Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    California Miner: Archive of Letters From a '49-er. Group of seventeen letters with one original envelope from J. W. Clements of Exeter, New Hampshire, writing from the California gold fields to relatives back home. These include: (1) March 10, 1854 letter from Drytown, 4pp., talking about hiring out someone to work one of his claims, raising chickens and possibly selling his claims and returning East, (2) May 31, 1854 letter from San Francisco, 1p., about postponing a return trip home by steamship via the Isthmus and not working in the mines, (3) March 16, 1853 letter from Drytown, 3pp., describes in detail the mining operations on Rancherie Creek (fluming), the costs and techniques involved, (4) April 24, 1851 letter written by Sacramento City, 4pp. (stampless cover) talks about striking a "rich load", digging ditches for 2 1/2- 3 3/4 dollars per day, saving up enough gold dust to return home, bumping into friends from Exeter who are working at various occupations, the lack of rail roads, telegraph and post offices, (5) stampless cover postmarked from Portsmouth, NH, "At Sea Nov. 7, 1849", 1p., re: seasickness, written en route to California, (6) August 25, 1851 letter written from Rocky Bar Moquelumni River, California, 4pp., writing about life in a mining camp ('telling stories & singing songs & joking"), mining operations (building a dam and "race"), a Frenchman cooking beefsteak & onions and "... the wild men they are getting a little tamer than they used to be...", (7) stampless cover, December 23, 1850, Sulphur Springs House [CA], 4pp., re: not making his "pile" yet, working as a cook, the difficulty of making money ("Tell the boys not to come to this country with the expectations of getting rich"), the obstacles in locating friends from Exeter, speculators spreading false stories of success in order to encourage more people to emigrate and the fact that 7/8's of the miners make no profit but are in debt, (8) stampless cover written from San Francisco, June 28, 1854, 3pp., re: not willing be pay $150 for steamship passage home, the return of his two partners to New England plus a paragraph about the changes that have taken place in San Francisco since his arrival in 1850, (9) November 23, 1853 letter from Rancheria [CA], 4pp., re: having to do with canned oysters and lobster than than Thanksgiving turkey, living in a shingle-covered house with a $27 stove, repairing a ditch and dam, sending a California flea in the mail, sending a draft for $200, (10) January 22, 1854 letter from Rancheria, 4pp., wearing India rubber gear and working in the rain, working five days on his claim and earning $25, (11) October 27, 1852 letter from Drytown, 4pp., re: living in a tent, hoping to clear $4 a day, willingness to sell $75 worth of land plus his claim for $100, a humorous detailed description of the large Chinese population, their language, dress and eating habits (rice, biscuits & boiled beef), (12) July 9, 1851 letter from Rocky Bay, 4pp., re: working the Dry Creek, lack of water hindering production, hiring out his labor, (13) October 10, 1851 letter from Volcano, California, 4pp., re: Volcano being "a pretty rough place", sinking a hole, prospects of success at Soldier's Gulch, (14) December 27, 1852 letter from Drytown, 4pp., re: severe winter hampering transportation and travel, and trying to dissuade a friend from coming West, (15) November 30, 1851 letter from Drytown, 4pp., re: intricacies of mining using a "Long Tom" and the need for abundant water to wash the dirt, thoughts on shifting from mining to raising vegetables, says writing letters is not fashionable and he only does so to confirm that the "grizlies have not got me yet", (16) March 26, 1854 letter from Drytown, 4pp., re: coming home in the Spring, cost of provisions, diminished wages, arson in an unoccupied building, a burglary of a butcher shop and an itemized list of expenses and income from working his claim, (17) stampless cover with letter dated December 13, 1849, postmarked Baltimore April 4th via Rio de Janeiro, 3pp., describing life on board ship, his red shirt causing a severe skin rash, improperly cooked food, eating porpoise meat and asking that letters for him be directed to San Francisco to coincide with his arrival there. Some minor faults here and there, but generally in fine condition and easy to read.

    To view every page of all the letters, please visit this web album.

    More Information:

    J. W. Clements of New Hampshire was one of 250,000 "forty-niners" who stampeded to California during the gold rush of 1849-1852 hoping to find a quick fortune. This collection of fascinating correspondence begins on November 7, 1849, as Clements informs his family in his first letter since leaving his New Hampshire home that his journey to the gold fields of California is progressing well, except for a little seasickness. Once he arrived in California in early 1850, he first settled between Sacramento and Auburn, where, instead of making his fortune in gold, he worked as a cook "all summer for just what I have eat & drank." With his initial hopes of growing wealthy dashed, he warned his family, "Tell the boys not to come to this country with the expectations of getting rich" (December 23, 1850).


    The dashed expectations of Clements, however, did not surmount his gold fever, though he found the work of mining to be disagreeable. In some of his letters, Clements tried to explain to his family the intricacies of mining, such as the use of the "Long Tom" and the need for abundant water to clear the dirt (November 30, 1851). The hard work of mining was somewhat relieved by the camaraderie with the other miners in the mining camp -"all young men & full of life"- as they spent time "telling stories & singing songs & joking" (August 25, 1851). Still, Clements hoped "to strike a rich load" (April 24, 1851). Until then, he made ends meet by taking odd jobs, such as digging ditches, where he made from $2.50 to $3.75 a day, "as hard work as mining but not so disagreeable."


    California, he found, was very different from New England. Admitted as a state in September 1850, the Golden State, Clements noted, had no railroads or telegraphs and few post offices. It was also a dangerous place, and Clements often wrote letters home just to confirm that the "grizlies have not got me yet" (November 30, 1851). Here he saw for the first time Chinese workers. Like so many other forty-niners, Clement scrutinized them, reporting that they were "the queerest looking set that you ever saw. . . . They have scarcely any beard but shave their heads all except a small space around the crown from which hangs their long queue braided in three plaits. I have seen some that nearly reached the ground!" (October 27, 1852).


    By 1852, Clements was living in a tent in Drytown, a burgeoning outpost forty miles east of Sacramento. In this liquor-soaked and raucous mining town, Clements finally gave up on "finding that rich spot. I find that they are scarcer every day," content just to clear "four dollars a day" (October 27, 1852).


    When he wrote home on March 10, 1854, he was planning to return to New Hampshire: "I shall try to leave Cal. if I can dispose of my claims and other property to good advantage." But three months later on June 28, 1854, in the final letter of this group, Clements broke the bad news to his family from San Francisco that he would not be coming home until the next year. "After I came down here the Steamship companies combined and raised the price of passage to 120 dollars in the steerage so that it would have cost me 150 dollars to get to New York and I thought that I had rather stay another year than pay that."


    Before closing that final letter, he reflected on the many changes that he had witnessed in San Francisco since his arrival four years earlier in 1850-a period which saw the rapid transformation of the entire Golden State. "It is a much larger place than it was then having 'spread itself' in every direction. . . . And instead of wooden shanties covered with canvass they have fire-proof Brick & Stone buildings & good frame houses."

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    November, 2013
    24th Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 5
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 969

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $100,000 (minimum $14), plus 20% of any amount between $100,000 and $1,000,000, plus 12% of any amount over $1,000,000 per lot.

    Sold for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Only 30 days left to consign to the 2020 March 4 Rare Books Signature Auction Books Signature Auction - New York !

    Learn about consigning with us

    Heritage has gone above and beyond my expectations in handling all of my transactions in a thoroughly professional manner. I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone worldwide for the exemplary auction and valuation services they provide.
    Richard H.,
    Corsicana, TX
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search

    Recent auctions

    2019 December 8 Civil War, Militaria, Arms & Armor Signature Auction - Dallas
    2019 December 8 Civil War, Militaria, Arms & Armor Signature Auction - Dallas
    REALIZED SO FAR $950,931