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Taking You Back in History to Christmases Past

By Kathy Brown, Groveland Yosemite Gateway Museum

In the 1850s Motherlode, winter was often the most successful time of the year for discovering "that shiny gold stuff". Water froze between the layers of rock causing the rock to decay. Run-off from rains and melting snow washed the hillsides, taking with it loose rock and deposits of gold. Miners used this time to their advantage to pan for gold.

They worked from dawn to dusk usually in cold, wet, windy conditions clothed in canvas pants, cotton shirts, and worn leather boots, with a woolen blanket thrown over their shoulders, if they were lucky. Even worse, they were placer mining - wading in streams, using the frigid water to sluice their gold pans and wash the gravel in their Long Tom's.

Initially most miners found themselves far from their loving families at holiday time. Some took the day off but most considered it just another day to seek pay dirt. If they didn’t work their claim, the day might pass in homesick memories of celebrations they left behind - with perhaps "Johnnie Walker" for company. Or it might be spent wildly carousing, trying to keep those memories at bay. On occasion a traveling minister might gather a few men to pray.

Nonetheless, letters and diary entries such as the following prove that the holidays held a special place in their hearts: "Christmas Day! But why mention it in this country! It makes me sad to write the words for they bring memories of home and civilization and household affections."

A miner, just 22, wrote in 1851, “As we had no invitations to any Christmas parties and feeling no inclination to go on a ‘bust,’ we thought we might spend the day as profitably as possible going down to our diggings and working like fine fellows, even if it was Christmas and awful rainy at that.”

From another, these words, "Oh, I wish I could be at home today. I think we would have a Christmas party. But the best of all would be seeing you all.”


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