Whether they came to California overland or by sea in 1849, hordes of predominately young men were joyfully exuberant, for they were going to be very rich, very soon! Why? Because the gold there was so abundant that a man could just pick it up off the ground—hadn’t James Marshall, the discoverer himself, done just that?
By Christmas 1849, however, the luster of their dreams had dulled considerably, as realization dawned that they had ignored certain salient facts about the fantastic gold discovery. Marshall had in fact leaned down and picked up a few shiny flakes, but not from surface ground. He had found them at the bottom of the millrace that facilitated the flow of water beneath the wheel that operated the sawmill he was building—and as everyone knew, a millrace was simply a deep ditch, dug for a specific purpose. The truth was, that gold prospectors would have to dig, with shovels and axes, to earn their fortune, or “pan” for it, swirling a slope-sided pan for hours until their arms and shoulders ached from fatigue, while standing knee-deep in icy water. It was hard work, and often fruitless. Disease was a constant threat, and accidents were common.
Indeed, by the end of December 1849, out-bound ships were filled with disillusioned gold-seekers who just wanted to go home.
The thousands who stayed were far away from ordinary comforts and the familiar faces back home. A number of preachers in the gold camps or town saloons offered short holiday services, and some miners dodged the pain of a cold, lonely day by singing old Christmas carols like “Jingle Bells” or “Away in a Manger” around camp fires. Homesick letters to loved ones expressed longings for Christmas gatherings replete with turkeys, hams, fresh vegetables and pound cakes, foodstuffs not available in the California mining districts.
So what did they eat for Christmas dinner? Luckless miners probably made do with beans and salt pork and homemade biscuits. The more fortunate could dine on beefsteak from the cattle driven to the mines by enterprising ranchers and sold on the hoof, tinned oysters imported from the East Coast, oranges from Mexico, and a potato or two (also imported), purchased at $1.00 apiece.