Gold Rush History: 49er Scams Exposed

By Bob Holton September 15, 2011 17:12

Selling off man-made gold; this historic lithograph first appeared in 1850; courtesy Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

Those who have dug gold in the Mother Lode – day after day for hours on end – know just how hard it is for a placer miner to earn an honest living, which is probably why so many 49ers chose to make their “pile” by shady and perfidious dealings.

Take Mr. Fletcher and his curious Gold-o-meter invention, for example.

“The Gold-o-meter consists of a rod three feet long with a ball at one end, twined around with silken thread,” wrote the Miners’ and Business Men’s Directory of 1857, published in Tuolumne County. “The rod is made of steel, cane or some other elastic substance. Fletcher says his instrument will not act in other hands, as it depends upon the peculiar electrical condition of his system. Still he will not let anyone examine it. Taking the lower end of the rod in both of his hands, the rod being in a perpendicular position, Fletcher walks over the ground. If there is gold in the vicinity, the rod bends or bows towards that particular locality.”

When there were two or more deposits in the area, the Gold-o-meter would gyrate wildly in semi-circles. Operating on the theory that gold washers were basically gullible people, Fletcher collected monthly royalties from naive miners for slightly over a year, mainly around the diggings of Sonora, Murphys and Carson Creek.

A few more stories of how hard-working miners were relieved of their golden harvests:

Synthetic gold: The 49ers paid for goods and services with gold dust, so it naturally follows that counterfeit yellow metal sometimes showed up on the market. One instance can be traced to Gold Springs, Tuolumne County, where in 1853 a storekeeper named Moffatt and an engineer named Darling produced man-made gold of such high quality that they were able to pass the stuff off in Sacramento as the real McCoy for nearly six months. They were eventually found out, but by boarding a steamer for South America in the nick of time they escaped wearing the hemp collar, according to an 1850s newspaper account.

Claim salting: This is an old practice – still used today – where suckers are bamboozled into thinking they’re buying a lucrative gold mine when actually they’re not. The only gold associated with such claims is secretly planted as a ruse. Often the seller loaded a shotgun with small nuggets, then fired the nuggets into the ground to make it appear as though the entire prospect is smothered in precious metal.

From San Andreas comes the story of a man who in 1855 salted his valueless claim in this manner, then sold it to another miner who soon realized his mistake. Quick to react, the new owner re-salted the claim with yet another shotgun, floated a rumor in the saloons that he had just struck a rich pocket, and sold the claim back to its original owner at a profit.

One of the Mother Lode’s most remarkable stories comes from Angels Camp, where Charles H. Lane bought a salted mine pit in 1880. For several years this notorious humbug failed to produce, but Lane undauntedly pressed on.

Why did he do this? Because a San Francisco palm reader kept telling him that the Utica Mine would someday make him a rich man. Oddly enough, the palm reader was right. Under Lane’s capable management the Utica became one of our nation’s “two most successful mining operations,” reads a plaque in Utica Park. It finally shut down in 1918, after its gold petered out.

These were the good old days, the simple old days, the low-tech computerless days of ages past. But what if such shysters could use the Internet?

Four years ago, a longtime Tuolumne County rancher who shall remain anonymous was sitting on his front porch and gazing out over his sizeable spread when suddenly a “big scary guy” came speeding up the road, honking his horn and waving frantically.

“He gets out of the car and tells me he just bought a gold mine on my property off eBay,” the rancher recounts. “Then he goes down by the ravine and camps there for about a week. I should have called the sheriff, come to think of it, but I didn’t.”

On further examination it turned out the big scary guy was quite sincere, having paid someone he never met $45,000 (his retirement plan) for a gold mine that doesn’t exist. Sadly, he sold his house and business on the East Coast with high hopes of striking it rich in California’s foothills.

Ironically, all the land in this strange but true story is a “patented claim,” under which both surface and mineral rights are part of the title. Such claims are a major non-starter for modern-day squatters with gold as their object. The matter is now in litigation.

“A few months later, a man and his wife come up the road with a truckload of mining tools and a bogus deed purchased over the Internet,” the rancher went on to lament. “They cut the lock on one of my gates and replaced it with their own, but they didn’t stick around very long. Shucks, there’s not much in the way of gold on this old ranch. If there were, I’d be out there digging it up myself.”

Moral: Get-rich-quick schemes are usually too good to be true, especially those synonymous with gold mines.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton September 15, 2011 17:12