The Luck of Roaring Camp

by Bret Harte

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Thomas Luck

Thomas Luck is an infant born in the small California gold mining town of Roaring Camp in 1850. His mother, Cherokee Sal, is the only woman in the camp of about a hundred men; she dies in childbirth, while Thomas survives, leaving him orphaned. The men of the camp immediately file in to see the boy, bringing gifts of money, jewelry, and even a revolver. Some of the men comment that Thomas is a “Mighty small specimen” and that he “Ain’t bigger nor a derringer” (small pistol). The identity of Thomas’s father is unknown, but the child is taken in by the town’s prospectors, who are overjoyed to have him and collectively treat him like their own son. Stumpy, the man who helped to deliver Thomas, takes the boy back with him to his own cabin.

Thomas “thrive[s],” nourished by the fresh mountain air and the milk of Stumpy’s donkey. When he is a month old, the men begin to call him “Tommy Luck” or “the Luck” and officially christen him Thomas Luck, believing that he has brought good fortune to Roaring Camp. They even begin to undertake vast improvements to make the town more child-friendly and welcoming so that Thomas will have an enjoyable life: the boy is given a fine rosewood cradle, Stumpy’s cabin and the grocery store are renovated, and plans are made to build a hotel and bring families to live in the town. The men begin to practice better personal hygiene, to refrain from swearing and yelling, and to sing lullabies and bring flowers and pebbles to the child. Harte writes,

Surrounded by playthings such as never child out of fairyland had before, it is to be hoped that Tommy was content. He appeared to be serenely happy, albeit there was an infantine gravity about him, a contemplative light in his round gray eyes, that sometimes worried Stumpy. He was always tractable and quiet. . . . Nature was his nurse and playfellow.

Thomas appears to be as beloved by nature as he is by the prospectors. Sadly, his life is cut short when the river surrounding the town overflows and sweeps him away, leaving the men without “the pride, the hope, the joy, The Luck, of Roaring Camp.”

Cherokee Sal

Cherokee Sal, Thomas’s mother, is the only woman in Roaring Camp before she dies giving birth to her child. She is described as “a coarse and, it is to be feared, a very sinful woman.” As she suffers through childbirth, she is described as lonely, isolated, “dissolute, abandoned, and irreclaimable.” Her suffering and death are described as a kind of “martyrdom” and part of the “expiation of her sin.” The men place bets on whether or not she will survive and send in a man called Stumpy to tend to her. Within an hour of giving birth, however, Cherokee Sal dies. The men of the camp are largely unaffected by the news of her death and bury her on the hillside.


Stumpy helps to deliver Thomas and acts as his primary guardian, taking the boy in, sheltering him in his cabin, and feeding him milk from his donkey. Before coming to Roaring Camp, he had been “the putative head of two families,” though he apparently was not legally married. Immediately after Thomas’s birth, Stumpy collects gifts and donations for the child, and when Thomas is a month old, Stumpy is the one to christen him. Stumpy is the originator of many of the ideas to improve the men and the town, as he wants to provide a better life for the...

(This entire section contains 714 words.)

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Oakhurst is a gambler who makes his home in Roaring Camp and is described as having “the melancholy air and intellectual abstraction of a Hamlet.” It is Oakhurst who first claims that the child has brought “the luck” to the town and suggests giving him the name Thomas Luck.


Kentuck is a “prominent citizen” of Roaring Camp. He cares deeply for Thomas, as all the prospectors do, and when the flood comes through the town, he risks his own life to attempt to save Thomas. Unfortunately, both he and Thomas are swept away and perish in the flood. Kentuck dies smiling, content to be with “The Luck.”