Weird History
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15 Surprising Foods Prospectors Ate To Survive The Gold Rush

Updated September 16, 2019 37.1k views15 items

The 19th century was a time of great expansion and growth for the American empire. International and domestic conflicts, territory grabs, and Native displacement were commonplace during this period, which was marked by another major development: the discovery of gold. While rumors of gold date back to the 16th century, most gold prospecting happened in the second half of the 1800s.

The first major gold rush began when the naturally occurring element was discovered in Sutter's Mill, CA, in 1848, less than two weeks before America won the Mexican-American War, opening up the western edges of the continent. Nearly 100,000 people (known as 49ers) flocked to the Sierra Nevada mountains over the next two years. The entrepreneurial spirit brought on by gold mining survived until the end of the century, when the next great gold rush arose in the Yukon Territory covering southern Alaska and western Canada. After gold was found in the Klondike River in 1896, the Klondike Gold Rush began the next year, bringing 100,000 potential miners - called Stampeders - into the treacherous, frigid region.

Northern California and the Pacific Northwest were forever changed by these gold rushes, from population increases to economic growth to the introduction of new foods. People from all over the country - even all over the world - were crammed together in overcrowded camps and settlements, mixing ideas and recipes. Supplies were often limited, and food rations had to last much longer than normal, especially in remote regions.

Resourceful gold miners knew how to pack accordingly for long journeys and use the flora and fauna available to them. This list brings together some of the more interesting and unusual foods consumed by those who participated in these gold rushes, some of which have become staples of American cuisine, and some of which have not survived the passage of time.

  • Poppy Seed Potato Bread Made With A Sourdough Starter

    The evolution of poppy seed potato bread is a tale that spans territories and generations. It started during the California Gold Rush, when miners developed an alternative to yeast that would allow them to make softer and fluffier breads: sourdough. According to writer Ed Wood, "A true sourdough is nothing more than flour and water with wild yeast to make it rise and special bacteria to provide the flavor." Adding sugar to flour and water also does the trick, and keeping the concoction warm allows it to ferment.

    Breads made with this unique mixture - called a sourdough starter - became a San Francisco standard as folks flocked from the mountains into the city to spread news of their findings, including their new favorite foods. San Francisco developed its own sourdough breads noted for their tangier flavor profiles.

    Miners in California developed sourdough starters because manufactured yeast was hard to come by, especially as people moved farther away from settlements. Prospectors during the Klondike Gold Rush also relied on sourdough starters to make bread. In both the nether regions of Alaska and California, miners kept their starters alive and heated by keeping them close to their bodies.

    Potatoes came into the bread-making mix during the Klondike Gold Rush because the starchy vegetables were more plentiful than flour in the Yukon. Miners added poppy seeds for an extra crunch, and poppy seed potato bread was born.

  • Galapagos Tortoise Liver

    California's population boomed during its gold rush. Importers saw it as a chance to capitalize off an exotic trade item: intercontinental turtles. From sea turtles to Galapagos tortoises, the San Francisco markets went crazy for these reptiles. In 1849, at least 122 Galapagos tortoises were sent to the San Francisco Bay. The number was over 500 in 1855.

    Butchering the mammoth tortoises was no easy task, but their parts were used in everything: pies, soups, and baked goods. Turtle steak was also a common dish, but many partakers believed the liver was the most delectable. As one captain wrote in his diary, turtle liver was "far superior to any kind of meat I ever ate."

    Galapagos tortoise numbers declined dramatically as a result of their inclusion in Bay Area menus. As the California Gold Rush ended and San Francisco prepared itself for the burgeoning industrial era, interest in eating turtles declined, too.

  • 'Squaw' Honey

    The more inventive miners were able to forage wildflowers and herbs in order to make syrups, soups, mashes, and spices, adding a punch of flavor to the bland ingredients they had room for on their journeys.

    An example of such a mixture made by Klondike explorers is "squaw" honey. Since there were no bees in Alaska, there was no way to harvest honey. Instead, miners boiled clover and other flowers into a syrup. The sweet nectar inside the flowers gives the syrup a honey-like flavor.

    Sweet clover is actually a weed common in woodlands. These sweet-smelling annuals can grow as high as 6 feet, making them easy for miners to spot in warmer months.

  • Kelp Relish

    The first commercially preserved foods in America were distributed around the time of the California Gold Rush, but food preservation methods had been around for centuries. In the Yukon, miners and explorers starting making their own versions of a preserved food enjoyed by Native Alaskans long before their lands were encroached upon: kelp relish.

    Still a common relish ingredient in Alaska - as well as Asia - kelp is a larger type of seaweed that grows up and down the state's coast. While harvesting kelp can be daunting, using preservation methods to keep it fresh for longer periods of time gave miners the freedom to travel long distances with a ready supply of relish.

    A basic ingredients list for kelp relish involves saltwater, onion, lemon, pickling spice, brown sugar, vinegar, and - of course - kelp.