Many well-known historical characters got their start in, made their mark on, or touched the history of California's Gold Country, some right here in Placerville. Below, read about some of the famous and infamous. (See larger photos at the Gold Rush Gallery)
Phillip Armour ~ (1832-1901) Phillip Danforth Armour, of meat-packing fame, started his career in Placerville, supplying the miners with meat from his butcher shop. (Not to be confused with Oscar Meyer or Jimmy Dean, of equally meaty fame.) Here's the proverbial jingle that those over 45 will remember:
Hot dogs, Armour Hot Dogs,
What kinds of kids eat Armour Hot Dogs?
Big kids, little kids, kids who climb on rocks,
Fat kids, skinny kids, even kids with chicken pox
Love hot dogs, Armour Hot Dogs
The dogs kids love to bite!
Black Bart ~ (1829-1???) In 1877, the Wells Fargo stage was robbed by a lone highwayman wearing a long linen duster and a flour sack over his head. He had a strong firm voice and piercing blue eyes that could be seen through the holes in the sack. From 1875 to 1883, he performed at least 28 robberies. He never rode a horse during his highway robberies; he just walked out of nowhere in some secluded ravine, carrying an unloaded double-barreled shotgun for show. He never hurt anyone and was always polite while committing his crimes, never raising his voice, asking calmly, "Will you please throw down your treasure box, Sir?" One time, when a lady offered him her valuables, he told her that he didn't want her money, he wanted Wells Fargo's money. After retrieving the strong box from the driver, he would use a small hatchet to open it. He acquired a reputation as a po8, or "versifying", as he called it later, because of po8try left at two early robbery scenes:
I've labored hard and long for bread,
For honor and for riches,
But on my corns too long you've tred
You fine-haired [bleep bleep bleep-bleep].
Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow.
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I'll try it on,
My condition can't be worse.
And if there's money in that box,
'Tis munny in my purse.
~ Black Bart, Po-8
Probably Black Bart's motto, too!
The beginning of the end for Bart was November 3, 1883. He waited for the Tuttletown stage, which carried $550 in gold coin and over 200 ounces of amalgam. A young boy who had hitched a ride to go hunting was the only passenger, and he left the stagecoach just before Bart showed up. The box was secured to the floor of the coach and the driver complained that his brake wouldn't work right. To buy time to release the strong box, Bart told the driver to unhitch the team and take them down the road. When Bart finally got the loot out of the box, the driver opened fire on him with the boy's rifle. On his hasty departure, Bart left a few things behind, including a handkerchief with the laundry mark F.X.O.7. Wells Fargo Special Detective Harry N. Morse was hired to trace the hanky. He checked at one hundred laundries, and within a week, it had been traced to a San Francisco laundry ~ and then to Black Bart at 316 Bush Street, Apartment 40, San Francisco.
He was 50 years old and dapper in appearance. Seems he was born in England as Charles E. Bowles, with his last name changed to Boles by his family when they arrived in the U.S. He also used the name Charles E. Bolton and signed in to City Prison as T.Z. Spaulding. He was intelligent, well-educated, and a veteran of the Civil War who had tried his hand at gold mining without success. So he decided to turn to highwaymanship. As a clerk at several stage offices, he studied the shipments and schedules before he tried his hand at stealing gold, and was quite successful at it for a while.
William G. Fargo
Founders of American Express
and Wells, Fargo & Co.
Veteran detective James B. Hume, now Chief of the detectives working for Wells, Fargo & Co., hunted down Black Bart after Detective Harry N. Morse traced the hanky to a San Francisco laundry, and Sheriff Ben Thorn then went to San Francisco to bring Bart back to San Andreas, the County seat of his latest crime. His trial took place in the courthouse that still stands there. He served a little more than four years of a six-year sentence at San Quentin Prison. He vanished forever after his release, with a big proverbial sigh of relief (and maybe with a pension?) from Wells, Fargo & Co.
Lotta Crabtree ~ (1847-1924) At six years of age, Charlotte "Lotta" Mignon Crabtree performed her first song and dance on an anvil at Fippin's Blacksmith Shop for the miners at Rough & Ready. Tutored by the famous Lola Montez, she toured the gold fields for years, delighting homesick miners wherever she performed. She eventually went on to San Francisco and New York, where she died quite wealthy and happy at age 77 in 1924.
Jerry Crane ~ Dr. Crane has the dubious distinction of being the first to be hanged in Coloma, just minutes before Mickey Free was hanged, resulting in the town's celebrated double hanging. Crane murdered one of his students named Susan because, as he claimed, he "loved" her (actually, she had unwisely rejected his marriage proposal), although a little investigating revealed that he had a wife and family back East. He was arrested at his home in Ringgold for the murder, and there was a lynching attempt. However, the Sheriff got him out of town and into the Coloma jail. On the day of the double execution, Coloma hired a brass band from Placerville and made quite a celebration of the event. On the gallows, Crane sang some verses he had composed to a popular tune of the day, and just before the trap fell, he said, "Here I come, Susan!"
Eleanor Dumont ~ (18??-1879) She captured the town's heart when she stepped off the coach in Nevada City in 1854. Because of her great personal charm, the town tolerated her opening a gambling parlor. She became "the Blackjack Queen of the Northern Mines" and made a fortune dealing cards to the miners. She got the nickname "Madame Moustache" because of a downy growth on her upper lip that evidently thickened as she aged. At 38, she married a small-time promoter, who promptly spent all her money and deserted her. Her life went downhill from there, and she died an ignoble death on September 9, 1879suicide in disreputable Bodie.
Mickey Free ~ Mickey Free was Hangee No. 2 in Coloma's celebrated double hanging. He was involved in a cutthroat gang that specialized in raiding and robbing Chinese camps and murdering lonely miners. He was responsible for the murder of a roadhouse keeper. Later, he wrote a confession, "Life of Mickey Free", which was published by the local Empire County Argus paper. At his execution in Coloma immediately following that of Jerry Crane, he cocked his hat over one eye, tossed peanuts into his mouth, and at one point danced a jig, perhaps to the beat of the brass band from Placerville that was playing. However, when his turn on the gallows came, he tried to sing, but broke down completely. Free's grave can still be found at the edge of the Coloma cemetery.
Lyman Gilmore ~ (1874-1951) A thinker and inventor, Lyman Gilmore designed heavier-than-air machines before the Wright Brothers. He flew their airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Gilmore built a 10-foot sailplane and experimented with gliders pulled by horses. In 1902, it is said that he flew a 32-foot glider with a steam engine and flash boiler. In 1907, he built the first air field in the United States, located at Highway 20 and Squirrel Creek Road near Grass Valley. Gilmore wasn't of the Gold Rush era per se, but his story from the Gold Country is interesting nonetheless.
Ulysses S. Grant ~ (1822-1885) General Ulysses S. Grant (born Hiram Ulysses Grant) was at one time stationed in Placerville before becoming the 18th president of the United States.
Horace Greeley ~ (1811-1872) Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, uttered his famous advice, "Go west, young man!" He took his own advice and campaigned for the presidency across the United States. During his cross-country trek, he was dumped three times by the stage coaches that carried him, once landing in a river. Then, when he reached Genoa on the east side of the Sierras, Mr. Greeley made the near-fatal mistake of telling his new driver, Hank "Quick Whip" Monk, that he was in a hurry to get to Placerville because of a speaking engagement. Hank thus "having his orders" took Horace on a trans-Sierra ride that would go down in history, thanks to Mark Twain and his book Roughing It. En route, when Mr. Greeley's head reportedly began hitting the top of the passenger compartment, he told Hank to slow down, which Hank swears he misinterpreted as a plea to go faster. They landed in Placerville (some say with Horace's head protruding through the coach's roof) in a timely manner. A welcoming committee had gone out to the east of town to bring the presidential candidate into town with dignity and honor. One story states that Hank wouldn't stop, saying, "I've got my orders!" and that his Concord coach roared right into town. Another story says Hank stopped at Sportsman's Hall and Horace got into the waiting coach. In any event, Mr. Greeley was safely delivered to Placerville, and after a brief recuperation from the turbulent flight, he spoke to the townspeople from the second-story balcony of the Cary House on Main Street.
Bret Harte ~ (1836-1902) Born Francis Brette Hart, he went to San Francisco at 18, then tried his hand at goldmining in the Mother Lode, and ended up back in San Francisco. Although he disliked the miner's life, he wrote stories that accurately portrayed it. Starting with M'liss in 1860, his tales about the frontier and the mines were best-sellers.
Mark Hopkins, Jr. ~ (1813-1878) This railroad magnate, one of the Big Four builders of the Central Pacific Railroad, got his start selling vegetables in Placerville.
James B. Hume ~ (1827-1904) Hume headed west from New York to the gold mines of California in 1850. Along with gold hunting, he ran a trade store periodically. In 1860 he served as Deputy Tax Collector for El Dorado County and was later elected as City Marshal of Placerville and an Undersheriff, then Sheriff, of El Dorado County.
Two of Hume's badges while in law
enforcement in El Dorado County.
< Under-Sheriff (left)
and Sheriff (right) >
Courtesy James Casey, PoliceGuide.com
Hume later worked as Chief of Detectives for Wells, Fargo & Co. As a skilled and prominent investigator of that era, he finally brought the infamous Black Bart to justice.
Collis Potter Huntington ~ (1821-1900) In 1850, Mr. Huntington operated a store in Placerville. He later went on to become one of the Big Four builders of the Central Pacific Railroad.
Harry Love ~ (1810-1868) His tombstone says it best:
Here lies Captain Harry Love, who with a troop of twenty others,
On July 25, 1853 allegedly killed bandits Joaquin Murrietta and
Three Fingered Jack near Arroyo de Cantua, Fresno County, California.
Born in Vermont, Love first visited Alta California as a seaman in 1839.
He served in the Mexican War of 1846 and later as an army express rider
And explorer of the Rio Grande. Love arrived in San Francisco in
December of 1850 and took residence in Mariposa County. He was
Commissioned as Captain of the California Rangers on May 28, 1853
And in the following year married Mary McSwain Bennett of Santa Clara.
Captain Harry Love died in the Mission City on June 29, 1868
From a wound received in a gunfight with an employee
Of his then estranged wife.
Erected June 29, 2003
By Mountain Charlie Chapter #1850 & Joaquin Murrieta Chapter #13,
E Clampus Vitus.
Edwin Markham ~ (1852-1940) The author and poet, Charles Edwin Anson Markham, lived and taught school in Coloma before attaining world-wide fame with his immortal poem, "The Man with the Hoe," which he wrote after seeing Jean-François Millet's famous "Man with a Hoe" painting.
Man with a Hoe, by Jean-François Millet
Markham was at one time a resident of Placerville. He taught literature in El Dorado County until 1879 and became education superintendent of the county. Edwin Markham Middle School on Placerville's Canal Street is named for him.
James Wilson Marshall ~ (1810-1885) "January 24, 1848: This day some kind of mettle was found in the tailrace that looks like goald, first discovered by James Martial, the Boss of the Mill." ~ From the diary of Henry Bigler
James Wilson Marshall, born in New Jersey in 1810, was a quiet and moody man, a carpenter and wheelwright by trade. In 1847, he entered into a contract with "Captain" John Sutter to build a saw mill in Coloma, where he discovered gold in the mill's tailrace on January 24, 1848. When the news leaked out (almost immediately), miners flocked in. Efforts by Marshall and Sutter to claim ownership of the Coloma area failed, as did Marshall's efforts to charge a commission for the gold mined there. He was run off the land when he persisted. He began making claims that he had special powers to locate gold, so he was often followed and sometimes threatened. He ended up living in Kelsey, just a few miles from Coloma, where he operated a blacksmith shop and sold his autograph on bits of paper to supplement his income. He died lonely and bitter in 1885 at age 74, never having enjoyed the wealth he helped others to find. He is buried under his statue in the State Historic Park that bears his name. The monument was built in 1890, not far from Marshall's cabin.
Hank Monk ~ (1826-1883) Hank got his start in Placerville, driving overland stagecoaches with notorious skill and daring. The trip with Horace Greeley is especially memorable. (See above)
Lola Montez ~ (1818/21-1861) Born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in Ireland, Lola came to the Mother Lode from Europe, where she lead a high-profile theatrical and scandalous personal life. She had been the center of attention for the most popular literary and artistic personalities of her day. Dubbed the "Countess of Landsfeld" by King Ludwig of Bavaria, Lola considered herself the Queen of Bavaria, even though Ludwig's wife held that honor. Ms. Montez was instrumental in the King's downfall, including his de-throning and new title, "Mad King of Bavaria". The expression "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets" was coined around that time.
Lola toured the United States, visited San Francisco, and settled in Grass Valley. Grass Valley? Yes, to be closer to her gold mine (she had $9,000 worth of stock in the Eureka Gold Mine) and to get the attention she craved but wasn't getting in the bigger cities (surely the miners would appreciate her). She quickly became the center of the social whirl there, giving big parties and keeping a monkey and grizzly bear as pets. She took an interest in her young neighbor, Lotta Crabtree, and helped the child develop her entertainment talents.
Her life took a turn for the worst when she left Grass Valley to tour Australia and the United States, both of which were flops. In the final part of her life, she turned to religion, asking for forgiveness for her sordid past and counseling "wayward" women. Her health failed, and she died penniless at 43 in New York.
Lola's house still stands at 248 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Down the street at 238 is Lotta Crabtree's house. Both are privately occupied with landmarks in front.
Joaquin Murieta ~ (1829-1853) Almost every Mother Lode town has a tale about the adventures of Joaquin Murieta, a dashing and daring bandito who was probably more widely chronicled than even Jesse James. He came from Sonora, Mexico, in 1850. In Murphys, as the story goes, Yankee persecutors tied him to a tree, horsewhipped him, assaulted his lady, and murdered his brother. Joaquin swore revenge and, from that day on, led a life of crime and rampage against the miners of the Southern Mines, robbing them by day and hitting the saloons and cantinas at night. He was a regular for a while at Hornitos. A tunnel that runs beneath one of the fandango halls is said to be his escape route. (Another explanation for the tunnel is that it was used to roll empty beer barrels from the dance hall.) His travels above-ground may have taken him as far north as Fiddletown in Amador County.
Early newspapers do report the adventures of a bandit named Joaquin, but only for two months, January to March of 1853.
Harry Love, a former Texas ranger, was hired by the California Legislature in 1853 to hunt Joaquin down. He was paid $150 a month and had a chance to receive $5000 reward money. When he and his band caught up with the outlaw group, they slayed the desperado after a ferocious gunfight. Love cut off Joaquin's head and the mangled hand of Manuel "Three-Fingered Jack" Garcia, his lieutenant, and returned to claim the reward, with the grisly evidence pickled in a keg of brandy. Some doubt that the head was really that of Murieta, and the remains were never taken to the area where he was frequently seen. It is thought, too, that Love made up the last name "Murieta".
Whether he was actually silenced by Love or just went into hiding, the story of Joaquin Murieta soon captured the imagination of historians and writers, who embellished the story until Joaquin emerged a hero, a sort of Mexican Robin Hood. There were biographies, novels, poems, newspaper and magazine articles, and even a movie based on his life (or the legend of his life). A recent Zorro film follows the story to a degree.
William Tecumseh Sherman ~ (1820-1891) The famous Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman, was a lieutenant in the United States Army stationed in California when gold was discovered. In summer of 1848, he was part of the official inspection party that toured the gold discovery area.
Levi Strauss ~ (1829-1902) This Bavarian immigrant "won the West" with a pair of pants. In 1850, he came to San Francisco from New York by ship. He fashioned a pair of pants (Levi's 101's?) from his tent canvas and sold them to a miner. Word got out about "the pants of Levi". Strauss expanded his business quickly, dying the denim a distinctive blue, thus the name "blue jeans".
Alkali Ike, from the Comstock Lode mines, complained that the pockets ripped when he put his ore in them, so a tailor from Nevada had to rivet them. Strauss wisely hired the tailor, bought the rivet idea, and had it patented. Levis became those durable blue jeans with the copper rivets. Miners needed these durable, baggy denims for their hard work. The jeans became so popular with the entire Southwest that Levi came to be known as the "Cowboys' Tailor". The Levi Strauss Co. has been located in San Francisco on Valencia Street since 1906.
John Mohler Studebaker ~ (1833-1917) This blacksmith came from South Bend, Indiana, to pan gold with the miners, but was unsuccessful. In Placerville the local blacksmith, Hinds, asked a group of new arrivals if anyone was a carpenter who could help make wheelbarrows for the miners, so Johnny Studebaker volunteered, although he had never built one before. Hinds offered Studebaker $10 for each
wheelbarrow, and the penniless young man started making them immediately. Although it was evident to Hinds that his new partner was not experienced in building wheelbarrows, he liked young Johnny and realized that he learned quickly. Hinds paid Studebaker well for the improvements he eventually made in wheelbarrow design.
Studebaker's Blacksmith Shop in Placerville, California
Studebaker saved his earnings, planning to return home to Indiana one day. But the company he deposited his money in, Adams & Co.*, experienced financial disaster. Suspecting that the money may be about to be moved elsewhere, he lay in wait, until he saw men entering the company from the back door. They put the gold into a wheelbarrow, probably one that Johnny had made, and started wheeling it away. Studebaker "robbed" them at gunpoint for his $3,000, which they surrendered to him. Others lost their life savings that night.
*A subsidiary of eastern-originating Adams Express Company, Adams & Company of California was organized in 1850 and extended its reach over the Pacific coast. However, not being under Adams' personal oversight, it was poorly managed and failed in 1854, causing a panic which deeply shook California.
Studebaker subsequently returned to South Bend with his savings to start his famous buggy and wagon company. Then he went on to horseless carriages and finally a multi-million-dollar automobile company. He returned to Placerville in 1912, welcomed by much fanfare, such as flower garlands and pine boughs decorating the streets and printed signs that read "We're glad you're back". His old friends and townsfolk gathered at the Ohio House to celebrate, swap stories, and laugh.
In commemoration of his strong ties with Placerville, the John E. Studebaker International Wheelbarrow Races are held annually in June during El Dorado County Fair in Placerville.
John Augustus Sutter ~ (1803-1880) Johann August Suter was born in Switzerland in 1803. By age 30, he had married, fathered a family, and went so deep into debt that he fled to the United States to avoid prison. Sutter decided to try California after his five-year journey across the country from New York.
When he arrived in California, he used his personal charisma to convince Mexican Governor Alvarado that he was an important business man and persuaded the official to give him a magnificent 48,000-acre land grant near the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers. In 1839, Sutter established the first inland settlement in northern California, the only settlement near the Sierras. It was a fort built on high ground a few miles east of the Sacramento River, named New Helvetia (New Switzerland) after his homeland, now called Sutter's Fort. To manage his vast empire, he used Kanakas (Hawaiian body guards given to him by King Kamehameha), immigrants, and American Indians that he befriended. Sutter was known as a hospitable man, and everyone was welcome at his Fort. Although he was never in the Cavalry, he was called "Captain" and sometimes "General".
He planned a town, to be called Sutterville, two miles south of the embarcadero. But his son had to intervene in his financially-floundering empire and start subdividing and selling parcels of his father's property at the river. Thus, Sacramento City began developing on the embarcadero where Old Sacramento stands today, and Sutterville was all but forgotten.
Instead of becoming a wealthy man from the precious gold that was discovered at his mill, Sutter's domain was ruined when the Gold Rush hit. His employees deserted the Fort for riches in the foothills, leaving crops to rot in the field and abandoning businesses. He was swindled by unscrupulous partners. His cattle wandered off or were slaughtered by hungry miners, and squatters took over much of his land. He went broke and ended up near Washington, D.C., trying to convince the government to reimburse him for his losses caused by the Gold Rush. His attempts for compensation failed, and he ironically died a poor man in Pennsylvania.
John "Snowshoe" Thompson ~ (1827-1876) In 1851, a 24-year-old Norwegian man named Jon Torsteinson-Rue* headed for fortune in California. He prospected around Placerville at Coon Hollow and Kelsey's Diggings, then tried ranching in the Sacramento Valley. In 1856, he read about the mail delivery struggle over the Sierra Nevada mountains. He made snowshoes, but not like the flat, heavy ones used by Indians and trappers of the West and Canada. They resembled skis, but were heavier and clumsier. The first skis he made were 10 feet long and weighed 25 pounds. (Subsequent skis were recorded at 9 feet long, then seven.) Folks in Placerville laughed when they first saw him and his long skis, but they soon came to admire and encourage him when they realized he might get the mail through. He started his twenty-year career delivering the mail over the mountains in 1856. He became a necessity and a fixed institution in the mountains, providing the only land communication between the Atlantic states and California.
Thompson's first trip from Placerville to Carson Valley was made in January of 1856. It was a 90-mile trip in which he often glided over snow drifts 30 to 50 feet deep. The mail packs he carried were 60 to 80 pounds, and sometimes over 100 pounds. It took three days uphill to get to Carson Valley, and two days to return to Placerville, 45 miles a day through complete wilderness. He carried little food, used snow for water, dressed lightly, and carried no blanket, due to his mail load. When he had to sleep, or when the night prevented his traveling, he tried to find a stump of a dead pine to make camp. He set the stump on fire, collected spruce and fir boughs to sleep on, rested his head on the mail pouch and put his feet at the fire. There he slept, with 10 to 30 feet of snow beneath him.
"Snowshoe" used long oak skis
Illustration by William M. Thayer, 1890
In his travels he helped many a stranded traveler in the wilderness. He made his home in Diamond Valley on the eastern side of the Sierras. "Snowshoe" Thompson died at 49 years old on May 15, 1876, and was buried at Genoa. His only son Arthur, who died June 22, 1878 at 11 years 4 months old, was buried by his side.
*It is thought that his Norwegian name was Torsteinson and the proper English translation Thomson instead of Thompson.
Mark Twain ~ (1835-1910) Samuel Langhorne Clemens came west in 1861, traveling with his brother Orion, who had been appointed governor of the Nevada Territory. Sam had worked as a riverboat pilot, printer, newspaperman, and even a Confederate soldier for a very short period of time. He tried his hand at mining in Nevada and California, but was happy to accept a job as a reporter on the Virginia City Enterprise, where he started using the name Mark Twain.
He loved to travel, ending up in San Francisco, but his irrepressible sense of humor got him banned from the city when he annoyed the police chief. In 1864, he visited friends in Angels Camp, where he was told the story about a frog jumping contest that was lost when someone filled one of the famed croakers full of buckshot. The story became the basis for his book The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Mark Twain became an immediate success when his story was published back East. He left California a year later but took with him impressions that influenced his writing for the rest of his life.
GOLD RUSH COUNTIES:
MARIPOSA | TUOLUMNE | CALAVERAS | AMADOR | EL DORADO | PLACER | NEVADA | SIERRA
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