The thing about explaining eastern Oregon for outsiders is that some things are so different that outsiders don't have words for some things that are part of our daily lives or the words don't mean quite the same thing here as they do in other places. I encounter this often when I try to translate this site into German and I find that either there is no word for something because it doesn't exist in Europe or even if there is a word it doesn't mean quite the same thing here as it does there.
Grant county and most of eastern Oregon was settled as a result of gold rushes. In Canyon City the Whiskey Gulch Gang, a local civic group has been celebrating the founding of the town with their 62 Days celebration commemorating the discovery of gold here in 1862. Which brings me to two words that don't translate very well "placer mining" and "gold rush". German has equivalents for both words but they don't mean quite the same thing and to miss the difference is to miss some very important points about the development of the west in the nineteenth century.
Seifenlagerstätte is the German equivalent for the English "placer deposit" but there are some important differences. "Seifenlagerstätte" is a technical term that would be familiar only to a specialist in geology or mining while everyone around here know what a place deposit is. And while placer deposit and Seifenlagerstätte technically mean the same thing: an accumulation of minerals formed by density separation during sedimentary processes. Around here, placer deposit has a very specific meaning, it means a highly concentrated deposit of almost pure gold.
In northeastern Oregon the majority of places where water flows or once flowed are placers containing trace amounts of gold and other metals. You can take gravel out of just about any stream around here and find a few flakes of pure gold. Nobody is interested in that. But if conditions are just right, the interaction of water and gravity over geologically periods can concentrate those flakes into one or two shovels full of almost pure gold.
That's what people around here are talking about when the speak of placer deposits. Which brings me to my second word "gold rush" German has a word for the same thing Goldrausch which has a slightly different meaning.
"Rausch" in German means intoxication or frenzy which is an apt description of what goes on in a gold rush but it misses and essential feature, the "rush", the hurry which goes back to the placer deposits I mentioned above. The history of the development of the western United States is very much tied to a succession of gold rushes starting with California in 1849 and ending with Alaska in 1899.
The first prospectors in a gold field had the best chances of finding a really rich deposit. Mark Twain in Roughing It cits cases of miners taking $10-$100,000 out of a single deposit. Multiply that by a factor of at least 10 in today's money. Not bad for one man with a shovel.
But if you wait too long and all the easy gold is gone and now gold mining is just another job that pays low wages for back-breaking dangerous labor. That's why Canyon City went from zero to the most populous city in the state in six months.
That's why in 1850 and 51 there were almost no men in western Oregon, they had all gone to the gold fields. These gold rushes had a lot to do with what places got settled first, where the roads were built and where political boundaries were drawn.
There is magic in gold that other minerals do not possess. Greater fortunes have been made by digging humble substances like coal and iron and copper out of the ground than have ever been made from gold. But part of the mythos of the wild west in America is that for a little while it was possible for a young man with nothing more that a shovel and courage to step beyond civilization and all its laws and return with enough wealth to last the rest of his days.
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