The Early 48er’s of the California Gold Rush

One of the most publicized stories concerning the California Gold Rush was the fascinating story of the 49er’s and their flooding of northern California by land and by sea. Likewise, one of the not so publicized stories has to do with the very first Gold Rush prospectors, the 48er’s, the hordes who stampeded to the Sierra Nevada foothills before the legendary 49er’s ever arrived.

What occurred in late 1848 was in many respects the opening salvo of the great gold rush of California.

gold rush water cannon

Mining Water Cannon exhibit at Nevada City California

A Timely Speech and a Gold Rush

The exodus to the California gold fields began with a speech in San Francisco’s Plymouth Square.

The gold in California was discovered at a John Sutter’s sawmill in January of 1848 by James Marshall who was working for Sutter. Sutter wanted badly to keep the news secret and directed his employees to do so. Firstly, Sutter thought that this gold could help pay off his debts which were many. Secondly, a rush of prospectors to the area would jeopardize his land holdings and farming operations. Obviously something like this wouldn’t remain a secret for long. San Francisco newspapers reported on the finding in March but not much came of it. Finally it all came to a head in May of 1848 and with “proof” by way of a man named Sam Brannan, a storekeeper in Sutter’s Creek.

Sam Brannon became aware of the discovery at John Sutter’s sawmill from Mormans who lived in the area of the American River. Brannon obtained a bottle filled with gold dust and proceeded, when he felt the time was right and his stores along the American River fully stocked, to make a speech in Plymouth Square where he declared to the crowd…”Gold! Gold! Gold from American River!” While rumors about the gold discovery were known by many, albeit without seeing the gold itself, Brannon’s declaration and exciting exhibit offered proof to the rumors. This was enough to stir things up.

stamp mill gold rush

Ten Stamp Mill exhibit, Nevada City California

There wasn’t an instant stampede and the local papers at first treated this newest story mildly. That also didn’t last long. In a few days time there began a tremendous exodus out of San Francisco and other coastal settlements.

The newspapers actually closed down because the owners and employees felt more money could be made along the American River. Ships that arrived in San Francisco found crews deserting and heading east into the Sierra Nevada foothills. Stores closed when owners abandoned them. These were the 48er’s. These were the people residing in California at the time and they had the first pickings.

New York newspapers reported on the discovery in August 1848 but it would be months before the eastern population could make it all the way to northern California. Their choices included a journey overland, sailing around Cape Horn and up the coast or sailing to Panama and across a malarial jungle to a port on the Pacific coast. Any of these choices meant months of travel.

sutters fort exhibits

Exhibit inside Sutter’s Fort, Sacramento California

The Early Pickings for Gold

It is a fact that the earliest prospecting for California gold was by far the easiest. In some cases there was very little work involved finding the mineral. Some described it as being everywhere. It was said that out of the ten thousand prospectors in the gold fields during the fall of 1848 it was hard to find anyone who didn’t find $20 worth of gold each day. Five prospectors using picks and shovels uncovered $75,000 worth of gold in a three month period. Gold was found using only crow bars and a knives. Businessmen hired workers to hunt for gold thus increasing their profits. One person was known to promise local Indians relatively cheap gifts if they would bring him gold.

Selling to the Prospectors

Another way to make a fortune during the historic winter of 1848-1849 was to sell to the prospectors. It was said that $40 could be charged for a single meal. Horses could be sold for $300 that prior to the gold rush might have cost $6. Eggs could sell for $3 each and butter $6 per pound. If you were able to obtain the merchandise to sell, as Sam Brannon did, a fortune could be made without even leaving your store. Some smart prospectors invested their new found gold wealth into enterprises bringing goods via ship up from Mexico to sell to the miners. Shovels and picks would fetch $100 as did boots and a gallon of whiskey.

gold miners statue auburn california

Gold Miners statue, Auburn California

The First of the Forty-Niners

The first of the Forty-Niners were actually seen in southern California as early as August 1848. These were the people too anxious to get to California to wait for spring.

Knowing about the tragedy that the Donner Party met attempting to cross the Sierra Nevada range in the winter, these first arrivals to California took the southern Texas to San Diego route. This took them across the deserts of the southwest and over the Yuma Crossing to California. From San Diego it was north over the El Camino Real to northern California.

After the initial group of Forty-Niners reached the California gold fields thousands would follow and not only from the U.S. People from Europe, South America and Asia arrived in droves.

The Earliest Pickings Were the Best

By the third and fourth year of the Gold Rush the largest part of the precious metal was mined. Compared to the bonanza found by the first miners, especially those from 1848, there were people who arrived later and left disappointed. Nevertheless, fortunes were still made but the pickings were nothing like what was seen during that first winter of 1848-1849.

Below are links to two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy…

The Steamboat and Sacramento

A Six Month Voyage Chasing For Gold

A Visit to the Gatekeeper’s Museum / Tahoe City CA

old town sacramento firehouse

Structure in Old Town Sacramento California

Visit California’s Gold Rush Museums and Parks

North Star Mining Museum–   The museum located in Grass Valley California, just north of Auburn, is housed in the former North Star Mine powerhouse. The mining displays include machinery, handcrafted tools, a 20-stamp mill, Cornish Pump and a 30-foot Pelton Wheel.

Sacramento History Museum– Located in historic Old Town Sacramento, the museum will give you a lesson in everything gold rush. John Sutter, riverboat traffic, old mine replicas, Portuguese and Chinese exhibits, and the history of Sacramento’s first fifty years are all a part of this fascinating museum.

Columbia State Historic Park–   Gold was discovered here at Columbia California in 1850. Columbia yielded $87 million in gold at 1860s prices and was known as “The Queen of the Southern Mines”.

gold rush exhibits nevada city

Mine Ore Car exhibit, Nevada City California

Gold Bug Park-  The main feature of the park located in Placerville is the Gold Bug Mine, a small hard rock gold mine. Featured ar two lighted shafts of the Gold Bug Mine, one is 362 feet in length and the other 147 feet long. These are open to the public for self guided tours.

Chew Kee Store-   Constructed in the early 1850s, this rammed earth adobe located in Fiddletown served as an herb shop during the Gold Rush and is the only remnant of the once thriving Fiddletown Chinese Community. The building is now a museum operated by the Fiddletown Preservation Society.

Kennedy Mine-   The Kennedy Mine Foundation offers guided and self guided surface tours of the historic Kennedy Mine located in Jackson. View the 125 foot high head frame, mine buildings, restored mine office, the remnants of the largest stamp mill in the Mother Lode and more.

Three excellent books about the California Gold Rush, the Forty-Eighters and the Forty-Niners include The Golden Road by author Felix Riesenberg Jr., … They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush by author JoAnn Levy and Bret Harte’s Gold Rush by author Bret Harte.

 

(Article and photos copyright 2013 Trips Into History)

Six Month Voyage Chasing for Gold

The Gold Craze Takes Hold

When gold was first discovered at Sutters Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California, a mad dash like this country has never seen was put in motion. Thousands of people in the eastern United States, not to mention the world in general, suddenly wanted to be in California. The gold discovery of 1849 was like no other and it just happened to occur at the same time that California was taken over, thanks to the end of the Mexican American War, from it’s former Mexican rulers.

california gold rush poster

California Gold Rush Poster

Not only had the U.S. taken possession of the Southwest and California, but now this new land so far away from the east promised riches of the kind that Coronado had hoped for during his Spanish expedition of 1540. The timing for the United States and it’s citizens couldn’t have been better.

How to Get to the Gold Fields

The problem or difficulty in the year 1849 was simply how to get there. There were really three ways to accomplish this and all three were filled with danger. It was basically a case of choosing your own poison.

The first was overland. The second was by ship to Panama crossing the jungle of Central America and then again by ship up the west coast of North America and into San Francisco Bay. The third option was also by ship, sailing down the Atlantic Ocean, navigating around Cape Horn, and then sailing north all the way to San Francisco. All three presented perilous journeys and there wasn’t one option which was clearly better than the other.

Traveling Overland to California

san francisco harbor during gold rush

Harbor at San Francisco, 1850-51

The overland option exposed one to Indian attacks, breakdown on the remote trail or mountains and of course the elements.

In the 1850’s the Indian situation in the west was volatile as diaries from Oregon Trail pioneers detail quite well. One only had to recall the fate of the Donner party in the snow covered Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Steamer to Panama

A trip by steamer via Panama meant a trek through the jungles which also could mean malaria and other afflictions.There was also uncertainty of whether ship passage was available when you finally made your way to the Pacific coast.

Rounding Cape Horn

The third option, a sea voyage around Cape Horn meant two things. Probably a six month journey ( average was about 200 days) and the very good chance of trying to ride out ocean storms not to mention the dangerous passage around Cape Horn. The exception was the Clipper Ship which started the California run in early 1849 and reportedly could make the voyage to San Francisco in about 120 days. It was thought that a regular vessel at the time could make about 4-5 knots where a clipper ship might be able to do 6-7 knots.

The Enticement of Gold

ss california

SS California, first Pacific Mail Steamer between San Francisco and Panama

The clipper ships carried mostly valuable freight and not many passengers.

The gold certainly was enticing, the work to get oneself there most likely wasn’t.

Amazingly, people from all walks of life headed to the gold fields. Farmers left their farms, storekeepers closed up their shops, doctors left their practices, clergymen left their flocks and many other people simply left home.

It was reported that in the United States during the year 1849 alone about 42,000 people struck out to California by land and about 25,000 by sea. Another interesting fact is that people from all of the then 31 states headed to the gold fields as well as people from 25 different nations.

Sailing to the Gold Fields

Let’s just say you really were hit with the gold bug and decided to journey to California from the American east coast in 1849 or 1850. Some bought passage on the next steamer bound for the Pacific and others actually signed on as seamen to gain passage west. There was another endeavor which was the creation on cooperatives to send vessels to California. The dual purpose was to journey to the California gold fields and also to carry supplies, if possible, from the east to sell to the thousands now in California.

The Cooperative…One Way to Make the Journey West

gold rush clipper ship

Clipper Ship Sovereign of the Seas, 1850’s

One exceptional story which really illustrates the frantic scramble to make it to the California gold fields concerns the vessel “California Packet“.

Captain George Kimball, working out of the seacoast town of Cutler Maine, lacking the funds to purchase a vessel, went into the Maine woods and cut the timber necessary to build his ship. Kimball’s project became a cooperative.

Meat and provisions were gathered together by farmers who would join the expedition. While other companies were already underway on their voyages to California, Kimball of course was still putting his vessel together. The sheer adventure of such a project as Kimball’s attracted experienced joiners and shipwrights. In place of wages for these workers, shares of the cooperative were issued. The 144 foot long California Packet with a 15 foot beam was finally launched off the Maine coast on November 29, 1849.

gold rush steamers

Gold rush steamer sign in Old Town Sacramento CA

The passengers on this historic voyage were a bit different than those on some of the ships that had departed earlier.

The California Packet carried one hundred people including twelve married women, sixteen unmarried women and fifteen children. The remaining passengers were young males eagerly heading to California to find their fortune.

The wide variety of passengers were most likely due to the ship being a cooperative rather than a commercial vessel simply selling passage. In fact, it was reported that everyone on board the California Packet was a shareholder. The ship was very fortunate to pick up cargo worth some $15,000 in Boston. The vessel sailed around Cape Horn and made safe passage all the way to San Francisco.

California was a wild place in 1850 and while the cooperative worked quite well during the planning stages and during the actual months long voyage, once the ship reached it’s destination the cooperative tended to fall apart. People went their own ways.

Below are links to additional Trips Into History articles you’ll enjoy;

The Amazing Story of the Gold Rush Forty-Eighters

New Gold Towns Overnight

The Stolen Boat

Airships / The California Gold Rush

Dangers Were Always Lurking

The shorter sea route which traversed the Panama jungles had it’s perils. People took sick and died during this crossing. It was not until years later with the completion of the trans-Panama railroad that the dangers were lessened. This shorter route was popular because Cape Horn and the six month sea voyage was avoided. Probably what wasn’t fully realized was the difficulty in crossing through the jungle with the chance of picking up an exotic disease.

sutters fort buildings

Historic Sutters Fort structures, Sacramento CA

Sea travel required two important things. A competent captain who knew not only how to keep the ship off of rocks but also how to navigate in general. The second thing was to have adequate food supplies. The long voyage to California around Cape Horn required careful planning to either store enough food or know where to stop to replenish the supply. Among diseases on a long voyage was scurvy so fruits were an important food to have along.

The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

One of the best ways to learn about the ships of the California Gold Rush is to visit The San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park located adjacent to Fishermans Wharf. For more than 60 years, San Francisco Maritime National Park Association has worked to bring maritime history to life for visitors to the San Francisco Bay Area.

An excellent website to give you a precise chronology of the California Gold Rush years is www.sfmuseum.org

Three books I’d recommend regarding the travel endured, the people involved and the mining towns themselves include Anybody’s Gold: The Story of California’s Mining Towns by author Joseph Henry Jackson, The World Rushed In by author J.S. Holliday and  California : Romance of clipper ship and gold rush days by author James W. Travers.

(Photos of Sutters Fort and Steamer Sign is from author’s collection. Remaining photos from the public domain)

 

 

The First California Theaters

Trips Into History visits some of the old California theaters, many of which trace their beginnings back to the days of the Gold Rush. Several of these theaters are still standing and make great additions to your California vacation planner.

nevada theater

Nevada Theater, Nevada City California

Interestingly enough, the theaters not only sprouted up to offer some type of “refined” entertainment to the gold prospectors, but in places like San Francisco, even warred against each other to compete for the money and gold streaming into that city.

Add These Sites to Your California Trip Planner

Nevada Theater– Located in Nevada City California up in the Sierra Nevada this is the oldest continuously operating live theater in California. Nevada City was at one time a booming mining town and attracted as performers such notable names as the Lotta Crabtree, Edwin Booth and Mark Twain.

Eagle Theater– This reconstructed theater is located in Old Town Sacramento California. The original theater which was built with canvas and wood was washed away by a flood in January 1850 just three months after it’s construction. The story is that Gold Rush miners attended live performances even while the theater was being filled with water. Eventually it collapsed and floated down the Sacramento River.

Napa Valley Opera House– This opera house opened in Napa California in 1880. The Italianate style building was the venue for the 1896 exhibition featuring the famous fighter, John L. Sullivan. The writer Jack London also read from his works at the opera house.

eagle theater in sacramento california

Reconstructed Eagle Theater, Old Town Sacramento California

Live Theater and the Gold Miner

The first entertainers to reach the remote mining camps in the Sierra Nevada foothills might be someone with a guitar and a song. Nothing spectacular. The venue might have been a saloon and a tent saloon at that. These were really traveling shows. What was realized by the traveling minstrels was that a prospector would gladly pay for entertainment. The San Francisco theater business was right around the corner. The gold rush of 1849 was soon to enrich the city in another way.

Men of means in San Francisco discovered that there was another way, in addition to gambling, to part miners from their gold nuggets. The 49ers gold rush was soon to pour more gold into San Francisco. Live entertainment was just the thing for home sick prospectors. Women at this early year were essentially absent. There was no Saturday night courting. The miners would gladly pay to be entertained and especially entertained with something comical or slapstick. A form of entertainment that would get their thoughts away from the drudgery of mining for gold. The wilder and funnier the better.

napa valley opera house

Napa Valley Opera House, Napa California

In the book Women of the Gold Rush by author Elizabeth Margo, she states that California’s very first concert was performed on June 22, 1849 in San Francisco. The venue was a small schoolhouse located on the plaza which also doubled as a jail. The entertainer was a man named Steve Massett who was a part songwriter and piano player. All reports were that the concert was sold out (in a very small structure) and was accepted well. As it turned out, this was a one time event and things on the theater front were quiet until the end of 1849.

In the winter of 1850, a man referred to as the Doctor, would open San Francisco’s first theater, although using the word theater is a bit of a stretch. A hastily put up shack was a better description. The Doctor, also going by the name of Yankee Robinson, was indeed a doctor who had a medical school degree from the east. Yankee Robinson operated a drug store on the plaza and also had a talent for performing. Robinson was a part mimic, songwriter, guitar player and monologist.

gold rush san francisco

Crowded San Francisco Harbor in 1851

It was time for the Doctor to start the first San Francisco theater. All accounts say that the Doctor was a hit with the miners. He was especially successful with telling jokes about the gold miners and their quest to conquer El Dorado. The Doctor found out that miners enjoyed being joked about and he had them rolling in the aisles. It was escapism and comedy and the miners loved it.

Fires and San Francisco

The Doctor also took in some decent money with his theater. Not long after the Doctor started his little theater, San Francisco was hit by a devastating fire. These fires in 1850 and 1851 came on a regular basis. They also occurred with regularity in the early mining towns in the Sierra Nevada.

During that era, most structures were either made of wood or were simply tents. Fires occurred almost every month or so. Tents and simple structures would be replaced about as fast as they burned up. It was quite incredible how San Francisco and the other towns rebuilt so many times in the 1850’s. Each rebuilding usually was a bit better than what was there before. Some historians contend that the fires in a way improved the San Francisco theater industry and the city in general.

nevada city california

Today's Nevada City California

Robinson and Evrard

Yankee Robinson’s second theater was put together with a partner and was called the Robinson and Evrard Museum. While the theater used the word museum, the venue was a theater. At about the same time, a well established gambler by the name of Tom McGuire, also decided that there just might be another way to get miners to part with their gold other than gambling. McGuire owned and operated the Parker House gambling hall and was making a lot of money. He already had women at his gambling hall to help lure men in. Why not have them act on a stage and bring in even more money?

McGuire had also figured out that it might be a good idea to have a second revenue stream. You never knew how long the gambling binge might last. Gold miners who could afford it had no problem catching a steamboat to enjoy the San Francisco live entertainment.

What’s amazing was that the regular fires in San Francisco did not discourage the expansion of the theater industry. In fact, they didn’t seem to discourage anything. Each time a fire would burn the city down, another larger theater would sprout up.

You’ll also enjoy our Trips Into History articles about Nevada City California and Madame Mustache and the Story of Sacramento’s Eagle Theater.

old town sacramento steamer service

Steamer service from Sacramento to San Francisco

The Theater Battles Between the Doctor and Tom McGuire

Tom McGuire’s theater was named the Jenny Lind. Jenny Lind was a celebrated opera singer from Europe who for whatever reason never did visit San Francisco. In all, McGuire had three different Jenny Lind’s due to the regular  fires. The last one was a showplace in 1851 with a capacity of some three thousand. Between the fires and the building of theaters, a competition started up between the Doctor and Tom McGuire.

The competition was for both the miners gold and for the available talent. Each theater owner tried to snag the best performers. As is the case with theater in general, personality flare ups were an occurrence and performers would change venues often. Promotion was very important. Prominent signs and employing barkers at the door to bring in ticket buyers was important. Simple ticket price cutting wasn’t a wise option because the overhead in owning a theater was substantial and the two owners both knew it. Much more overhead than simply running faro or monte tables at a gambling hall.

A funny story told about Yankee Robinson’s third and final theater, the American, had to do with it’s construction. As you might already know, much of the present day San Francisco waterfront area is landfill. In the 1850’s, roads were being formed on the cities sand hills and the sand would be pushed into the bay. As a result, the land area increased along the shore. It just so happened that the Doctor built his theater on just such landfill.

old town sacramento

Old Town Sacramento California

The Doctor built a three thousand seat showplace. It was considered an architectural wonder. His competitor, McGuire and his associates, however didn’t waste any time spreading rumors around town that Robinson’s new American Theater just might be unsafe on all that landfill. Regardless of the rumors, Yankee Robinson’s theater opened up to a full house. While the opening proved successful it was a bit shaky at first. The story is that Robinson’s theater sank some two inches into the landfill while the opening performance was going on.

While it had nothing to do where Yankee Robinson’s American Theater was built, Tom McGuire in the end did win the theater battle. The Doctor went out of business at the end of 1851. Possibly McGuire’s background in the gambling business worked to outsmart the ex drug store owner/ performer/physician. Regardless, the Doctor was finished, bankrupt and actually ended up working for McGuire. The Doctor after all was a performer.

McGuire himself got into some financial trouble in 1852 and as a result of knowing the right people, sold his Jenny Lind Theater to the city fathers for their first city hall. McGuire reportedly got around $200,000 for the building and turned around and opened another theater. Tom McGuire, the gambling hall owner at heart, always seemed to think a step ahead of others.

lotta crabtree

Lotta Crabtree, 1868

Lotta Crabtree Launches Her Career

An interesting fact is that some very prominent entertainers came out of the California gold mining region. The book, Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson, gives a lot of detail about some of these performers. The most famous would have been Lotta Crabtree who went on to be the first millionaire entertainer. Lotta was from the east and arrived in California with her mother to join the father who had went in advance searching for gold. His gold efforts went nowhere but his young five year old daughter in the early 1850’s would go on to be a nationally recognized star.

The Times Changed and the Theater Changed

In a way, you could say that what played successful at the theater house ran in direct correlation with the amount of women arriving, respectable women, who inhabited both San Francisco and to a lesser degree the gold camps.

The more wives and relatives who arrived to join the prospectors, the more the atmosphere changed. And many would say for the better. If Shakespeare productions were not popular in 1849, and they weren’t, then they would begin to be as the region became, for lack of a better word, civilized. By the mid 1850’s, churches started to sprout up, schools were being established and a sort of moral standard was evoked. The new residents wouldn’t put up with what the first gold prospectors would. They would complain and complain loudly.

gold panning

Gold Panning Statue in Placerville California

This change wasn’t lost on the gambling hall and theater owners. The early success of Yankee Robinson’s one man act telling jokes about the miners with the accompanying catcalls from the audience declined by about the same rate as women arrived in San Francisco by steamer.

Theater productions, while possibly still performed without rehearsals, took on more serious and classical plot lines. Wild and rowdy show productions weren’t selling like they used to. While there have always been exceptions, plays and monologues that would be acceptable to both male and female audiences were the new money makers.

An Unintended Social Experiment

To demonstrate just how fast the moral atmosphere changed, the state of California in 1855 passed a law forbidding gambling in the state. Obviously, back room games still popped up behind closed curtains. The gambling prohibition also took a bit longer to take hold in the mining camps and villages. The remote locations and the inability to adequately enforce the law made change much slower in the Sierra Nevada foothills.

san francisco california

Modern day San Francisco California

What is interesting is in just how short of a time these significant changes came about. From 1849 to 1855, things almost came full circle. The entire six year span was like a social experiment. The experiment demonstrated what would take place with an almost all male population placed in a remote area without family influences and while on a quest for riches.

It also included the element of no standing moral values. In other words, the prospectors first crude mining camps represented the first civilizing step in building a settlement. The difference with this experiment was that the settlement was being built in the middle of nowhere. Some might say that the 49ers situation was like that of a deployed military unit. The difference however is that a military unit has a chain of command and recognized leaders. There were neither during the first years of the California Gold Rush. I’m certain that many letters sent back home to wives or relatives during the first few years omitted much of the extracurricular activities that went on. Excessive drinking and gambling may have been left out of the letters back home. When the first contingent of respectable females arrived in the gold country, the clock started ticking.

When living conditions and social moors changed, so did the San Francisco theater business. There are many historic theaters in California and several of them make great additions to your California vacation planner.

(Photos of San Francisco harbor and Lotta Crabtree from the public domain. Remaining photos are from author’s collection)

 

Nevada City California and the Gambler Madame Mustache

When you travel high into the Sierra Nevada foothills between Sacramento and Donner Pass, the entire town of Nevada City California stands out as a living historic site of what was once a roaring gold mining camp and town. Nevada City stood apart from some of the other California gold towns. Nevada City in it’s heyday sported about three dozen saloons, many with beautiful mahogany and plate glass. There was another thing that Nevada City had. It was an incredibly successful, at least early in life, female gambler.

Famous National Hotel, Neveda City California

Gold Dust and the Frenchwoman / Enter Madame Dumont

Stepping off a stagecoach in 1854, Eleanore Dumont knew exactly why she came to Nevada City. Like other professional gamblers, Eleanore’s aim was to extract as much gold dust and nuggets from the miners as possible without actually mining herself. Interestingly enough, the professional gamblers collectively did an excellent job of doing just that.

In the history books, Madame Dumont is often referred to as Madame Mustache. This nickname apparently came about when a Californian who noticed a darkening line of Latin down on her upper lip used the term to describe her. For whatever reason, the name stuck and this was the nickname that Eleanore Dumont, the Frenchwoman gambler, was known as to many a gold miner.

Starting a New Gambling House

After hanging around Nevada City’s hotel for a few days, Madame Dumont set up a gambling parlor where she specialized in “vingt-et-un”, better known as Twenty One. The Madame excelled in dealing out the cards. She had gained much of her ability in San Francisco. She also excelled in producing happy losers. Probably a invaluable trait for a professional gambler.

Prospectors, working hard all day in the diggings looked forward to hanging out at Dumont’s gambling parlor because the proprietor was a woman. This was the era of the California gold mining towns where females in general were quite rare. Especially an unattached charming female, such as Dumont. A chance to spend time with one was not easily ignored. The story was that these miners actually cleaned up and dressed up before paying a visit to Madame Dumont. This in itself was quite rare for any Sierra Nevada gold miner to do. One’s attire was not an up front issue in the early 1850’s at a gold mining camp.

Success Had It’s Limits

Nevada City California Theater

Madame Eleanore Dumont had spent time previously in San Francisco where she came into contact with the more successful miners. She had a knack of understanding them and figured out what they liked and disliked.

It was probably with this educated knowledge that she journeyed to Nevada City to try her luck with her own establishment. Knowing your customer is one of the best attributes of any business owner and Madame Dumont was a master at it.

A perfect example of this is described in the book Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson when he describes how she was able to actually make a man feel privileged to lose an entire weeks sifting of gold in her gambling parlor. After just one week in Nevada City, with the early success she experienced in relieving men of their money, Madame Dumont knew very well that she would remain in town for some time to come. All of her goals were unfolding like clockwork.

The built in problem that Dumont faced was that a dealer could operate only one table. Perhaps a half dozen gamblers at any one time would gamble at her single table. She knew well that there was much more of the miner’s gold to tap with more than one “Twenty One” table. She wanted more volume. As a result, Madame Dumont went into a partnership with a young professional gambler, a male.

The partnership worked quite well and business grew and additional games were added such as Keno and Chuck-A-Luck. Profits grew at a fast clip and this cash flow wasn’t lost to Dumont’s new male partner. The partner demanded more of the profits than he had originally agreed to. He pressed the issue with Dumont. For whatever reason, the Frenchwoman was determined that her partner would get not one dollar more than what they previously had agreed to. With that, the partnership dissolved, her partner taking whatever his then share was worth and left town. He not only left Nevada City but he traveled all the way to New York and ended up establishing his own very successful gambling house in that bustling city.

See our Trips Into History article on the link below…

A Visit to Old Town Sacramento CA

Time to Leave Nevada City

Nevada City California today

Madame Dumont’s luck in Nevada City California was starting to wane. It just so happened that her new one person gambling operation began at about the time that the easy pickings were starting to dry up in the surrounding area.

The dry diggings and the river mining were on a downtrend and quartz mining was starting to take over. The tremendous values to come out of the quartz mines would not be felt for a little while. With this backdrop, the Madame found herself in a transitional time for Nevada City. Her original scheme was to arrive in Nevada City at it’s peak, with her knowledge and charm, take as much gold from the miners as possible and then leave town. The year 1856 was when Madame Eleanore Dumont decided to leave Nevada City.

Whatever Happened to Madame Mustache?

The exact facts of what happened to Eleanore Dumont over the next twenty years of her life is not etched in granite. What is known comes in bits and pieces of stories shared among the gold miners and others all over the west.

The story is that Eleanore Dumont traveled a lot. She was reported seen in such far away places as Deadwood Dakota Territory, Virginia City Montana, Tombstone Arizona and the wild mining town of Bodie California. The story also contends that in Madame Dumont’s later years she resorted to prostitution to earn her living. It appears that it was at Bodie that Madame Mustache took her own life in 1879.

While Bodie was a well known wild mining town with it’s share of violence, it’s not as well known as some other western frontier mining towns because it didn’t have star characters such as Doc Holliday or the Earp’s. Madame Mustache could very well have been the most notorious female gambler to have ever stepped foot in both Nevada City and Bodie California. It’s one of those stories that could only have come out of the Gold Rush days.

(Article and photos copyright Trips Into History)

 

The Theater Washed Away By a River / The Eagle Theater of Sacramento California

In 1849, there were essentially two types of people who frequented Sacramento California. Those who worked hard all day digging or panning for gold up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, and those selling things to these prospectors. Both would make a lot of money although the majority would have been those who sold to the miners. It was more of a sure thing and the prices received by merchants in such a remote region could be astonishing.

1849 sacramento california waterfront

Location of the Eagle Theater on the banks of the Sacramento River in Sacramento California. Public domain image.

The Eagle Theater in Sacramento Old Town was the first permanent theater structure built in the state of California. The structure was simply wood frame and canvas located behind a gambling tent. To enter the Eagle Theater one would had to walk through the gambling tent where, certainly more than once, a miner lost some gold dust between the entrance of the tent and the entrance of the theater. In retrospect, it probably was one of the best marketing ideas of 1849. At every turn there was opportunity for the gold miners to spend their money.

The Eagle Theater which supposedly cost an amazing  $30,000 to build (wood and canvas), opened in September of 1849. The high cost of building such a flimsy structure was a direct result of the shortage of building materials around the gold country. Other items such as food, clothes, etc were selling at astronomical prices. Opening a theater was a fairly sure way to make money in Sacramento at that time. The miners had spent most of their non-mining hours either gambling, drinking and in most cases doing both at the same time. Even that routine can get old. Not that they ever really gave up the gambling and imbibing, but something new was needed for miners to spend their time and their gold dust. There were enough non mining people around Sacramento and the gold fields trying to answer that question. A different kind of entertainment was needed. The answer was theater, although theater at that particular time and place could be open to interpretation. Nevertheless, good or bad theater, it was entertainment.

The very informative book, Women of the Gold Rush by author Elizabeth Margo, describes what unfortunately happened to the Eagle Theater. The Eagle Theater was created by the Eagle Stock Company which was a first for California. As mentioned above, theater patrons would pass through the Round Tent gambling saloon to enter the theater. The Eagle Stock Company began in early fall with a series of plays such as The Bandit Chief.

Eagle Theater in Sacramento California

Restored historic Eagle Theater in Old Town Sacramento California, from author's collection.

California falls and winter can be quite wet. It’s the rainy season in the state and it’s also a time when gold prospectors were often idle. The theater did two things. It offered entertainment when the miners needed something to do and it also was a way to get shelter from the rain.

In 1849, it rained during the entire fall season, rained all November and December and rained even heavier during January 1850. On one rainy evening in January the Sacramento River rose so much that water came seeping through the floor. During the play’s second act the audience was standing on the benches. By the time the play concluded, the audience of miners were virtually hanging from the rafters in the gallery. What occurred was that the Eagle Theater actually became a part of the newly widened Sacramento River. What was the short lived Eagle Theater was now part of the Sacramento River. The elements did what the critics could never do. Never again would a Sacramento theater be at that location. Amazingly, the Eagle Stock Company held fast and continued to put on performances for several more nights. The audience hung from the rafters over the part of the river that was serving as the Eagle Theater. This gives you an idea of how badly entertainment was needed and accepted. Flooding in Sacramento during January 1850 damaged a wide area of the Sacramento waterfront. When all was said and done, only a portion of the theater remained intact. New owners rebuilt the theater about 200 feet inland and renamed it the Tehama Theater. Several of the flooded out performers from the Eagle Stock Company found work later in San Francisco’s growing theater scene. The Eagle Theater would be no more.

This may very well have been the only instance that a theater was literally washed away by a raging river. Certainly, it was the only instance in California. many theaters in the old California mining towns were destroyed by fire. This happened in San Francisco several times in the early 1850’s and in Nevada City California. The first mining camps and towns were built with wood. Fires swept through many of these towns and virtually destroyed everything. After each fire, the towns were rebuilt. Brick eventually became the preferred material. This is why today when you take a trip to many of these towns like Nevada City, Grass Valley and Senora, brick structures are found everywhere.

Two California gold country articles you’ll find interesting are about the gold town of Auburn California and the prosperous town of Nevada City California and it’s famous theater.

Another excellent book regarding theater during the California Gold Rush is Anybody’s Gold by author Joseph Henry Jackson. The book includes a good deal of information about the performers who worked the early California theaters.

Today, the restored Eagle Theater structure is owned by the California Parks and Recreation Dept. Fund raising for the restoration is credited to the Junior League and it’s efforts to have to California legislature to provide $75,000 for the project. The Eagle Theater today is operated by the California State Railroad Museum which is about one block away. The address is 925 Front Street in Old Town Sacramento California.