When a former New Jersey carpenter found gold flakes in the American River near Sacramento, California, in 1848, his discovery set off a chain of events that changed the territory forever. As news spread, men (and a few women) poured in from California and Oregon, from Peru, Hawaii, and China. Among them was a prospector from England who didn’t have much luck at mining (as many didn’t) but who would become a shrewd observer, a keen commentator, and an important player in shaping the destiny of this new state of California.
James M. Hutchings was born in Northamptonshire, England, the son of a carpenter and cabinetmaker, trades that he learned. In 1848 he left England for America, crossed the plains, and arrived in California at the height of the gold rush in 1849.
While he had only modest success as a miner, the landscape captivated his imagination and inspired him to become a writer and publisher, promoting the area. He founded Hutchings’ California Magazine, which featured fiction, poetry, etchings, and a cover feature story about his beloved Yosemite and the surrounding Sierra Nevada. Indeed, his publications and explorations are credited with helping to establish Yosemite as a land area protected by a grant signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.
But Hutchings’s path to publishing started in the gold mines. Unsurprisingly, the Gold Rush attracted not just prospectors looking for quick riches but opportunists, prostitutes, and a wide assortment of frontiersmen with only a passing acquaintance of the law. Hutchings, who obviously knew his Bible and who also had a wicked sense of humor, wrote and published “The Miners’ Ten Commandments,” in the local paper, the Placerville Herald, in 1853. It was the most popular of the hundreds of letter sheets printed during the 1850-1870 era, according to the Museum of the City of San Francisco.
Hutchings’s sheet, a copy of which exists today at the Library of Congress, in Washington, D.C., illustrates each commandment with a vignette featuring an elephant pointing to the words. It sold nearly 100,000 copies when it was originally published; miners and prospectors used the paper as stationary or to wrap goods. Since the gold rush peaked in 1849, it is questionable as to whether miners actually read it or gave serious thought to the words on the page.
Also lost to history is whether Hutchings wrote the commandments with his tongue firmly in his cheek, though the modern reader certainly suspects satire. The language of his commandments hilariously echoes the Bible’s, with references to stealing, coveting, and “unsuitable matrimony”—admonished with Thou Shalt Nots, of course. In his introduction to the commandments, Hutchings seems to quite enjoy his cleverness. He wrote: “A man spake these words, and said: I am a miner, wandering ‘from away down east,’ to sojourn in a strange land. And behold I’ve seen the elephant, yea, verily, I saw him, and bear witness, that from the key of his trunk to the end of his tail, his whole body hath passed before me; and I followed him until his huge feet stood before a clapboard shanty; then with his trunk extended he pointed to a candle-card tacked upon a shingle, as though he would say Read, and I read the MINERS’ TEN COMMANDMENTS.”
Hutchings was long-winded, as were many writers of the era. His commandments run to 1,300 words. Here, then, is a condensed version for the modern eye. The full commandments are on view at the San Francisco Museum.
- Thou shalt not have no other claim than one.
- Thou shalt not make unto thyself any false claim.
- Thou shalt not go prospecting before thy claim gives out.
- Thou shalt not remember what they friends do at home on the Sabbath day.
- Thou shalt not think more of all thy gold.
- Thou shalt not kill.
- Thou shalt not grow discouraged.
- Thou shalt not steal a pick or shovel, nor return them broken.
- Thou shalt not tell any false tales about “good diggings in the mountains.”
- Thou shalt not commit unsuitable matrimony, nor covet single blessedness, nor forget about absent maidens, nor neglect thy “first love.”
Hutchings died on October 31, 1902, when his horse threw him during a visit to Yosemite.