Friday, April 12, 2013

The Motherlode: Mining the Miners by @JacquieRogers #western

Gold Fever

In the 1800s, people traveled west in droves, but not all those who went west were immigrants. The Forty-Niners were obsessed with finding a mountain of gold, then there came the Pike’s Peakers, and prospectors flocked to numerous gold and silver strikes all over the Western territories from Arizona to the Klondike. And right behind all of them were entrepreneurs whose sole agenda was mining the miners—making it rich. And quite a few of them did.

Who were these people? Levi Strauss and John Nordstrom made their fortunes in clothing and retail, as did many others. Many hoteliers, newspaper publishers, and freighters did well. Early on, lots of money went toward the gambling and (ahem) other social activities. Let’s talk about gambling.

People who went west risked everything they owned as well as their lives to get there, so it’s only reasonable to expect that these risk-takers would be gamblers as well. Nearly everyone, male or female, of any age, would place a wager now and again.

Westerners bet on everything that moved—dogs, frogs, hogs—you name it. They made book on foot races with various handicaps, boat races (even a stick boat on a puddle on Main Street), sack races at the Sunday social, greased pig races, wild horse races . . . whatever they could think of, they did. They also bet on base-ball games (yes, it was hyphenated then), and nearly every other game you can think of.

In 1857, my g-g-grandfather (not sure on the number of greats), Moses Lock Alsup, took a string of racehorses and a small herd of cattle to California, near present day Santa Rosa. He sold his cattle for $40/head ($1,600 total), and raced his horses for a tidy payoff. He then sold all but his breeding stock, took his money, and went back to Missouri and bought most of the county. He made more money from the miners in one trip than most of the miners ever made.

Horseracing was one of the most popular sports. Nearly every festival or celebration featured a race. In the July 9, 1870, issue of The Owyhee Avalanche (Silver City, Idaho Territory), they reported:
A number of our citizens attended the races at Wagontown last Monday. Everything passed off in the most satisfactory manner. There were four races of a quarter of a mile each, as follows: LW Walker's chestnut horse and Jno Catalows's sorrel mare, for $50 a side, won by the latter. Second, Tim Shay's sorrel horse and Frenchman's roan filly, for $40 a side, won by Shay's horse. Third, Catalow's sorrel mare and Frenchman's sorrel horse, for $50 a side, Catalow's mare winner. Fourth, Jordan's black mare and Tom Walls' gray horse, for $45 a side, Jordan's mare winner.
That's pretty good money for 140 years ago, but a pittance compared to what went on in San Francisco, CA.
Gradually, as wealthy men made a hobby or a sideline of breeding horses, Western races became more carefully orchestrated, the crowds grew and betting flourished. Indeed, gambling and a day at the races became a virtually synonymous. And when Westerners got around to staging formal stakes races the prizes were sometimes much richer than those back East. In 1873 what was billed as "the richest race in the world" was run at Ocean View Park in San Francisco. The winner's purse was $20,000 paid in gold. In the same year New York's famous Belmont was worth only $5,200 and Maryland's Preakness a mere $1,800. ~ From: Gamblers of the Old West, p.200
Jefferson R. Smith II,
aka Soapy Smith
Then there were the gamblers and the bunco men, such as Jefferson Randolph Smith II, better known as Soapy Smith. He organized bunco gangs and worked confidence games all over the West, from Texas to Skagway, where he met his untimely end. He was most famous for his soap scam, where he would entice people to buy bars of soap by telling them there was money inside the wrapper. To get a better idea of how this works, check out the excellent website that’s run by his family where you can learn all about Soapy’s adventures. His great grandson, Jeff Smith, is a knowledgeable resource (a nice guy, too), and wrote the definitive biography on Soapy using primary sources. 

Poker Alice, Wyatt Earp, and nearly every other famous person from the Old West made money from the miners. Most were gamblers, but lawmen and cowhands were required to keep order in mining camps and to bring in beef to feed the men.

A name that’s not so famous but just as intriguing is Malinda Jenkins. This woman led quite a life, and most of her money was made from the profits of boom towns. She was born in Kentucky in 1848 and married young to a handsome man but ended up working her fingers to the bone to support him. Two husbands later, she’d traveled all over the West, including the Klondike, and finally settled in Idaho at the turn of the 20th Century. If you want to read about the opportunities for women in the West, her biography is an excellent source. Mrs. Jenkins had nothing to start with but a keen mind and a willingness to work hard, and ended up a prosperous businesswoman and landowner. At 80, she still played the ponies every day.

Gold and silver turned the American West into an enticement too strong to resist, but the real money came from the businesses that catered to these hearty souls’ needs.

Where the Old West really happened!
Much Ado About Marshals
Much Ado About Madams
Much Ado About Mavericks


Caroline Clemmons said...

Great post, Jacquie. I've always heard that to get rich you need to provide an indispensable service such as food, fuel, etc. Why didn't I listen? LOL I fully recommend your great Much Ado series and have touted them to everyone who'll listen. Great books!

EilisFlynn said...

Looking forward to the Miners!

Lyn Horner said...

Fascinating post, Jacquie. Did you know Indians loved to gamble too? They also loved horse racing. At least the plains tribes did, don't know about tribes in your neck of the woods.

Fun reading! Thanks for sharing.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Caroline, I guess gambling was indispensable to them. LOL. And thanks for your ongoing support. ♥

Jacquie Rogers said...

Eilis, I'm working on it! Haven't written my 500 words today though--birthday parties.

Jacquie Rogers said...

Lyn, yep, the Indians in the PNW gambled, too. Nearly everyone loved a good game of chance. Now we have casinos all over the place.

Meg said...

LOVE those covers!! So what happened to Soapy? You said "untimely end" but didn't consider greenhorns like me, who are new to the west. LOL

Can't wait for Miners!!

Jacquie Rogers said...

Meg, Soapy was murdered in Skagway. They hold a wake every year in his memory.