Myth of the Gold Rush  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Cowan's Auctions.

Gold nuggets dotted the landscape like rocks.  It was 1850 and the California gold rush stampede was on.

It was the American Dream in spades.  Even the little guy could win at this game.  If by chance miners walked away with nothing, the adventure and tall tales spun around the hunt could suffice them for a lifetime.

If snatching up nuggets from the ground didn’t offer up enough gold for prospectors they were told they could free their fortunes from the hills and streams with nothing more than a shovel, tin pan and a wooden trench-like contraption called a cradle. 

The cradle set atop a base that rocked back and forth to wash large amounts of dirt away from gold.  The gold stuck to the wooden strips at the bottom of the cradle. 

Rumors of easy pickings and instant riches lulled nearly 90,000 men westward.  They abandoned their farms, families and fiancées for gold fever. 

It was the American Dream in spades.  Even the little guy could win at this game.  If by chance miners walked away with nothing, the adventure and tall tales spun around the hunt could suffice them for a lifetime.  Maybe. 

Life in the mining camps was anything but easy.  Many men spent day after day digging for gold with a pick and shovel, a slow painstaking process.  They would wake with the sun, usually eat a light breakfast of biscuits and coffee and then head out in search of treasure. 

At dusk they often returned to their tents for pickled meat and coffee.  When it got dark the weary miners played poker, drank whiskey by the fire and then collapsed into bed. 

Sometimes the gold nuggets miners found weighed five to eight ounces.  Other times the gold turned out to be the size of pumpkin seeds.  Mostly it showed up in flakes and granules.   

Occasionally a rich pocket of gold could still be uncovered.  But given the competition, it was remote.

Competition alone made gold hunting a break-even proposition for most miners.  And the back-breaking work of extracting the golden treasure seemed impossible to others.  It was a bust not a boom for most gold-diggers.  They often went home broke and ashamed.   

One thing for sure, sold newspapers and publishers jumped at the chance to use the fever to sell papers in the winter of 1848-1849.  Stories came straight from the goldfields about miners digging and unearthing unbelievable riches.  The tall tales surpassed most readers’ wildest dreams.   

For the quick-witted miner who failed in the goldfields, there was still money to be made in the mining camps next to gold-digging sites.  Everything from mining tools to food, clothing, shelter, saloons, gambling halls and brothels awaited the tired, hungry and lonely miners. 

“In New York the great trouble is to find sale for goods—Here it is the reverse, our greatest trouble is in buying goods, they sell themselves,” wrote prospector Mark Hopkins in letter to his brother Moses on July 30, 1850.

By the mid-1850s many mining camps looked like ghost towns. All that was left were tales about getting rich, who did and didn’t.

On June 21, Cowan’s Auctions featured its American History sale in Cincinnati, Ohio.  In the sale were Gold Rush items.  

Gold Rush

Daguerreotype; half-plate; four miners at work; full leather case;  $16,450.

Daguerreotype; half-plate; ten miners at work; circa 1850-53; housed in leather case;  $16,450.

Other Vintage Items

Daguerreotype Camera; Jamin/Darlot Lens; rosewood veneer body; circa 1855-1857; 19 ¾ inches by 8 ½ inches;  $10,575.

Stereodaguerreotype; Samuel Gilman Brown, President of Hamilton College from 1815-1820; Southworth & Hawes; housed in half-plate Boston-style push-button case;  $17,625.

Presidential Campaign Flag; Clay and Frelinghuysen; The Same Old Coon; silk; 1844;  24 ¼ inches by29 inches;  $49,350. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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