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RICH BAR, EAST BRANCH of the NORTH FORK of FEATHER RIVER,
September 30, 1851.
I THINK that I have never spoken to you of the mournful extent to which profanity prevails in California. You know that at home it is considered vulgar for a gentleman to swear; but I am told that here it is absolutely the fashion, and that people who never uttered an oath in their lives while in the "States," now clothe themselves with curses as with a garment. Some try to excuse themselves by saying that it is a careless habit, into which they have glided imperceptibly from having been compelled to associate so long with the vulgar and the profane; that it is a mere slip of the tongue, which means absolutely nothing; etc. I am willing to believe this, and to think as charitably as possible of many persons here, who have unconsciously adopted a custom which I know they abhor. Whether there is more profanity in the mines than elsewhere, I know not; but, during the short time that I have been at Rich Bar, I have heard more of it than in all my life before. Of course the most vulgar blackguard will abstain from swearing in the presence of a lady, but in this rag-and-cardboard house one is compelled to hear the most sacred of names constantly profaned by the drinkers and gamblers, who haunt the barroom at all hours. And this is a custom which the gentlemanly and quiet proprietor, much as he evidently dislikes it, cannot possibly prevent. Some of these expressions, were they not so fearfully blasphemous, would be grotesquely sublime. For instance, not five minutes ago I heard two men quarreling in the street, and one said to the other, "Only let me get hold of your beggarly carcass once, and I will use you up so small that God Almighty himself cannot see your ghost!"
To live thus, in constant danger of being hushed to one's rosy rest by a ghastly lullaby of oaths, is revolting in the extreme. For that reason, and because it is infinitely more comfortable during the winter season than a plank house, F. has concluded to build a log cabin, where, at least, I shall not be obliged to hear the solemn names of the Father and the dear Master so mockingly profaned.
But it is not the swearing alone which disturbs my slumber. There is a dreadful flume, the machinery of which keeps up the most dismal moaning and shrieking all the livelong night, painfully suggestive of a suffering child. But, O dear! you don't know what that is, do you? Now, if I were scientific, I should give you such a vivid description of it that you would see a pen-and-ink flume staring at you from this very letter. But, alas! my own ideas on the subject are in a state of melancholy vagueness. I will do the best possible, however, in the way of explanation. A flume, then, is an immense trough which takes up a portion of the river, and with the aid of a dam compels it to run in another channel, leaving the vacated bed of the stream ready for mining purposes.
There is a gigantic project now on the tapis, of fluming the entire river for many miles, commencing a little above Rich Bar. Sometimes these fluming companies are eminently successful; at others, their operations are a dead failure.
But, in truth, the whole mining system in California is one great gambling or, better perhaps, lottery transaction. It is impossible to tell whether a claim will prove valuable or not. F. has invariably sunk money in every one that he has bought. Of course a man who works a claim himself is more likely, even should it turn out poor, to get his money back, as they say, than one who, like F., hires it done.
A few weeks since, F. paid a thousand dollars for a claim which has proved utterly worthless. He might better have thrown his money into the river than to have bought it, and yet some of the most experienced miners on the Bar thought that it would pay.
But I began to tell you about the different noises which disturb my peace of mind by day and my repose of body by night, and have gone, instead, into a financial disquisition upon mining prospects. Pray forgive me, even though I confess that I intend, some day, when I feel statistically inclined, to bore you with some profound remarks upon the claiming, drifting, sluicing, ditching, fluming, and coyoting politics of the "diggins."
But to return to my sleep-murderers. The rolling on the bowling-alley never leaves off for ten consecutive minutes at any time during the entire twenty-four hours. It is a favorite amusement at the mines, and the only difference that Sunday makes is, that then it never leaves off for one minute.
Besides the flume and the bowling-alley, there is an inconsiderate dog which will bark from starry eve till dewy morn. I fancy that he has a wager on the subject, as all the other puppies seem bitten by the betting mania.
Apropos of dogs, I found dear old Dake, the noble Newfoundland which H. gave us, look as intensely black and as grandly aristocratical as ever. He is the only high-bred dog on the river. There is another animal, by the plebeian name of John (what a name for a dog!), really a handsome creature, which looks as if he might have a faint sprinkling of good blood in his veins. Indeed, I have thought it possible that his great-grandfather was a bulldog. But he always barks at me, which I consider as proof positive that he is nothing but a low-born mongrel. To be sure, his master says, to excuse him, that he never saw a woman before; but a dog of any chivalry would have recognized the gentler sex, even if it was the first time that he had been blessed with the sight.
In the first part of my letter I alluded to the swearing propensities of the Rich Barians. Those, of course, would shock you; but, though you hate slang, I know that you could not help smiling at some of their bizarre cant phrases.
For instance, if you tell a Rich Barian anything which he doubts, instead of simply asking you if it is true, he will invariably cock his head interrogatively, and almost pathetically address you with the solemn adjuration, "Honest Indian?" Whether this phrase is a slur or a compliment to the aborigines of this country, I do not know.
Again, they will agree to a proposal with the appropriate words, "Talk enough when horses fight!" which sentence they will sometimes slightly vary to "Talk enough between gentlemen."
If they wish to borrow anything of you, they will mildly inquire if you have it "about your clothes." As an illustration: a man asked F., the other day, if he had a spare pickax about his clothes. And F. himself gravely inquired of me this evening, at the dinner-table, if I had a pickle about my clothes.
If they ask a man an embarrassing question, or in any way have placed him in an equivocal position, they will triumphantly declare that they have "got the dead-wood on him." And they are everlastingly "going nary cent" on those of whose credit they are doubtful. There are many others, which may be common enough everywhere, but as I never happened to hear them before, they have for me all the freshness of originality. You know that it has always been one of my pet rages to trace cant phrases to their origin; but most of those in vogue here would, I verily believe, puzzle Horne Tooke himself.
- Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division