Three Years in California

J.D. Borthwick

Edinburgh-born artist John David Borthwick (1825-c.1900) left New York for California in 1851, crossing the Isthmus at Chagres. In 1860 Borthwick returned to Britain, where his paintings were exhibited in several galleries including the Royal Academy. Three years in California (1857) focuses on his experiences mining gold and quartz at Hangtown, Foster's Bar, Downieville, Mississippi Bar, Jacksonville, and Carson's Hill. He devotes much attention to social life in the camps as well as mining techniques, describing crime, the Chinese and French and other ethnic groups, and holidays and public entertainments. Borthwick illustrated the book with eight of his own lithographs which are considered the most realistic of the period for California.


A whole bevy of Chinamen had recently made their appearance on the rush creek.  Their camp, consisting of a dozen or so of small tents and brushhouses, was near our main cabin on the side of the hill - too near to be pleasant, for they kept up a continual chattering all night, which was rather tiresome till we got used to it.

They are an industrious set of people, no doubt, but are certainly not calculated for gold-digging.  They do not work with the same force and vigour as American or European miners, but handle their tools like so many women, as if they were afraid of hurting themselves.  The Americans call it "scratching," which was a very expressive term for their style of digging.  They did not venture to assert equal rights so far as to take up any claim which other miners would think it worth while to work; but in such places as yielded them a dollar to two a-day they were allowed to scratch away unmolested.  Had they happened to strike a rich lead, they would have been driven off their claim immediately.  They were averse to working in the water, and for four or five hours in the heat of the day they assembled under the shade of a tree, where they sat fanning themselves, drinking tea, and saying "too muchee hot."

On the whole, they seemed a harmless, inoffensive people; but on day, as we were going to dinner, we heard an unusual hulaballoo going on where the Chinamen were at work; and on reaching the place we found the whole tribe of Celestials divided into two equal parties, drawn up against each other in battle array, brandishing picks and shovels, lifting stones as if to hurl them at their adversaries' heads, and ever many chattering and gesticulating in the most frantic manner.  The miners collected on the ground to see the "muss," and cheered the Chinamen on to more active hostilities.  but after taunting and threatening each other in this way for about an hour, during which time, although the excitement seemed to be continually increasing, not a blow was struck or a stone thrown, the two parties suddenly, and without any apparent cause, fraternised, and moved off together to their tents.  What all the row was about, or why peace was so suddenly proclaimed, was of course a mystery to us outside barbarians; and the tame and unsatisfactory termination of such warlike demonstrations was a great disappointment, as we had been every moment expecting that the ball would open, and hoped to see a general engagement....[A]t all events, discretion seemed to form a very large component of Celestial valour.