The biggest threat to gold rush miners

Some of my readers have asked, “what did gold rush miners die from?” There were many dangers that they faced, but the biggest threat to gold rush miners didn’t come from outside elements – it was from a preventable disease called scurvy.

Overland parties were especially susceptible to the disease because they packed flour, meat and other staples which they felt would last but the only food they brought which contained vitamin C was in the form of dried fruit such as apples which were then further cooked – depleting whatever vitamin C was left.

The symptoms of scurvy started to show themselves after the miners had been completely deprived of ascorbic acid for 40 days. Fatigue and depression set in and after several more weeks, gums got sore and began to bleed. Night blindness and vision trouble occurred. Cuts and wounds would scab over but never heal. In a few more weeks, scorbutics would get debilitating pain and swelling in their legs and feet and eventually become too lame to move. The skin would blacken and death was imminent.

It is not known how many gold rush miners suffered and died from scurvy, because the deaths were usually attributed to exposure to the elements or starvation, but it was probably fairly significant. It is believed that several thousand gold rush miners died from scurvy in the California gold rush.

At Fort Laramie, Wyoming, a scurvy outbreak was documented in 1859. Although the post surgeon attributed this problem to “want of cleanliness” and “defective cooking” he solved the problem by concocting a drink from cactus, which he learned from the local Indians.

Harry Jones and his fellow miners in the Cariboo were fortunate to encounter “Dr. Spruce” who helped to cure them of scurvy.

The story of the Rennie brothers, a group of Overlanders who travelled across the prairies to the Cariboo goldfields in 1862, is a possible example of scurvy. After travelling overland from St. Paul with stops at Red River, Edmonton, Jasper, and Tête Jaune Cache, the group was in a very weakened state. William Rennie and his brother Gilbert left the others near the grand canyon of the Fraser River with the intention of getting help at Fort George. William and Gilbert had to be carried in and out of canoes by helpful natives on their way there. Meanwhile, the rest of the party which had stayed behind languished and suffered – too lame to carry on with the others. They resorted to cannabilism as a last means of survival.