Use of Rockers and Long-Toms During the California Gold Rush


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Miner using a cradle

Miner using a cradle

As I wrote last month, the early California gold miners began with placer mining, simply picking the nuggets off the ground or from streams, with hands and pans and knives. Soon, however, they wanted to sift through more dirt faster to increase the profitability of their prospecting.

One of the earliest tools they employed to speed their collection of gold flakes and nuggets was the rocker—also called a cradle because it resembled a child’s cradle. The rocker was merely a way to pan for gold more quickly. The rocker moved more water and rock than the miners could by hand.

In essence, the rocker was a box into which the prospectors shoveled both dirt and water. The box had a handle that they pushed back and forth. Like the swishing motion of panning, this rocking caused heavier material to sink to the bottom of the device. The miner then panned the leftover sediment to find gold.

Colonel Richard Mason gave an excellent description of how a rocker worked in his July 1848 report, in which he wrote that most miners were employing “a rude machine known as the cradle.” Here is his description:

This [the cradle] is on rockers, six or eight feet long, open at the foot, and its head had a coarse grate, or sieve; the bottom is rounded, with small cleets nailed across. Four men are required to work this machine; one digs the ground in the bank close by the stream; another carries it to the cradle, and empties it on the grate; a third gives a violent rocking motion to the machine, whilst a fourth dashes on water from the stream itself. The sieve keeps the coarse stones from entering the cradle, the current of water washes off the earthy matter, and the gravel is gradually carried out at the foot of the machine, leaving the gold mixed with a heavy fine black sand above the first cleets. The sand and gold mixed together are then drawn off through auger holes into a pan below, are dried in the sun, and afterwards separated by blowing off the sand. A party of four men, thus employed at the Lower Mines, average 100 dollars a-day. The Indians, and those who have nothing but pans or willow baskets, gradually wash out the earth, and separate the gravel by hand, leaving nothing but the gold mixed with sand, which is separated in the manner before described.

As a later commentary said in describing the work required to operate a rocker,

The man who rocks a cradle learns to appreciate the fact, that the “golden sands” of California are not pure sand, but are often extremely tough clay, a hopperful of which must be shaken about for ten minutes before it will dissolve under a constant pouring of water. Many large stones are found in the pay-dirt. Such as give an unpleasant shock to the cradle, as they roll from side to side of the riddle-box, are pitched out by hand, and after a glance to see that no gold sticks to their sides, are thrown away; but the smaller ones are left until the hopperful has been washed, so that nothing but clean stones remain in the riddle, and then the cradler rises from his seat, lifts up his hopper, and with a jerk throws all the stones out.

See Getting Gold: A Gold-Mining Handbook for Practical Men, J. C. F. Johnson (1904), available through Project Gutenberg.

Miner using a long tom

Miners using long toms

The next development in the California gold fields was the use of the Long Tom, which looked like a long trough. These devices were used extensively by 1851. The box of a Long Tom was typically eight to twenty feet long, and it had riffles to catch the gold and heavier debris. A constant flow of water was needed to force the gravel along the trough. Miners shoveled gravel into the upstream end of the box. As with the rocker, the heavier gold sank to the bottom of the gravel, and could be panned from the gravel.

To get the necessary water, the prospectors either placed their Long Toms in streams or they diverted water through Long Toms near the water. Sometimes, the tom was connected to a paddlewheel that moved the water through the device.

The Long Toms had more capacity than rockers and didn’t require the work to rock the machine. Still, two or more men were required to work the device. If there were only two men available—one shoveling gravel into the tom, and the other keeping it clear of rock, they could wash about 6 cubic yards of loose gravel, or 3 to 4 cubic yards of cemented gravel, in a ten-hour day.

Usually, four men operated the Long Tom—two shoveling gravel into the top end of the device, and another to clear out larger rocks along the trough. A fourth man worked the lower end to get rid of smaller rocks (the tailings). More men made the job more efficient, so more gravel could be processed.

Even without the rocking action, manning a Long Tom was hard work. As Johnson wrote,

The dirt is thrown in at the head of the tom, and a man is constantly employed in moving the dirt with a shovel, throwing back such pieces of clay as are not dissolved, to the head of the tom, and throwing out stones. From two to four men can work with a tom; but the amount of dirt that can be washed is not half that of a sluice. The tom may be used to advantage in diggings where the amount of pay-dirt is small and the gold coarse.

No wonder sluices soon became popular in the California gold mines.

What labor-saving devices have you seen develop in your lifetime? What do you think the next technical innovations will be?

From the Perspective of a Point of View Nazi


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Point of View Anchor Chart

Point of View anchor chart, from Teaching with a Mountain View

In my critique group, I’m known as the point of view Nazi. I am usually the one to notice when a writer has crept from one character’s point of view to another’s in the same scene. And I usually push my writing partners to go deeper into their protagonist’s point of view, showing not only action but also thoughts and feelings of the main character.

Point of view (POV) is defined as the eyes through which we see the action of a story. Selecting the point of view character is one of the most important decisions a writer makes. Usually, it is best to write a scene from the point of view of a character with a strong stake in the outcome of the scene. However, some writers choose to use a character who is more emotionally detached to provide a more objective perspective.

There are several points of view that writers typically use:

1. Omniscient (where the author flows from one character’s point of view to another within the same scene). Sometimes the author includes his or her own editorializing about what’s going on. This is an “anything goes” point of view, but readers may have trouble following what the author is saying.

2. First person (which forces the writer to stay in one character’s head at a time). This provides immediacy and depth, but restricts the action to scenes where that character is present.

3. Distant third person (where the author describes action from one character’s point of view, but doesn’t show much of that character’s thoughts or emotions). This POV is like writing through a camera on the character’s shoulder.

4. Close third person (which does go into the point of view character’s thoughts and feelings). This POV is more like writing through a chip implanted in the character’s brain.

Occasionally, an author will use a second person point of view, but the four options above are most typical. Moreover, the omniscient POV was more frequently used in the 19th century than in today’s writing.

Some writers stay in a single character’s point of view throughout an entire novel. Others move from one POV character in one scene to another character in the next scene.

Most writing instructors tell authors not to change points of view in the middle of a scene. When writers violate this “rule” of one POV character per scene, my POV Nazi hackles rise, even though the only real rule for writing a book is that there are no rules.

And most of the time in short stories, writers stick to a single POV character throughout the whole story, because the length of the piece doesn’t permit much character development otherwise.

Woman with typewriter.I’ve found that writers run into POV problems most frequently when they slip into the omniscient point of view from first or third person. All of a sudden, the reader is thrown out of the head of the original POV character and is seeing the scene from someone else’s point of view or from outside the scene (as if viewing from the GoodYear blimp). This gives my POV Nazi vertigo.

When I write, I find the following techniques useful to stay in one character’s point of view:

Point_of_viewFirst, I put myself in one character’s head and tell the story from that character’s perspective ONLY. It helps me to pretend that that character has a camera on his or her shoulder, like a cinematographer. In essence, I become that character while I write the scene. I only see and hear and smell and taste what that person sees and hears and smells and tastes.

Next, after I’ve written the scene, I go back to add in that character’s thoughts and emotions—whatever I imagine that character thinking or feeling. The setting and the action of the scene ought to evoke some reaction or response from the POV character, and that’s what I layer on my story, like icing on a cake. They might be feeling something in response to what they are sensing (the weather, sounds, smells, etc.), or they might be thinking about something in their past, or they might be thinking about something as irrelevant as how nice a piece of buttered toast would taste at the moment.

If I were really good, I could include these thoughts and emotions in as I write the scene the first time. But I find that I usually have to get the action down on paper first, then layer in more about my character’s thoughts and feelings.

One of the things I struggle with the most as a writer is getting into my characters’ emotions. Maybe it’s because I’m so into my characters that I think everyone should know what they’re feeling—after all, I know, so it should be obvious to my readers! Or maybe it’s because I’m an “S” not an “F” on the Myers-Briggs scale, and I have trouble expressing my own feelings. Nevertheless, my writing is better when I take the time to dig more deeply into my POV character’s head.

I’ve heard writers argue that writing from only one character’s point of view at a time limits what they can describe in the scene. Yes, it does. A writer has to be willing to do that. Some writers aren’t, and they write in omniscient point of view. But I find the omniscient point of view annoying—all that flitting from head to head—which is why I’m a point of view Nazi.

One way around the limited perspective of first or third person is to have other characters interact with the POV character during most scenes in the story. The other characters have some reaction or response to what the POV character says or does. The actions and dialogue of other characters adds their perspectives to the story, but ONLY in ways that the POV character can see or hear.

Keep in mind that not everything can be done in dialogue. I’ve seen some writers overuse dialogue where narration would work better.

Writers, what helps you stay in the point of view you have chosen for your story?

My Grandfather’s Clock


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When I was in second grade or so, my class sang the old song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” by Henry Clay Work. The lyrics to the first verse are

My grandfather’s clock was too large for the shelf,
So it stood ninety years on the floor;
It was taller by half than the old man himself,
Though it weighed not a pennyweight more.
It was bought on the morn of the day that he was born,
And was always his treasure and pride;
But it stopped short — never to go again —
When the old man died.

Grandfather ClockUnlike the clock of this song, my maternal grandfather’s clock did sit on the shelf. It also differed from the song, because it did not mark his age. It was manufactured long before his birth and it has survived more than forty years past his death. Nevertheless, whenever I hear this song, my mind immediately goes to this clock and to my grandfather.

I don’t recall when my grandfather became the possessor of the clock. It dates back to the 1800s, maybe as far back as the 1830s. I don’t know when it came into our family. All I know is that it became ours a long time ago.

Family lore says that it sat in my great-grandmother’s kitchen, above a smoky old stove, and was covered with soot and grime. It has since been restored to its earlier glory, and (with some maintenance) it has kept good time as long as our family has owned it.

Although my great-grandmother died young, her husband, my great-grandfather lived until July 1965, and died just six months before his son, my grandfather. I know my grandfather owned the clock for several years before his death—in fact, he owned it as long as I can remember. So I don’t know when it left my great-grandfather’s house and became my grandfather’s.

My memories of the clock date back to when I was a small child. The clock sat in my maternal grandparents’ house, and my grandfather wound it religiously every Sunday. It chimed the hour and the half hour, and it ticked off the seconds—tick, tock, tick, tock—regardless of whether the day was happy or sad, busy or boring.

After my grandfather passed away, my grandmother kept it. I don’t remember her winding it, but she must have, because it continued to count away the hours throughout her many moves. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

When my grandmother finally downsized into assisted living, my parents acquired the clock. My father took over the weekly chore of winding the clock. From that time forward, the pendulum marked the hours of my visits home, and the chimes sounded through days and nights. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

Some members of my family didn’t like the clock’s ticking and gongs, but I always found them comforting—a sign that I was in fact home. True, if I had a sleepless night, hearing the hours I laid awake could be disconcerting, but for the most part, the clock reminded me of the good times of my childhood.

My father died on a Monday in January. He must have wound the clock for the last time on Sunday, the day before he died. When I arrived to stay at his house the following weekend, it was still ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock. And I thought of my father, knowing he would never wind it again.

Because no one would be staying in the house after I left, I let the clock wind down. Sometime on Monday, a week after his death, it stopped. The silence was an eerie reminder my father was gone. Unlike in the song, it hadn’t stopped short when my father died. But because of my decision not to wind it, it didn’t last many days longer than he did.

Now the clock is on its way to my home, weights removed and pendulum secured. When the clock body and all its parts arrive, I will set it up in my house.

And then I will wind it. My grandfather’s clock will again mark the time, as another generation assumes responsibility for this family heirloom. Tick, tock, tick, tock.

What family heirlooms remind you of generations past?

Genealogies Found: Some Family Myths Verified, Others Not


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Charles N Claudson historyOne of the things I found in going through my father’s papers was some genealogies on various branches of our family. Readers will be hearing some of these stories in months ahead. This first installment relates to Charles N. Claudson, our ancestor who emigrated from Denmark.

I wrote previously about Charles, who was born in 1847 in Denmark. In that post, I described some of our family stories about his journey to the United States—how he stowed away on a ship and later found his way to Iowa, and then to Nebraska. Our family has always believed that he was thrown overboard, was pulled back on board when he surfaced, and then worked in the ship’s galley. We were also told that he lost his belongings on his first night in America, allegedly because he could not find his way back to the boarding house where he left them.

But the details in the genealogy I found—which came from an oral history by someone who knew him—don’t verify all the family myths.

According to the information I found, Charles was born Charles Nickli Clauson in Copenhagen. His father was a watchmaker. Charles attended a trade school in Copenhagen, where he learned to cook. He did stow away to come to America when he was fourteen (1861). I found no verification that he left Denmark to escape military service, as I have always suspected, but that still seems plausible.

Charles apparently spent seven years working on the ship as a cook. The oral history does not describe him being thrown overboard, so that may not be true. But it makes a great story and will probably remain part of our family lore!

At some point Charles and two other sailors left the ship in New Orleans, and he was robbed that night of all his possessions. So the truth apparently is not that he lost his way; he was robbed! Both make good stories.

One sad result of the robbery is that Charles’s family had moved in Denmark, and after the theft he didn’t have their new address—he was alone in America.

The railroad was sending men from New Orleans to Iowa to work, and that’s how Charles got to Iowa. The account I have describes why he left the railroad:

“The story is that he was to push a wheelbarrow of concrete across a gully or ravine. He got it across, set it down and just kept walking.”

Apparently, Charles had an independent streak. Either that, or he didn’t like manual labor and preferred to cook.

Charles then got a job on a farm in Iowa, and married the farmer’s daughter, Sophrenia Vaught. In 1886, they emigrated with Sophrenia’s family to Nebraska. So that explains how he got to Nebraska.

487px-Union_Pacific_LogoLater Charles owned his own restaurant. At some point he was also head cook for the Union Pacific Railroad (whether before or after the wheelbarrow incident is not clear). The account I have says that he could cook dinner for 400 people in an hour. He wanted to be a pastry chef, but no one would teach him, so he hid in a back room and watched through a knothole to learn how to prepare the pastries.

So Charles was an enterprising fellow as well as independent. I smiled as I read this oral history, because some of Charles’s traits—as well as his love of cooking—filtered through the generations to my father. I don’t think my father could prepare dinner for 400 people in an hour, but he paid for his room and board in his college fraternity by being a short-order cook for the house.

What traits have you seen pass through generations in your family?

Shoe Shines and Parenting


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My husband is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. More than forty years after he graduated, it is still the most formative experience of his life.

Among the many things my husband learned at the Naval Academy was how to shine shoes. A spit-polished pair of shoes is the mark of an officer and a gentleman.

For my husband, shoe shining is both an art and therapy. Before every outing we attend, he makes sure his shoes gleam, no scuff marks or scrapes. If someone later steps on his foot, he winces—not in pain, but because his shoes will then no longer look perfect.

I, however, find watching my husband shine his shoes to be an exercise in frustration. I am usually ready to go, and he is still sitting on the floor, rag and polish in hand. Nothing will distract him from the task at hand.

Sometimes, he will shine my shoes, too. But because of my lack of appreciation, I am usually not granted such attention.

I may have commented before about my husband and our son. Their politics, many of their interests and affiliations, and their career goals have all been quite different.

And yet.

And yet, to me they have always had essential similarities, both physically and mentally. Physically, they are built the same (a fact which I have watched with amusement since our son was a toddler). They are both much more “perceivers” on the Myers-Briggs scale than I am—hence my frustration at my husband’s shoe-shining. And along with being “perceivers”, they are both true romantics, always seeing the possibilities in life, rather than its limits.

When our son was a teenager, there was a period when there was a big gulf between him and us, as often happens between the generations. He didn’t want to spend time with us. He didn’t communicate. (And fifteen years later, he still can go for weeks between contacts with us.)

Yet, somehow, during those hands-off teenage years, my husband apparently taught our son to shine his shoes.

Recently, our son sent my husband the following email and picture:

In case I never thanked you properly for teaching me, shining my own shoes is one of my favorite small pleasures in life. So thank you.

Just an old t-shirt, Kiwi, and I produced this (we’re attending a formal wedding this evening).

J shoe shine cropped

It’s moments like these that bring tears to a mother’s eyes and gladness to a father’s heart.

Our son turns thirty-three this week.

Happy Birthday, Son! And may there be many more shoe-shining opportunities in your future.

My Grandmother’s Pearls and the Nature of Memory


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Nanny Kay's necklace croppedMy father’s mother gave me a pearl necklace many years ago. I think the occasion was my high school graduation, but it could have been for my sixteenth birthday or some other milestone in my teens. It was the first “old” piece of jewelry I received.

In fact, I thought the necklace looked too old-fashioned for me to wear as a teenager. It is a triple strand of nicely matched pearls . . . although with the greater knowledge of an adult, I don’t think the pearls are real. They have chipped over the years and appear to be glass beads covered with a lustrous paint to look like pearls. Nevertheless, the necklace looks old—like something your grandmother would wear.

Because I thought the pearls looked old-fashioned, I didn’t wear the necklace through my college years. But by the time I was an attorney (a very young attorney), I was ready to look older than I was. In reality I looked younger than my age, and I needed all the help I could get to appear competent and professional. So I wore the pearl necklace regularly with my skirt suits. I liked the sepia tint of the pearls, which made it perfect for wearing with tan and brown suits and a cream blouse.

Now that I’m no longer practicing law and rarely wear dressy clothes for any reason, I have little need for pearls. The necklace lies in a back row section of my jewelry box and I seldom notice it.

Occasionally, I take it out and run the pearls through my fingers. It reminds me of my grandmother—the one who played the piano so beautifully and seemed glamorous to me as a child with her painted nails and carefully coiffed hair. I smile as I think of her. I remember how she appeared to me as child, and I remember how much she aged as I grew to adulthood. Her birthday would have been this week, though she died in 1990 at the age of 79.

The necklace also reminds me of my professional days, when putting on pearls or other jewelry was a necessary part of dressing each morning. I relish the more casual lifestyle of retirement that I now have. I miss the professional camaraderie of the groups I worked in, but I don’t miss the stress of the corporate life.

Some memories I treasure and wish those days back again. Other memories I’m glad to leave behind.

As a writer, I can decide which memories to record, but I can’t control which memories to banish forever. We can’t choose the memories we keep and those we toss. We are the sum of our memories, good and bad.

What memories do you treasure? Write them down.

Black Bean Soup for Homemade Soup Day


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20150128_152012I recently learned a surprising factoid: Today, February 4, is Homemade Soup Day, even though January is National Soup Month.

Those of us in Kansas City have been fortunate this year—our January was warm, and we had less need of soup than most winters. On January 28, as New England dug out from its massive storm, our high temperature soared above seventy degrees.

But, as must happen in winter, our temperatures eventually did fall. This first week in February has been cold, though still not frigid. Soup sounds very comforting.

For National Homemade Soup Day, here is one of my favorite winter soups. It’s my adaptation of a recipe from my husband’s cousin. I like a spicy sausage in it, and I use the crock pot because it’s easier.

Black Bean Soup (crock pot instructions)

1/2 onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tbsp cumin
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp salt (I omit)
Dash pepper
1 14 oz can diced tomatoes
3 vegetable bouillon cubes (chicken bouillon OK if you’re not vegetarian)
4 cups water
1 can pumpkin (not pie filling)
1 12 oz. package black beans, soaked overnight
1 lb smoked or andouille sausage (omit if you’re vegetarian)
1 Tbsp red wine vinegar

  1. Soak beans overnight, or use quick soak instructions on bag.
  2. Sauté onion and garlic in olive oil on stove until onion is clear. Dump in crock pot.
  3. Dump all other ingredients except vinegar into crock pot. Cook in crock pot on high for 4-6 hours. You may need to add more water as beans absorb the liquid.
  4. Add vinegar just before serving. (I often forget this step. Still tastes good.)

This recipe makes enough soup for 10-12 people, and it’s hearty and flavorful, especially with the sausage. Serve with cornbread and honey for a real winter treat.

Do you have a favorite homemade soup? Share your recipe in the comments.



My Mother the Librarian . . . And How Libraries Have Changed!


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February is Library Lovers Month. I come from a family of library lovers, and I am one myself.

boy reading book at the libraryWhen I was a child, we could only check out six books from the library at a time. My mother took my siblings and me to the library almost every week during the summer, and I checked out my six books. I usually read one of them on the drive home (making me carsick, but I couldn’t wait to explore my treasures), and I had all of them read within a couple of days.

Then I started on my brother’s books. I read as many Hardy Boys as Nancy Drew, and Robert Heinlein along with Maud Lovelace. Then I was bored . . . until our next trip to the library.

My mother in her librarian days

My mother in her librarian days

I’ve mentioned before that my mother was a librarian. She didn’t become a librarian until my youngest brother was in school, and she worked at the school that he and my sister attended. I was away at college by that time, so I didn’t really get to see my mother as a librarian.

But I know she was proud of her knowledge of the books and systems in the library. She told me stories about the weekly library periods that each class in the school had and the activities that she devised from them—from finding fun, easy books for the youngest readers, to teaching middle-grade students about the card catalogs and using encyclopedias.

Even mentioning card catalogs and encyclopedias makes me realize how much the world has changed in the last thirty years. Now we go online to a library website, and we can search the entire catalog in seconds, without really knowing what we are looking for. Keywords and search engine optimization are now more important than subject cards—and much faster and easier to use.

Encyclopedias are mostly a thing of the past. I have a 1989 Encyclopedia Britannica set in my family room (both Macropedia and Micropedia), and yearbooks for the set up through 2009. A year after my husband and I finally decided not to continue buying the annual yearbook (we’re out of shelf space), Encyclopedia Britannica halted publication of the yearbooks completely. Perhaps we were their last customer.

In any event, while it is sometimes fun to browse the encyclopedia, Wikipedia is faster, if somewhat less reliable. Google puts more knowledge at our fingertips than the encyclopedia, and stays up to date without an annual purchase.

Yet despite the changes, I still am a strong patron of libraries. I love browsing the shelves in libraries, and I usually come away with something unexpected. Still, I limit my time in libraries now, because of the ease of ebooks.

Most often now, I feed my ebook habit through Overdrive. I have accounts at three public library systems, and I get ebooks through all three. Managing the holds at these three separate systems can be a nightmare—sometimes several books all become available at once. Which to read first?

What has your association been with libraries, past and present?

A Progress Report on My First Oregon Trail Novel


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Frustrated Woman at Computer With Stack of Paper

This isn’t me, but it depicts how I’ve been feeling.

January has been Creativity Month, but I haven’t been very creative. With all the family issues I’ve had to deal with surrounding my father’s death, revising my current work in progress—the first novel in my Oregon Trail series—has taken a back seat.

The family work I’ve been doing has been necessary and important. But I hate getting pulled away from my novel. Any day is a good day when I can edit a chapter or two. Unfortunately, good days have been few so far this year. But this week I took a few hours for myself and plugged away at my revisions.

I think of my father as I write. He was my biggest supporter and salesperson. In 2010, he read an early version of the book I’m editing now. My mother read that draft also, before she lost her ability to retain what she read.

And I’m so glad I gave my father a rough draft of the second book in the series to read last summer. I’m not proud of that second book yet, but at least he knew it was in the works. I know he was eager for me to publish both books, which is one reason for my urgency in working on them.

All the goal-setting gurus say that if one writes down a goal and communicates it to others, the goal is much more likely to get accomplished. So I now declare myself to you, my readers:

I will get this first Oregon Trail novel in publishable form by the end of 2015

. . . preferably by Labor Day.

How am I going to make this happen?

First, I’m working hard with two critique groups, submitting two chapters weekly to one group and two chapters bi-weekly to the other. That gets six chapters (they’re short) reviewed every two weeks, when I’m in town and able to meet with my critique partners. Before I submit each chapter, I revise it again myself, trying to cut words and add sensory description and emotions. This is about my fifth edit of the book, so I feel like I’m getting close to a strong product. Feedback on this book says I’m getting close also.

Input from my critique groups is invaluable. And the diversity and breadth of their knowledge is impressive. I have horse experts, gun experts, and several writers of historical fiction to call upon. (I even have an aerospace engineer, though I haven’t had to ask for that expertise on this book.)

But when it comes down to the final product, it is up to me. Whether I complete my goal or not is entirely up to me.

So the second thing I’m doing is tracking my progress weekly. There are eighty-eight chapters in the book. As of today, I have edited thirty-two of them and submitted eighteen to my critique partners. My plan is to be done with my own edits by the end of June, leaving the summer to finish reviewing the book with my critique groups and add their input, and the fall to put the finishing touches on it.

And the third thing I’ll do is report my progress periodically on this blog. As I get closer to finishing, I’ll share some tidbits from the book with you.

What goals do you have for 2015? How are you doing as of the end of January?

Placer Mining in 1848-49


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Last year I recounted the story of James Marshall finding a gold nugget at Sutter’s Mill in January 1848. He looked down into the mill race and saw the bright and glittering metal.

gold minerLike Marshall’s original find, many of the early gold discoveries were made by men who simply spotted the precious metal in or along the streams of central California. These first Gold Rush miners in California engaged in placer mining. A “placer” is a mineral deposit found in gravel or sand, generally on the surface of the earth or in water. The gold deposits were created by erosion of the rock that had contained the metal, and the heavy metal became concentrated through the movement of water or gravity.

All the early placer miners had to do was pick the gold flakes or nuggets by hand, either off the land or from water—they didn’t really need to know anything about mining.

Some men did find gold nuggets just lying on the ground. But more often, they found the gold in rivers and streams. They used pans or buckets or baskets to swish the water around, letting the heavy metal fall to the bottom. The miners scooped the bottom dirt from the water into his container, swirled it around, then poured the water out. The miner had to pick through the dirt to find the gold flakes—since gold is heavy, it tended to remain in the pan.

It was hard work, as the men had to stand in cold water all day long, generally stooping and bearing the weight of pans of water and gravel. It was back-breaking labor.

In addition to the fast-running streams, gold was also found in beds of gravel along hillsides and in ravines, where dirt had washed after rainstorms or spring floods. The argonauts also used placer mining to find flakes and nuggets in veins in the rocks, which was harder than finding the gold in the rivers and streams. Still, it was easier to find the gold on the surface or along the edges of ravines than digging deep into the earth. Almost all the gold found in the early days had been exposed to water at some point and washed to where it was easily discovered by men who were motivated to look.

Later on, “dry diggings” became more frequent, where the miners used knives to pick the gold out of cracks in the rocks. In addition, they brought water to the hills to wash the gold out of the dirt artificially, as the rivers and streams did naturally. But dry diggings were harder than simple placer mining, unless one found a solid vein of gold.

In future months this year, I’ll write more about rockers and long-toms and sluices—other ways of getting the gold out of the hills. And I’ll write about the laws, written and unwritten, observed and unobserved, that governed the mining fields of the California Gold Rush.

Today, tourists and a few adventurers still pan for gold in California (and elsewhere in the U.S. where there have been gold finds). Just like the 1848 miners, all that is needed is a pan and a place to store the gold you find. Of course, all the easy pickings have already been found. Or have they?

For more about the early days of California gold mining, see

Mining Days of 1848

Colonel Richard Mason’s Official Report on the Gold Mines

And there are many other stories written by the early miners.

Have you ever panned for gold? Did you enjoy it? Did you find anything?


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