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The Diggings
Geography of Gold Country 

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There were three basic regions of gold mining in California. The most prosperous were the Northern Diggings, situated along the forks of the Sacramento River: the Feather, Yuba, American and Consumes, covering modern-day Plumas, Sierra, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado and Amador Counties. Here in the Sierra foothills, between 1000 and 3000 feet in elevation, miners found auriferous soil that had been washed down from veins in the Sierra Nevada over the span of hundreds of thousands of years. Major mining towns in the Northern Diggings included Poker Flat, Downieville, Rough and Ready, Dutch Flat, Coloma, and Placerville, each with its own colorful if occasionally brutal history. Rough and Ready officially seceeded from the Union on July 4th 1851, declaring itself a Republic that barely outlasted July 5th hangovers. Placerville was initially known as "Old Dry Diggings," because their was no ready water supply for washing gold, and therefore pay dirt had to be either lugged to water or hoarded until the rains created temporary streams. The lynching of three men accused of murder gave Placerville the moniker of "Hangtown." Finally, in 1855, its nascent chamber of commerce, hoping to attract new population and investment capital, saw the name changed to the more civil sounding "Placerville." Sacramento developed as the main logistic base for the northern diggings. Marysville, on the Yuba River, became a secondary city, supplying the northernmost regions of the Northern Diggings.

The widely accepted boundary between the Northern and Southern Diggings was the Mokelumne River. The Southern Diggings were those along the forks of the San Joaquin River, namely the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Mariposa, and Fresno rivers. The Southern Diggings covered portions of modern day Calaveras, Tuolumne, Mariposa and Fresno counties. Mining communities in the Southern Diggings included Whisky Flat, Angels Camp, Roaring Camp, and Sonora. The Mariposa mines, discovered on the land grant belonging to John C. Fremont, became one of the few early quartz mines, and it provided great wealth to its owner before it finally gave out. Together, the Northern and Southern Diggings constituted the "Mother Lode," so named because of the belief that all the placer gold was really just the tailing of an enormous central vein containing unheard of wealth. The Mother Lode was never discovered.

A few tertiary gold bearing regions deserve note. In Southern California, mining predated James Marshall with small amounts taken from the Los Angeles River and Placerita Creek. The amount recovered hardly rivaled the fantastic finds in the Mother Lode and were for the most part exhausted by 1848. Prosperous diggings developed in the Northwestern corner of the state, along the Klamath and Trinity rivers in the Klamath Mountains, in the present-day Del Norte, Siskiyou, Shasta, Humbolt, and Trinity counties. Life in these diggings was even more difficult and isolated than mining life elsewhere, as the only source of supply came from mule trains that braved the steep and treacherous mountains. Mining techniques were also considerably cruder, in part due to low population densities that prevented more cooperative methods.

Off all the diggings the Northern portion of the Mother Lode persisted the longest, primarily due to the existence of gold-bearing gravel that could be exploited by hydraulic mining. Long after mining in the southern Mother Lode and northwest diggings became unprofitable, hydraulic mining in the north generated handsome profits as well as conflict between miners and those who had to deal with their mining debris.

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