This site regularly explores aspects of the 19th century Irish emigrant experience in America beyond the Civil War. One of the most popular themes is the subject of the Irish in the West. Among the many topics touched upon have been The Voices of California’s Irish Pioneers, St. Patrick’s Day in the ‘Wild West’ and the experiences of an Irish Silver Miner in Nevada, 1864. I recently came across a wonderful account of how a group of Irish participants in the California Gold Rush celebrated St. Patrick’s Day, 1853, at their remote mining encampment of Bullard’s Bar on the North Yuba River. The letter describes the day and night’s entertainment, as the all-male community sought to take a break from the hardships associated with prospecting for gold. The account offers an opportunity to explore what it was like to be a miner here during the Gold Rush, and also to ponder just how harmonious relations really were between the different groups– natives and newcomers– who flooded into early California.
The Irish miners who are the subject of the account were working claims at Bullard’s Bar, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The location had got its name from a New Yorker, Dr. Bullard, who had struck it rich there in 1849, when he and three colleagues dammed up the river and extracted $15,000 of gold in less than two months. Today Bullard’s Bar no longer exists, as the area was inundated by the formation of the New Bullard’s Bar Reservoir, created by the construction of the New Bullard’s Bar Dam that opened in 1969. Although now much changed, it remains possible to gain a sense of what the mining settlement was once like in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Carl Wheat left a description of the challenging terrain these men inhabited in Northeastern Yuba County:
The general contour of the ridges suggests an old plateau, slightly tilted to the west, greatly cut away by erosion during recent geologic times. The Yuba River and its many branches have cut deeply into this old plateau, its gorges being from five hundred to over a thousand feet in depth…The “bars” were located along the rivers, with mountains towering up on both sides. The other towns and “diggins” were generally located on our near the tops of the highest ridges, where the miners discovered the rich, gold-bearing gravels left by the rivers of earlier geologic ages…It is a heavily wooded country, and to become lost was, and is, very easy, if one were to leave the beaten paths… (1)
What of the experiences of the men who worked Bullard’s Bar? One of them was Scottish 49er William Downie, who worked his first gold claim at Bullard’s, and left behind a recollection of his time there:
…we bought a rocker for twelve and one-half ounces [of gold], and now we stood at the gate that should lead us into the promised land. It seems strange now to think back upon our first experience in trying to find gold, and the primitive manner in which we went to work. The three of us divided the labor, so that one worked the rocker, while the other stirred, and the third used the pick and shovel and carried the dirt in a bag, about a panful at a time. I honestly believe that I could now run one day’s work through in one hour, pick, shovel, rocker and all. We used a scoop about the size of a cigar box for wetting the dirt. It had a long handle to it, and when the water was thrown on the dirt it would be stirred up, a process somewhat similar to making mush. (2)
Miner’s could be friendly enough to one other– as evidenced by the letter to come– but gold was gold, and they tended to be extremely secretive about their claims. In his early days, this was something that Downie struggled to understand:
There was one thing…which caused me a good deal of trouble and considerably puzzled my imagination. It was the mystery with which the miners surrounded all matters appertaining to prospecting. One man in particular put my patience to a test in this regard…while he would converse with me freely on all other matters, as soon as I asked him for any information in regard to finding gold, he became as dumb as the proverbial clam… (3)
This experienced miner went on to give him some Downie some sage advice:
“Look here young fellow,” he said, “if there is a thing a miner don’t care to talk about, it is where he has been, and you might say that it is just as good as law among prospectors, that every man keeps mum. Let me give you a bit of advice: When you get to feel that way yourself; that you have struck it rich in a new prospect, don’t you advertise your good luck and have a band playing outside your tent to celebrate; but after sundown, when everything is settled in camp, and your nearest neighbor is snoring loud enough to compete with a cathedral organ, you just pack up your traps on your back and skip out of camp; and if you should meet anybody on the road, who should ask you where you are going, just tell them that you have had poor luck and are making back for town. But the next morning, bright and early– or as soon as you can reach it– stick your pick into your new claim and work it for all it is worth, before anybody comes to interfere with your happiness.” (4)
This gives some flavour of the environment in which the Irish miners at Bullard’s Bar worked in 1853. However, all potential rivalries were apparently forgotten on St. Patrick’s Day that year, when the small community got together to celebrate the feast day of Ireland’s patron saint in the wilds of California. The events so impressed one participant– apparently a native-born Anglo-American– so intensely, that he took up his pen to write to the New York Irish American Weekly of the occurrences, thus preserving in detail a fragment of these men’s lives.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY IN CALIFORNIA
IRELAND AT THE DIGGINGS
To the Editor of the Irish-American
Bullard’s Bar, Yuba Co., Cal.,
21st March, 1853
MR. EDITOR- By the request of some of the sons of Erin, who have located themselves temporarily in this part of California, I embrace the first leisure I have had to give you some account of St. Patrick’s Day in California. This duty would undoubtedly have been performed by an Irishman, but from the fact that none of them have the same leisure that, on account of the nature of my business, I can command. But though I am an American born, such a task will not be unpleasant to me if I can succeed in doing such justice to the occasion as will satisfy the gentlemen who relieved the monotony of life in the gold mines by kindly permitting me to share with the convivialities of the 17th inst. And if I fail in this, it will not be from any want of sympathy with the occasion, or with the nation to whom that day is sacred.
Yes-sacred. The temptation is strong, for men who know that the loss of a mining day is the loss of no small quantity of gold, to pass by the present observance of such an occasion, and have the celebration of “St. Patrick’s Day” to the expected future, which will permit them to enjoy it among the friends and kindred so many of them have left to make their fortunes out of the golden sands of California rivers. I imagined that the principal difference between St. Patrick’s Day on Bullard’s Bar, and other days, would be that some would have better dinners on that day than usual, and perhaps an additional glass or two of liquor. But I was underrating Irish hearts.
On the morning of the 17th inst,. we were awakened by the early discharge of fire arms, and the tune “St. Patrick’s Day in the morning” played upon every instrument procurable among us. At an early hour those Irishmen who having entire control of “the claims” upon which they work, could do as they chose, might be seen revelling in the luxury of clean shirts (an article somewhat more rare here than with you) and wearing bunches of shamrocks in their hatbands, intent upon the enjoyment of their traditional holiday.
The day passed off quietly and pleasantly. Everywhere the frank good-humored countenances of Irishmen were seen, and their voices were heard in such a way as not only proved their appreciation of fun, but also that the popular faith in Irish wit is no illusion.
Duncan Ross Cameron performs “St. Patrick’s Day”, which sounded around the Sierra Nevada foothills on the North Yuba River on 17th March, 1853
So quickly had all the arrangements for the evening been made, that but few were aware that anything unusual was to take place, and none suspected that it was to prove quite an era in the social history of our little community. But soon after the usual time for supper, notice was given that the anniversary was to be observed in the house of Messrs. McKeon (from the State of Vermont) where men of all lands would find open doors and warm hearts to receive them. A majority of the population of our little place eagerly availed themselves of this general invitation, and soon, in a small room, were assembled the representatives of many countries. Germans, Danes, Norwegians, English, and native-born Americans- united by a common citizenship, forgot, if they had ever known such, all former prejudices, and heartily joined with their generous Irish hosts in everything which was done to make the occasion what it should be.
I wish that I could describe that room so vividly that your readers might see it as in a daguerreotype. I have said that it was small. Its actual dimensions had better not be given, lest it should seem impossible to your city readers that it would contain so many as thirty or thirty-five men, and yet afford spare room for what remains to be described. But the benches around the sides were crowded, the bunks in the corner afforded perching places for more than one would believe- even the large fire-place allowed two or three breathing room, and now and then they could change places with some one more fortunately located. One corner of the room was occupied by a table, upon which was a large supply of eatables and drinkables, free for all to use as they chose. When I entered the room, all of the floor not occupied by what I have named was covered by dancers, who entered into the thing with a spirit which more than atoned for all inconveniences and want of elegance in the room itself. A gayer, happier set of men were never met. (There are no women here). If the gentlemen who lazily daudle through the figures in elegant ball rooms- incapable o being warmed into a hearty activity even by sympathy with their fairer and gayer partners, could have looked on for half an hour, they would have found great reason to doubt the reality of their own existence, and must have envied the men they looked at.
After a little dancing, glasses were filled and toasts were given which did credit to Irish heads, and received in a manner worthy of Irish or of any hearts. I regret that it is impossible for me to repeat these toasts. I have spoken of the contrast between a ball in “high life” and the dancing on Bullard’s Bar, on the evening. I must also speak of the contrast between the sentiments given and the spirit in which they were received, and the same thing as it is “got up” for the great dinners, first heralded, and afterwards ably reported in the newspapers. In cases of the latter kind, more skill and ingenuity may be displayed- but oh, how much less heart! Be it ever so well done the toast of such a dignified occasion smacks of thought and study; and how much the enthusiasm of its reception usually falls short of that of its eloquent manufacturer, who read it over as often in his study the night before, indulging himself in the belief that he would “make a hit” and “call down the house.” Here every toast came gushing from a warm and manly heart- the simple expression of a real feeling which throbbed in the heart, and it would be received in such a way that proved that other hearts were warm and true- full of all manliness. So beautifully was Ireland remembered- so delicately and touchingly spoke on- that he who could listen without feeling sympathy and admiration for Irish character, must have been made of strange material.
And our America was toasted. It made my heart beat with gratitude that I was born in a country which had such love from such a people, and such must have been the feeling which dictated a toast offered with evident sincerity from a native American, who gave “The native American Party- let us thank God that it is dead and buried, and pray that it may know no resurrection.”- This toast would scarcely have been relished by the Irish, I think, if it had been given by an Irishman, so carefully did they refrain from anything which by possibility could injure any man’s feelings. But coming from a native it was received with three times three, and cheered as well by natives as by others. Then came a song- Mr. Thomas Drennan sang the adventures of himself and his “beautiful stick” in a glorious style, which made every man laugh until his ribs ached. Again came dancing, better, gayer, livelier than ever. Jigs and waltzes and polkas and cotillions, as the dancers happened to be of one or another nation. An old gentleman, Mr. Sullivan, senior, who had looked quietly on, though evidently enjoying the scene, now rose and claimed a young Irishman for a partner, and fairly outdid him in an Irish dance. It was good to see that venerable old man retaining the enthusiasm of his youth, and forgetting the weight of years under the impulse of patriotism.
Others ought to be mentioned for their contributions to the general enjoyment. Mr. Hugh Shirkland gave a toast, the words of which I cannot quite recall, which claimed for the Irish undying love for their native land, and unswerving attachment to their adopted home. Messrs. Karrigan, McMenymie, Sullivan, jun.; Gillans, (who made a very pretty speech, concluding with appropriate sentiment) McGuire, Sweeney, and others, ought to be mentioned for their several parts in the evening’s history, but to so minute will tax your columns too much.
A Dr. Lippincott–an Illinoian– having engaged quite heartily in the evening’s ceremonies, Mr. Drennan suddenly made it the point of some complimentary remarks, and hoped the company would express some thanks for the kindness and attention which the Dr. had shown. This called forth a burst of applause in the way of cheers for the Dr. which must have gratified any man. Dr. Lippincott hastily threw his cap under a table, and said that he had expected no such tribute, and was unconscious of having deserved it. If he had been able in any degree to contribute to the evening’s enjoyment, he was glad and proud of it–for he would desire to render some small return for the pleasure he had enjoyed. “If” said he, “I were in Ireland with a company of Americans, and if, instead of St. Patrick’s Day, it was the Fourth of July, and our little company should (as they certainly would) try to celebrate that day, it was not credible that we should call in vain for aid or sympathy with Irishmen around us. Believing this, it would indeed be shameful to stand alone when Irishmen who have become my countrymen, attempt to observe a day so dear to every Irish heart. No, gentlemen, when on the 17th day of March an exiled Irishman stops from his customary pursuits to remember the home of his birth, the sadness which must mingle with his memories, shall not, if I am by, be deepened for want of American sympathy. I have read, from my childhood, something of Ireland’s story, and can honor the great men she has produced, whether they have died upon the scaffold like Emmet, or been exiled like Meagher. Let the world remember Ireland, if only in gratitude for the glorious men she has borne– men whose influence could not be confined to Ireland, but extends to every warm, free heart that beats upon the world. There are others here who are far from their native land, and before all, and to all, I say, thank God that you have come. As an American I am more than proud that my native land can cherish the oppressed of all other lands. As an American I rejoice in the belief that from the mingling of so many races will be produced a future generation of American men which will surpass any race which the sun ever shone upon. But to Ireland does this occasion belong, and only Ireland, would I now speak of. America has willingly received her exiled sons– but all over our land are the evidences that they were worthy to become American citizens. Every canal and railroad, every bridge and turnpike is a trophy of Irish industry and monument of Irish worth. The Irish– like all men have their faults, but everywhere, as laborers, as citizens, as congressmen, and as soldiers, they have proved themselves equal to the best and so may God send millions more of them to this country!”
In reply to this came new cheers, and then once more the dancing began. It would be an outrage to protract my letter so long as the festivities were, for day was peeping over the mountain-top before the party separated. When that time came every man was as gay and happy apparently, as in the early part of the evening. Though all night liquors of all kinds were plenty as water, not one man was drunk, and nothing appeared to corroborate the general opinion in regard Irish combativeness.
I reckon St. Patrick’s Day, 1853, as one of the bright days of my life, and indulge the hope that on some return of it I may again be permitted to partake of Irish hospitality.
‘Yuba’ presents apparently harmonious relations between the men at Bullard’s Bar (at least for a day), but it is worth remembering that this was not necessarily the case when it came to those viewed as others. The Gold Rush had a particularly devastating impact on California’s Native American peoples, whose population was almost wiped out as a result. Other groups such as Mexicans, Chinese and Pacific Islanders were also sometimes targeted. William Downie recalled one occasion at Bullard’s Bar in 1849 which demonstrated how the miners– including Irishmen– were prepared to defend what they had taken:
At Bullard’s Bar some of the singular scenes of miners’ camp life in those days began to unfold themselves to me, and here, for the first time, I saw a party organized for the purpose of driving away “Foreigners”. What was implied by the term “foreigners” was not exactly clear to me at that time, and it would be hard for me to explain it even now. The little company so organized, consisted of from twenty to thirty men. They were armed with pistols, knives, rifles and old shotguns, and I remember distinctly that they were headed by a man who carried the stars and stripes in an edition about the size of an ordinary pocket handkerchief…I took the opportunity to ask one of the men, where they were going, and for what purpose. In reply I was told in tip-top Tipperary brogue, that the expedition had set out for the purpose of exploring the river thirty miles up and down with a view to driving away all “foreigners.” The crowd was a motley one, and as to nationality, somewhat mixed. Irishmen were marching to drive off the Kanakas [Hawaiians], who had assisted brave Captain Sutter…They were joined by Dutchmen and Germans, who could not speak a word of English…Then there were a few New Yorkers…but all joined hands in the alleged common interest or protecting the native soil…against the invasion of “foreigners.”
There are undoubtedly many dark undertones to Irish participation in the march of Manifest Destiny across the United States of America that should be fully acknowledged. However, as I have discussed elsewhere, adopting a nuanced approach to the history of the Irish in the West is also required. ‘Yuba’s’ account provides us with a glimpse of just how important remembering home was to Irish emigrants, even as they followed a harsh lifestyle a world away from the towns and countrysides where they had originated back in Ireland. As ‘St. Patrick’s Day in the Morning’ rang out around the foothills of the Sierra Nevada’s many men’s thoughts must have turned to the country and family they had left behind.
(1) Swindle 2000:41, Douglas 2002: 578; (2) Downie 1893: 19-21; (3) Ibid., 23; (4) Ibid., 24; (5) New York Irish American Weekly; (6) Carrigan and Webb 2013, Downie 1893: 21-22;
New York Irish American Weekly 7 May 1853. St. Patrick’s Day in California. Ireland at the Diggings.
Carrigan, William D. and Webb, Clive. 2013. Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928.
Downie, William. 1893. Hunting for Gold: Reminiscences of Personal Experience and Research in the Early Days of the Pacific Coast from Alaska to Panama.
Kyle, Douglas E. 2002. Historic Spots in California.
Swindle, Lewis J. 2000. The History of the Gold Discoveries of the Northern Mines of California’s Mother Lode Gold Belt.