by Marcie Stumpf/Foley


A history of The New 49’ers is really a history of Dave McCracken. We’re always receiving requests for more information about Dave’s past and how he got started; so that’s where I am going to begin this history.

Dave grew up on the East Coast. His father was a career Naval Officer, mostly commanding submarines. Dave’s mother worked as a registered nurse for most of her life, in addition to raising four children. Dave has two brothers, one older (Mike) and one younger (Tim), and a sister (Karen), who is younger.

After high school, Dave joined the Navy, and graduated UDT/SEAL training in San Diego. As a demonstration of the difficulty of this training, he graduated as one of seven, from a beginning class of 57 enrollees! Most quit because of the duress and difficulty of the training program. I have seen his photos of this training, which prompted stories to go along–it is very harsh but effective training.

Dave spent four years in the Navy, stationed in Coronado, near San Diego with the UDT/SEAL teams. While there he made one tour to Vietnam/Westpac, and he spent nearly a year working in the specialized “SDV” (Swimmer Delivery Vehicle) program. These were very specialized portable wet-submarines used to transport SEAL platoons into guarded areas. There was nothing exciting happening at the end of his 4-year tour, so he did not re-enlist. He moved to Los Angeles then, and started a commercial diving business doing underwater maintenance on yachts, and took on an extensive self-study program in business and philosophy.

In late 1979 he took an interest in gold mining. This was the period in which gold prices were going up dramatically, and he began to wonder if he could use his diving ability and experience to recover gold. He was also looking for a life outside the city, where he could work outdoors. He discovered (through a magazine) that people were already using suction dredges, and he made a trip to Keene Engineering (in Northridge, California) to discover an entire product line of underwater mining equipment.

The day after Christmas, 1979, Dave launched his first expedition with an old SEAL team buddy and his brother. They started in southern Oregon, and ended in northern California 6 weeks later. After reading all available literature on underwater mining, they found it was little more than instructions on equipment assembly.

He says they had a very difficult time of it, trying to figure out the proper methods by themselves, except for a few good tips they were able to pick up from more experienced gold dredgers. It was several months before they located their first commercial-grade gold deposit (about $60 a day), which was enough to pay expenses and feed them. His partners soon lost interest and departed with the dredge, truck, and most of the other equipment. They owned a 2/3 share, so they sold the equipment to recoup their losses and billed Dave for the remaining one-third. He eventually paid that debt in full from gold recovered later

If Dave thought it was difficult before this, that had been minor when compared to his situation now. He was alone, living in a tent, with no resources, and desperately struggling to learn all he could about the art of gold dredging. He pulled every bit of knowledge he could get from the old miners he encountered on the river, and there in that tent, after gaining experience, he wrote a book so that others would have something to go by.

He published that first book, Advanced Dredging Techniques, through Keene Engineering, in 1981, and went on to publish four more books on gold mining techniques in the next few years. These are widely accepted as the best ever published on suction gold dredging.

Shortly after his partners left, an acquaintance offered to grubstake Dave with a dredge of his own, for a percentage of his gold recovery until the dredge was paid for, with interest. Dave was able to pay off the dredge within a short time as his skill at locating commercial gold deposits improved.

He spent those first three years of his gold mining career living and working out of a tent, writing his first two books by the light of a Coleman lantern. By living this way and keeping expenses at a minimum, he channeled profits into expanding the production capabilities of his dredging operation. In 1982 Dave, his two brothers and Eric Bosch (a long-time dredging partner,) made an expedition to Canada and Alaska with four dredges.

They spent most of the 1982 mining season in Alaska, making enough money that Dave was able to take the next winter off to write his third and fourth books. He began his first video that winter, and had it produced by a professional video production company during 1983.

In 1983 Dave hired a researcher and researched claims on the Klamath River in Northern California. There, operating two dredges, with a six-man crew running two shifts (and taking on about 30 students) the 1984 season was his most successful. Their best day of recovery was 24 ounces of gold from a single dredge, and the largest nugget recovered was over 15 ounces!

In 1985, Dave and some of his helpers began work on forming The New 49’ers, and that winter went to Quartzsite, Arizona, to a big show and set up a booth to promote it. Fred Fish, an LDMA member, saw Dave there and invited him to my home (my husband and I were the only people in our circle who actually had a home–the rest were there in RVs) to speak to about 30 LDMA members. Ray and Cricket Koons signed up that night as members #1…and the rest was history. Most of us had read Dave’s first book (many times,) and his ideas for this group were just what small-scale gold prospecting really needed.

As we joined, and many more followed, the organization grew, both in mining claims and in people. Both the USFS and the Bureau of Land Management have officially acknowledged this organization as being legitimate under the 1972 mining laws because so many of the members actually go out and find gold deposits. In fact, there is more small-scale gold prospecting activity going on in Siskiyou County, associated with this group, than in any other location in the United States.

The learning programs, assistance, and other member-supported activities have a lot to do with the success that members find, and the camaraderie they gain brings a real family atmosphere to many group activities. Lasting friendships are made, and weekly summer potlucks go a long way toward cementing relationships between members from all parts of the US and a number of other countries as well.

By 1988 there was a need in the industry to aid in lobbying to preserve the rights of small-scale prospectors, that Dave filled by founding the Modern Gold Miner and Treasure Hunter’s Association, a lower cost organization, now the New 49’er Associate Member Program. This organization published a newsletter to keep people informed, and Gold & Treasure Hunter magazine. It worked with other groups and organizations, and with regulatory agencies to promote understanding of small-scale mining; to create a working relationship so that the environment would be protected and people would retain their rights by using resources wisely and responsibly.

The New 49’ers continues to grow as more and more people become aware of the activity–an important link with the heritage of the settlement of the west. The excellent relationship the organization has with the USFS, BLM, California Department of Fish and Game, and other state and county agencies involved with regulating a portion of the operation, provides a worry-free, fun-filled vacation for hundreds of people each year as they can devote all their vacation time to looking for gold in the great outdoors.

Through the organization’s community goodwill fund-raising programs contributions to local civic organizations, and scholarships to local students have won a substantial amount of community support.

The best thing about it is that it is still the dream that Dave, and then a growing number of us, had many years ago. It is providing what small-scale gold prospectors need at a most reasonable rate, in order to help them succeed as gold prospectors–The New 49’er Gold Prospectors.