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Sacramento Diggins

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For those of you not in the know, "diggins" is an old term used in reference to a mine, wash, or other site where gold rush era mining or prospecting took place. Old treasure maps, as we called them anyway, had the name of a previous claim holder or another reference before the term "diggins". It was often accompanied by the customary pick and shovel in an x formation. I remember reading these old treasure maps as a kid, because back in 1960 or so, we were planning a trip to Alaska for hunting, fishing, and of course, treasure hunting. I wish I still had one of these maps for nostalgiac purposes, but it was not among the various collections of items from my grandparents belongings when they passed. We did make it to Alaska, but not until 1966, and unfortunately, we did little treasure hunting because the sacred treasure map got left behind. There was rock hunting though, and of course lots of fishing and hunting along the way there and back.

Treasure hunting never got left behind as I grew up, and I made time for it now and again, although not so much prospecting as it was more like archeology. All the digging, sifting, and and examining we did as kids in preparation for the big Alaskan treasure hunt did not go to waste, as I put them to use right at home searching for artifacts of an antique or archaic nature that were covered up by time, growth, or progress. Sacramento had numerous locations where the previous generations used to discard the basic unneeded, unwanted, and sometimes, the lost, items of human condition. These locations became the new "diggins" sites, and old bottles, ceramic plates, coins if you were lucky, and some things you spent the next year trying to figure out what they were, were the treasure.

My treasure map was all in my head, because I knew where the diggins sites were, and didn’t ever figure I’d forget them. Unfortunately I have forgotten the precise locations of a few, but moreso, I have lost them to development. It’s pretty hard to get to your favorite diggin’s spot when a building or parking lot is over the top of it. One such spot was the the site of the old Bateson building downtown. I still have a ceramic bottle I dug up from that site, most likely an old beer or wine bottle. I was told that the state retrieved some artifacts from there when the construction took place, and I’m not surprised at all. I don’t know what was there before, but from the few things I retrieved, it most likely was a camp of some sort. Aside from the Bateson site, many other diggins have been paved over or are otherwise now out of reach. Old Sacramento before it got its’ makeover held several diggins sites when I was young. There’s probably still quite a bit of artifact down there, but you’ll never get to it now. Actually, you probably better not. The river was another good place, but the best part of it went off-limits sometime in the 80’s I think. We used to dive in 5 different sites, usually for bottles, but occasionally other antiquities as well.

It’s no secret how artifacts end up in a diggins site. More often than not, it’s a former trash dump from a bygone era. In the old days there was no trash service, and there were mainly two ways of dealing with refuse; burn it or bury it. There was a third way, and that was to just leave it, but that normally saw its’ destruction when left to the elements and passer’s-by. The burning method still left artifacts behind, although not in the best condition, but some things don’t burn, and even glass bottles can survive a poorly crafted campfire. This leaves the burying method as the most fertile ground for a treasure hunter, and happening upon a good dump site from the late 1800’s or even early 1900’s saw your best chances for a treasure trove of Sacramento history.

The pictures included with this piece are all items I unearthed during the 1960’s through around 1980 in Sacramento. As stated earlier, the ceramic bottle was from the Bateson building site, and the milk bottles came from three different diggins sites. I was always impressed by the big milk bottle with the 5 cents molded right into it. If you think about it, that’s the same refund you get on a plastic bottle today, so our previous generations were way ahead on the recycling curve. The others are basically old medicine bottles, which often had better survival rates due to their smaller size. Those little white porcelain plugs are old bottle tops, usually from beer bottled in the late 1800’s through 1920 or so. I’ve found many of these with the original "Buffalo Brewing Company" embossed into them. The wire retainer is of course rusted away, but it always impressed me that the dye they made back then lasted for nearly a century, and while underground. I still recall the very first coin I unearthed at one of my diggins sites. It was brass, and I thought I’d found a gold coin. It had 4 eyes around the outside, and a plain etched star in the center. After speaking with an old timer of the era, I was advised that many of the saloons, brothels, and other business establishments used tokens instead of currency, and that this was the most likely explanation. I lost that coin somewhere along lifes way, but it always stood out among my finds.

Although I haven’t treasure hunted much in the past two decades, I still think about it from time to time, and set out last summer to see if there was even the slightest chance one of my old sites was still available. After visiting 6 of those I remembered, only one was still accessible, and still offered a slight opportunity. I grabbed my hand pick, folding shovel, and sifter, and set out for short search. In less than an hour, I turned up two of the porcelain beer bottle tops, one with the embossed name and location still somewhat readable. I’m not sure what the name was, but Stockton, CA was definately the bottler’s location. As light was getting low, I ended my treasure hunt for the day, Feeling somewhat satisfied that there was still a bit of open lands available for a treasure hunter to practice his craft. Sacramento still has a lot of buried history out there, some just aching to be on display in that empty corner shelf of your home, and with you waiting for the next guest you have over to ask "Hey, what the heck is that?"

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