Our last two posts focused on the evidence we have that documents the Bonniwell family’s two-part trip west to the gold fields of California: by the Panama shortcut in 1849 and by the overland route in 1850. Today I’d like to focus on the members of Bonniwell company after the end of their westward voyage(s), and give you a sense of their experiences as newly-arrived prospectors in the California gold diggings through period drawings, lithographs, photographs, and a substantial excerpt from the Bonniwell Gold Rush diary.1
Currier & Ives. Gold mining in California. California, ca. 1871. New York: Published by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress. As always, click the images to open larger versions in new window.
This colorful Currier & Ives lithograph presents a somewhat idyllic view of “Gold Mining in California” as imagined in 1871 by a New York artist who, most likely, had never been west of the Alleghenies. On the one hand, the lithograph does give us an hint of the splendors of the Sierra Nevada, and some idea of the typical activities of California miners. But as we’ll see, life in gold country when the Bonniwell party arrived—in the early, frenzied days of 1849 and 1850—was much less bucolic.
“Working the bar”
Much of early California gold prospecting involved looking for smaller and larger bits of gold found within the loose alluvial soils and sediments of the rivers and dry riverbeds of the Sierra Nevada. In particular, the miners spent a lot of time “working the bar.” And no, my fellow Wisconsinites, this does not mean they were strenuously pub-crawling in El Dorado county, circa 1849-1850.
A bar in a river is an elevated region of sediment (such as sand or gravel) that has been deposited by the flow. Types of bars include mid-channel bars (also called braid bars and common in braided rivers), point bars (common in meandering rivers), and mouth bars (common in river deltas). The locations of bars are determined by the geometry of the river and the flow through it. Bars reflect sediment supply conditions, and can show where sediment supply rate is greater than the transport capacity.
The Bonniwell Gold Rush documents do not spend much time explaining where and how the Wisconsin men worked the gold fields but, as you’ll read, they did spend a good deal of time working on, or walking through, many such bars.
“Dry” vs “Wet” diggings
It’s hard to tell, but the miners in the foreground of our color lithograph are probably “working a bar.” Their companions to the rear appear to be doing something similar. In particular, these men appear to be “working dry diggings.” That is, the gold-seekers dug up a quantity of dry, potentially gold-bearing alluvium, and then ran it through sieves and finally used water—often supplied by man-made dams and sluices—to rinse away any lighter material, leaving heavier bits of gold behind in their sieves and pans.
“Wet diggings,” on the other hand, are what many people would call “panning for gold,” the miner kneeling by the edge of a promising stream or river, dipping his miner’s pan in the sediment, and then swirling the contents in the pan until all the lighter sediments had been ejected and only the gold particles remained, as in this period drawing:
[Miners panning for gold], detail from Britton & Rey, [Miners panning for gold ; entering a mine shaft ; miners with equipment ; and miners cooking at camp / Lith. of Britton & Rey, California St. corn. Montgomery St., S. Francisco. California,] circa 185-? Library of Congress
“Dry” and “wet” diggings both involved water, but on dry diggings, the miners often had to construct dams or sluices to collect and divert enough water to rinse the dry sediments, as in our Currier & Ives lithograph, and this photograph of El Dorado county miners, c. 1848-1853:
[El Dorado, California. View of scattered log cabins.] California El Dorado, ca. 1848-1853. Library of Congress.
Along with working the dry or wet diggings, some of the original Gold Rush memoirs mention yet another method of gold-seeking. Once the wet or dry surface deposits of gold began to play out in an area, that didn’t mean the gold was gone. But it required another approach, namely getting to the gold deposits by digging a shaft in the ground or into a mountainside.
[Miners entering a mine shaft], detail from Britton & Rey, [Miners panning for gold ; entering a mine shaft ; miners with equipment ; and miners cooking at camp / Lith. of Britton & Rey, California St. corn. Montgomery St., S. Francisco. California,] circa 185-? Library of Congress
Often simply referred to as “mining,” in the early years of the Gold Rush this approach was considered more difficult, and required an investment in time, materials, and labor for which many impatient fortune-seekers had neither the time or financial resourcess.
The Bonniwells at the diggings
George Bonniwell’s Gold Rush diary is, at heart, a record of their long and difficult overland trek, beginning at Milwaukee on April 12, 1850, through their arrival at the California diggings in mid-August. Only the last few diary entries record their first days in the California gold region, from August 11 through September 24. Here is George’s longest and most informative diary entry, summarizing their activities between August 11 and September 8:
Sunday, Sep 8 
I shall now pass over from the 11 of August to September 8 and state some of the particulars during that time, as it has been difficult for me to keep a daily journal. We came in to Hangtown [now Placerville] and we did not find things so favorable as we expected. Here was a great many people and it is a place of great business. There is diggings, but it is hard to get a place to dig, as the diggings is all taken up and it is hard to get a days work. William has gone down to see P.M. Johnson. I have been whiling about several days and can’t get anything to do.
Me and Thomas Mun and Charles [Bonniwell] started for Sacramento. When we went downtown, Charles got a job and then we declined going. I met in with a man and he hired me to go to the American river to butcher for him. He was to give me 4 dollars per day and board. I worked for him 2 days and he could not find sale for his meat and so give it up. I then went with Mr. Twenteman, one of our company, and bought a whipsaw, and was going to saw lumber, and he backed out and I got the man to take the saw back again. Lumber was selling at 30 cents per foot, then me and another man went and bought a new set of mining tools. Cost us 42 dollars and went to mining.
The first day, we took off the surface and did not realize anything the next day. We got 9 dollar [worth of gold], and the next day we got 25 dollars, and Mr. Johnson came and I had to sell my share of the tools and go with him. Lost 6 dollars and a weeks’ provision. I think that it was a good strike that we made during my stay at this place.
I was troubled with the dysentery. It is a very prevailing disorder here. Me and the rest of the men started and walked 160 miles through a pleasant country and saw a great many diggings, and 1 or 2 quite flourishing villages and a great many people of different nations. We arrived in 7 days and found them all well. [Brothers] Alfred Hanery [Henry] and William [Bonniwell] was working on the bar. My feet got blistered very bad. Not well yet.
[Gold miners, El Dorado, California, ca. 1848, before 1853.] Library of Congress.
I went in with a man to mine and worked part of the day and made 4 dollars, and then we had to leave as they said we was on the river the next day. I went to work for William and [co-investor P. M.] Johnson on the bar. I am quite glad I have not to travel any more, yet I have to pay William and Johnson 400 dollars for my time. I think I shall like it very well. I am fattening up every day and I think that there is a prospect of doing well here. I went to hear a sermon today. I felt quite at home.
Bonniwell, George, Gold Rush diary, full citation in note 2, below. Paragraph breaks and annotations added [in square brackets] for modern readers.
I really need to wrap up our Gold Rush discussion. The topic is—for me at least—fascinating in so many respects, as it touches on westward expansion, economics, transportation and communication technologies, politics, Native American history, our local Mequon pioneers and, not least of all, the scenic beauty of the American West.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. A view of the south fork of the American River at Coloma in El Dorado County, California, 2012. Library of Congress.3
But I can’t leave the subject without one more post, as I have some very cool period maps that will give us a better sense of what our Wisconsin prospectors went through as they sought adventure and fortune in the California gold fields.
- If you’re keeping track, we’ll also call this part 10 of our series documenting the life of Clark family neighbor (and in-law) Alfred T. Bonniwell, his life, and circle of family and friends.
- As of 1999, George Bonniwell’s 1850 diary was in the possession of Barbara Sumner (the wife of Thomas Sumner, a great-grandson of the diary’s author, George Bonniwell). A transcription was published on emigrantroad(dot)com, credited to J. R. Tomkins. According to that site, the diary contents are protected by copyright. The excerpts quoted here are published under fair use educational provisions of applicable U. S. copyright law.
For the bibliographic record, I originally accessed part 1 of the diary transcription in 2008, via this now-defunct link: http://www.emigrantroad(dot)com/gold01.html For more on Emigrant Road’s other Oregon Trail information, the Wayback Machine archive of their Contents page is here.
And if you are interested in additional Gold Rush primary and secondary accounts and sources, the National Park Service has put together a tremendous 395 page bibliography, Across the Plains, Mountains, and Deserts: A Bibliography of the Oregon-California Trail, 1812–1912, edited by Will Bagley. This bibliography “provides information for accessing more than 2,600 primary overland accounts and almost 2,000 secondary sources. Resources cited describe life on the trail, frontier justice, exploration with ox-teams, and encounters with Native peoples. Sources include books, magazine and newspaper articles, government documents, maps, and manuscript collections.” This document is available online at:
http://www.nps.gov/cali/historyculture/bibliography.htm and the pdf file is at:
- This photograph is in the public domain as part of the Carol M. Highsmith archive at the Library of Congress. “For 42 years (as of 2022), Highsmith has produced a vast collection of more than 100,000 images, donating her life’s work copyright- and royalty-free, to the Library of Congress, which established a rare, one-person archive, to house them.” [Wikipedia-Carol M. Highsmith]. Highsmith’s gift is a magnificent gift to the nation. Click the link and check it out.