Language of the Gold Rush

Not only did the California gold rush have a huge impact on the history of the United States, it also added some “color” to the English language in the form of new phrases and expressions.  Just for fun, we explored the origins of some of the terms generally associated with the gold rush.  What we learned might surprise you.

First, the phrase gold rush itself was not generally in use until after the California gold rush was over.  The term was in use by 1861 in the west, however, when the following appeared in the Portland [OR] Daily Advertiser: “It is stated that the entire country beyond the Cascades and the Rocky Mountains, is one vast gold field. There will be another gold rush in the spring.” [1861-09-21]

However, the term forty-niner, used in the sense of one who went to California in 1849, was in use in California in the 1850s. The Daily Democratic State Journal [CA] had this item in 1857:

“A FORTY-NINER – Considerable fun was created in the parquet of the Forrest Theater, on Saturday evening, by the appearance of a tall, rough, shaggy individual, in a blue shirt and slouched hat, with a full-sized, old-fashioned Colt’s revolver and a huge Bowie knife slung to his waist.”

The forty-niners who sailed to California by ship often called themselves Argonauts. This is a reference to the Greek mythological hero, Jason, leader of the Argonauts, and their quest for the Golden Fleece.  Although the reference was already in use in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was immediately applied to those en route to California by ship in the quest for gold.

Those sailing to California around South America during the gold rush were said to have gone around the horn.  For decades before James Marshall discovered gold in California, mariners had been sailing around the southern tip of South America, known as Cape Horn.  Cape Horn was not so-called because of its shape. It was named after the town of Hoorn in northern Holland, the birthplace of Willem Schouten, the Dutch sea captain who named it “Kaap Hoorn” in 1616.  Logically, those sailing to California around South America went “around the Horn” and the expression was in frequent use.  How the phrase acquired its baseball usage (i.e. around the infield) is not so clear, but it was used in this baseball context by 1912.  See the Trenton Evening Times of 6 April 1912.

The reason for the gold rush was, of course, gold fever, a phrase which pre-dates the exodus to California.  It was likely first used to describe the avarice attending the discovery of gold in the southern states in the 1820s and 1830s. The American Sentinel of Connecticut carried this item in its edition of 17 September 1828:

“Golden Days – The gold fever is again raging in North Carolina.  New mines discovered, and more gold is found. Let the Capitalists of that State invest a portion of their surplus funds in Cotton Manufactories, and set these gold-diggers to work in them, and we warrant them that the real capital of the State shall be increased at a ratio of ten to one what it will be by the searching after gold.”

Likewise, the term bonanza, meaning a rich strike or a “windfall,” was in use long before the California gold rush.  The earliest use in that context that I could find was from a letter, dated September 28, 1827 from Mexico City, that ran in the Baltimore American on November 10th of that year.  In it, the writer states, “Since I have been here, I learn that the Temascaltepec Mine promises yet well, though no actual bonanza has as yet been discovered.”  The word clearly comes from the Spanish word for “prosperity” or “good luck” and its first English use seems to have been in a mining context. So, it would make sense that it would be applied in the California gold regions, but it didn’t originate there.

Interestingly, Californians never saw a gold nugget in 1849 or 1850. The word was unknown in America until it was brought to California by Australian miners.  The Albany [NY] Evening Journal of 19 April 1852 reported this from Australia:

“The gold fields were producing some very rich specimens.  One called the Great Australian Nugget weighing 341 oz. 5 dwts., and estimated to contain 336 ounces of pure gold, had attracted crowds of persons to see it, and the result was, that a great number of persons at once proceeded to the digging.”

And this, from the San Francisco Evening Journal of 16 July 1852: “A ‘nugget’ of gold has arrived in London, from Australia, which weighs 28 lbs., and is said to resemble a small cheese.”

A piece of gold that size would certainly be worth some bucks and you could say you hit pay dirt.  “Pay dirt” may also have Australian origins.  Its first usage in America that I could find comes from the Daily Placer Times and Transcript, a California newspaper, of 2 August 1852. In that paper is written:

“From the description, we judge the Australian gold mines are similar to those of California.  Canals are dug to carry water to the dry diggings; shafts are sunk into the sides of hills, sometimes to great depths, before reaching the ‘pay dirt’…”

The use of “bucks” for money probably has its origins with the use of buckskins for currency.  The term is seen as early as 1748 in Conrad Weiser’s journal.  While traveling through what is now Ohio, he wrote: “He has been robbed of the value of 300 Bucks.”  However, two separate sources for the origin of “buck,” meaning “a dollar,” both point to the game of poker, as played in the old West. The theory goes that a marker, or “buck,” was passed around to indicate the next dealer. Since a silver dollar was often used as the buck, it took on that meaning, and the term eventually applied to paper money, as well.

One phrase that we might think to be Australian in origin, is actually home-grown. The expression kangaroo court for a mock or sometimes farcical trial, is often attributed to Gold Rush-era California, but it definitely pre-dates that time and its earliest uses appear in Louisiana and Texas.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune recorded its early use in 1841 by another newspaper to describe the lynch-law justice applied to blacks in that state:

“DON’T COMPREHEND — The Concordia [Louisiana] Intelligencer says, ‘several loafers were lynched in Natchez last week upon various charges instituted by the Kangaroo court.  The times grow warm; we can see another storm coming, not unlike that which prevailed in the days of the Morrell excitement. In Natchez, as in New Orleans, they are driving away all of the free negroes.’ What is a Kangaroo court, neighbor?”

By the 1870s, the term was common parlance in Texas, Arkansas, and elsewhere.

The phrase to stake a claim to something, meaning “to show that you believe something is yours,” would seem logically to be a product of the California gold rush in the sense of using wooden stakes to mark the boundaries of a claim or a plot of land to be “worked”.  However, the earliest written usage I could find wasn’t until 1885, leading one to speculate whether its use might have become more general during the land rush period, in which claims were also “staked.”  However, to jump a claim, or, in effect, steal someone else’s claim, was clearly in use in the West during the 1860s.

The term grubstake seems to have had two distinct meanings in California. A grubstake meant the wherewithal to pay for one’s next meal, or “grub”.  For example, this dialogue ran in newspapers in 1875:

“One day I’d have all my pockets full, and the next I wouldn’t have a grub-stake.”

“What is a grub-stake?”

“A grub-stake is enough to get your grub with — your dinner with.”

It also had an additional meaning in the sense of eastern investors who would pay someone’s expenses to go to California in return for a share of the profits.  This too was called “grubstaking.”  It was in use with this meaning in the 1870s, as well, as this newspaper item from 1879 shows:

“You may secure the services of an old miner to prospect for you by furnishing him a ‘grub stake;’ that is, you can outfit him with tools, tent, and grub, and he will go into the mines and prospect, agreeing to divide his ‘find’ with you as you may agree.”

The term peter out, meaning to dwindle away to nothing, is often attributed to the California Gold Rush period, suggesting mining claims that ceased to be productive.  However, this is incorrect. Although the actual derivation remains speculative, the phrase was already in use in the 1840s and it seems to have had its earliest circulation in the Wisconsin area. There are several far-fetched, speculative theories about how the word “peter” came to be used in this context — one involving Saint Peter and another referring to the French expression meaning “to break wind” — however, I believe the term originates with saltpetre or potassium nitrate. This mineral was an ingredient in the gunpowder that was used as an explosive in mining and was also used to make fuses.  Logically, if the fuses failed to ignite the explosive, it would have “petered out”. Since the earliest uses of the term seem to be related to mining, this association seems more likely than theology or French idioms.

Early in the California gold rush, the predominant form of prospecting was placer mining, or using a metal pan to sift the river sediment from the gold.  Sometimes your claim panned out a goodly amount of gold; sometimes not.  The term “to pan out” was in general use in its literal sense during the gold rush, however, it seems to have taken longer to acquire its figurative sense of “coming to fruition.”

Flash in the pan, however, is definitely not related to finding flashes of gold in your pan, as some have claimed.  The expression is much older and probably refers to a misfiring gun.  The “pan” is part of a flintlock firing mechanism and the “flash” occurs when the primer ignites, but fails to ignite the gunpowder needed to fire the weapon.

There were a variety of colorful terms given to the various methods the miners used.  After the pan came the goldwasher, or cradle, a box-like device that was rocked to wash away the sediment and leave the gold dust.  Then came the long tom, a long sluice used to employ running water from a stream to separate gold dust from the sediment.

It is widely accepted that the term levis for blue jeans comes from the gold rush, courtesy of Levi Strauss.  The story is about half-right.  Levi Strauss, a German native working in his family’s dry goods business in New York, did go to San Francisco in 1853 and established Levi Strauss & Co. as a dry goods business.  However, the real innovation that defined blue jeans as we know them was the rivets used to join the pockets and some of the seams, making the work pants more durable and practical.  The idea for the rivets actually came from Jacob Davis, a Latvian-born tailor living in Reno, Nevada.  Needing the money to apply for a patent, he partnered with Levi Strauss and they applied for the patent together — in 1872, long after the gold rush.

Of course, Levis were made of denim and that evokes the story of that word’s origins.  The early name of the fabric was “serge de Nimes” because it was first made in Nimes, France.  This became shortened over time to “denim”.  Interestingly, the term jeans supposedly has similar origins, being derived from the Italian city of Genoa (or Genes, in French) via French sailors who popularized the fabric.

Curiously, the word shenanigans, meaning “mischief” or “tricks”, seems to arise first during Gold Rush-era California. The earliest use known is on 10 January 1855 in a letter from California to the Portage County [Ohio] Democrat, which states, in relation to charges of political corruption: “This looks like ‘shenanigan’ to outsiders.” Two years later, 22 January 1857, the San Francisco Bulletin printed a letter which said: “We wish to be informed by what shenanigan the Pacific Express Co. was induced to say so much cash had been deposited with them.” The following week, on January 29th, the paper used the term again: “The exact ground on which the grand jury could ignore a bill, when the facts were so plain and the proof so certain, we do not know: but it appears that there must have been some ‘shenanigan’ about it.”

As to the origin of the word itself, theories abound. There were plenty of Irish in the gold fields, so some say it is Irish in origin, from sionnachuighm, meaning “I play tricks” or “I play like a fox”.  Others cite the Spanish word chanada, meaning “trick” or “deceit”.  Then there’s also Schenigelei, German slang for “a trick”.  An East Anglian dialect produced nannicking for “playing the fool”. Given the international flavor of early California, all seem possible, though I’d bet on the Irish.

Lastly, if you’ve ever wondered about the California state motto, “Eureka“, you should know that this expression has been in wide use for centuries — its origins have nothing to do with California. This exclamation is most famously attributed to the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes. He was allegedly given the task of determining the density of the ruler’s gold crown. The ruler suspected that the goldsmith had substituted some silver and had pocketed some of the gold. It was when Archimedes stepped into a bath tub and saw the water level rise that he got the idea of submerging the crown to see how much water it displaced, enabling him to calculate the density of the crown if it were pure gold. He reportedly exclaimed “Eureka!” and excitedly ran naked through the streets of Syracuse. Anyway, it’s a good story.



10 Responses to “Language of the Gold Rush”

  1. Richard Gerson, 925-8568 Says:

    I am looking for a copy of a “Times-Picayune” article dated March 21, 1849 that reported the docking in New Orleans of the Steamship “Falcon” that sailed into New Orleans from New York.
    Do you know of any source for this article, in any form? Thank you.

    • camcca Says:

      Thanks, Richard, for your comment. The item you seek may be found on, a subscription newspaper website.

  2. Lin Says:

    Im looking for meaning of “possibles” used in the following sentences during the California Gold Rush.
    “Do you have any possibles?” or “Do you need any possibles?”

    • camcca Says:

      I put the question to the elist of the Pioneer Valley History Network. Here are some of the responses.

      Dennis Picard wrote:
      It is one of those 1820, 1830isms. I’m not sure of the sentence, just “possibles” are your “things” – such as a fire steel, pliers, spare flints, lead mold; your everyday stuff that would be in your trouser pockets if it was 20th century. I believe Ruxson (sp?) and Erving and others used it. Its a “trapper” term from before the Oregon Trail days. I’ll check what I have on my book shelves.

      He then added: George Frederick Ruxton, “Adventures in Mexico and the Rocky Mountains 1848 & Life in the Far West” in serial form in 1848: “possibles, a man’s small personal possessions, often carried in a bag”

      Muriel Shippee wrote:
      I think when I was a very young girl that I remember my grandfather calling a leathery pouch that he had that he sometimes referred to as his “possible” – don’t remember anything that he had in it, but he did a lot of bee keeping, but I suppose it could hold anything that was germane to a person’s interest.

      The folks at the Ware Historical Society did a Google search that produced the following:
      Mountain Men terms
      POSSIBLES — The personal property of the mountain man, Such items as a bullet mold, an awl, knives, a tin cup, his buffalo robe or a blanket capote, his pipe and tobacco, flint and steel, sometimes a small sheet-metal fry-pan, and other accouterments he considered necessary. Firearms were considered “pieces” or guns” and not possibles.
      POSSIBLES BAG — The leather bag in which the mountain man carried his possibles. everything from his pipe and tobacco to his patches and balls. What could not be carried in the bag were hung on the bags shoulder strap. Shooting needs were given first priority, kept where they could be found with ease and speed.

      The Language of the Rendezvous
      “POSSIBLES” — small, but highly important collection of valuables the trapper kept by his side in his shooting pouch, which could mean the difference between life and death when put afoot without a rifle.

      Nathalie McCormack found this (and a great story) on the internet:
      “When you begin shooting or hunting with a muzzleloader, you’ll find that the first thing you need is a possibles bag. This bag, along with your powder horn, carries the things you need to shoot the gun. The shooters of the 17th and 18th centuries called it a possibles bag, because it carried everything you might possibly need for the day’s outing…A possibles bag is a highly individual, highly personal piece of equipment. Because the possibles bag is so unique, we have an opportunity to personalize our own, to reflect our individual style and needs. In short, you can make your own!”

  3. Richard Gerson Says:

    Thanks for sending all these words & phrases added to the language during the Gold Rush & before & after. Almost all of them were used by my ancestors who arrived in San Francisco starting in the summer of 1849 and several of them are still commonly used by their descendants (lie me) who are still around. I’ve got another reply to this great email but it’ll have to wait. Back later; thanks for this. Richard Gerson

  4. LIN DIXON Says:

    Thank you very much. This was ever so helpful. Lin 🙂

  5. John Putnam Says:

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

  6. Robert Crabill Says:

    Very nice article — I learned quite a bit. I didn’t see that phrase “Mother Lode” though, and I’d recommend a short book by Philip Ross May, “On the Mother Lode” (1971), a mining historian from Down Under, who spent a year in Calif studying. Turns out the term ‘mother lode’ came from the Comstock Lode (silver) in Nevada in the 1860s, not from gold mining earlier in California, as most would assume. May has another book on the origins of hydraulic mining.

    Cheers, Robert

  7. James L Chase Says:

    “I have been around the horn” was slang for I have seen rough times, first coined in the Gold Rush days, as going around the Horn of South America was many times a dangerous and deadly proposition..

  8. Sidney C Says:

    I am looking for terms that express awe, like “Wow” or “Gosh”.

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