An unidentified daguerreotypist traveled into the heart of gold rush country in California during the great migration of men and women from around the world who used every means of conveyance imaginable to reach the fabled El Dorado located in the rapidly flowing riverbeds in the bottom of steep ravines to fill their pockets with GOLD. Their frenzied anticipations and the stories that have survived and passed down through the generations are filled with surprise, wonderment, intolerable weather conditions, unbelievable hardships working a claim, true camaraderie and successes ranging from a few ounces of color to huge profitable strikes. Obviously, the four gents who posed for this remarkable quarter plate daguerreotype that has been professionally restored, were part of a much larger operation. Those huge water wheels in the background, just below the miners’ large tents, were used in some fashion to move water quickly from one location to another as part of the process. The wooden sluice above the men’s heads was constructed from material that probably was cut and milled in the vicinity of their claim. Although the structure appeared rather haphazard, and large rocks were placed on two sections, it was sturdy enough to permit a successful venture. (Water recently flowed through judging by the stains in the wooden sides). Taking a closer look at the landscape reveals a ubiquitous “tin pan” filled with gold being held by the fellow in the foreground. A wooden rocker box is on his left. The chap to his right leaned on a long handled shovel while the guy on the other side of the sluice also had a similar pose. The miner with the pickaxe held the tool like a veteran. As I look across the chasm the miners created there is more detritus from their efforts scattered around. The most striking element, and one my eyes keep returning to, is that large American Flag top center that the daguerreian hand colored, along with the variety of shirts his subjects wore. And you thought that since the silver has never been cleaned, that flag was naturally occurring oxidation, since there is a wide swath inside the double elliptical mat. According to information I have read (and I want to sincerely thank California collector Michael Peterson and my son Casey for the insights they provided) the initial use of water wheels by the forty-niners was circa 1853. The more elaborate the operations most likely the later the date. I believe that the medium weight plate, that was not coated with an extra layer of silver and shows the copper on the reverse, was taken circa 1856 or later. There is no hallmark and the physical indicators, with four clipped corners and the four sides bent back, were used beginning in the late 1840s. Working in the field and traveling between the diggings while plying his own trade, was a very demanding task for every daguerreotypist. I know from my own experiences as a professional photographer that it is difficult at times to actually compose a landscape when the terrain is very hilly and there are many converging lines. So I will say that the fellow set up his camera and decided this was the best he could achieve at the miners’ location. He slightly overexposed the piece and the next owner needs to patiently angle it until all is gloriously revealed. My reproduction is a close approximation of the superb sharpness in the foreground and the actual contrast. I had to use an 8x loupe to find two tiny green specks, one on a water wheel and the other on a vertical post supporting the spidery timber structure. Meaningless mat marks are hidden in the patina. There is a tremendous sensation of “being there” as I admire the magnificent artifact that is held in a deep leather case with a finely repaired leather spine. Black paper was pasted in the bottom signifying that an ambrotype could also have been displayed. There is this inscription written in pencil: “Dec 31st 1860” and “Samuel Stevens” was written below. A cursory search to see if Mr. Stevens was a notable 49er did reveal that a Samuel Stevens built the first house in a mining camp named Pilot Hill circa 1850. I have actually traveled past the town on Rte. 49 several times driving southeast from Auburn passing through Cool towards Coloma and Sutter’s Mill where gold was first discovered by James Marshall. Further research points to a small but thriving area where many miners congregated. One interesting piece of information mentioned that the camp, situated between the Middle and South forks of the American River, received water in 1856 from the Pilot and Rock Creek Canal. I suspect that water wheels would have been necessary to divert the flow into the arrangement of sluices visible in this daguerreotype, IF in fact, the landscape was taken there. At the end of the 1850s men were still hauling out gold and apparently there was intermittent mining activity at Pilot Hill until the dawn of World War II in 1941. The design on the case was commonly used throughout the 1850s and into the 1860s. So please bask in the glory of what once was as you enjoy my scan!
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