California History



By Craig MacDonald

(Editor's Note: These are some of the Pulitzer Prize nominee's favorite true tidbits mined in more than 50 years of Old West research in diaries, immigrant letters & 19th Century newspapers)

A GENEROUS BANDIT—When outlaws were robbing a train, an older man said, "Sorry. I have nothing to give." A bandit asked, "Why?" "Iím a Methodist minister," was the reply. The gunman then threw a handful of coins into the preacherís lap and said, "Take this. Iím a Methodist, too!"

FORGIVE HIM—A mining camp ministerís sermon was interrupted by a fist-swinging fanatic. The agile preacher blocked the blows while openly praying, "Forgive this man, O Lord, for he knows not what he does." The reverend then knocked the man out with a right to the jaw.

PREACHERíS LUCK—A Baptist minister (Rev. Davidson) found a quartz vein in what became known as Amador City. He didnít have time to work it, so he got other preachers to help out and mine it in what became known as "The Ministerís Claim." It was later consolidated with six other claims which produced more than $4 million!

PONY GETS IT HOOFS POLISHED—In 1855, a Forty Niner in San Francisco owned a clever pony, who every morning, on its own, walked to a street shoe shine stand and had its black front hoofs polished. "He reportedly presented each one in turn to the footrest and stood like a statue until the job was done," reported Stewart E. White.

FAVORITE POCKET LUNCH—Cornish miners in Grass Valley, Virginia City and elsewhere in the Sierra often carried in their pocket a complete meal—a homemade baked pasty with meat, potatoes and vegetables on a tasty crust. This kept them nourished deep below in the mines.

A TOUGH CURE FOR SCURVY—In 1850, several prospectors in the mountains of El Dorado, prospected in an isolated area where there was no fresh meat or vegetables. Several ended up with scurvy. Six of the worst cases were planted up to their necks and left overnight with a chew of tobacco. This unconventional attempt at earth cure had an unfortunate ending when coyotes came along at night and ate the six heads.

MULE FOR A WIFE—In 1850, a prospector near Rich Bar overheard a miner quarreling with his wife. The angry argument became so loud that the spectator went up to the Forty Niner and said, "Iíll give you my mule for your wife." The husband agreed and so did the wife and everyone left happy.

33 WIVES—Sierra Trader/Miner James Savage reportedly had 33 Native American wives, who helped him have safe passage through Indian Territory. The young squaws ranged in age from 10-22 and usually six traveled with him at one time. The wives also helped him make deals at his Trading Posts on the Merced, Fresno and Mariposa Rivers.

BULLY MET HIS MATCH—A fed up miner poured alcohol over an out-of-control bullyís head, set a match to it and chased him out of camp yelling, "Man on fire-put him out!"

INDIANS CURIOUS ABOUT BLACK BOOK—Three Nez Perces and one Flathead Indian were so curious about hearing the gospel from a missionary, they urged him to bring the Black Book (Bible) to their people and reveal its powerful mysteries. The result led missionaries to the Oregon Territory.

SUTTER BEFRIENDED INDIANS—In 1848, gold was discovered on Sutterís land but nearly 10 years earlier Sutter was taking plows on a boat from San Francisco to Sacramento when 200 Indians wearing war paint reportedly appeared on shore. Sutter rowed over to greet them and had a Pow Wow that lasted hours. The Native Americans were dumbfounded at Sutterís nerve and many went to work for him.

HIDE & SEEK COURTSHIP—North of Marysville, the Oleepas Indians had a hide and seek courtship ritual. A boy would ask the girlís parents if he could marry her. If "Yes," the girl would run into the woods and hide. If the boy found her 2 out of 3 times, she was his without further ceremony. A girl who didnít want to get married could hide where she wouldnít be found.

MUSICANS WANTED—Musical talent was in such demand in the Gold Rush that performers often earned top wages. "Any amateur who could torture horsehair and cat gut into any consecutive sounds found a gambling saloon more profitable than mining for gold," noted one prospector.

DRUNKEN COURTROOM—A Placerville miner was on trial for hitting a claim-jumper. The trial started at 11, with frequent adjournments for refreshments. Pretty soon, a drunken lawyer addressed a drunken jury on behalf of a drunken prosecutor and a drunken judge. The drunken defendant was acquitted.

COMPETITIVE SKIING STARTED IN THE SIERRA—Competitive skiing started north of Lake Tahoe in Nevada, Sierra and Plumas Counties, known as the home of the first staged ski race, ski club, downhill championships, ski lodge and ski lifts. The first reported ski race was in Onion Valley in 1855.

CHESS MOVES VIA STAGE—The Chess & Literary Association of Shasta challenged Yrekaís club to a long distance game. Every time the Wells Fargo Express came into town, the stage brought news of Yrekaís latest chess move. Shastaís masterminds countered and their new move arrived by stage in Yreka. How cool is that? Papers never reported who won the match.

MINER KILLS 10 ROBBERS—On Dec. 31, 1854, three miners were ambushed by 14 robbers in Agua Frio, Mariposa County. After a few seconds, only one miner was still standing. He shot 10 of the bandits even though his clothes were pierced by more than 30 bullets!

BEER PUTS OUT FLAMES—In 1856, the Rabbit Creek Fire Chief ran out of water and ordered 20 barrels of beer be emptied on a fire starting to spread in the business district. Beer saved the town!

VINEGAR FIRE PROTECTION—In San Francisco, Dewitt & Harrison Co. saved their warehouse during an 1851 fire by covering their building with blankets soaked in vinegar because no water was available. They used 80,000 gallons of vinegar in barrels to save their structure.

COUNTERFEIT GOLD—In 1851, Cold Springs Merchant S.P. Moffatt and an engineer named "Darling," reportedly galvanized lead with gold. They passed off their fool's gold as real until a Sacramento merchant detected the counterfeit. Both skipped town and were never caught.

HOT TO TROT—On Dec. 16, 1849, Mary Mills wrote to her Forty Niner boyfriend Henry Crandall in the Sierra: "Forget the nuggets. I'd rather see you than any other lump in California. Come home now!"

WAGON TRAIN MESSAGES—In the 1850s, Wagon Trains stuck notes on sticks, advising who and how many wagons were ahead and who was in charge. The notes also said they'd travel slow through Indian Country to allow others to join up with them.

ACTUAL JOKES TOLD AROUND WAGON TRAIN CAMPFIRES—Why do teeth resemble verbs? They're regular, irregular and defective. Why are kisses like rumors? They pass from lip to lip. Why will Ireland become the richest land in the World? Because its capitol is always Dublin!

INDIAN FORTY-NINERS—In 1849, when Wyandot Indians in Kansas heard about the rich Gold Rush, they formed a mining company and left for California. They became very successful gold-miners and wrote letters recommending others come and join them. In 1850, another group arrived and struck gold on the Feather River, near what became Wyandotte, California (a town named in their honor).

FAKE REPORTING—James Townsend, a reporter for several newspapers, including The Grass Valley Union and The Territorial Enterprise, wrote about an isolated place in the Eastern Sierra as if it was a thriving city. He included fictitious interviews and detailed information about its prosperous stores, banks, saloons and even a train depot—none of which existed! He described plays starring prominent actors as well as the audience's reactions to the productions that did not exist. His fiction helped not only sell papers but got foreigners to invest in area mines, since his words also appeared in publications overseas.

TALK ABOUT NICE GUYS—The Nevada Tribune editor heard the new Carson News Editor did not know how to write editorials, so he volunteered to help her. After writing his opinion pieces, he walked down the street to the other paper and wrote editorials with the opposite viewpoint.

THE RACE IS TO THE SWIFT—When the husband of a Rough and Ready woman, famous for her delicious apple pies, passed away, a miner rushed up to the widow at the funeral and asked if she would marry him. "Thanks for the offer," she responded, "but I already accepted the offer of the undertaker!"

NO HANDCUFFS NEEDED—A local sheriff didn't use handcuffs. When he had a prisoner, he instead cut off the fellow's pant buttons, which kept the guy busy holding up his breeches while being marched to jail.

A WHOLE DIFFERENT KIND OF SHOOT-OUT—On July 12, 1861, two angry Nevada City men squared off with powerful hydraulic hoses as a large crowd gathered on the street. The hoses, which had a range of 150 feet, could cut a person in half but when the outraged chaps aimed at each other, it was the shouting spectators who got soaked or knocked over because a hole in one hose burst, ending the fight and dampening the participants' anger.

TOWN NAMED AFTER "JACK"—In the remote mining camp of Canon Creek, the only jackass (male donkey) around helped whichever miner was most in need of his services. For carrying supplies or hauling away large boulders, he was rewarded with sugar, barley and all the food he could eat. He definitely was a "jack-of-all-trades" and even a town crier. Every morning the conscientious critter let miners know it was time to wake-up and "git going" by letting out a series of loud, 20-second brays. Then, one morning, there was no braying and the prospectors woke up late. They began searching for their "jack." He was found dead at the bottom of a steep ravine. The sad miners had a funeral service for him and named their camp, "Jackass Bar."

ONE WAY TO SOBER UP—Some people in Bodie had enough of a very obnoxious, chronic drunk. One day, as he lay passed out on the ground, men placed a large wooden box over him. When he started waking up, the confused fellow heard people conducting a funeral ceremony above him. The still woozy "deceased" started pounding on the box, shouting, "But I ain't dead!" His pleas were ignored and the service ended with dirt being tossed on the box. When he finally sobered up enough to "escape," the horrified fellow became stone cold sober and never took another nip!

SOBERING UP UNDER OATH—On Aug. 15, 1851, James Doss appeared before Tuolumne County Judge Anson Tuttle and signed a written oath that he "will not drink or swallow any intoxicating fluid for 8 years!" Before he left the courtroom, Doss had three friends also sign the oath that they would support him and ensure he remained sober.

BREAKING INTO JAIL—A Nevada woman actually broke into jail to see her locked-up lover in a remote Nevada mining camp in 1870.

FLEA BAIT—"Dear NancyóI'm pestered by fleas that bite....I had a friend with the same problem until his wife came to California. Now the fleas bite her instead of him. I hope you come to California soon! Love John."

THE FIRST UNDERGOUND BALL—On Sat., April 19, 1879, excited couples arrived at the New York Mine, south of Gold Hill, Nevada. They'd been invited to the first dance party 1,000 feet underground in a 36-foot long by 34-foot high chamber. The dance, complete with orchestra, lasted into the wee ours of the next morning. Party-goers called it, "The Dance Down Under" and "The Ball That Topped Them All."

WORLD'S LARGEST FERRIS WHEEL—The World's largest observation wheel (250-feet in diameter, 825 feet in circumference, 30-feet wide, with 36 gondolas) was created for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago by George Washington Ferris Jr. Ferris was fascinated by the turning wheels he had seen as a youth in Carson Valley, Nevada. Some say he lay on his back for hours, hypnotized by the motion of a wheel on a riverbank that hoisted water up to the troughs for thirsty livestock. Others say he was inspired by waterwheels which caused sawmills to turn.

YAHOO & FACEBOOK IN GOLD RUSH—Miners "rebooted" only when their boots wore out. They let out a "Yahoo" when finding a gold nugget. "Hardware" was a gun; "E-Bay" was a light reddish-brown horse with a black tail. A "footprint" was what lawmen looked for at a crime scene. A sheriff's "facebook" was full of criminal's pictures; a "bug" was a mosquito; a "cookie," a rare treat to eat; a "worm" was used to catch fish; a "file" helped you sharpen your pick; a "hard drive" was when you tried to make it home after tying one on in town; and a "website" was a place where spiders set their traps.

MUD IN YOUR EYE—Streets in 1849-50 San Francisco and Sierra mining camps were often full of mud. "The streets were bottomless pits of mud," wrote scribe Stewart White. "In some main thoroughfares, teams of mules and horses sank out of sight and suffocated. Forty Niner Tom Archer peered at a mule wagon sunk beyond its axle, prompting a passerby to quip: "This ain't so bad as the other side of town where I saw a hat lying in the middle of the street; went and picked it up and there was a man's head below it. He told me he had a mule under him!"

LETTERS FROM HOME—Alexander Todd charged $2.50 to carry a letter from the Mother Lode to the San Francisco to mail in the US Post Office. If he found a client's letter there, he charged $16 to bring it back. He even delivered gold dust to San Francisco for 5% of its value.

USING YOUR BACK TO ADVERTISE—In 1850, Dick Rideout, an African American, made a whopping $75 a day attracting crowds with ads on his shirtless back. Most miners were lucky to make $16 a day. Business boomed in stores from San Francisco to the Mother Lode whenever crowds hired Dick or another "Human Billboard."

IMMIGRANT WATER BEDS—Contrary to popular belief, waterbeds weren't invented in the 1960s. Some immigrants used them, including Margaret Frink, who noted in her diary how she slept well on a rubber mattress filled with water in her covered wagon.

EARLY RECYCLER—Aaron Campton, 11, started recycling bottles and cans in Carson City, Nevada in 1860. He carried a basket from saloon to saloon, paying 25-cents for a dozen small empty bottles and selling them to breweries for 50-cents. He bought large ones for 37 1/2-cents a dozen and sold them for 75-cents. He also gathered old tin cans from restaurants and sold them for 65-cents a pound. Admiring townspeople bought him a mule for his collections. Aaron ended up purchasing the town of Ely, Nevada!

LUMBERJACKS SURFED WITHOUT WATER—Some gutsy 19th Century Sierra lumberjacks stood on 32-foot long logs, roaring down a wooden chute so steep and so dry it left a trail of sparks and smoke as they planned their split-second leap before their ride slammed into a large pond of floating timbers below. They flew over 70mph in this exciting, very dangerous event—an early version of the X Games.

(Editor's Note-One of our own tidbits about our favorite historian: "Old West Christmas-Tales with a Twist," a book Craig wrote with his father, was selected as the California State Library's Book of the Week.)

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