The Mullan Road

Lea Anne Askman

Miner's Provisions and Personal Effects


In  1860 Capt. Elias D. Peirce’s party discovered gold on the Nez Perce reservation in what was then Washington Territory. Although white people had been prohibited from crossing the lands, miners moved into and settled in the area.  Known for traveling light, thousands of miners, young and old arrived unprepared for the very hard winter that was to come. This paper is an examination of the personal effects, tools, equipment and concerns that the miners carried with them. To set the stage I will present excerpts from miner’s diaries from earlier years, as well as information about the winter of 1860. These diaries give a flavor of what life was like in town and camp at the time. They also present descriptions of the provisions, shelters and implements that were used.

The following is from the diary of James Tolles who was 22 years of age at the time of writing in 1849 when he traveled to California to mine for gold. He and his father were also letter carriers, which is why many of his concerns revolved around traveling to receive and deliver the mails:

“Mr (March) 26 To day John and I were occupied in putting up another tent and putting our provisions in it. It was warm and pleasant all day. The River is rising from the melting of the snow and is now too high to do much at washing gold. Mr 27 This morning we went down the River to a place we had for working but found the water too high. In the P.M. we went up the River and payed out $9. which was the amount of our days work. Mr 28 To day I went up one of the large branches above us most to the top of the Mountain, and made a little damn to turn the branch. It has been quite warm to day. the River is still rising.”

The following quote refers directly to tools that Tolles acquired in town, a drill and a crowbar:

“Mr 29 To day I went down to String Town to get a drill made, carried down a crow bar weighing 20 lbs which I found to load enough for this weather. Mr 30 Quite warm to day. In the P.M. I dug in the race which is most done. And we shall put in the damn as soon as the water gets down to its usual stage. Mr 31 This is Sunday and according to our reckoning of time is the last day of March. There is preaching to day, across the River, but the water is now runing over all our fort logs, so that we cannot cross. We spend the day in eating, drinking, reading, singing and writing. The day has been cloudy and rained a little. Apr 1 Fair weather to day. River falling a little, still too high for mining. I worked on the race to day.”

In this section, Tolles writes about some of the businesses in the town, a bakery, three gambling establishments, and he stays at “Bidwells,” which is a bar:

“Apr 2 To day I went down to Bidwells, arrived there about 2 P.M. Fair weather to day. No news from Father.” Apr 3 I remained at Bidwell's Bar to day. There are a great many coming in here, and the town improves rapidly. I am waiting for Fathers return. Apr 4 Quite warm to day and very pleasant without a coat. There are a number of new stores here, a good baker shop. There are also 3 gambling houses where many of the miners lose all they make.”

“This P.M. 19 Indians came up from below and swam the River here. they were going up to one of the Rancheries above to steal squaws. which the custom with at this season of the year. And you me be sure it caused quite a stir among the whites. Soon after the 19 crossed the River a number of other Indians started up who belonged above, to inform the Mountain Indians of the hostile party It was quite a curiosity for us to see them swim, for they would swim in the cold, swift water with one hand where a white man could hardly swim at all. Thus ended the day.”

“The town is improving fast. River claims are selling high and rising. Apr 7 To day is the Sabath, but it is more of a business day with many than any other day of the week, that is with the traders. Most of the Miners rest on the sabath It has rained most all day. Here are a number of persons selling out and going to the States for fear of sickness in hot weather. No mail yet. Apr 8 In the latter part of last night we had a very hard shower that lasted about 2 hours. To day it is warm and pleasant. About noon. I started down to Longs Bar for exercise, for I was very tired of staying here and doing nothing. I returned about dark having walked 16 miles, which was exercise enough for one afternoon. Apr 9 Quite hot to day, the River rose considerable, not much doing in the mines. No news from Father, the people are becoming inpatient for letters.”

Tolles stays at another bar all day:

“28 Apr 10 To day I went to Longs again having got tired of staying here I remained at Long's Bar the rest of the day. I heard to day that three men had been killed on the South Fork by the Indians and that about 70 men had started in pursuit of the murderers. Long's Bar April 11th 1850 I remained here most all day This morning a Mr Dwinell of Iowa committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a revolver the bullet entering his brain, he lived about 3 hours. there was a coffin then made for him and he was buried. He was said to be well off at home, and it was supposed he had money buried there, as he was a miser. And it was thought by many that disappointment in getting gold caused him to go deranged. 12 Bidwells Bar April 12th 1850. Very warm to day a good many are still coming into the mines, provisions are getting very low, flour has sold as low as $17 per hundred, other articles in proportion. Father came up this evening. he did not get many letters, but got one from Mother containing very good news.”

“The people are much disappointed in getting letters (the most of them) as but few got any at all. 13 Bidwells Bar April 13. 1850 To I remained here In the P.M. some goods came up that Father had bought below, the wagon had upset and damaged some of the articles, among which were some newspapers, which were quite wet. Weather quite pleasant mornings and evenings quite cool. 14 Bidwells Bar April 14, 1850 To day is the Sabath but not a day of rest with me, as I had to go up the River with the Express. I got to our camp about dark and was tolerable tired, for the day has been warm The River is still high.”

It is interesting to note several things here. First, that the miners lived among Indians. The episode where Indians cross the river and their camp to go north to take women, “which the custom was this season of the year,” is a bit of native custom that may have escaped notice elsewhere and if not for this diary entry may have been lost entirely. The importance of letters from home should also be noted, he writes that he received a letter from his mother with very good news. Tolles also describes how many miners are going back to ‘the states.’  Important to remember that California along with much of the west was not officially part of the United States at the time and the same is true of Washington Territory in 1861 and 1862.

Another diarist who provides a glimpse into the life and times of a gold miner is John Cobber. He was 23 years old when he wrote this in 1850 and he was to live only 4 years longer to die at 27. Cobbey provides us with wonderful descriptions of a miner’s outfit and concerns. He also illustrates the portable life that gold miners lived. This excerpt starts out with listing some of the items that he and his companions acquired for their journey:
            “six good mares, wagon, Tent, cook stove, &c. Next took in a supply of provisions, which consisted of 200, lbs hard bread; 300 do Flour 100 do Bacon 100 do. Sugar Rice 20 do. 25 do Cheese 24 do Coffee, 5 " Tea, 2 gal vinegar July 28th Our road lay along the mountain ridge through heavy timber, the land now has become thirsty the grass dried up and withered In fact this ridge produces but little grass. The soil looks red being a redish clay, We see men out "prospecting for gold" (as they term it,) frequently. It looks odd to see a man with his pan, pick, shuvel, & blankets; with his provisons straped on his back, and then ladened he traverse these lonely regions in quest of gold- the above is a miners outfit for prospecting. The "pan;" is a common tin pan with a strong rim this is made by sodering a concave peice of tin to the pan so as to be convex to the hand as you take hold, of the pan, The shuvels & Picks are such as are use on publick works; the; points of the shuvels are rounded he takes his bed and board along with him and is at home where ever nigh over takes him.”       
            “We turned some distance south the road and found some grass and camped makeing 20 miles to day -- July 29th The sun arose warm and pleasant this morning we breakfasted, and continued our journey reminating on the past; and trying to divine on the future, aftr traveling 10 miles We arrived at Pleasant vally we are in the edege of the mining district. This is a beautiful little valley fournishing water but at this time no grass. 3 stores here with provisions and provendrs for animals, flour worth 35 cts per lb Pork 35 do Buttre 125 cts do &c Hay $10 per cwt, Barly 30 ct per lbs, &c, {but} we had no money and of course could not buy. Aftr stoping and dineing, in which devoured the last of our provisions.”       
            “We now thought propper to devide our remaining affects, so each one would be at liberty to make such disposition, of his portion, as his needs might require. We acordingly starde two & two David Cohenour and my self a little behind the rest. we soon had an opportunity of selling one of our horses, This caused such delay we were unable to {to} overtake our companions and thus we were seperated accidently, and unintentially, from those with whom we had traveled more than half the breadth of this continent. With those we had united our energies, and ascended the loftiest mountains, and descended to the deepest vallys. With those we have alike traversed the pleasant fields and plains and burning sands of the arid deserts and with those we had alike subjected our persons to toils, stormes, and dangers, incident to an over land journy a cross the Continent.”          

“10 miles from Pleasant vally we arrived at Weber-town This a little villege in an extensive mineing region (Termed dry diggins) It is situated in a broken country on the head branches of Weber Creek and built of logs cabins just to suit the Miners for the time being the most of the ravines are appearantly, to us exhausted of their gold. Now dry and deserted The whole country in this region seems to be turned up side down; that might lay bare the precious mettle. This was the first impression. From here we took the Sacramento road and continued on to Mud Spring from thence we struck a cross the country to cold spring. Cold spring is a little villege on Weber creek and the seat of a good mineing district. The miners (that were working here) and with whom we talked, all spoke very discourageing of the country they said, "It is a hard old coutnry" We traded for a Pick & Shuvel, and the day we arrived at Culloma 5 miles dstant from Cold Spring. And commenced mineing with little success, Culloma is the county town of Eldorado County and is situated on the south Fork of the American River being on both sides of the river and surrounding Sutters mill made notorious from the first discovery of gold here. We are now 50 miles from Sacramento 180 from our computation on Carson River, & 1,911 miles from St Joseps Mo, The End. ‘Finis’”

Cobbey’s description of  those who were seen along the road ‘prospecting for gold’ is indispensable here. He writes that the miner was seen with nothing other than his tools and blankets with his provisions strapped to his back. This was the same way of life that miners were living ten years later, when gold was discovered in the Washington Territory. This description reveals for us the meager belongings with which most miners would have endured the winter of 1861-2 in the northwestern mountains. 

William Lyman, in his History of Old Walla Walla, writes about the hardships and scarcity of supplies during the before mentioned winter. Lyman often used articles from the Washington Statesman, a Walla Walla newspaper to tell his story. It is interesting to note the name of outfitters in Walla Walla at the time and also the nature of the city as a rowdy frontier town. This excerpt starts with an account of some activities of miners who overwintered in the mountains in 1860-61 and how their discoveries that winter encouraged the migration of miners from all quarters into the region:

“During the winter the isolated miners devoted their time to building five log cabins, the first habitations erected in Oro Fino, sawing the lumber by hand. They also continued to work for gold under the snow, and about the first of January, 1861, two of the men made a successful trip to the settlements, by the utilizing of snow-shoes, while in March Sergeant Smith made a similar trip, taking with him $800 in gold dust. From this reserve he was able to pay Kyger & Reese of Walla Walla the balance due them on the prospecting outfit that had been supplied to the adventurous little party in the snowy mountains. The gold dust was sent to Portland, Ore., and soon the new mines were the subject of maximum interest, the ultimate result being a "gold excitement" quite equal to that of California in 1849, and within a few months the rush to the new diggings was on in earnest, thousands starting forth for the favored region.”

Further Walla Walla became the outfitting center for the gold miners, with supplies coming up the Columbia from the Portland or San Francisco:

“Walla Walla became the great outfitting headquarters for those en route to the gold country. At this point were purchased provisions, tools, camp accoutrements and the horses or mules required to pack the outfits to the mines. During the rush to the mining districts, both in 1861 and 1862, Walla Walla was the scene of the greatest activity; streets were crowded; the merchants were doing a thriving business, and pack trains moved in a seemingly endless procession toward the gold fields. The excitement was fed by the glowing reports that came from the mining districts, and the natural result was to augment the flood of gold-seekers pouring into the mining districts in the spring of 1862, as will be noted later on.”

The great amounts of gold pouring from the mountains increased the “gold feaver,” and migration into the region increased greatly.

“In the issue of the Statesman for December 13, 1861, appears the following interesting information concerning the mines and the inducements there offered: "The tide of emigration to Salmon River flows steadily onward. During the week past, not less than two hundred and twenty-five pack animals, heavily laden with provisions, have left this city for the mines. If the mines are one-half so rich as they are said to be, we may safely calculate that many of these trains will return as heavily laden with gold dust as they now are with provisions. The discoverer of Baboon gulch arrived in this city yesterday, bringing with him sixty pounds of gold dust, and Mr. Jacob Weiser is on his way with a mule loaded with gold dust." Within the year more than one and one-half millions of dollars in gold dust had been shipped from the mining districts—a circumstance which of itself was enough to create a wide-spread and infectious gold-fever.”

Lyman lists prices of food and a few other items for December of 1861which gives us an idea of some items available to miners at the time:

“bacon, fifty to sixty cents per pound; flour, twenty-five to thirty dollars per 100 weight; beans, twenty-five to thirty cents per pound; rice, forty to fifty cents per pound; butter, seventyfive cents to one dollar; sugar, forty to fifty cents; candles, eighty cents to one dollar per pound; tea, one dollar and a quarter to one and a half per pound; tobacco, one dollar to one and a half; coffee, 50 cents. In February, 1862, food products and merchandise commanded the following prices at Florence: flour, $1 per pound; bacon, $1.25; butter, $3; cheese, $1.50; lard, $1.25; sugar, $1.25; coffee, $2.00; tea, $2.50; gum boots per pair, $30; shovels, from twelve to sixteen dollars.”

The combination of gold dust and sketchy characters made for an environment that was ripe for criminal activity. Given that there were no formal laws or courts, and the military had left the area to fight in the civil war, townspeople adopted vigilante justice. Concerning this, there are many interesting stories that the interested reader may find in Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla. What I will relate here, is his description of the rough and tumble types of characters that moved into the area in hopes of ‘striking it rich’ one way or another:

“It must be said that the character of population that flowed into Walla Walla after the gold discoveries was about as "tough" a collection of human beings as could be found. It was indeed a motley throng that poured in as the mining excitement grew and spread. The Worst jostled each other on the dusty and unsightly streets with their shacks and tents and saloons and dance halls. a miscellaneous throng of gamblers, pickpockets, highway robbers, hold-ups, and prostitutes who ordinarily fatten on the gold-dust bags and belts of the miners assembled at their yearly supply stations.”

Whiskey drinking was one of the main forms of entertainment for the miners and :

“Strange stories are told about the number and variety and unique names and characters of the various "joints" in the Walla Walla of the decade of the '60s. In some newspaper a few years ago appeared an, alleged reminiscence of a visitor to Walla Walla, in which he tells of going to a saloon, in which the floor was covered with sawdust. That was usual enough, but the odd thing was that each patron received with his drink a whiskbroom. Puzzled as to the purpose of the latter, the visitor waited for developments. He soon discovered that the whiskey was so strenuous as to be pretty sure to induce a fit, and the use of the broom was to sweep off a place on the dirty floor to have a fit on, after which the refreshed and enlightened (?) patron of the place would return the broom and proceed on his way.”

Herbert Howe Bancroft’s History of Washington Idaho and Montana, is an invaluable collection of information about this period. He details some of the hardships of getting provisions to the mines during that very hard winter he writes:  

“To get a winter's supplies to camp was the first care of those on the ground, to which end they expended much labor upon a pack trail to Elk City. The first train that left Elk City became lost in a snowstorm, and after wandering about for two weeks, returned to the starting-point. But in the mean time three trains belonging to Creighton had left Elk City”

“By the first of November there were 1,000 men on the creeks and gulches of the new district. Although a large amount of provisions was hurried into Millersburg, not enough could be taken there before the snow had stopped the passage of trains to support all who had gone there, and by the middle of November many were forced to return to Oro Fino a distance of 100 miles, to winter, lest starvation should attack the camp before spring. The snow was already over two feet deep, and the cold severe, so that frozen feet very frequently disabled the traveller for the remainder of the season.”

Bancroft writes an interesting description of the manner in which the miners were storing their gold dust. Given that there was no surplus of containers, they used what they had, discarded food containers or dishpans etc:

“It was no uncommon thing to see, on entering a miner's cabin, a "old-washing pan measuring eight quarts full to the brim, or half filled, with gold-dust washed out in one or two weeks. All manner of vessels, such as oyster-cans and yeast-powder boxes, or pickle-bottles, were in demand, in which to store the precious dust.”

Because of the weather, the trails, modes of travel, river travel and supply lines, were:

“obliterated or blockaded by snow. G. A. Noble started on the 21st of December to go from Oro Fino to Florence, the latest new town which had sprung up in the Salmon River district, having with him a small pack-train. He was ten days toiling through snow-drifts a distance of 125 miles, and would have perished but for assistance from Indians. He found a town regularly laid out, with building lots recorded and fenced in, all under a city government. The buildings were of logs, dragged half a mile on hand-sleds. By the last of January nothing to eat could be purchased, excepting flour at $2 a pound.”

Since pack trains could not get into the mining camps, the miners themselves, though they were starving, had to meet the trains and carry the supplies back to camp themselves:

“It was not until the first of May that pack-trains could come to within ten or twelve miles of Florence. For the remainder of the distance the goods were packed on the backs of the starving miners Walla Walla was at one time so crowded with people unable to pay the high prices of provisions that a mob was raised, who proceeded to help themselves at the stores. In general, however, men bore their privations with dogged endurance, hoping for better things.”

“Traders were desirous of being first to bring their goods to a market where gold-dust was more plentiful than flour, sugar, or bacon, and all had good reasons for their precipitancy in the matter of getting to the mines. Most of those crowded into The Dalles began moving forward about the 17th of March, when a saddle-train arrived from Walla Walla, bringing the first passengers that had come through since the disasters of January. They brought 400 pounds of gold-dust, sufficient apology for the haste of the crusaders. At this place during the winter the suffering had been great from want of adequate shelter, most of the population living in tents and fuel scarce.”

The lack of shelter was made plain by the following announcement of May 26, 1862 in the Oregon Statesman:

"Mr and Mrs Charles Pope recently held a "drawing-room" entertainment at Wallula, in the cabin of a wharf-boat, the only building of any note in that city.”

The diary entries and other writings that I have shown here help us to understand the privations as well as the provisions of the miners of the winter of 1861-2. They detail some of the belongings of the miners, give us some idea as to shelter and food as well as a general understanding of the types of characters that flooded into the area upon the discovery of gold. They also provide a glimpse into the trading atmosphere of the time, a time when provisions were fronted by outfitters with the hope that gold would be forthcoming in payment, and when mules were loaded with gold dust coming into the towns from the mountains.  

Tolle, James, Diary, Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869.


Cobbey, John Furmes, Diary, Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869.

Lyman, William Denison. Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County, Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. 1918.

Bancroft, Hubert, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft Volume XXI History of Washington, Idaho and Montana 1845-1889, San Francisco: The History Company Publishers, 1890. P. 245.

Bancroft, 247.

Bancroft, 245.

Bancroft, 245.



Bancroft, Hubert, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft Volume XXI History of Washington, Idaho and Montana 1845-1889, San Francisco: The History Company Publishers, 1890.



Cobbey, John Furmes, Diary, Overland Diaries and Letters, 1846-1869.


Lyman, William Denison. Lyman’s History of Old Walla Walla County, Embracing Walla Walla, Columbia, Garfield and Asotin Counties. Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company. 1918.

Tolle, James, Diary, Overland Diaries and Letters, 1849- 1869. p75mss1576.jpg