Stephen Wing recorded gold rush experiences in diary

Written by Joanne Burkett from research taken from Paolo Sioli's History of El Dorado County California, from El Dorado Co. birth, marriage, death and land records and often from interviews.

Easterners scoff at our California storms but back in December 1852, Stephen Wing was experiencing his first winter in El Dorado County after surviving a hurricane at sea during his 35-day passage from New York to San Francisco the previous spring. Wildly overblown reports of the fabulous riches to be taken in the gold fields had worked their magic on Wing and his small group of friends. It didn't take long before a serious case of gold fever had infected these men, inciting them to pack up and leave their Cape Cod homes.

Over the course of the next eight years, Wing would work claims from Ophir, in Placer County, to El Dorado County locations such as Coloma and Lotus, Georgetown and Spanish Dry Diggings, as well as several places in between. He would visit many more.

He would labor through blistering heat, pounding hailstorms and freezing rain. His health, which Wing described as being excellent when he started out, was tested by every known hardship, not the least of which was his exposure to these extreme weather conditions. His buoyant spirit, filled with youthful energy and a generous optimism, grew jaded toward the end. And, although he filled five journals with the details of his grand adventure, the delightful humor and rose-colored prose of his early narratives grew more solemn and increasingly terse with the passage of time.

Harsh weather conditions are mentioned throughout his journals. On Dec. 19, 1852, Wing complained of a hailstorm and four days later, he reported that nearby Sacramento was under six feet of water after the levee had washed away.

Mid-January, he wrote: "It has rained like 60 and blowed like 80 the live long day. Went to the reservoir. Water is howling down the ravines at a fearful rate and the ground is deluged with water. It is now seven o'clock in the evening and dark as a pocket, the big drops are pattering down heavily upon the roof of our 'old cabin.' By the end of that spring, Wing had suffered through a bad cold and devastating diarrhea and by his 25th birthday, on June 18, he complained of feeling old.

That July was hot, the mercury hitting 107 degrees on the 13th. However, Wing suffered with "rheumatiz in my legs," explaining, "Must get wet all over every time we wash dirt and take cold nastier than in the winter."

On Sept. 18, the temperature rose to a blistering 118 degrees and, according to his diary entries, remained hot the remainder of the month.

In November, gale-force wind nearly leveled the small cloth-wood building he called home.

Over the course of Wing's California residency, he would work several gold claims, both alone and in partnership with other men. He would hire on with other miners as a carpenter, building waterwheels and pumps. However, uppermost in his mind and heart was the dream of hitting it big.

The reality was that he fought the infestation of fleas, slept on ant hills, was capsized while floating aboard a log, suffered with toothaches and other assorted ailments and injuries, was frustrated by the loss of numerous sluice boxes to rising waters, endured loneliness and homesickness, witnessed a hanging and cursed the weather, hot or cold. All this before the end of 1857, and still, his humor and good nature prevailed at this point.

On July 8, 1855, Wing wrote his father and brother a letter. His high spirits were intact. Charmingly so.

"The weather is hot, though a little cooler than it was a few weeks ago. I feel lazy and the fleas bite, and there are ants running all over my legs - the wasps are buzzing around my ears (one stung me on the ear the other day, the varmint!)

On the 20th, he wrote, "Cat and kitten playing on the floor, cook snoring like a trombone! Rooster crowing in opposition."

On the day after Christmas, however, things were much grimmer.

"Frost an inch deep, and as the sun was rising on my way to work I could not help but think what a miserable set of hombres we miners are.

He worked through the day "in misery and at night came home with one foot nearly frozen and the other aching with cold out of pure sympathy."

Most of his days were filled with hard labor, alternating with bouts of listlessness (and probably depression), when he would take to his bed, or whatever was passing for a bed at the time. Most of his efforts seemed to be of the "two steps forward, one step back" variety, with the result that he was fighting debt and some form of ailment most of the time.

On the last day of December, 1859, Wing admits that his prospects are no better than they were the previous year. He concludes that he is getting heartily tired of this country.

"I hope that I shall not be in California to write my diary for Dec. 31, 1860.

At 10 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1860, Wing sailed out of San Francisco on the Uncle Sam, bound for home at last.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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