"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Gold Field Doctor Found More Disease Than Riches

by Don Baumgart

The east coast tales of golden rocks lying about in California waiting to be picked up did little to prepare the men who came West during the Gold Rush.

"None but a laboring man is fit for this business. He must have been inured to the most trying hardships from his earliest infancy, and have a constitution and frame of iron."

Those were the words of Baltimore physician James Tyson, who set sail with the eager, boarding the schooner Sovereign with 50 other passengers. Putting ashore in Panama, Tyson tramped across the Isthmus and finally caught a ship up the West coast to San Francisco. When he reached the gold fields the conditions he found were those of intense hard labor amid unbearable privations.

During his time in the mines, Tyson helped set up tent hospitals to treat men suffering from a range of disorders including scurvy, rheumatism, dysentery, and fever. Those he treated did well; of those who did not or could not find their way to a doctor, "Death was often the consequence, or they were walking shadows for months, and rarely recovered their accustomed vigor."

Few, he said, would return home in full health.

"Many ended their journey across the plains utterly prostrated by over-exertion, and too often poisoned by unwholesome food and want of cleanliness," agreed Sarah Royce, who made the wagon train trip with her family in 1849. She described one party of young men who boasted of not removing an article of clothing, even boots, during their travels from Missouri to the mines. "Of course, disease claimed them as natural prey."

The cost of the harsh mining life was becoming well known as far as San Francisco where an editorial writer for the Californian penned this bit of advice to the Forty-Niners before going home to a hot meal and clean sheets: "Get rest, follow temperate habits, eat wholesome food, and sleep in warm bed clothes."

In reality the miners panned their ounce or more a day from the cold waters and quickly spent it on whiskey, gambling and overpriced food. A chicken, a quart of champagne or a pound of blasting powder all cost $16 apiece, the value of an ounce of gold. Often the day's take was gone before boots and pant legs dried. Healthy living was not uppermost in the miners' minds.

"I have seen men living for days without any other food than flour mixed with water, formed into kind of a dough, and baked in the ashes," one observer wrote in 1849.

A Cornish miner working below ground to bring the shining metal up from the dark wrote, "It is so seldom that I see a potato on the table that I have almost forgotten their taste. My breakfast is dry wheat bread and water with a little milk in it. The butter is so filthy that I can hardly get along with it on the table, much less to eat it."

Undernourishment, typhoid, smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, and meningitis worked their ways with the miners, taking their small earnings and good health in a single stroke.

Eventually Doctor Tyson became afflicted with the same fever from which he had helped many miners recover. Heading for San Francisco he put down these words summarizing his time in the gold fields. "My object in visiting California was two-fold; to become familiar with its diseases, particularly at the mines, and to select a location for permanent settlement. Becoming a victim to one of the former, and my tastes not inclining to the rugged hardships of the latter..." He fled.

What had the good doctor learned about the Gold Rush? "The truth had not been told."

When mining went underground a new affliction appeared. Miners' lungs became clogged with dust and grit. Hard rock miners accepted "consumption" as part of their job, consuming bottles of useless quack medicines for relief. Silicosis was the downfall of most who worked underground, dooming them to a life's end spent trying to draw an adequate breath into their damaged lungs.

Young men heading for the Gold Rush were warned of the robbers, cheats and murderers that lay ahead. What they weren't told about was the even greater threat to their good health that waited in California.


Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003

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