnessed what they called a “great eruption” of Mt. St. Helens, though it was much smaller than the 1980 event. And artists in the area sketched later eruptions in 1845 and 1847. Had I known this when I wrote Lead Me Home, I might well have included mention of the mountain in my novel.

What natural disasters have you or your family experienced?

Update on My Work in Progress


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I’m kicking myself, as writers often do. Actually, in every profession I’ve been in to date, there were times when I kicked myself. Typically, the problem has been that I’ve put put off doing something that I knew needed to be done. And that is where I am on my current work-in-progress, the sequel to Lead Me Home. I’ve procrastinated until I can’t procrastinate any more.

I have been editing the manuscript for my sequel and discussing this draft with my critique partners. We just finished going through the current draft. Most scenes are in decent shape, and I like how the characters have developed. My dialogue is getting tighter, and my descriptions add texture.

But I’ve finally done what I knew needed to be done—what I should have done two drafts ago. I’ve reviewed the manuscript with a calendar for 1848-1850 in hand, checking the dates when each event in the novel takes place, to see whether the timeline meshes.

calendar sample 20160515_133252

Sample page of my 1848 calendar

And I’ve found gaps and inconsistencies.

This novel’s plot is much more complex than the plot in Lead Me Home, which progressed day by day along the Oregon Trail. The sequel takes place over almost three years, and has two separate story lines that weave together at various points. I have to deal with long-distance communications in an era before telegrams and telephones, when even letters took weeks or months to arrive at their destinations. (I won’t tell you any more, to avoid spoilers.)

During my several drafts of this book, I have made adjustments in the timeline to mesh with historical events and the seasons of the year. But I discovered I didn’t adjust all the dates, and some inconsistencies have crept in. For example, I found a sea voyage that is supposed to take eight to ten days, but last more than three weeks in my current draft.


A friend asked me the other night how my novel was coming along. My reply contained the words “stupid book”. She looked at me in askance, and said, “But isn’t it a labor of love?”

Well, yes.

But not always.

Kind of like kids and pets. We love ’em to pieces, and they still drive us crazy.

I’m at the crazy stage in this book.

The good news is that I’ve been writing long enough now that I know I can get through this. I know what has to be done, and I know how to do it. One word at a time, one page at a time, the novel will come together. In fact, I’ve already plugged one of the biggest plot holes.

The bad news is that I know how much work it will take in the next few months.

Nevertheless, I still plan to publish it by the end of the year.

God willing and the creek don’t rise. Which sounds like something one of my characters might say.

When have you procrastinated? (Don’t we all?)

Learning Flexibility at My Daughter’s Birthday Parties


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I wrote an earlier post listing many of the things I included in my daughter’s baby book. One thing I didn’t mention in that post was that I wrote descriptions of how we celebrated each of her first eight birthdays.

I reread those entries recently, looking for a hook for this blog post. My major take-away was how much we gathered as a family for those occasions. Extended family came to visit for all of my daughter’s birthdays until her fifth. My mother traveled halfway across the country for my daughter’s first, second, and fourth birthdays. My grandmother came for my daughter’s first, second, and fifth birthdays. And my in-laws were there for her first, second, and third.

Of course, it helped that her birthday was in mid-May—a delightful time for travel. (My poor son was born in February. Very few visits for his birthdays.)

My mother came to visit the year my daughter turned four. On the actual birthday, my mother and I took cupcakes (which I think my mother made) to my daughter’s preschool. My daughter wore a crown that said “Big 4 Year Old” on it, and, of course, we all sang before we ate.

The following Saturday, my daughter had her first non-family birthday party. I had a rule for my kids—no more than one guest for each year. So for my daughter’s fourth birthday, she got to invite four friends. The theme was ballerina bears. Hallmark made pink little-girl party goods with that theme, and I could get the company cafeteria to make a cake with that design. All my daughter really cared about was that there was pink. (In later years, she got pickier.)

M's 4th BD

The Big Four-Year-Old with her Ballerina Bear birthday cake

Thank goodness for my mother, because five little girls were more than enough for me. (My son went to play with a neighbor friend, so at least we didn’t have the boys as well.)

All the girls had wands and party hats. I had several games planned, thinking each would take twenty minutes. The games were supposed to last an hour or more. As it turned out, each game took about ten minutes, and we were done with food and games within the first hour.

Now what?

The girls happily played house in the basement for the rest of the party time, while my mother and I cleaned the kitchen.

And a good time was had by all.

My daughter’s parties continued every year through her eighth birthday. (I can’t remember much after then, and there was no more space in her baby book to record the details.)

That eighth birthday was also memorable, even without the baby book. There were only six girls—I don’t know what happened to my rule—but six was plenty. It was a sleepover. I may have limited her to six girls, because we didn’t have enough floor space for more in our basement rec room.

I had planned two crafts that I thought the girls would enjoy after they ate the pizza and ice cream cake. One craft was painting tote bags, and the other was making lanyards. They seemed easy enough for eight-year-olds, but both caused tears. The paint smudged, and the lanyards proved too complicated for some of the girls to braid.

We set the projects aside for them to deal with later at home, then switched to popcorn and videos much earlier than I had anticipated. But that meant I could go to bed at a reasonable hour. I remember getting up at least once in the night to go quiet things down, so I guess the girls had a good time.

I learned through these experiences that the best children’s parties retained their flexibility. Which meant I had to remain flexible as well. My husband still tells me I need to work on my flexibility.

It’s probably a good thing that my daughter is grown now and living halfway across the country, responsible for her own birthday celebrations. I’m not sure I have the stamina any more.

Today is her birthday (I won’t say her age). Happy Birthday, sweetie!

What do you remember about childhood birthday parties?

First Signs of My Mother’s Dementia


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2007-1 MFC TTC in DC May 2007

My parents, May 2007, in Washington, D.C.

I think about my mother’s early signs of dementia a lot in May, because I first wondered whether she was getting Alzheimer’s in May 2007.

It was the weekend that my daughter graduated from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. My parents had joined my husband, my two children, and me for the celebration. We spent a long weekend in D.C. and had time to visit some of the Smithsonian Museums. Early one afternoon, some of us were walking from one museum to another on the Mall. As we crossed a busy street, cars whizzing past from both directions, my mother seemed frightened. I grabbed her hand, as if she had been five years old, and I towed her along behind me. It seemed so natural to treat her like a child, to guide her as if she were unable to get herself through the traffic.

I asked myself a few days later in my journal whether she had Alzheimer’s—her own mother had died of the disease a few years earlier. But in my journal entry, I noted her increasing physical frailties also, reflecting at least as much concern for her physical ailments as for her mental capabilities. I reasoned that the distress I’d seen in her could have been due to her fear that she wouldn’t be able to walk fast enough across the street.

My husband told me after our trip to D.C. that he had been shocked at how much my mother talked to herself. That hadn’t bothered me—she had always talked to herself! She had that propensity even when I was a child, and my children had remarked on it when they went to visit.

I also knew my mother had had a panic attack in the Vatican in the spring of 2006—a year before our graduation trip. My parents were attending an Easter Mass celebrated by the Pope, and the crowds overwhelmed my mother. She felt faint, and a policeman found my parents seats near the altar. My mother believed it was divine intervention—her anxiety got them a great view of the Mass. But I wonder now if her panic in the crowd was an early symptom of Alzheimer’s.

But we ignored these early signs. And we ignored them for a couple more years. When I visited, I noticed she repeated herself more and more. My worries deepened, but they didn’t really become significant until 2009. In early 2009, she had some serious back problems and a blood chemistry imbalance. My father attributed her increasing forgetfulness and inability to think rationally to the medications she was on.

She got worse—more repeated conversations, less ability to work household appliances (like the microwave), forgetting phone numbers and daily tasks.

My father finally took her for an neurological evaluation in early 2010, and that’s when the dementia was diagnosed. It was downhill from there. By 2012, she couldn’t be left alone. In January 2013, she moved into assisted living. She stopped walking a few months later. She moved into the dementia unit where she lived in late 2013, and died in July 2014.

From the first time the possibility of dementia occurred to me in 2007 until her death was just over seven years—fairly typical. I’ll always wonder whether she would have survived longer had I spoken up sooner, had she been diagnosed earlier and been treated sooner. Probably it wouldn’t have made much difference. The medications that are available can slow the progress of the disease for a bit, but typically not for long.

Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease, stealing personality and capability bit by bit. I remember coming home from one visit and sobbing as I realized I didn’t have a mother any more—her ability to counsel and console was gone. I regretted the years when she was healthy and I didn’t enjoy her presence more.

Yesterday, on Mother’s Day, I thought of my mother and wished her last years hadn’t happened the way they did. But we don’t get to choose how or when we pass from this world. She bore her illness with more patience and fortitude than those around her, and she mourned the possibility of passing the disease to her children as much as her own decline.

When have you been reluctant to recognize a medical problem?

2016 Missouri Writers Guild Conference in Kansas City


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MWG logoThe Missouri Writers Guild annual conference hasn’t been in Kansas City for a number of years, so I was delighted to attend this past weekend. I hoped for inspiration to keep writing and for tips to help me improve my craft and market my work more effectively. The MWG conference wasn’t the best I have attended, but it was very good. And I couldn’t beat the location—a hotel fifteen minutes from my home!

In one session, two best-selling authors talked about their experiences with both self-publishing and publishing through big New York houses. While they acquired their best-seller” status through traditional publishing, they stated bluntly that self-publishing allows authors to make more money and retain more control of their work. Because I am self-published, this was good news to me.

I also attended two breakout sessions with Terry Allen, one on Dramatic Action and the other on Dramatic Dialogue. Mr. Allen has taught acting, directing, and playwriting, and he used examples from plays and movie scripts to show writers how to develop their characters by showing them in action and through effective dialogue. I’ve heard Mr. Allen speak before, and even though some of his material was a repeat for me, it was well worth hearing again. He’s an excellent presenter with interesting material.

And best of all—my novel, Lead Me Home, won second place in the Missouri Writers Guild “Show Me” Best Book contest!

LMH Show Me certificate

Here are a few of my main take-aways from the conference. I’m not attributing these to any particular speaker, because I’ve condensed many of these from points several speakers made.

On the craft of writing:

  • Plot is just a series of actions, but story has meaning—go beyond the action to show the reader through characters and metaphors what your story means. Write lives, not obituaries.
  • Every plot has been told before. Your story is unique because of the characters’ specific motivations and how they think and feel about what is happening to them.
  • From the very first page of your book, the setting should come alive. Use specific details to make this happen; you don’t have to have lengthy descriptions.
  • Dialogue is more than chit-chat; it is characters talking to get what they want. All characters need something in every scene, even if it isn’t expressed.
  • Don’t just describe your characters—show them in action. Your characters will understood more clearly through what they do than through descriptions of how they look or even through what they say. (Readers will believe your characters’ actions more than their words.)

On the business of publishing:

  • Remember that publishing is a business. You need to know your break-even point. How many copies do you need to sell for your publisher to break even? (And for you to break even, if you are self-publishing.)
  • Writers need to be involved in all stages of publishing their book—product development (editing), design and production (cover and internal design), marketing and promotion, and sales and distribution. You can’t stop with writing the book.

On staying motivated:

  • The universe wants us to succeed. We will receive help if we are willing to collaborate.
  • Writing takes commitment and time, but it can be fun.
  • If we are willing to not be perfect, we can improve.
  • Don’t give up when things get hard.

I’ve heard all these motivational points before. And I know I’ll hear them again. I will most likely need to hear them again. Because we all need help in staying motivated.

Writers, where do you find inspiration?

No More Libby Jacksons


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4 cousins Jul 87

Andy & Libby are the older two cousins. This picture is from the Libby Jackson days

My kids and their cousins often visited their mutual grandparents (my in-laws) when they were children. When it was time to leave, my father-in-law would call them aside and hand them each a $20 bill. I told my children not to expect Grandpa’s generosity and to thank him when it did occur. Nevertheless, Grandpa almost always did pass out the bills, and it became a regular part of their visits.

The oldest of the four cousins was Andrew. On one occasion, when Andrew was about seven or so, Grandpa called him over. “Here’s your Andrew Jackson,” Grandpa told him, as he gave him a $20 bill. (Andrew’s last name is not Jackson, but I won’t tell you what it is.)

Andy’s five-year-old sister Libby wasn’t around when her big brother got his gift. When she heard her big brother had received his Andrew Jackson, Libby went straight to Grandpa. “Where’s my Libby Jackson?” she asked.

Grandpa looked confused. “What do you mean?”

“You gave Andy an Andrew Jackson. I want my Libby Jackson.”

That set Grandpa to roaring with laughter. And, of course, he gave Libby her $20, no matter what she called it.

This story became one of Grandpa’s favorite family anecdotes, told many times over the years. Grandpa continued passing out his Andrew Jacksons until the kids were grown (and even after). In their teenage years, I think they relied on Grandpa to help with gas money. In their adult years, it was a fun (and practical) reminder of their childhood.

Libby is now married and about to have her fourth child. Her oldest two are almost of the age that Andy and Libby were when the Libby Jackson incident occurred.

I thought of our Libby Jackson family story when I learned that the Treasury Department is going to replace Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill. As they grow and are told our family’s stories, Libby’s children won’t understand the humor in this tale about their mother—Libby Jackson won’t mean anything to them.

And there’s no one in the family named Harriet to prompt a similar mistake.

As time passes, circumstances change, and history becomes history. What is relevant in one age is irrelevant in the next. That is as true in families as in nations and in the world.

When bad things happen, we frequently thinks “this too shall pass.” But we need to remember that the good things (and people) pass away also. Write down your family’s stories now, lest they be forgotten—but remember to explain their significance to keep your past alive.

Are there stories in your family that have lost their meaning over time?

How Much Gold Was Enough in the California Gold Rush Years?


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1850 California Gold Rush miners

In my research into the California Gold Rush, I’ve read about prospectors who struck it rich and returned to their homes wealthy men, about others who made a fortune and then spent it, and about still other men who never made a dime. And I started wondering how much it took to become wealthy in 1849-50.

One article I found, “The Financial Situations of Those Who Dug for Gold,”  indicates that $10,000 to $15,000 made a man successful, and some prospectors acquired as much as $60,000 to $75,000.

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Consumer Price Index 1800-2005

Keep in mind that $100 in 1849 would buy about $3,055 today—a more than 30-fold increase.  So $100,000 would give a man the equivalent of more than $3,000,000 today. It only took $33,000 to have the equivalent of $1,000,000 today. So a man making $60,000 in the gold fields would have around $2,000,000—success, yes, but many people have been more successful.

Then, as in any land-dependent activity today, the important thing is LOCATION.

One story tells of a man who made $83,500 in two hours time. An hourly wage of $43,250 is more than enough to match the income of most business tycoons today!

Another anecdote tells of one pan of dirt yielding $1400 in the spring of 1850.

And here’s a description of the gold finds around what is now Placerville, California:

. . . The first discovery was made in Hangtown Creek, near the mouth of Cedar Ravine, the latter being the first ravine worked, and found to be very rich, yielding upwards of $1,000,000. The next discovery was in Bedford Avenue, at that time called ‘Log Cabin Ravine,’ and a large amount of gold was taken from it . . . . [One man] took home with him about $25,000. From this ravine had been taken altogether, as near as can be determined, about $250,000. . . .


An early miner

And here is the tale of another ravine in the vacinity:

The very richest ravine that was discovered up to this time, the spring of ’51, around Hangtown, was the Oregon Ravine. This ravine was first discovered by two men from Oregon named Yocum. They first worked a narrow strip up through the ravine about three feet in width, . . . . Their method of working was of the most primitive kind. One would with pick and shovel remove the dirt from the surface to near the bed rock, which was about three feet in depth, and the other, with an old knife or a sharp stick in one hand, would stir up the dirt, and as the bright pieces of gold showed themselves, would pick them up and drop them into a tin cup, which he constantly carried in the other hand. This was their slow method of working, and although they realized a fortune by this process, they did not glean as much as they should have done. How much these two men realized was never known, for they were very cautious; but it was supposed that they took home with them about $100,000 each. Old man Harper, who also worked in this ravine, was said to have made out $60,000; several others also, have made large profits here. They all left for home in the fall of ’49. Soon after my arrival, there were at least 200 men at work in this ravine, and all doing well, for the ravine was wide and paid richly from bank to bank. Dr. Ober was very successful, and as he passed along down at night among the miners who were at work below him, with a smiling countenance showed his tin cup in which he carried his gold. I found that about $150 was his average day’s work. In my opinion, Oregon Ravine yielded at least $1,000,000 if not more, and considering its size was the richest one in this portion of the country.

As this description indicates, the early miners—some of whom left even before the Forty-Niners arrived—were more likely to strike it rich than those who came later. The most fortunate and the wisest made their bundle, then left California.

Other anecdotes tell us that men made fortunes from serving the prospectors also:

 . . . Fortunes were realized from Spanish, Murderer’, Big and Michigan Bars, where Ex-Governor Stanford had his little store in ’52, the germ from which sprang the Great Overland Railroad. . . .

Thus, the fortune that created the great Stanford University, where I went to law school, began in a store serving Gold Rush miners.

My current work-in-progress describes work in gold fields such as these. Some characters keep their fortunes and others never find their fortunes or lose them. Still other characters lose their lives.

Would you have been wise and left California, or would you have spent your fortune in the saloons?

My Grandfather’s Clock as a Metaphor for Grief


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grandfather's clock

My grandfather’s clock keeping time in my home

I’ve written before about my grandfather’s clock—how it formed a part of my childhood, first in my grandparents’ home and then in my parents’; how I deliberately let it wind down after my father died; how I shipped to to my house and got it working again. (see here and here) But even after I set it up in my house, it still felt like my grandfather’s—or at least my father’s—clock.

Over the past few months I have worked to make it my clock. I am less timid about winding it, no longer afraid it will fall apart as I turn the wrench that raises the weights. I decided earlier this year that I needed to help it keep better time. It was losing a few minutes a day, and I got tired of adjusting it every day. So I psyched myself up until I was brave enough to adjust the pendulum. After I made tiny adjustments every few days for several weeks, it now keeps pretty good time, losing a minute or less a week.

As I worked on the clock, it occurred to me that it has become my metaphor for my grief over my father’s passing. It wasn’t his clock to start with—it came from my mother’s family. But he had the care of the clock for so many years, probably from about 1967 until his death in January 2015. And now it has come to me.

Letting the clock wind down in the days immediately after his death was my initial letting go. Shipping the clock to my house was my attempt to hang on to the past. Overcoming my fear of winding it was my initial acknowledgment that I am now the senior generation in my family. And finally making the adjustments to get it keeping good time was my return to an even keel after losing my parents.

A friend told me after my father died that when our second parent dies, “we have only sky above us.” In other words, there is no one left who connects us to the past. I think that has been a large part of my grief. I lost my mother slowly to Alzheimer’s, but my father’s death was sudden and unexpected. I am the oldest child. The brother right behind me—the companion of my childhood—is estranged from the family. My younger siblings are much younger, and don’t remember my first decade of life. There truly was only sky above me.

Last December a Jewish friend of mine lost her mother. I went to my first Jewish funeral, and then later in the week I visited my friend as she sat shiva. We have since talked about our feelings about losing our parents, managing their estates, and the Jewish custom of mourning the loss of a parent for a year.

In my experience, a year of mourning is about right. It was about a year from when my father died until I was brave enough to adjust his clock’s pendulum—to assume full responsibility for my role as the clock’s owner.

I know that my grief is not over. In fact, I’m not sure I ever fully processed my mother’s death, because my father’s came so soon after. Just as the clock will sometimes stop, and may break down, so will I. But I am no longer losing time every day. I am ticking along just fine.

Today, April 25, 2016, would have been my father’s 83rd birthday. We held his memorial Mass a year ago today. I miss him, but I am moving on. I’ll keep ticking.

What possessions of yours are symbols of the past or present for you?


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