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CALIFORNIA-LETTER FROM MERIT SWENEY

Source:  
The Western Star, Lebanon, Warren County, Ohio, Friday, January 31, 1851 (obtained from Ohio Historical Society microfilm #19249)
contributed by Judy Simpson on 11 July 2007
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CALIFORNIA-LETTER FROM MERIT SWENEY.

Yankee Hill, Dec. 4th, 1850.

Friend Denny:—While seated around a snug pine fire in a rude log hut, prepared for winter, the thought came into my mind that I had this day been one year from old Lebanon and had not written to any of my friends there, excepting relatives. While preparing to supply this omission another thought struck me, what have I to write that will render my letter to you in the least interesting? This I answered by resolving to make the effort and leave the decision to you.

I shall not attempt in this to give you a thorough description of my California life, but shall glance hastily over it. I arrived at San Francisco April 6th, remained there but a few days and left for the Southern Mines, where I arrived after ten days travel. I was introduced to the mining business shortly after my arrival at what is called Wood's Diggings, about two hundred and fifty miles by water from San Francisco. I remained there but a few days, the diggings being the oldest in this region and pretty well worked out. I made from five to eight dollars per day. That would not satisfy me.

The next place I commenced mining is where I now write from—Yankee Hill. In these new diggings I did very well for several weeks, but found no very large lumps—such as you hear of in the States. The largest piece of solid gold weighed one pound, worth here two hundred dollars. The day we found that we made a hundred dollars a piece—there being three partners of us. The next day we made sixty-five. I mention this because it has been the most I have taken out in one day since I have been in California. We made from twenty to fifty dollars per day as long as the claim lasted. But I have often worked hard all day for nothing and found myself. That is nothing unusual for a miner at this late day. The summer I spent on the Stanislaus River, at a distance of three or four miles from here, where I expected to be well remunerated for my labor, which was of the harder kind, but was disappointed, as well as hundreds and thousands of others. We labored hard—a company of sixteen of us—in cutting a canal about a hundred yards in length through almost solid rock, which we did by blasting, in order to turn the river and get at the bed, where we expected to find great quantities of the ore. But it failed. This summer's work has taught the miners generally a lesson that they did not know before. It is that of hereafter keeping away from the main rivers in search of gold.

There has been one general failure this year throughout California, and especially in the Southern portion. I left the main river about the first of September, and purchased an interest in a claim on the South Branch—of a small stream—which I paid seventy-five dollars for, the owner wanting to start for home. The first two days I made enough to pay for my claim, and since then I have been doing very well. We are now about abandoning the claim until next year, as the wet season has commenced and we consequently will be prevented from working it longer this winter by high water.

You now have a sketch that will give you some idea of my success and of the success of miners this season generally, as I have done as well as the generality of miners. I have located for the winter here, where my prospects are tolerably good for winter digging. I am associated with some gentlemen from Kenton, Ohio. We have built us a comfortable log house for winter and are well supplied with provisions—the staple articles of life—and, in addition, venison in abundance. We killed and brought into camp the last two days four fine deer, and spent but little time in hunting. Deer are very plenty here at this season. There are also a good many grizzly bears about. Occasionally hunters are attacked by them and are severely hurt. I have not met any bears as yet, but if I do I will do my utmost to secure them. We are now prepared to enjoy some of the comforts of having plenty to eat of good wholesome food (such as flour, pork and venison) and a warm, dry house to sleep in when it is raining. While you are enjoying yourself in old Lebanon over the luxuries and comforts of the fertile Miami Valley, think of us Gold Hunters camped in this wilderness (not in a starving condition) but enjoying ourselves in feasting upon and enjoying the luxuries of this land, which are but few, and consequently are the better appreciated.

The wet season generally lasts about three months. I am told that the miners generally are much better prepared for winter than they were last season. I expect to spend the winter in mining. If I do not start home in the spring I most probably will go into the trading business. With regard to the mines I doubt not but they possess an immense amount of gold. But it doubtless, hereafter, will require a much greater amount of labor to obtain it, for the reason that the old diggings, where gold was most easily obtained, are generally about exhausted. The mines, to my opinion, will never reward all employed as well as heretofore. But there will probably yet be discovered as rich, if not much richer, diggings in California, than any heretofore worked. But the expense of prospecting will be greater, hence it may require a considerable amount of capital to affect it. It is evident to all miners that this country has at one time been in terrible commotion; that the gold has been thrown out of the earth by the effect of volcanic eruptions, in a melted state. This is evident from the shape of the gold, being thin. It is often found connected with quartz rock, being diffused through the open pores of the rock, as though it was melted and poured in. It is also evident that it has been thrown out of the earth by its being generally found in gulches or ravines, where it was doubtless washed from the mountain side. It is the opinion of a great number of the miners, that at some future day, perhaps soon, there will be rich "diggins" discovered upon the tops of the mountains. It appears to me very reasonable. I cannot see why not there as well as in the flats and gulches, where there is a bottom to hold gold. A miner's life is one of much sacrifice, labor exceedingly hard and exposure great. But with all I have never been heartier than since I came to California. There has not been one death to my knowledge in this section since I have been here, and but little sickness. There is much more sickness in the Northern mines than here. The Cholera is said to be very bad at San Francisco and Sacramento. We have but little fears of it here in these mountains; still, it is possible it may visit us.

The glad news of the admission of California into the Union has at last arrived. The Californians had almost despaired of success, but the intelligence of the great marriage has arrived in time to cheer their despairing hopes. There were great demonstrations of joy manifested in many places. May she be as successful in winning the esteem of the great sisterhood of States, by her judicious government and a strict adherence to the Union and Constitution of the United States, as she has been in winning them to dig her treasure. We doubtless will now have laws to protect our lives and interests as American citizens. You have heard of the efforts made by the Mexicans and foreigners in May and June last, to drive all the Americans from the southern mines, because we were few in number compared with them, and in consequence of a tax levied by the Legislature; but by prompt action to arms, and resolute determination amongst the Americans, their designs were frustrated. It was all done, too, by the miners, not by the interference of the State. The miners had to enforce the laws passed by the Legislature, and protect themselves, and, at the same time, were called upon by the Collector for eight dollars poll tax, and 1½ per cent on all our gold dust. We determined not to pay it, and we kept our resolution. We thought such a demand rather too strong a swindling game. We told them they might come that game over the foreigners, but they could not come it over us. There has been as high as thirty murders within twenty-five miles, in the short space of three or four weeks. That was during our troubles with the foreigners, but none have taken place recently. We never lie down at night without our firearms in readiness, at the least alarm. Peace reigns now, and it is to be hoped it will continue.

Great exertions are making in organizing the State, establishing Post Offices, &c. With regard to California as an agricultural country, it never can amount to much, for several reasons. One is, there is but a small portion of her soil that can ever be cultivated. The mining district, which covers a great portion of the country, is so mountainous and rocky that it renders it entirely impossible to cultivate it. The mountains are from one to two miles high in some places, and so rocky and steep as to render it almost impossible for a footman to climb them. Another reason is, the great drouth [sic] which lasts eight or nine months in a year without a drop of rain; consequently, all manner of vegetation is parched up as dry as hay early in the season, and before it can arrive at perfection. There is occasionally a valley that is watered by springs from the mountains, which can be cultivated by irrigation, but they are rare spots, and only large enough for a garden. There is, I am aware, some very productive soil in California, along the coast, and in Sacramento valley, but not of a sufficient amount to render it by any means an agricultural country. Her great wealth is embodied in the gold mines. Some portions of the country are well-timbered, principally with white pine and fir trees, which grow exceedingly large here. I have as yet seen none of the lofty oaks (spoken of, if I remember right, by Fremont in his report), towering almost to the clouds. I have seen but five oaks that would make one rail cut. There is an abundance of stone scattered all over the face of the country, principally granite, slate and quartz. The latter is called the gold-bearing rock, as there is no gold where there is no quartz. There is one remarkable fact with regard to slate that I have frequently noticed (but leave it for a geologist to solve). It is this; the streaks or veins of slate all run through the valley from Southeast to Northwest. The width of the veins varies from one to fifty feet. They often present to the eye, at a distance, the appearance of a densely populated graveyard, projecting from one to six feet above ground, and stand as erect as if planted there by some careful hand in memory of some departed friend, and often so thick that one can scarcely pass through. I must close my description of the country, lest I weary your patience.

To persons contemplating emigration to California, I would say, if you are situated comfortably at home, stay there. The only persons that I can safely recommend to come to this country are young men accustomed to hard labor. But even these should not come expecting to make a fortune in a short time, but should make up their minds to stay years if necessary. I do not write thus discouraging because I think there is no gold here, but first, because the sacrifice is greater than those who have never been here have an idea of, and secondly, because the country is flooded now with people.

There is, I suppose, from two to three hundred thousand people here. A great many of the overland emigrants never struck a lick with a shovel, but started back immediately. You, doubtless, hear a great many large stories in the States (we get them in the papers) about making a fortune so quick. A great many are false, some are true, but where one man makes a fortune in a few short weeks, there are hundreds that are here one, two and three years and do not accomplish it.

With regard to the Lebanon boys, I have seen but two of them, John Van Harlingen and Henry Beller. Van was in Sonora tending bar; Beller is mining and doing tolerably well; the rest are in the northern mines and were all well the last I heard of them. I send you a specimen of our gold which may be something of a curiosity to you. I close by sending my respects to my friends of old Warren in general.

MERIT SWENEY.

[Thank you, Merit. God prosper you and bring you back to your friends. Write whenever you find leisure and let us know your success.]

by
Judy Simpson
11 July 2007


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