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The Call of Gold (1936) by Newell D. Chamberlain


CHAPTER XX
BEAR VALLEY AND THE COLONEL

During Fremont’s regime on the Mariposa Grant, the town of Bear Valley was really the metropolis of the County. Here Fremont established headquarters for his vast mining enterprises. The Oso House (Oso means, the bear), a two-story hotel, was built and much of the material and furnishings was brought around the Horn. (It is still standing and is in use.)

Among the very first residents was Louis Trabucco, who settled there in May 1850 and married in 1860. Joseph J. Trabucco, a son, eminent California jurist, was born in Bear Valley. Other early citizens include Jewett Adams, afterwards Governor of Nevada, Phil T. Herbert, Congressman from California, and Fred Billings, afterwards President of the Northwestern Pacific R. R.

The location of the town was the high spot of a picturesque oak-covered valley, interspersed here and there with bull and yellow pine, near the headquarters of Bear Creek, which flowed southerly for several miles and then turned westerly. Mt. Bullion ridge, with its rocky outcrops, adjoined the town on the east, while a few miles in the opposite direction stood the more friendly Bear Mountain. Five miles south was the Mt. Ophir Mine, with its tunnels high up on the side of a rocky, conical uplift, separated from the main ridge by Norwegian Gulch, while two miles to the north was the Pine Tree Mine, situated on the back-bone of a ridge, high above Hell’s Hollow and the Merced River Canyon.

The business part of the town was a long main street lined on both sides with saloons, restaurants, hotels and business houses. Miners with their red shirts, untidy beards, dissheveled hair, overalls or corduroys stuffed into high-topped boots, and revolvers and bowie knives hanging in their belts, congregated in the saloons, talked about their prospects, drank gambled, danced and occasionally shot. Then there were the professional gamblers, a little more tidy and better dressed, always alert to entice lucky miners into games of chance such as monte and faro.

In the early part of December, 1850, there was an occasion of unusual excitement in Bear Valley. It had been noticed for several weeks that the Mexican miners were very flush with gold dust and were gambling nightly for big stakes. Some of the whites secretly watched the daily movements of the greasers and found them panning on a flat, about a mile from town. A company of “white miners” was organized and the Mexicans, by threats of force, were driven from their claims. The news traveled, up and down the State, that the whites took out over $200,000 in a space of forty feet square. It was all specimen gold, jagged and rough and not water-worn.

There were many Colonels engaged in the mining business throughout the Mother Lode but their names were always appended to the title, in order to identify them. With Colonel Fremont, it was different. When anyone spoke of “the Colonel”, it was always understood to mean Colonel Fremont. He was not a large man, only about five feet eight inches in height, with a broad forehead, an acquiline nose and keen piercing eyes; his facial features denoting marked intelligence.

The men who worked for the Colonel loved and respected him and had it not been for their faithfulness, he might have lost possession of the Pine Tree mine, before the Sheriff was finally able to restore order. A number of his men were besieged in the mine and the Merced Mining Company men refused to allow food to be taken to them. Mrs. Jim Kelton, wife of the foreman, twice daily for five days, in spite of the besieger’s threats of violence, carried food into the mine. A man could not have done, and none even dared to do, what this woman did. It may have been their respect for women and it may have been their fear of the consequences if they harmed her, but she certainly was brave and defied death. She exemplified clearly the “do or die” spirit of the pioneer women.

The Colonel’s life was threatened on a number of occasions.

Shaft near Mariposa, where a pocket of $26,000 was found
[click to enlarge]
Shaft near Mariposa, where a pocket of $26,000 was found.
[Editor’s note: from p. xi: A pen sketch by A. Schwartz, showing inside view of shaft on Mariposa vein. A pocket of $26,000, in a space four feet square, was struck here, July 14, 1859, at a depth of 35 feet, by Lind brothers and Howell. —dea].

While he had plenty of friends, there was a group of his enemies, who thought they would be dispossessed of their mining ground, if he continued to win his Court victories. Of course, the ring-leaders were the principal owners of the Merced Mining Company, who constantly stirred up the miners.

Anything could have happened. On one occasion the Colonel, accompanied by one of his lawyers, Colonel James, was just leaving the Oso House, in a surrey drawn by two speedy grays, when a gambler, standing in front of one of the saloons, offered to bet anyone five dollars that he could shoot the hat from off Colonel James’ head, but no-one accepted the bet as they had too much respect for the marksmanship of Colonel Fremont.

During all these squally times, the Fremont family were living in their story and a half “white house”, beautifully located on an oak-covered knoll, on the edge of Bear Valley. Here, Mrs. Fremont proved a charming hostess and by her gracious manner, endeared herself to the women of the community. The Colonel, an expert horseman, made frequent trips, always well-armed however, over his property riding “Jim”, his red sorrell, a beautiful, proud-acting animal, with a white star on his forehead and long graceful mane and tail. On many of these trips, he was accompanied by his daughter, Elizabeth, dressed in a blue woolen dress, with a knitted collar and hoop skirt, riding her loveable, white horse “Ayah”.

Peter Fee, a friend and neighbor, kept a diary, which gives a clear and valuable picture of some of the happenings, during these years. Fee, a Norwegian by birth, was born in 1818. He mined near Mt. Ophir from 1855 to 1858, when he moved to a ranch on the Merced River, near Snelling. “Norwegian Pete”, as he was familiarly called, evidently learned his English after he was a grown man. Herewith are a few extracts from his most interesting diary:

“May, 1858. Fee hould during the mount for Col. J. C. Fremont 7233 ft. of lumber from McNeal mill to Fremonts, $144.66; for houling of 12,000 shingles, $24.00; for houling of 1275 ft. lumber to Mersede, $19.02 - $187.69. Paid cash to D. Clark for shingles, 12000, $96. - $283.68. Paid the 17th July by Fremont.

“July 9, 1858 - The Pinetree jumped by a mob, werry warm.

“July 10 - Fee and Mrs. Fee wisit Fremonts Famelie.

“July 11 - Great excitement in Bearvaly.

“July 12 - Inlisting volenters for protektion of F property.

“July 13 - Fee hould wood.

“July 14 - The dificulty at Pinetree setled & the Miners & Setlers left the mine.

“July 15 - The Miners & Setters trial in Mariposa.

“July 19 - Went to Mariposa. Dst. Court convened. Fremont commensed work at the Pinetree Mine.

“Jan. 5, 1862 - Raind and storm.

“Jan. 6 - Raind old day.

“Jan. 7 - Removed the hay.

“Jan. 8 - Workt on the bulkhead; rain.

“Jan. 9 - The bulkhead broke away with the flod.

“Jan. 10 - The wather rose up to the house, 5 O’clock, a. m.

“Jan. 11 - The river rose over the road took up the barn sable & workhouse. Mrs. Fee at Muglers.

“Jan. 12 - The river falling; Wilson got out of the tree.”

In the beginning of 1859, he wrote: “the past year has proved sucsesful to the Fee Famelie, God be praised.” At the close of 1860, he wrote: “The past year has been a favereble to the Fee Famelie; a large crop of grain was harvested.” At the close of 1861, he wrote: “By loking back on 61 and will be remembered as a dark and trubblefild year, but my hope is to God that Truth and Temprans will triumph in 62.” He closed 1862 with: “Notwithstanding the disaster of the flod, 1862 has been a blesset year, Amen.”

In August 1859, Horace Greeley, paid a visit to the Fremont home and wrote as follows:

“I spent most of Wednesday in an examination, under Colonel Fremont’s guidance, of the mines he is working in Bear Valley. Ever since his defeat for the Presidency, he has been devoting his entire time and energy to the management of his vast estate. Although he found himself nearly half a million dollars in debt from litigation, cost of his Presidential campaign, unfortunate business connections, and losses caused by incompetent managers, his mines are at length becoming productive and profitable. His first (steam) mill, near his dwelling, runs eight stamps, night and day; his second (water) mill, three miles distant on the Merced, at the north end of his estate, runs twelve stamps, also constantly; and the two are producing gold at the rate of at least two hundred and fifty thousand dollars per annum, at an absolute cost, I am confident, of not more than one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

“Of course, he needs all the profits, if not more, to extend and perfect his works. He hopes to have one hundred stamps running before the close of 1860. With that number, I presume, he would be able, by giving his constant personal attention to the business, aided by faithful and capable assistants, to realize a net profit of at least ten thousand dollars per week, which would soon clear him of the debt and leave him unincumbered in the ownership of perhaps the finest mining property in the world.

“Colonel Fremont is confident that his present works do not separate half the gold contained in the rock and that, by the use of the new amalgamators, he is about to apply, he will double his weekly product, without any increase in cost. This conviction is founded on chemical experiments and tests, which seem to leave no doubt of the fact that the additional gold is in the rock, but whether the means of extracting it have been yet discovered, remains to be seen.

“At all events, I feel sure that the productiveness of these works will increase much faster than their expenses, so long as Colonel Fremont shall devote himself to their management so entirely as he is now doing. In the hand of agents and attorneys, they would probably become again what they once were, and what all quartz mining works, managed at second hand, have been.”



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