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Monday, April 18, 2016

Early Gold Mining Methods

Many people equate the early history of California as it became part of the United States with the Forty-nine Gold Rush. They quickly envision miners at the edges of streams panning for gold. Like gold strikes throughout history, the easy gold resting near the surface of streams and riverbeds was soon mined out. Gold-seekers soon turned to other methods. Here is a short primer of basic gold-mining methods used in California and other states in the mountain west.

Placer mining:  This is the basic panning method along rivers and streams. Water is a necessary component. Early placer miners used metal pans or tightly-women Indian baskets to scoop up dirt and, using motion and water, separating the gold from the soil. More efficient means of placer mining using rocker boxes and sluice boxes were also developed.

Hydraulic mining:  Once the easy gold was separated from the soil near water sources, a hydraulic system using pressure to direct a powerful stream of water at soil and gold-embedded rock was used. In the foothills of California, this method was used as early as the 1850’s.
Courtesy of the Columbia State Park CA Museum
Dredging:  Riverbeds too deep for manual panning were scraped and lifted into a boat platform where water was used to separate the gold from the dirt before the water and soil was discarded.
1913- Bear Creek Canadian Klondike Dredge
Hard Rock or Quartz Mining:  Holes were dug or blasted deep into mountains and hillsides to reach veins of ore. The quartz-bearing rock was brought out of the mine where it was crushed and subjected to various processes that separated out the precious metals.

By the time mining activities had moved to the eastern slope of the Sierra-Nevada mountains with its relative lack of water, most mining activities in the late 1870’s on were in the form of hard rock or quartz mining. The mining towns such as Lundy that is featured in my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series were built around hard rock mines.

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical novels. The first three novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine,  A Resurrected Heart, and Her Independent Spirit, are now available. He Is a Good Man was published as part of the Lariats, Letters and Lace anthology.


  1. In Cripple Creek, where the gold is in granite, not quartz, hard rock was the only way to go.

    Fascinating information. Thank you. Doris

  2. Gold mining by any method must have been a grueling endeavor (well, may not Lee Marvin's method in "Paint Your Wagon" *wink*). I can't even imagine the back-breaking work, the hoping for the big strike, the disappointments, enduring all sorts of inclement weather, and on and on. Talk about determination (and obsession). Hmmm... maybe it's a little like writing and publishing. *grin*

  3. Fascinating article!

    In my historical fiction, "Willow Springs," Drake describes how he found gold clearing brush by a stream. It's the true story of how my grandfather discovered gold near Ely.

  4. It was an interesting period in history, wasn't it? All kinds of people strived to strike it rich, and some did...most didn't. I read a romance novel many years ago--cannot recall the author--the the heroine was a woman gold miner. The entire premise was intriguing and she was a very good character. I have no idea how it ended, but I remember thinking what a interesting story.
    Thanks for the definitions and the photos.

  5. Lots of hard work with minimal return. Still, the few that did strike it rich, made a substantial case for those with pipe dreams or desperation on their minds.
    This was quite an interesting blog. I know next to nothing about mining for gold except the little bits from movies or TV, so this was very informative for me. I loved all the great pictures, too.
    I wish you continued success and happiness, Robyn.