Today in 1848, John Marshall found a few flakes of gold in the tailrace of John Sutter's new sawmill on the South Fork of the American River in California - and you know the rest. Thousands of people from all over the world rushed to the Mexican territory by land and by sea, and by a bit of both, if they took the Panama route (there wasn't a canal cutting across the isthmus then).
At first there were big strikes, and the stories of huge nuggets picked up off the ground and rich diggings easily worked weren't all untrue.
But the best way to make a fortune was by dealing in provisions for the miners - everything from tools to clothes to groceries to cooking meals to doing laundry to delivering mail to freighting goods (ahem! and to providing an evening's entertainment with card games and buxom wenches). When you consider oysters at $1 each, eggs at $6 - $12 per dozen (originally 37 cents), and a washing pan for $16 (originally $2), you can understand how the Big Four - Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker - made their piles.
There are lists of the costs of living here at the Life of a 49er page, and while the prices don't seem so high, remember that an ounce of gold [a rounded teaspoonful of dust or a tablespoonful of flakes] was equivalent to about $16, and 10 hours of work might yield one ounce, or less. Of course, it might yield a whole lot more, which is what the gambling spirit of the miner counted on.
You can see a replica of the sawmill and try your hand at panning for gold at the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park (you can even take gold panning lessons there, if you want to learn the correct techniques). Good luck! ---------------------------------------------------------------
The Widow, in her much younger days, while hiking along a pretty-much deserted river, decided to try her hand at gold-panning, and learned two things: 1. that paper plates don't work, and 2. that she was claim-jumping.
Yes, indeed. A bearded man came out of nowhere, and informed me of my crime [I can't call him an old prospector. He was older than me, that much I know, and about three times my size, and I'm not sure when he last had a bath]. Well, I watched the Westerns, and I knew what happened to claim-jumpers, and it wasn't good. However, the old[er] prospector, instead of stringing me up as a warning to others, let me go with a caution - but not before showing me how to use a real pan, and slosh the sand and gravel around, all the while looking for 'color'. I spent the better part of an hour there with him, squatting in the icy cold water, sloshing sand around, and knowing that there was a gold nugget just waiting to be found with the next pan-full.
Well, like John Marshall, I found a few (tiny) flakes, which I gave to my host. It was his claim, after all.
To determine their purchase of food and supplies, forty-niner Howard Gardiner and and a few of his friends kept their takings in a mustard bottle, on which they had marked the foods available at the camp, starting at the bottom with pork stew; then pork and beans; roast beef and potatoes; plum duff; canned turkey with fixings; and at the top, oysters with ale and porter. "The average height," said Gardiner, "was pork and beans," and rarely got above plum duff. According the the Bill of Fare at San Francisco's upscale Ward House restaurant (found here at Food Timeline) , the roast beef entree cost $1 (at the economical What Cheer Restaurant, roast beef and lima beans cost 10 cents), which might give you an idea of how much gold filled the mustard bottle at any given time.
(Plum duff is our old friend plum pudding - a flour pudding with bits of dried fruit which is steamed or boiled in a cloth bag.)
Well, let's strike it rich and have oysters, either in Hangtown Fry or in BEEFSTEAK AND OYSTERS:
First, the oysters. You will want a pint of shucked oysters or about 16 - 18 unshucked (4 - 6 per person, if you are dining a deux). If canned, drain and move on to the steak. If fresh... scrub the shells and rinse in cold water. Shuck the oysters by inserting the point of a sharp thin knife into the hinged end of the oyster and pushing the blade between the valves (shells) until the muscle at the center is cut and the valves begin to separate. Run the knife around the shell, separate the valves, and loosen the oyster from the shell.
Broil a nice steak (or individual steaks) to almost your preferred degree of doneness. Remove steak and lower oven temperature to 375 degrees F.
Cover the steak with drained oysters. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; dot with butter.
Bake for about 15 minutes, until oysters are plump and beginning to curl at the edges. Remove, and serve, garnished as you like.