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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


With fourteen mules, miner’s clothing, and other equipment, William J. Howard, accompanied by Bob McKee, made direct for Mariposa. This town was so named on account of the myriads of bright-colored butterflies found in that region when the discoverers rested there in June, 1807. To-day Mariposa County covers fifteen hundred and forty square miles, is an excellent agricultural center, and noted for the number of its Native Sons. It is watered by the Merced and Chowchilla rivers, and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove holds the interest of thousands of tourists annually. These trees are 427 in number, each six to thirty feet in diameter and 150 to 300 feet in height.

The famous Yosemite Valley is in this county, at an elevation of 4,060 feet, with walls five thousand feet higher. This wonder-spot is situated on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Mount Dana being the highest point.

On reaching Mariposa, Howard bought three hundred and fifty acres of land from a Mrs. Brown and named the site “Upper Buena Vista.” This was an act of foresight on his part, in order to have food for the animals. Then he erected a tent-store on the outskirts of the town, close to the camps, and hired two Mexicans to assist him in running the Stockton-Mariposa Pack Train.

To replenish his tent-store he made frequent visits to Stockton, where he became a prominent figure. As already stated, this old mining camp was the trading post for the placer mines of that region; therefore it served as a depot for all kinds of provisions. There were not sufficient stores and tents to house these essential commodities, so they were left on the streets in barrels and boxes, where they sometimes sank in the mud caused by the incessant rains.

One day Captain Howard was told to help himself to the contents of several barrels. He soon discovered that each one contained four hundred pounds of pickled pork, and it did not take him long to load eight hundred pounds on his mules. The task of conveying this meat to Mariposa was not as simple, however, as it would be to-day; for several times the mules rolled over and the pork fell in the mud. But those whom God has not overlooked can be blind to a little mud, and this was a mere trifle in the gold-fever days.

No sooner had William entered Mariposa with his cargo of pickled pork than the chief hotel-owner ran out in great excitement to buy it from him.

“You can have it for a dollar and a quarter a pound,” said the young trader.

“Oh, that’s too much,” replied the hotel-man; “I’ll give you one dollar a pound and no more.”

The owner of the pack-train, considering this a good offer, promptly unloaded the pork, and the buyer weighed it out and paid him eight hundred dollars in gold on the spot. It was money easily made, as the pork had only cost William the labor of conveying it to Mariposa. There is an old saying, “Money easily made easily goes,” but with this money he erected a house on the Buena Vista ranch.

Beef being the staple food of the miners, William gradually stocked his land with cattle and employed Indians to take care of them. It was a romantic sight to watch them whirling their lassos as they went around with an air of importance, dressed in their calico shirts and corduroy pants, with red handkerchiefs around their necks and a fancy belt encircling the waist. Among the shacks, tents and muddy roads, one encountered all kinds of picturesque costumes, for every nation of the globe was represented. They all mingled together in this popular mining-town. During the day they

Mariposa County Court-house

[click to enlarge]
Oldest seat of justice in California, erected in 1854, five years after the gold rush began.

worked with their picks and pans, and in the evenings visited the only store in the place, which was owned by William J. Howard. Here their gold dust was deposited in tin-cups specially allotted for this purpose. Each man scratched his name on his cup with a knife, and put it under a blanket for safety. Many strange and interesting characters congregated in this store, where they told yarns and enjoyed jokes until the early hours of the morning. It was also the scene of many a heated discussion, many a renewal of friendship, at times both humorous and tragic. The use of the store as a meeting-place only stimulated business, for a sudden influx of gold-seekers was causing the town to grow by leaps and bounds.

Captain Howard often recalled his first Christmas at the mines—in 1849; it was a day of great rejoicing and much dissipation, as wine and whisky were more plentiful than water. He spent the season in Stockton, and for the first time in his life witnessed a bull-and-bear fight. The people were out in gala dress, the streets gorgeously decorated, and as he was gazing at the scene an angry bull entered the well fortified ring. As the fierce animal pawed the earth a bear entered, stood up on its hind legs, opened its grim arms, and uttered a terrible growl. The bull stiffened his neck, lowered his head, and with glaring eyes and pointed horns rushed upon the defiant claws and teeth of his enemy. There was a dreadful impact, blood spurted in all directions, and as the bear went down, the crowd cheered madly to indicate its approval of the show.

The town was congested with young men eager for intense action, virile, capable, but lacking the wisdom that develops only with the passing of years. There were no written laws, and every man was tried by an impromptu jury. Daily they wrestled with old King Alcohol; every store was a saloon and gambling house, and the wild carousals which took place in this celebrated mining center on Christmas Day and on New Year’s Eve, 1849, are almost indescribable.

The gambling rooms, with their colored glass or cross-wood windows, handsome bars and attractive waiters, were one continuous din of voices and musical instruments. Men in flannel shirts, top-boots, sombrero or silk hat, would sit around the little tables day and night, dealing out the spotted cards. Some of them wore hobnailed boots, slouch hats, long hair and uncut beards. They guided their women around at night with the aid of a lantern. A pronounced gambling spirit prevailed, for they would bet their last dollar, or parts of their clothing, and one desperate gamester is on record as having bet his glass eye. While hundreds played hard at monte, roulette, faro, rouge et noir, vingt et un, dozens pressed their faces against the windows, and around the tables crowds stood awaiting their turn at the game.

Dance-halls were as numerous as the gambling hells, and in these places the easy-money butterfly laid the snare for the man who loved his toddie. William loved dancing, and in the evening of this festive day he ran into Dave Ferry, his colleague of Texan days, who introduced him to a beautiful seņorita. After several dances she raved over William’s little feet. We gather, in short, that this acquaintanceship grew to be another “grande passion,” which in later years he was reluctant to discuss. The affair lasted quite a little while, and, entre nous, he never truly comprehended the passionate, romantic and expressive love of a Latin belle.

This memorable Christmas was celebrated for five days; during all that time both men and women consumed liquor freely, and many a tragedy occurred which added a few more red pages to California history.

On New Year’s Day, 1850, the miners experienced their first California snowstorm; they were extremely excited, stripped themselves of their garments, and rolled in the soft white carpet like little children. A snow-shoe race was organized, the first prize being a purse of gold. The winner was a strange female, and there was much whispering as to who she could be. At the presentation of prizes the headgear was removed and, to the disgust of everyone, “she” was a man—a miner. This made a rival so angry that he impulsively shot the snow-shoe champion through the heart—a good start for the new year.

Early in 1850, in answer to the cry of gold which had reached the Atlantic shores, all kinds of people were flocking to the mines, many of them most undesirable. A number of women began to arrive at the camps; they had no idea of existing conditions; there were no suitable openings for them, so their expectations of making a living were somewhat upset. Many new arrivals decided to go into the trading game; therefore William J. Howard, after four successful months as storekeeper and pack-train owner, sold his tent-store for a large sum of money and retired with his mules to his ranch.

Next: 11. Wild & WoollyContentsPrevious: 9. Marshall & Sutter

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management