In 1848 the first wave of Argonauts, the gold seekers who flooded
California, could heap piles of valuable gravel streaked with gold on their
claims, and, without fear, leave fortunes of gold dust in their tents.
In '49, San Francisco gamblers stacked gold and money on their tables
and relaxed at high noon, when there was a lull in the play, without
anxiety. The first prospectors were straightforward, honest men.
Unscrupulous adventurers and desperadoes from the East and from
Europe soon joined the rush and, in their anxiety to make their pile at any
cost, instituted claimjumping, robbing, and killing. Presently all
miners had to arm themselves.
Thousands of adventurers arrived every day in San Francisco, chief
port of entry and tumultuous outfitting station for prospectors. Many
were already hardened criminals. In addition, prostitutes, ruffians,
pickpockets, and cutthroats victimized gold seekers fresh off the ships and
miners with bulging pokes of gold dust. San Francisco's underworld,
formed almost overnight, became bolder and more brutal with every passing
In towns and camps like Virginia City, the Comstock, Deadwood, and
Tombstone miners suddenly found themselves in pressing need of courts
and jails as outsiders, rushing in, bound on fortune, dropped all
civilized veneer. The original settlers always succeeded in organizing a force
among themselves to dominate the scum and the criminal elements. When
Eagle City, Idaho, boomed in 1884, people feared that the mushrooming
camp would be overtaken by lawlessness, but a Montanan reported back to
his home Miles City Weekly Press: "[The old forty-niners] will share
their fare and blankets with a stranger. By and by rough, hard characters
will come, which will include many a bully, cutthroat and scoundrel,
but as long as the miners are in the majority, the camp will be all
Miners' courts and vigilante committees sprang up spontaneously with
the need for them and doled out hard judgmentshanging, ear cropping,
and whipping which made stealing and killing a risky business. Bayard
Taylor, a traveler in California, told of meeting a man who had been
banished for thievery "whose head had been shaved and his ears cut off,
after receiving one hundred lashes, for stealing ninety-eight pounds of
In January 1849, at Dry Diggings, a mining camp near Coloma,
California, five armed desperadoes sneaked into the rooms of one Lopez, a
gambler, menaced him with a pistol, and robbed him. Miners heard him shout
as they fled, captured them, and a judge and jury were chosen without
delay. The thieves were immediately sentenced and given thirty-one
lashes apiece. Then three of the quintet were tried for a previous robbery
and assault on a miner's life. Another verdict of guilty was returned
and when the judge asked the miners' will, two hundred voices shouted:
"Hang them!" From that day Dry Diggings was called Hangtown until a new
development caused it to be known as Placerville.
A man who cheated at cards was odious in the eyes of frontier
society, which seldom regarded the killing of a card cheat by his victim as a
crime. In 1865 two red-shirted, bearded miners sauntered into a
gambling hall on the main street of hell roaring Austin, Nevada. At a faro
table they began to buck the tiger. When they noticed that the house won
every time there was big money on a card, one of them asked, "Is this a
skin game?" The gambling house proprietor, covered with indignation,
swore that he never ran anything but a square game.
"If I'm in the game, it's got to be on the square, or maybe
suthin'll happen," said the suspicious miner. "I don't believe your dealer's
That was enough for the dealer. He reached down for his gun but the
miner had the pull on him in a flash, his gun pointed at the gambler's
"I was not going to draw on you," the dealer said as he picked up
"All right," answered the miner. "I was only saying, don't you deal
two cards, or try again." The game went on.
A coppered bet at faro is where a copper or checker is placed on a
card to indicate that it is played to lose. One of the miners coppered
the nine of clubs for ten twenty-dollar gold pieces when there were only
three cards left in the dealer's box. The next card being the bank's,
the dealer dealt and turned it up. Before the gambler could lay the card
on the pile, the distrustful miner plugged him with some quick and
fancy shooting, then brought his gun around to cover the proprietor. Two
cards dropped from the stiffening fingers of the dealer as he slid
forward among the cards, chips, and money.
Everybody was satisfied when the jury returned a quick verdict that
the miner had shot in self-defense.
Only two-fisted gents could qualify as residents of the mining town
that ran wide open, night and day, and a talent for gambling was a sign
of manliness. When thousands were rushing to Death Valley's hell camp,
Old Panamint, during the sensational boom of the 7Os, a hairy-chested
desert rat reported what Old Panamint expected of its
Johnny-come-latelies: "If you can whack a sixteen-bull team, hit a drill, engineer a
wheelbarrow, deal faro or shoot, come right along. Otherwise, stay where
Hard work and precious ore helped build many of our large Western
cities and along with them gambling houses, saloons,and dance halls.
There were always young men who craved action, and action meant whisky,
women, and above all gambling.
I'm bound to play all night, I'm bound to play all day;
I bet my money on the ace and king, Who dare bet on the trey?
Many a miner who lived respectably all week in his diggings came to
town Saturday night to get drunk, blow his top, and gamble insensately.
Horace Greeley was invited to talk in the vast gambling room of the
Denver House in 1859 and no cards were played or whisky sold while he
lectured on the sins of gambling and drink. The men listened patiently, but
as soon as he finished the chips began to rattle, the dealers shuffled
cards, and the bartenders resumed serving drinks. Everybody in Denver
gambled; even the probate judge, who lost thirty choice Denver lots in
ten minutes, while the same day, the county sheriff pawned his revolver
for twenty dollars he had parted with at faro.
Hordes of prospectors swarmed to Canyon City, Oregon, enticed by
reports that there were gold nuggets in the Blue Bucket mines big enough
to fill a blue bucket. A sign over a Canyon City saloon proclaimed:
"HURDY-GURDY DANCING AND GAMBLING NO BET TOO BIG TO CALL. BRING YOUR POKE
It was a time of exuberance, innocent of the virtues of thrift and
When I first came to Deadwood City, the tarts all cried for joy;
One handed me a bottle, and said, "My darling boy." One handed me a
bottle, another one a glass;
Said they, "My right good royal nobs, you've struck the town for
For stud or for the faro game I always have a stake; My luck is
always with me, but the bank I never break. I spend my money freely, as
free as all outdoors;The envy of the sporting men; the pet of forty
Their pokes were not all they risked. It is told that in Pizen
Switch (later Yerington), Nevada, professional gamblers from Sacramento won
everything he had from a local miner with a wooden leg. He then removed
the leg and pawned it for a hundred dollars, which he promptly lost.
The next night he came back with a sizable stake, bought back his wooden
leg, and resumed his place in the poker game.
The one thing nobody on the frontier could abide was a poor sport,
win or lose. A Klondike dealer, Jed Morse, who wore an eyeshade as he
shuffled for the house, like any straight-goods gambler, deplored a
crybaby. When a young miner who had struck it rich lost $5000 in gold and
began to whine about his bad luck, Jed pushed the gold back into the
middle of the table. "Here's a chance to win back your poke," he told the
boy. "I'll bet this $5000 in dust that I can touch the cards you hold in
your hand with the pupil of my left eye without changing the position
of my head."
The whining miner considered the odd conditions of the wager for
several minutes and then said, "It's a bet!"
Morse, holding his head rigidly still, extracted his glass left eye and
gently stroked the prospector's cards with it.
"Now," said Jed. "Here's $10,000 in gold that says I can do likewise
with the pupil of my right eye."
"NO!" exploded the burned prospector. "One lesson is enough." A gold
strike transformed lonely settlements or quiet towns into straggling
cities of tents and shanties filled with brawling men. Anything was
better than the typical hotel in Sonora, California, described by Hinton
Rowan Helper author of The Impending Crisis: a one-story structure, built
of unhewn saplings, covered with canvas and floored with dirt. It
consists of one undivided room. . . Here we sleep, eat and drink. Four or
five tiers of berths or bunks, one directly above another, are built
against the walls... When we creep into one of these nests it is optional
with us whether we unboot or uncoat ourselves, but it would be looked
upon as an act of ill-breeding to go to bed with one's hat on." And this
was the best hotel in town!
It was far more agreeable to pass the nights in the warmth and
cheerfulness of the gambling saloon. Here the fortune hunter found
companionship and could chin about the latest lucky strike or gather with other
miners to examine the color and composition of ore specimens passed
from hand to hand. It was not unusual for a tired prospector to feel so at
home that, done up by a day's indulgence, he would drop off to sleep in
an inconspicuous corner.
Everybody was obsessed with the euphoria of fortune: they dreamed in
millions, spoke in thousands, and considered themselves poor if they
could not squander a hundred ounces of gold a day. In this climate
laundrymen, cooks, day laborers, chambermaids and men and boys who did not
know a nugget from a nut speculated in mining shares and leases.
In 1873 when the Big Bonanza mine in Virginia City, Nevada, gave the
impression that there was no end to the wealth in the depths of the
lode, a chambermaid "fooled with stocks a little" and two years later quit
work with $200,000 in her bank account. When gold was discovered and
fortune hunters crossed the hot sands to Goldfield, Nevada, in 1906, a
shoeshine boy risked his savings on mining leases that had never paid a
cent and earned a hundred dollars a day renting them to new arrivals.
Thereafter he shined shoes by appointment only.