group of mine boys

What Became of These Cornish Lads in California?

During the 19th century, about a quarter of a million people left Cornwall searching for a better life overseas. Many of them were miners, facing unemployment as first copper mining, then tin mining, collapsed. This is the story of the two sons of John and Grace Tickle, who were among those who emigrated.

John & Grace (nee Cook) were both born around 1811 in St. Agnes, Truro, Cornwall. They married in 1838 and their son, James, was born in 1840, also in St Agnes. The three are shown on the 1841 census, with John’s occupation listed as copper miner. By the early 19th century, mining was the most important part of the Cornish economy. Miners’ pay was good but the working conditions were deadly, and life expectancy for a below-ground miner was short. “Miner’s lung”, which came from breathing the dust, killed many men at a young age. Those operating the drills were paid very well, but frequently died within a few years. Like many of his work-mates, John Tickle died young – he passed away in 1844 at the age of just 33. His son, James, was 4 years old and, by then, the couple had a second son, John, born around 1842. Young John was born in Gwennap, which was the richest copper mining district in Cornwall in the early 19th century. In fact, it was called the “richest square mile in the Old World”. It’s likely his father worked in the mines there.

Grace was left a young widow with two sons under the age of five. She moved in to live with her parents, Joseph and Jane Cook. Joseph had himself been a miner. In the 1851 census, he is shown as ‘Miner, Retired Through Accident’. To support herself and her sons, Grace worked as a copper dresser. Copper dressers, who were mainly women, were usually employed as surface workers. They used hammers to break up the larger chunks of ore-laden material that was brought to the surface.

At that time, a great many children were employed in the mines, sometimes from as young as 8 years old. These young mine-boys often worked 12-hour shifts, going up and down ladders that were several hundred feet long, carrying water and tools to the miners down below. Some became exhausted from the long days of work and fell from the ladders to their death. In 1851, James Tickle, aged 11, was working as a copper dresser, like his mother. It must have been back-breaking work for a young boy, possibly starting at 7 am and working until 7pm at night.

By the time of the next census, in 1861, both James and John, now aged 21 and 18, were copper miners. They and Grace are listed, along with several other mining families, living in Kingswood Cottages, Gunnis Lake, Calstock, in Cornwall. Grace Tickle was still living in Calstock in 1871 and 1881. She died in 1886 at the ripe old age of 76.

Neither of her sons appear in the 1871 or 1881 U.K. censuses. I believe that, like many of their countrymen, they emigrated to the United States. There is a record of a James Tickle, a miner born in 1840, arriving in New York from Liverpool on 10 Aug 1868 on board the ship, City of Baltimore. His brother was not with him, but a John Tickell in shown on the 1870 census in Township 6, Placer, California. James and John Tickle appear as brothers in the U.S. Federal Census taken on 3 June 1880. They are both miners in Michigan Bluff, Placer, California.

Placer County is situated on the eastern border of the state of California in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. In 1848, gold was discovered in Placer and thousands of miners from around the world took part in the gold rush. Placer took its name from a Spanish word for sand or gravel containing gold. Unlike Cornish mines, the mines here were surface mines. Gold that had been deposited, by natural erosion, in streams or on the ground was processed by rocking, panning, or other techniques in a process known as ‘placer mining’. Placer County residents became some of the richest in California. If the Tickle brothers did well, they were probably able to send money back to support their mother, Grace, in Cornwall.

The tools needed for placer mining in California

Nowadays Michigan Bluff is, apparently, a peaceful mountain hamlet with a few dozen residents. In the late 19th century things were very different. It was overrun with hundreds of miners, who struggled up steep mountain trails and through forests and ravines searching for the rich diggings they hoped to find.

The brothers are listed on various voters’ registers in Sunny South, Michigan Bluff, Placer County, although not shown together, which seems to indicate they lived in different places. These Great Registers of Placer also contain details of their appearance. James is described as being 5’5″ tall, with a medium complexion, blue eyes, and gray hair, while John is 5′ 8″, with a dark complexion, blue eyes, and black hair.

They were both naturalised – James on 2 July 1873 ( as James Tickell) and John (also listed as Tickell) on 6 October 1876.

Jemes Tickle’s naturalizaron declaration.

I’ve found the brothers on Voters’ Registers until they are in their 50s, so they didn’t die young, like their father, but I’ve not yet been able to discover what happened to either of them after that. Did they strike lucky with gold? Become farmers? Move elsewhere in the US?

I’ve also found no evidence that either of them married or had children. I will continue to look for information but, if you think that either of these men were among your ancestors, I’d love to hear from you.

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