Primary Source Document: Mr. Shufelt’s letter to his cousin in New York, about his journey to the California “diggings” and his attempts to find gold (1850) 

We hired an ox team to carry our baggage & started for this place then called Hangtown, from the fact that three persons had been hung here for stealing & attempting to murder. Ten miles from the river we passed Sutter’s Fort, an old-looking heap of buildings surrounded by a high wall of unburnt brick, & situated in the midst of a pleasant fertile plain, covered with grass and a few scattering oaks, with numerous tame cattle & mules. We walked by the waggon & at night cooked our suppers, rolled our blankets around us & lay down to rest on the ground, with nothing but the broad canopy of the heavens over us & slept soundly without fear or molestation.

After leaving the plains we passed over some hills, that looked dry & barren being burnt up by the sun & the long droughts that we have here. We reached this place at night on the fourth day, & in the morning found ourselves in the midst of the diggings . . . We pitched our tents, shouldered our picks & shovels & with pan in hand sallied forth to try our fortunes at gold-digging. We did not have very good success, being green at mining, but by practice & observation we soon improved some, & found a little of the shining metal.

Wm Ramsdell & Cooke of our party were sick with the scurvy & could not work. This is the worst disease that we have to contend with here, it settles in the legs & ankles, making the person quite lame. The skin turns purple & if not arrested soon, spots will decay & fall off leaving a running sore. It is brought on by eating salt food & no vegetables. Some are also troubled with diarreah, others with ague & fever & various other diseases incident to all new countries. It is quite sickly here & every person ought to be very careful & not expose himself more than is necessary. Many here are so anxious to get rich that they work, rain or snow, regardless of life or health. After working a few weeks I was taken sick very suddenly & became deranged & for four days the doctors all thought that I could not live, but that God in whom I trust for life & health, interposed his almighty arm & spared my life & restored me to health again. And I will praise him while I’ve breath & when my voice is hush’d in death I hope to praise him through a vast Eternity . . .

We have paid nearly all of our debts & have earned it or dug it out of the creek within a few weeks past. Now I will give you a short history of the mode of getting it, of where it is found, & in what quantities so far as my knowledge extends. It is found (as I have said) along the banks of the streams & in the beds of the same, & in almost every little ravine putting into the streams. And often from 10 to 50 ft. from the beds up the bank. We sometimes have to dig several feet deep before we find any . . . Some have done very well about here last fall & this winter. Pieces have been found that were worth from $1. to $50. Allerton found one, worth $20.00. Some have made as [much as] 4, 5, 6, & 8 oz. per day, & one man last fall made one pound or $192.00 in one day, near here.  At Georgetown about 25 miles from here one man took out 27 lb in one day, & another party found one lump worth $1,019.00 . . . I frequently hear of others making fortunes in one day or a week.

Guided Discussion Questions

  • What were Mr. Shufelt’s motives for going to California, and what difficulties did he have to overcome?
  • What evidence does the document provide that gold-digging could be lucrative for men who knew where to look?
  • Explain the health hazards of gold-rush California.

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Patrick Allitt is Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University and an OAH Distinguished Lecturer. He was an undergraduate at Oxford in England (1974-1977), a graduate student at the University of California Berkeley (Ph.D., 1986), and held postdoctoral fellowships at Harvard Divinity School and Princeton University.  At Emory since 1988, he teaches courses on American intellectual, environmental, and religious history, on Victorian Britain, and on the Great Books.  Author of seven books (most recently A Climate of Crisis: America in the Age of Environmentalism, 2014), he is also presenter of eight lecture series with "The Great Courses" (, including "The Art of Teaching” and, most recently, “The Industrial Revolution.”