The rocky wilderness of the American West turned out to be the richest treasure trove of natural resources in the history of the civilized world. And the chance to get rich quick as a uniquely American article of faith was virtually born in the West. With a single lucky break, one could instantly make as much money as he could lend or spend in a lifetime. And, for the first time in history the finder got to keep what he found.
The path to the West’s golden boulders was blocked by treeless plains with rattlesnakes big around as a wagon tongue; peaks reaching over 16,000 feet; desert winds hot as a dragon’s breath; and land so dry the bushes followed the dogs around.
The gold rushes in the West added several words to the American lexicon. Included among the prospectors jargon was bonanza, (to prosper). It was the American-Spanish word for “pay dirt” or “good luck,” which referred to a rich vein of gold or silver. Other words originating in the digs or made popular there were “prospects,” “striking it rich,” “panning out,” “saloon,” “gulch,” “canyon,” “stake a claim” (to assert a title to something) or “claim jumping,” to usurp a title to something. Merchants staked needy prospectors with food (grub) and supplies for a share should they strike it rich. Today a grubstake means help provided launch someone on a project.
Towns were populated by a ramshackle collection of boisterous, devil-may-care reprobates who dignified their new abodes with picturesquely whimsical names like: Jenny Lind, Liar’s Flat, Total Wreck, Jackass Gulch, Shirttail Diggings, Red Dog, Bladderville, You Bet, Gomorrah, Humbug Creek, HooDoo, Cut Throat, Fiddle Creek, Gouge Eye, Whiskey Gulch and Mad Dog Gulch, and Last Chance Gulch. The town of California changed its name to Hangtown following the hanging of three fellows who “exhausted the patience” of the locals. Eventually it took the more respectable name, Placerville.
Most boomed and busted or as one said, “When the gold ran out so did the miners.”