Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Crazy Characters of the California Gold Rush


The California Gold Rush saw tens of thousands of people descending into the Sierra Foothills (AKA Gold Country, and the Mother Lode) to make their fortune on gold and silver, or to provide lodging, services (legal and otherwise), and virtually anything as long as it made money. In fact it was these business people who did significantly better financially than any prospectors. Of necessity, certain key figures emerged during this time, allowing for Mother Lode history to be entertaining and always interesting.

Charles Bolton, AKA Black Bart
One of the key personalities was Black Bart the gentleman robber. His real name was Charles E. Bolton, a respected San Francisco citizen who committed 28 robberies against Wells Fargo stagecoaches before he was finally arrested. At first he mined for gold like so many others on the American River but that never amounted to much. There were easier ways to make money. His first hold up was in 1875 and he kept up his spree until 1883 when, during his last robbery near Copperopolis, just outside of Murphys, he was wounded, then finally arrested. He never took the personal belongings of the stagecoach passengers only the Wells Fargo loot, occasionally left poetry at the scene of his crimes, and was so scared of horses he committed his robberies on foot. It was said he was personable, even polite, when committing his crimes. He was known to have stayed at the Murphys Historic Hotel and you can stay in the room he once occupied. After his arrest he was sent to San Quentin and served just four years, but by 1888, the 59 year old, in poor health, vanished and no one knows whatever happened to him.

John Sutter
The name John Sutter will always be linked with the discovery of gold, though Sutter himself did not discover it; his partner John Marshall did in January of 1848. Prospectors were known as the 49ers, because by 1849 the “rush” to the Foothills was on and word about gold had spread to all parts of the globe. The gold was found at Sutter’s Mill, a sawmill on the banks of the American River in the tiny town of Coloma, north of Placerville not Sutter Creek. Originally from Switzerland, Sutter was never a good businessman and he racked up debts throughout most of his life. Generous and kind, he was often taken advantage of by the unscrupulous people he hired. He was granted 50,000 acres of land where the American River and the Sacramento River meet and set up his sawmill operations. He crafted a town nearby he called New Helvetia, what we now know as Sacramento. He fought for California statehood, worked with Russia to secure Fort Ross on the California coast, gave aid to immigrants in the area and his name is nearly everywhere in the Foothills. But the gold discovery did not make him rich. 

The exact spot where gold was discovered in 1848
Word got out and squatters came quickly, as early as March 1848 from San Francisco, and Sutter could not get them off his land. “By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed,” he wrote in 1857. “Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined, and the cause of it is the long delay of the United States Land Commission of the United States Courts, through the great influence of the squatter lawyers.” He was broke when he died in 1880. Today you can stand on the banks of the American River on the exact spot where the mill once was, and, at least for a moment or two, imagine what transpired that day in January of 1848 – a pivotal day which changed the face of California forever.

The One and Only Mark Twain
The most singularly well known person of the gold rush however was Mark Twain (Samuel Longhorn Clemens is his real name; Mark Twain is actually a nautical term he adopted) who migrated from San Francisco to the Foothills in the early 1860s, writing about the arduous mining life. While visiting friends in Angels Camp he heard a story about a frog jumping contest and how one frog lost because someone had fed the frog buckshot to weigh it down. No doubt amused by the absurdity of the situation Twain penned “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” which was published by the New York Saturday Press in November, 1865, and Twain became a media sensation and eventually an American icon. Even today the frog jumping contest is alive and well and as you walk along the stuck-in-time town of Angels Camp, just like the Hollywood walk of fame, there is the Angels Camp Frog Walk, with the various winners immortalized in bronze in the sidewalk. Twain published 13 novels in total (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are the most well known) as well as short stories, travel writing and his autobiography, published in 2010, 100 years after his death became a bestseller!
The Frog Walk of Fame in Angels Camp
For a look at the gold & silver mines in Southern California head over to my other travel blog: CALICO GHOST TOWN