For mining involved more than swishing a little gravel and water around in a basin; it was hard, back-straining work. Placer gold, the only kind really known during the gold rush, consists of gold dust and occasional nuggets scattered thinly through sand and gravel (a miner never called it anything but “dirt”). To obtain the gold, it was necessary to wash a great deal of dirt, taking advantage of the fact that gold is about eight times as heavy as sand and will settle to the bottom while the sand is being carried oft by the water. The gold pan, traditional symbol of the miner, was used only in very rich claims or for testing samples of dirt to see whether they were worth working further. In ordinary circumstances, a hopperlike device of wood and perforated sheet iron called a cradle, or rocker, was employed in a two-man operation: while one shoveled in the dirt, the other rocked the device and poured water with a dipper. The dirt was washed through, and the gold was caught in settling pockets.

After 1849, an invention called the long torn was used wherever there was a good supply of running water. It was simply a wooden flume with water running through it; dirt was shoveled in and sluiced through while the gold caught on a slatted bottom. A long torn was worked by several men and could handle four or five times as much dirt per man per day as could a cradle. That meant, of course, that a miner had to shovel four or five times as much dirt into it as he would into a cradle to keep it operating at full efficiency. A man usually had to pay for what he got, even in the gold fields.

The terrain on which the prospectors worked did little to make things easier for them; it was usually difficult. The diggings were chiefly along the tributaries of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, which flowed out of the Sierra Nevada; each river, fork, branch, and creek was eventually followed by prospectors to its source. In the lower foothills the land might be only moderately rocky and hilly at best; near the headwaters rushing streams flowed in the clefts of deep, precipitous gorges whose bottoms were often cluttered with boulders and fallen rocks and choked with jackstraw tangles of dead trees. Even under these conditions, miners persevered at the ever-absorbing task of separating a small amount of gold from a mountain of gravel, and with amazing energy and ingenuity constructed hydraulic works to enable them to move the stream here or there or otherwise exploit it in their search for wealth.

Sometimes these constructions reached the proportions of major engineering works—and were often complete wastes of time and talent. Louise Clappe—“Dame Shirley” she called herself in her letters—who lived with her doctor husband in the mining camps of Indian Bar and Rich Bar on a high fork of the Feather River for a year, wrote of a company of thirteen men who worked from February almost through September on a project to divert a section of the stream so they could mine the bed. It involved building a dam six feet high and three hundred feet long, as well as a flume and other supporting works. Lumber had cost $1,000 and thirty laborers had been hired for nine and a half days; in all, the dam cost $2,000. When the company totaled its take in gold dust at the end of the venture, it amounted to $41.70.

While such experiences were frequent, they were very far from universal, or else a crowd of amateurs would not have been able to take out, between 1848 and 1852, a quarter of a billion dollars’ worth of gold, more or less—no one knows exactly how much—before the rich placer deposits began to give out. For a great many men, the gold fields yielded up a very good day’s wage for a day’s work. But a day’s wage was not what started the gold rush and kept it going; the Argonauts came expecting nothing less than a strike that would make them rich overnight. And there were places where the new Eldorado was almost as rich as the wildest stories ever told about it—locations like those at Auburn, where four cart loads of dirt yielded $16,000, and where, during the first delirious days, it was not at all unusual for a man to dig $1,000 to $1,500 worth of gold between dawn and dusk. Even the stories about gold being found at the roots of bushes turned out to be true: a man hunting rabbits near Angel’s Camp jammed his ramrod into the roots of a manzanita bush and turned up a piece of gold-bearing quartz; he scratched out $700 worth of gold the rest of the day using the rod, but with better implements gathered $2,000 the next day and $7,000 the third.

There were stories of men digging gold flakes out of cracks in the rock in stream beds with spoons. Three German prospectors taking a short cut home through unexplored country found just such a situation on a high tributary of the Feather River and were reported to have taken out $36,000 in four days without even having to wash any gravel. The story of the find leaked out—miners seemed able to smell a gold strike—and the location, named Rich Bar, was quickly swarming with men. It was so rich that it was agreed that claims should be limited to ten square feet. Single panfuls of dirt here contained $1,500 to $2,000 in gold often enough to be considered almost commonplace; the record for one panful was said to have been $2,900. One company of four men took out $50,000 in a single day.