Mother Lode Field Office

Cultural Resources

General Information

As might be expected, the public lands of the Mother Lode Field Office are rich with evidence of previous inhabitants.  

Under Federal law, artifacts more than 100 years old are classified as archaeological resources and must be left alone. If you should find an American Indian artifact, such as an arrowhead, bead, or stone bowl, please leave it in place and contact an archaeologist to report it.  This is important because of what could possibly be learned from studying the artifact in place.  Most places were occupied by different groups of American Indian people over time, none of which left any written records.  Much of what is known of the earlier tribes in particular, comes from studying their artifacts as they are found.  It is how the artifact is situated that gives clues to the lives of the people.  These clues take on significance when they are compared with similar clues, and patterns that are found.

Native Americans

At the time of contact with European-based cultures, the Sierra Foothills within the Mother Lode Resource Area were occupied by at least two distinct tribes of American Indians: the Hill Nisenan or Southern Maidu, and the Sierra Miwok.  Both tribes were hunter-gatherer cultures that lived primarily on the lower slopes of the western Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In general, they were peaceful folks who often migrated to higher elevations during the summers, and traded with other tribes who lived in the Great Valley or by the coast.  To this day, the California natives are known for the high quality of baskets woven from grasses and other materials.

Like all people everywhere, the Sierran tribes attempted to modify their environment to their advantage.  For example, the systematic use of fire by the tribes had a significant influence on the ecological patterns of the Sierra.

Estimates of the American Indian population at the time of contact vary, but it appears that disease introduced by the Spanish, probably in the mid-to-late 1700s, decimated the tribes, even those who had no direct connection with the newcomers.  By the time Americans arrived, the tribes had already lost much of their population.

The Gold Rush was a catastrophe to the both the Maidu and the Miwok peoples, literally the end of the world as they knew it.   In the space of a few short years, their tribal lands were swarming with technologically-advanced newcomers engaged in the single-minded search for gold.  Only a few gold seekers bothered to consider the impact on the tribes as they churned through river gravels, cut the trees, hunted game, and built roads and towns.  In the early days, hostile, face-to-face encounters between Forty-niners and Indians were common, but became infrequent as time passed.

Many of the Indian occupation sites, villages or hunting camps, located close to water courses, were obliterated by placer mining activities.  Only a few sites remain intact.  The most commonly seen artifacts are bedrock mortars, usually located on rock outcroppings near water and a source of acorns.

The people themselves barely survived.  Reduced to a pitiful remnant of their previous numbers, their culture smashed, and condemned to live on marginal lands, the Indian people experienced very hard times.

Recently, the tribes have been showing signs of recovery from their disaster.  Native activists are working within the political system to improve conditions on rancherias and other Indian lands.  Organizations, such as the California Indian Basketweavers Association, are working to preserve and perpetuate native culture.  Some observers report signs of what they call a "spiritual rebirth" among the Indian peoples.  California society, as a whole, has been showing intense interest in the American Indian people, both as they were and as they are now.

The story of the California Indian people is an on-going saga, with chapters still being written.

The Great California Gold Rush

As every California Fourth-grader is taught, on January 24, 1848, James Marshall picked up a glittering pebble from the tailrace of a sawmill he was building for John Sutter in Coloma Valley along the South Fork American River.  The sequence of events that stemmed from that simple act transformed California from a pastoral, sparsely-populated Mexican settlement to a bustling American state practically overnight.

Beginning in 1848, and intensifying over the next several years, miners from every corner of the world swarmed all over the Sierra Foothills digging up and washing river gravel in a frantic search for gold.  Cultural diversity is nothing new in California, although people from different backgrounds seem to get along a bit better today than in "the days of Forty-nine."

Despite the differences between them, there were strong similarities among the Gold Rushers.  Most were young, male, under 30 years of age, and looking for two things: their personal fortunes, and adventure.  Few found their fortunes, but there was more than enough adventure to go around.  In those days, just getting to California was an adventure in itself.  There was a sense of urgency, a desire to make one's "pile" as quickly as possible.  As might be expected, such conditions brought out both the best and the worst in the individual character of the participants.

The Mother Lode was not a safe place.  It has been estimated that one of every six who set out for California died before they could return home.  Disease, such as Asiatic cholera or typhoid fever took many of them.  Living conditions were harsh, and the food atrocious.  Mining accidents were common.  There is reason to believe that the California homicide rate during the Gold Rush years was one of the highest in American history.

In the diggings, it was every man for himself.  Initially, there was no law other than what the miners informally organized.  It didn't take them long to evolve a crude system of individual claims along with some basic rules on working the claim.  Interestingly, modern Federal mining law is directly based on the California experience.

As fast as the miners dug up the gold, someone came along to give him the opportunity to buy something with it.  Men such as Levi Strauss, George Studebaker, or Philip Armour were the ones who truly became rich.  Those were exciting times for entrepreneurs, and it set a pattern for California business that continues to this day.

The easily-found placer gold deposits were soon exhausted, but outcroppings of gold ore were found in a number of places..  By the mid-1850s, much of the mining activity had shifted from individuals working the river gravels to hard rock and hydraulic mining, organized and financed by persons with capital.

The full story of the Great Gold Rush and its impact on California is best told in places other than here.  Many books have been published on the event, and the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation has a number of State Parks and museums in the Mother Lode region.

Remnants of the Gold Rush are fairly common throughout the Mother Lode region.  One can see rock walls, old building foundations as well as a few of the original buildings, water ditches, abandoned mines, and hydraulic pits.  There are several areas where the ground has a hummocky appearance — where hundreds of men with shovels dug holes with the dirt piled to one side.  Some of these features can be found on public land. 

Post Gold Rush

As the Forty-niners either left California or went to work in one of the hard rock mines, others moved into the Mother Lode.  Agriculture became more common, especially the growing of orchards.  The timber industry became well-established, supplying the need for wood in the mines and other places.  A number of the original mining camps prospered as established communities.

A second gold rush of sorts occurred during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Hundreds of out-of-work men spent time re-working the river gravels in the hope of finding gold that had somehow been missed in the early days.  Camps and other features from the Depression are often mistaken for sites from the 1850s.

To summarize, the history of the Mother Lode region, where the bulk of the lands administered by the Mother Lode Field Office are located, is a fascinating tale with a rich mixture of events, that generated impacts still felt today.  The physical artifacts of previous occupants of the region can still be found on the public lands.

The Mother Lode Field Office has an active program of protecting significant cultural sites.