Efficient Prospecting

If you’ve ever yearned to mine some buried treasure, you need to learn about the concept of dredging. It’s considered the most effective method of recreational prospecting and it’s gaining in popularity. Simply put, dredging involves using a suction dredge to vacuum gravel from the bottom of a creek bed. For the most part, a dredge is a sluice box which is affixed to a four-legged stand or positioned on floats. An engine pump is then either mounted on the floats with the sluice box or positioned on shore. Water at high pressure flows from the pump through a hose to a jet tube or power jet nozzle. Thanks to the principle of suction, you are then able to bring in gravel, rocks, and gold.

miner with gold panYou should know that dredges are not one-size-fits-all — there are a variety of sizes from which to choose. You can select anything from a one-and-a-half-inch backpack dredge that can be easily moved to a remote location, or choose a version as large as 12 inches. The size of the dredge is determined by the diameter of the suction hose–not the nozzle.

The suction nozzle is usually fashioned from steel and is generally the diameter of the suction hose. The opening of the nozzle is ordinarily ratcheted down with a restriction ring so that the opening is decreased by about one-half inch. As a result, there’s less chance that a rock will plug the hose up farther up. To give you some idea of the size of dredges, a three-inch hose size with a nozzle opening of two-and-a-half inches can be used in an area with a maximum dredge size restriction of two-and-a-half inches.

As with other recreational prospecting equipment, you’ll find that dredges tend to vary in design. Gravel enters the sluice box either by means of a “Header Box” that slows the passage of water or by a “Jet Flare”, a long flaring tube that accomplishes the same feat. For many years, the Header Box has been the mechanism of choice, but the Jet Flare dredge is gaining in popularity because it offers more suction at the nozzle.

In some cases, as with smaller dredges, inner tubes are used as floats. In contrast, most dredges utilize plastic pontoons which can be collapsed when transported. For shallow water, dredges that are high banker-dredge combinations are used. These possess a four-legged frame which holds the sluice box. Larger dredges which are three inches or greater may have a breathing air pump positioned on the engine-pump to carry compressed air to the dredger, who can then go underwater to obtain gravel that is not otherwise accessible. This feature is significant because the bottom of a riverbed may be characterized by cracks in the bedrock that has gold trapped inside.

Prospectors consider dredges to be an efficient piece of machinery tailor-made to suit your needs. For beginners, experts recommend a two-and-a-half to three-inch dredge high banker combination. Such a rig is considered to be versatile and efficient and can be counted on to unearth a great deal of gold. But if you are already a seasoned prospector, experts suggest obtaining the largest dredge you can afford. Still, you must recognize the fact that you will have to operate under certain state laws. In Washington state, for instance, recreational prospecting is limited to four inches. Consult your local prospecting club for details about state size restrictions, and happy mining!

Why hunt for gold?

You’re probably asking yourself, “Why would anybody waste their time hunting for gold? After all, the old-timers got it all long ago, didn’t they?”

countrysideThe answer to that is a resounding “Absolutely Not!”

The old-timers didn’t get it all. In fact, it is estimated that only about 5 percent of the world’s gold supply has ever been mined. That means there is 95 percent just waiting for someone to take the time to get it out.

Recreational prospecting is the hobby of searching for gold or other precious metals and ores, not only for profit (although that does happen), but for the pure enjoyment of it.

Recreational prospecting can be done by any person of any age.

You can make it as easy or as strenuous as you want.

You can start with only a shovel and a pan or grow to include large suction dredges and high bankers.

Many clubs across the county have hands-on classes for those just getting into the hobby, and also have “outings” where a group of recreational prospectors work a “common operation” and split the take at the end. But, you don’t need to take a class or join a club. You can learn what you need to get started right here on this web site.

It’s loads of fun, and can be done in almost every state in the Union, Canada, Mexico, and a lot of other places in the world. So, click to a page below and find out more about this exiting, fastest growing recreation in the country today.

Grubbing for Gold

Getting gold out of them thar’ hills is a little more challenging than it was for the first 49ers. America’s first gold strikes were primarily “placer gold”, literally gold left lying in stream beds after being washed down off mountainsides and other surface deposits. It was easy to spot, and easy to pick up.

Panning

The first prospectors cleaned up pretty good, with nothing more complicated than a pan. Back then, they were pretty simple, metal Metal red mugs on the wood wallpans. Today they can get high tech, but not necessarily any better. Most pans have relatively high sides, with a base smaller than their top, and with “riffles” or grooves in the high sides which help to keep bits of gold from being dragged out with water and lighter materials. When filled halfway with promising dirt from a stream bed, it can be swirled gently in a circular motion, under the surface of calm water. It’s easier to see the lighter material being lifted and washed away than if you are in a faster moving current. Once it is half empty, you can lift it above the water, and swirl it while gently tilted to one side, so that the riffles deter the heavier gold particles from moving up the sides with the dirt and bits of other materials. It takes some practice, but is great fun for the whole family, and takes very little expenditure on equipment. All you need is a pan, small containers for anything found, tweezers and a suction device for picking gold flakes out of the water in your pan.

Crevicing

Don’t forget the weight of gold! While it was washing down a mountainside or riverbank, it didn’t all make its way to the bottom. Gold can still be found in the fissures of rock formations. And even in the mosses that grow on top. Recovery of crevice gold is relatively easy, requiring only a few tools such as a chisel, rock pick, gold claw, a tablespoon and for the techie, a portable vacuum that fits in your back pack. You’ll also need a classifier, a type of “sieve” that fits over top of your bucket, and keeps larger rocks on top, while allowing dirt, flakes and crystals to drop down below. Remember when seaching rock cracks, to choose the ones that run towards a river, and not along it. These are the ones likely to have caught the most gold runoff.

Dowsing

Is an art that goes back thousands of years, but with many other uses including locating tumours, water, and lost items. It came to be part of gold-finding lore in the usual way. Someone took perhaps a forked stick, held it in front of them, and walked over a field, whereby the stick took a nosedive, and they found Granma’s lost wedding ring. Whether it has any valuable gold finding properties or not, it is still a popular method for seeking out hidden deposits. The dowsing tool can be the aforementioned forked stick, often of a fruit tree, or it can be two L shaped rods of various materials, sometimes enhanced by adding that which you are looking for, in this case- gold. Modern scoffers of the technique, blame its “success” on ideomotor responses. This basically boils down to mind over matter, with the mind of the dowser having subconsciously assayed the area for the most likely features to promise success, and being determined to find something, influencing the action of the rods. But it doesn’t, of course, have any explanation for the spectacular record some people have for finding things, particularly water. Naysayers to dowsing maintain that the only real profiteers from the practice, are the manufacturers of high tech L rods and other devining devices. They assert that:

  • if it were a reliable method of locating gold, major companies would be snapping up these tools and advancing their technology, and
  • the people who invented these devices would not be so eager to share them.

Metal Detectors

These would be super devices if they detected only gold, but they don’t. They’ll buzz for most conductive or magnetic materials. Beach sand, wet salt flats, and even a human hand can cause interference because of the conductivity of the salt they contain. Many models of detectors have “discrimination” controls that allow you to filter out such things as iron deposits or items. The unfortunate side of this, is that iron has the same low conductivity as small nuggets of gold, which may get filtered out or rejected by the detector as “trash”. Successful metal detecting for gold, depends in large part, on understanding how the detector works, and using it in optimal conditions or circumstances. You’re not going to find deep veins of gold with a metal detector. Settle for small nuggets and flakes in areas close to the surface.

If you think you’ve found a “strike” on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, you make stake a claim to the mineral rights. Mining claims are generally 20 acres in size, and are granted in national forests for the development of natural resources. You can camp or live on your claim, as long as it is kept clean.

There are no claims that can be filed on moving water, such as streams. However some states may charge annual dredging fees if you are operating that kind of equipment. Claims basically relate to the mining of minerals on a section of land, although if a stream runs through yours, you might choose to exchange dredging rights with another prospector for a percentage of the find. Most dredging is done in mountain streams in summer months.

Gold Fever is born

When the subject of gold rushes comes up, the first words to mind are often “49ers” or “Klondike”. Yet the first gold discovery resulting in a gold rush, took place some 50 years before the 1849 migration to California.

old wooden shackIt wasn’t even a gold rush. It was a 12 year-old boy picking up a heavy hunk of yellow metal along Little Meadow Creek, in North Carolina. Conrad John Reed, the son of a British soldier who had deserted the cause of Britain, unwittingly started a chain of events that would have long reaching consequences for his family, his state and his country.

The yellow hunk served as a doorstop in the Reed home until 1802, when Reed’s father learned it was gold. He sold it to a Fayetteville jeweller for $3.50. It was worth thousands.

Reed began “prospecting” along and in the stream, with three other partners who put up capital in the form of money and labour. The “mine” operated only when there wasn’t farm work for the miners, who for the most part, were slaves belonging to the partners. In 1803, one of the slaves would stumble across a nugget weighing 28 lbs. Their speed of production picked up, with a still erected in 1806, to employ mercury in the recovery of the gold. Soon, neighbours and people in surrounding counties were mining their properties too, some with notable success.

Sinking shafts to tap the gold rich quartz, began in the 1820s, but didn’t arrive at the Reed holdings until 1831. Reed himself still held the property and the upper hand in 1834 when a new agreement was struck whereby his sons and sons-in-law would provide the labour, yielding one third of the profits to Reed, and two thirds to his partners. But a dispute over a 13 lb nugget discovered in 1835 would drag on for ten years, and the mine would not be fully exploited.

Reed died in 1845, the property passing to a grandson and son-in-law, who sold it shortly thereafter. The fortunes of the mine would rise and fall on several occasions over the next hundred years, before it closed forever as a commercial venture, in the 1930s.

A second gold rush on the East Coast, also pre-dates the California find. In 1828, near Dahlonega, Georgia, Benjamin Parks stumbled over a yellow rock while deer hunting. The rock turned out to be full of gold. In no time at all, 15,000 people rushed to the area to share in the bonanza.

Gold was literally lying around on the ground, having worked up from underground seams on the mountain, and been washed down over hundreds of years. The first prospectors picked it off the surface, and out of the streams, stripping the easily reachable deposits. Next came digging deeper in the streams, but their only equipment at the time was the gold pan. Soon they began carrying baskets of material down off the mountain, to be cleaned in sluice boxes. The sluices were simply long troughs with a ladder like formation in the middle, operating on the force of gravity, as water poured into the boxes, and washed the contents down over the ladder, where heavy deposits such as gold would drop into the bottom of the box, and the light particles would wash on out of the sluice. The deposits would then be panned for gold.

Work was slow until 1845, when Nathan Hand came up with a system that utilized 26 miles of sluice boxes and pipe for the hydraulic blasting of water at the upper part of the mountain, which washed the dirt down into the waiting sluice boxes. After hard rock was reached in 1880, it was determined that the foundation of the gold find was not a vein of gold in the mountain, but veins of quartz containing gold. The average quartz/gold vein runs two to three inches thick, with the odd lucky strike being eight inches wide. A man named Knight, mining on the Dahlonega side of the mountain, discovered several small veins running into one, that measured an incredible 22 feet in depth, one of the largest veins of gold bearing quartz ever found in the world. Reportedly one of the first every systematic attempts at deep vein mining, the site was abandoned finally in 1906.

Gold Mining Methods

Many techniques and technologies for getting gold out of wherever it’s found, have evolved since the first goldrush. The amateur prospector can still enjoy a great deal of fun by panning, crevicing and dowsing for gold. Those with an eye to higher yields or more “professional” operations, might choose another method.

Old abandoned horse wagon by palm tree

Sluicing

One of the first labour saving devices invented by gold miners was the sluice box, through which a river might be diverted to pour water over the sand and gravel shovelled into them. The gold prospector today, can still make use of a hand sluice box, made in a convenient size for carrying to your potential gold mining sites. The box is constructed in a trough shape, with an open end chute where the unwanted material sloughs off. Dirt and sand is shovelled into the box, and water flows in from one end, to run over the raised ridges down the center, which impede the movement of heavier bits of black sand and gold. Once the material in the sluice has been washed down to the basic heavy bits, it can be panned for the “real” gold.

Dredging

The first gold prospectors were only able to reach the shallow parts of rivers and streams that may have been even richer in ore than they suspected. But it wasn’t too many years, before logic told them that a heavy mineral, washed by moving water, was not going to lie on surfaces in the shallows. From the early 1900s, there are reports of steam driven dredges in northern California, as well as deep sea type divers outfitted in their cumbersome helmets and diving suits, trying to sift out the gold from the river beds.

While dredging has been around for years, it’s only recently enjoyed a boom in popularity, due mostly to the technology that has made the equipment less expensive, more functional, and more portable. Two of the basic types of dredges are:

Surface

the dredge floats on the surface, with material brought up to it from the riverbed via a suction hose, and deposited into a sluice box. Some more modern models may have multi-level sluice boxes that have a greater capability for sifting apart the finer particles. It can be operated from above water, and is easily managed by one person.

Underwater

the submersible unit is less popular, and cumbersome to work. It must remain underwater, and does not operate well in shallows. It consists mainly of a flared metal or plastic tube with a metal elbow, bent at 45-60 degrees. This makes it less flexible in use, unable to get at hard to reach places or around corners. High-pressure water is blasted into the tube by a pump attached to a float on the surface, creating a vacuum at the extreme end of the bend. At the edge of the flared end, are a series of gold traps with riffles, like a sluice box. The heavier particles drop into the traps and lighter ones are blown out and back into the river.

Drywashing

Gold isn’t always found convenient to hand on top of the ground, or lying in a shallow stream. Many of the first strikes were made in desert territory, or areas so dry they had to find another way to “wash” the gold out of the deposits. Having only air flow and vibration to work with, miners constructed rough boxes to shake off some of the unwanted dirt, but were still faced with separating the leftovers, which were often covered in damp soil, too heavy to be shifted by wind. Today, drywashing is carried out with the aid of dry processing machines, which utilise the same principles of vibration, but incorporate heat to remove the moisture and loosen more of the dirt for removal. It’s still not the most effective method of recovery, but it does work.

Highbanking

This is another version of sluicing, using basically the same tools, but not right on or in the water. The highbank sluice box manufactured commercially, generally comes on legs, and is fixed at a level that makes it more comfortable to dump buckets of dirt into, and it’s adjustable for the right flow of water. But instead of using the natural flow of a river or stream, you must introduce the water yourself, either by pumping it from somewhere, or by the bucketful, to wash and separate the material. Another advantage to the highbank sluice, is that it comes with its own classifier over the trough, breaking the sorting job down by removing the large pieces of rock and debris so that there is less water washing needed for the separation process. It is also a viable alternative in areas where it is now illegal to wash silt back into a waterway.

Leaching

Is the chemical process of removing gold from ore. Currently 80% of the world’s gold is recovered this way. It is also a process best left to the experts, as witnessed by the mercury poisoning fallout from old mines, and the gigantic cyanide spills from modern day gold mining tail ponds. Not only are substances like cyanide hard to obtain for the amateur prospector, they are dangerous to handle. Mercury has a lethal vapor, and the nitric acid used to clean it is also dangerous.

Gold Mining Disasters

When the gold mining industry was in its infancy in America, there were few disasters. The majority of finds being placer deposits, on the surface or in shallow streams which were panned, the dangers presented to prospectors were the practical ones of falling and breaking a limb, or possibly drowning in water too deep, while wearing heavy equipment. Only when operations moved underground, did major events involving multiple fatalities take place.

muddy water spring flows on dried cracked dirt In the century between 1870 and 1970, the United States recorded 104 mining disasters which took five or more lives, for a total of 1403 people killed. However, only 25% of those were gold mining accidents. Of those 27 disasters in gold mines, 12 involved fire, the main supports being timber, and crowded bunkhouses jammed together in tinder dry conditions. Another nine disasters were attributed to cage falls, and even snowslides. The remaining six disasters involved explosions, starting in 1889 with a dynamite blast in Silver Cliff, Colorado that took ten lives. Never was it truer that “haste makes waste”, as the rush to pry gold from its bed made men careless.

A prime example of this was the Moose River mine disaster of 1936, which took place in Nova Scotia, Canada. While a gold mining enjoyed a boom period from 1890-1909, producing some 26,000 troy ounces, it petered out and shut down during WWI. In 1936, a lawyer and doctor formed a new syndicate, which went in and began mining from the only source left in the tunnels- the rock pillars that had been left as roof supports. On April 12, 1936 the two owners and the timekeeper went in to inspect the workings. The tunnel collapsed on top of them. After six days of using a diamond drill, contact was made with the men, who were still alive. But lawyer Herman Magill would die just hours later. It would be another four days before the survivors were brought to the surface.

As the mining industry boomed, more and better methods were sought to harvest the gold from the ore it was embedded in. Such “advances” may have led to the greatest gold mining disasters in terms of far reaching consequences, as opposed to immediate loss of life.

First came mercury, a component in the amalgam recovery of gold. Since mercury bonds to gold, after the ore was cleaned and crushed, it was blended with mercury, the lumps of amalgam were then removed, and processed to separate the mercury from the gold. At times, this process included nitric acid as well, in which the recovered mercury sat until cleaned and was ready to use again. Eventually it got dirty beyond the miners’ knowledge to “clean” it, and it was dumped into the environment, as were the small particles of mercury that clung to the gold when it was cleaned once more. Thus, gold mining has been repeatedly blamed for mercury contamination in and near mining sites that have been abandoned for years.

A monkey wrench was thrown into this theory in 1992, through the joint study by Brazilian and Canadian researchers along the Tapajos River, a major tributary to the Amazon. Brazil is one of the few countries still allowing the extraction of gold by mercury amalgam.

The surprising results were that for villages 400km downriver from active gold mining sites, the water suffered the same contamination levels as for those only 50km away. Not only that, but sediment levels were also the same. While researchers agreed that sites near to a gold mining site using mercury must come into contact with some discarded mercury, the majority of the element existing in their environment came from the ground itself, the product of volcanic activity over the million-year history of the area. With the shift in population to outlying areas that are “slashed and burned” to provide living and agricultural space, the ground is now bare, and more soil is washed into the rivers, carrying its mercury load with it. In all, they estimate that only 3% of the existing mercury contamination comes from mining.

From the threat of mercury, gold mining moved into more potentially hazardous use of cyanide to separate flakes of gold from other materials. In 1995, a dam in Georgetown, Guyana leaked the slurry from a gold mine’s tailings pond into the Essequibo River for five days. Approximately 825 gallons of cyanide laced water, poured into the 600 mile long river. Solid hydrogen cyanide salt used in gold processing has been reported as lethal in concentrations as low as 2 parts per million. Dead animals and fish were swept 50 miles downstream. That stretch of the Essequibo was declared a national environmental disaster by Guyanan president, Cheddi Jagan, who noted it was not the first case of poisonous spills from the mine’s tailings pond.

Bracketing the South American disaster, was the cleanup of the Summitville gold mine in Colorado, in 1993, a $170 million dollar bill from acid contamination and cyanide pollution. Then in 1997, the Pegasus Gold Corporation abandoned their site in Montana, leaving that state with another multi-million dollar cleanup.

The Mining Law of 1872 was established primarily to deal with gold, silver and copper operations, mainly of the manual kind without the environmental threats offered today. The hardrock mining industry remained exempt from reporting toxic chemical releases until 1998, when a Toxic Release Inventory, named them as the largest releasers of toxic chemicals in the nation, even more so than the electrical industry, having dumped nearly 3.5 billion tons of toxic pollutants, the preceding year.

Prospecting basics

When Howard Carter broke through the wall of King Tut’s tomb in 1923, he saw “wonderful things”, which would prove that man had been chasing the glitter of gold for thousands of years. It’s not quite as hard a hobby as it used to be, and the chances of a find like Carter’s in North America are pretty much non-existent, but it is still a fun hobby enjoyed by thousands of enthusiastic weekend miners.

autumn leafsBefore you grab a shovel and head out to the hills, it helps to understand some of the basics about what you’re looking for. Gold is a mineral, 58th on the table of 92 elements, in terms of abundance. Normally yellow in colour, it ranges through silvery-yellow and orange-red, due to impurities in it, such as copper. To find a purely gold nugget is extremely rare. You are more likely to find it in flakes, or as part of a vein of quartz rock, or part of a conglomeration of rock and other materials formed thousands of years ago.

Pure gold, is one of the most easily molded metals on earth, capable of being beaten into onion skin thick sheets of metal, or stretched into nearly invisible wires that don’t break in the making. However, it’s most valuable property to the prospector, is its weight. The only minerals heavier than gold are iridium, osmium and platinum. Gold’s weight makes it ideal for panning, and brought about the invention of the sluice box in the early 1800s, a long trough-like construction in which gold-laden crushed ore was dumped, then washed with high pressure jets of water, forcing the lighter particles down to the end of an elevated trough, and dropping the heavier bits of gold into the ladder device which ran down its middle.

For the amateur prospector, panning for gold is not only the simplest method, to start out with, but it also holds the romance of the first gold rush. You can even start where they did. While most gold mines and fields were generally considered to be “empty” and abandoned many years ago, as long as they are on public property, you have the freedom to stick your pan in and try your luck. Some geologists estimate that as little as 10% of the world’s gold has been uncovered to date, and that those areas which appear to be “tapped out”, may actually have underground reserves that emerge over time and with shifts in the earth and water courses.

If you are in an area known to have had gold strikes or deposits, choose a promising stream. Don’t forget that you have to get right into the water to scoop up dirt from the bottom. Panning/washing can be done from the bank, but you have to get to the dirt, first. Make sure you bring high rubber boots or hip waders, and thick socks. Avoid the most common mistake of scooping the surface dirt off the stream bed. Remember, this is moving water. The gold hasn’t been lying there waiting for you. And…remember the weight. Gold has a specific gravity of 19.2. This is the comparison between what a material weighs, when compared to the same volume of water. Most materials gold is found with have specific gravity of 7 or less. That means any gold in that creek has sunk down into the mud. But years of fast moving water shifts the mud and the gold. So find a slower part of the waterway to make your first retrieval of dirt. It’s far more likely that small nuggets or flakes have fetched up against something solid such as rocks, natural dams, or other obstructions.

The pan you bring can be as simple as a metal cake pan, as long as it has a “lip” or raised edge. If you browse the mining supply sites, you’ll find a bewildering array of pan sizes and styles, although most shapes follow a roughly conical design, with a smaller flat bottom, and the sides extending out to a wider top, the better to swirl your pan contents without losing them. You might prefer a dark colored pan, to help you find any potential sparkles.

Once you have your pan half full of dirt, lower it under the surface of the water, in a stiller area of the stream, and start moving it in a circular pattern, so that the water and dirt swirl around the pan. You’ll see that the lighter elements rise up and float out on the surrounding water. Be sure not to raise the pan out of the water while swirling, or you chance losing some of the heavier elements, which should be sinking to the bottom of the pan. After some dedicated swirling, you’ll find that you’re down to a few essentials. Now you can take the pan out of the water, remove any rocks or pebbles, possibly pick out some promising bits to store in small containers or bottles, and you can try your luck again. A handy item to bring, is something to pick up flakes of gold with, such as a turkey baster, or other small suction device, which can transfer the flakes from the pan to a container.

If you’re getting a little cold in the water, take a look at the bank along the stream. Is it deep? Is there quite a section showing above the water? Don’t pass up the opportunity to look where the water once flowed. Dig into the bank, fill a bucket with dirt, and go back down to the water’s edge, and swirl a few panfuls without having to wade.

You never know when you’re going to strike it lucky!

The Gold Rush that changed America

At the time of the great California gold strike in 1849, there was an expression in common use, meaning the ultimate thrill, the symbol of exotic achievement. And it all came from travelling circuses, which had begun to display the very rare elephant. As the tale goes, a farmer heard that a circus had come to town, and it had one of the beasts. He set off with a cartload of vegetables for the market, and encountered the circus en route. He was thrilled, but his horses less so. The cart was overturned, the vegetables destroyed. The farmer declared he didn’t care, because “he had seen the elephant.”

bear foot in wood The man who would indirectly be responsible for bringing the “elephant” to California in 1849, was a Swiss immigrant, John Sutter. Not far from the small port of San Francisco, he built his own fort, bought livestock by the thousands, and hired immigrants to work his ever-expanding enterprises. In January of 1848, this included a sawmill, located on the American River. The mill architect, James Marshall scuffed up some yellow rocks with his boot. Then some more. And more. Worried that they were what he suspected, Marshall hot-footed it for Sutter’s Fort, where he and Sutter tested the ore by the crudest of methods, and found it to be gold. Neither one of them was happy.

With completion of the mill in peril, not to mention the rest of Sutter’s fiefdom, they agreed to keep the find quiet. The veil of silence lasted for two weeks until the overseer of some workers sent to the location of the find, returned to the fort with nuggets given to him by the camp cook’s children. The secret was out. But strangely enough, no great influx of fortune hunters occurred.

It would take an enterprising San Francisco merchant, Sam Brannan to set off the flood. He ran through the streets of San Francisco, waving a bottle of gold dust and shouting the news of Marshall’s find. But not until after he had bought up every mining tool he could lay hands on. A metal pan that sold the week before at twenty cents, now cost fifteen dollars. In one week, Brannan netted $36,000 and would soon become the richest man in California. Alas, poor John Sutter. His mill would never be completed. Parts of it were even stolen. His large tanning factory lay silent, skins rotting in piles, half cured ones left in their tanks by workers who fled in search of the promised fortune that lay waiting.

People began to trickle, then flood in from all over America. Some would walk or travel by horse, four months across the country, while others endured the horrors of a six month ride by boat around the tip of South America, often paying up to $500 for the last leg of the journey to San Francisco. Those who crossed America also paid the price, in more ways than one. The last few hundred miles was dry, arid territory, with a lack of water, the worst problem. Enterprising residents trotted out with barrels and pails, selling a glass for a $1, and at times as much as $100. Those without the money, were left to die of thirst.

When they finally got to mining in California, men who made $1 at home, were making as much as $25 a day, but due to the extortion in pricing the most basic of goods, it sometimes was only enough to pay for a meal. Women also became valuable commodities for whatever skills they offered, since they were in such short supply as well. California, which had become a state in early 1849, had no truly organized government, leading to settlements, camps and towns full of rowdy, uncontrollable men who became bitter and frustrated.

Scavenging of the surface finds, or placer deposits lasted only a short time, forcing men to turn to the sluice boxes, and more panning. In 1852 hydraulic mining would make its mark at American Hill, in Nevada. The year 1853 saw several upheavals in the life of gold seekers, with underground mining of buried river channels near Forest Hill, Placer County and the discovery of high yielding placers near Columbia, one of the largest cities in the state. The California shine of gold was tarnishing for some prospectors, and a large exodus occurred when gold was discovered in the Fraser Valley, in British Columbia, Canada.

It was all over but the shouting, in 1864. Surface and river placers were empty. It would take more work and hydraulics to dig deeper for the elephant in veins underground.

Prospecting – where to get started

If you’ve decided you’d like to try a hand at prospecting, getting started is fairly easy. First, it’s a good idea to find out something on the topic, before embarking on an adventure. So if you’re planning on striking it rich in gold, you might check out the library for books, or the Internet for sites on minerals and geology in general, since that impacts just where and when you may find ore that contains gold.

inukshuk stone statueUSGS – The United States Geological Survey site is an excellent resource on the Net, providing extensive online data and records, mapping, statistics by commodity and location, as well as other basic and informative material on minerals.

Gold by Location – You can also check out sites such as this one, where you’ll find an alphabetical list of states where gold is, or has been worked, as well as historical information on the area, and tips about whether the locations are open to public prospecting.

Prospector’s Clubs by Location- Excited about your hobby and want to learn more from others with the same passion for gold? Check out the nearest club in your area, where they are listed alphabetically by state. Or just enter your city/state, plus related words in one of the many Internet search engines.

Mining is a Science – Whether at the library, browsing in a bookstore or surfing the net, be sure to check out the categories that include Science/Technology/Mining.

A Gem of a Hobby – Prospecting is a hobby enjoyed by many. Make sure to include that category in any search that you are doing, and add to it related terms such as “rock and gems”.

Paper Gold? – For those who like to read, there are literally hundreds of books on the various techniques and tools for the amateur and not so amateur prospectors. Check out your local library, bookstores, and sites such as Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.

Living History – If you are in an area that has a record of gold workings or strikes, talk to some of the older residents. Many of them will have prospected themselves, and may be glad to pass on their secrets and directions to worthwhile areas.

Supply Depots – To prospect, you don’t need the biggest or the newest in equipment or brand names. Use your common sense and spend a little time learning about gold and prospecting, before deciding which method you’d like to use. You’ll then be in a better position to make wise decisions about what tools and supplies you need, and which are just hyped to the eager beaver hobbyists. I personally start with a good large coffee mug and warm outfit to make sure I’ll be comfortable.

Family Fun – Prospecting is a pastime that even the younger and oldest members of a family can enjoy. There’s something for everyone, whether it’s actual panning, or sifting through a sluice while sitting down. Just getting out in the country, and scouting likely spots to start prospecting can be enjoyable. Remember to make sure, when you are going into “the wild”, to let someone know where you are headed and when you will be back. Always equip yourself properly for trips during which you’ll be camping outdoors. Learn something about outdoor survival. Many forestry departments and groups such as rock climbing clubs offer wilderness training that may come in handy. Learn how to orient yourself for a safe return home when you’re dazzled by the prospect of finding gold.