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Next: 35. Indian GulchContentsPrevious: 33. Coulterville

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


Many Southerners came out early to the mines with their slaves. Colonel Thorn, one of the founders of Quartzburgh, brought several but freed his “niggahs”, immediately upon learning that California had been admitted into the Union as a free State. Others waited until President Lincoln’s proclamation. The freed slaves generally stayed in close proximity to their former masters and so, after the Civil War, there were fifteen or twenty negro families, living near the southern limits of Hornitos. Prominent among them, was Mose Rodgers, who, for many years was superintendent of the famous Washington mine. When former President Grant stopped there, on his way to Yosemite Valley, in addition to receiving a rousing welcome from many of the white citizens, the negroes, every one of them, went to the hotel and shook hands, with their great friend.

One of the negroes, who seemed especially delighted to see the former President, was Aleck Pelton, and from the mutual greeting, it was evident that the two had met previously. Aleck was tall, slim and very bow-legged, so much in fact, it was said in exaggeration, that when standing natural, two sheep could walk side by side between his legs. He was a good citizen, very polite and always removed his hat when passing a lady. He was a great talker, always happy and comical in his actions, which made him a great favorite. He lived in a three-room log cabin, raised a few ducks and chickens, did a little mining and occasionally worked for some of the stockmen.

One day, George Reeb, the butcher of the town and one of its most substantial citizens, had killed a sow, so large that it had to be scalded in sections. He was just about ready to have it unloaded from his wagon and carried into his shop, when a crowd collected to view the immense carcass. One of the spectators suggested that bets be made as to the weight of the animal, the one making the poorest guess to pay for a bottle of whiskey, from which, each would be entitled to a nip and the one making the best guess to have the privilege of draining the bottle. So the contest was soon on and the guesses ran all the way from four hundred pounds to seven hundred. Aleck happened along at this time and was invited to make a guess. This bow-legged “niggah” smacked his lips a few times, his head moved from side to side and his eyes sparkled as he looked the animal over carefully, then he said, slowly, “Yassuh, yassuh, five hundred and ninety-four pounds.”

After all had made their guesses, the hog was hoisted to a weighing beam and the weight was found to be exactly five hundred and ninety-four pounds. Several of the white participants patted Aleck on the back, with such remarks, “You’re a pretty good judge of hogs, you’re really an expert,” and “You’re a lucky cuss, a pretty good guesser, Aleck”. With each word of praise, Aleck’s bow-legs became straighter and straighter, until he stood nearly six feet in height, and he smacked his lips a few times, before remarking in a slow drawl, “Yassuh, I’se could do better than that, with a little practice.” No one who was present ever forgot that remark and it always brought a smile whenever recalled to memory. From that day on, Aleck’s bow-legs were not so noticeable.

Hornitos, at this time, was a very prosperous mining section, with many mines operating either with mills or arastras and the Chinese were busily engaged in working over the creek beds, which had already been worked by the whites and Mexicans. The town was full of people. The negro settlement was on the southern end and here on every pleasant evening, were enacted scenes of the Sunny South, with the men, women and children, gathered together under the spreading oaks, and singing and dancing to their favorite instrument, the banjo.

On the opposite end of town, was the Chinese settlement, consisting of small cabins, in each of which, fifteen or twenty Chinese slept on rice mats on the floor. It was a marvel to see how many of these foreign-dressed coolies, with their long queues, could be accomodated in such small cabins. Many of these cabins had basements, with connecting doors, thus furnishing an underground passageway for flight if necessary and in these basements, wells were sunk for water supply purposes. The Chinese, like the negroes, kept to themselves, but, in addition, had their own stores and gambling dens, which latter were well-patronized by the whites.

Their favorite game, at this time, was “Tan”, which, in later years was called “Fan Tan”. At one end of a long table, the dealer stood, with a large pile of Chinese copper coins, with square holes in the centers. He would pick up a handful of these coins, and lay them down in a flattened pile, over part of which, he quickly placed an inverted bowl. He then pulled in the coins left outside the bowl with a hooked rattan stick. After the players, standing around the table, had placed their bets, he lifted the bowl and stacked the coins thereunder in piles of four. If there were one or three coins left over, those betting on “odd” doubled their money, if there were none or two left over, those betting on “even” doubled their money, while those that guessed the exact number, tripled their bets. A small commission was charged to each winner but the players figured that they had a fair break, even though they could notice that the pay-off Chinaman, standing on one side of the table, with stacks of American money in front of him and more in the drawer, kept increasing his piles. These games would go on for hours, with hardly a word being spoken by the Chinese, who, as a nation, are noted for being the most impassive and cleverest gamblers in the world.

In the town, there were five stores, four hotels, six saloons, and three livery stables, all of which did a good business. There was a fine lodge of Odd Fellows and also one of Masons. The Mexican dance halls ran all night. Here the Mexican and white spendthrifts gambled at monte and faro and danced with dark-eyed senoritas, to the twang of the guitar. Disputes arose at times and someone would be killed but the fandango never stopped. Frequently, a blanket was placed on the floor or outside on the ground and a group would deposit their gold dust in piles thereon. Then the betting started, a pinch or two of dust at a time, until one man had won all, through lucky turns of the cards. The losers, however, were always cheerful and would start out next day to find another stake, singing to the tune of “How Happy’s the Soldier”, verses like the following:

“ ‘Tis said that each dog shall in time have his day,
So keep up your courage and hammer away,
If you miss it today, you may find it tomorrow,
Oh, surely the life of a miner is gay.
“Then dig and be dirty, time passes away,
Soon your backs will be bowed and your heads will be gray,
Then spend all you can and be somewhat ahead,
For you wont need a picayune when you are dead,
Oh, surely the life of a miner is gay.”

Joseph Branson, prominent mining man, who lived to a ripe old age, arrived near Hornitos, as a child, in the early fifties. In speaking of his boyhood days, he said:

“My brothers and I witnessed many shooting and stabbing affairs. Outsiders never interfered with the participants and even if there was a killing, the public just took a casual look and then passed by for they knew that curiosity, at such times, might be costly.

“I well recall a morning when two Mexican dance-hall girls fought it out, with daggers, in the Plaza. Each had a mantillo, or blanket scarf, which was generally worn around the neck, but, when fighting with daggers, was thrown over the left arm as a shield. No one interfered and both girls were mortally wounded.

“Another case, which we witnessed, was a fight between two Mexicans and a white man. One of the Mexicans stabbed the white, who immediately whipped out his gun and shot his assailant, killing him outright. The second Mexican made a lunge for the white, who, although mortally wounded, fired at his new

The first school house, Indian Gulch, built of adobe brick, 1854
[click to enlarge]
The first school house,
Indian Gulch, built of adobe
brick, 1854.

Solari store, Indian Gulch, with the last pioneer resident, just thinking
[click to enlarge]
Solari store, Indian Gulch, with the last pioneer
resident, just thinking.

assailant but the shot did not kill instantly. Just at this time, a Chinese happened along, carrying on a pole two jugs of vegetable spray. Paying no attention, he came close to the dying Mexican, who stabbed him. The Chinese dropped his load and ran up the street with the dagger still sticking in his ribs but soon fell dead. Four were thus killed, one of them being an innocent passer-by.

“At another time, we boys were going down the steps into the Fandango Hall, under the Campodonico store, when we heard shots within, so we ducked low and watched. Two Mexican musicians had been playing on the stage, when a dispute over the music arose among the dancers, and the two musicians were killed. Almost immediately, it seemed, two others took their places and the dance went on.”

The little, old jail on the hill tells a story that makes one’s hair stand on end. In the sixties, a group of children were playing along the creek near the Chinese quarters. One of the boys did something to tease one of the Chinese, who ran for his gun and after securing it, fired a shot into a rock pile to scare the boy. The bullet glanced on a rock and imbedded itself in the boy’s leg. The Chinese became frightened and started for the hills, but was soon overtaken by a posse and lodged in jail.

There are many stories as to what took place that night. One says that a posse aroused the sleeping jailer and took his key by force; another that the Chinese was enticed over to one of the little one-foot square windows, on the pretext of being given some tobacco, and a rope was placed around his neck; another that a German blacksmith, a great friend of the boy’s family, made a key that opened the jail, making it possible for a number of the enraged men to enter. One thing is certain, the brains of the Chinese were crushed out against the wall, and although the interior of the jail was afterwards whitewashed, the bloodstains and hair that were beaten into the wall, can still be detected.

Even the oaks, in the vicinity of town, if they possessed the power of speech, could tell tales. A man was seldom hanged for killing another but many were hanged for horse-stealing. In some cases, the culprit was required to dig his own grave, under the limb, from which he was to be hanged. Then the “Committee” simply had to cut the rope and the body would fall into the pit, which was immediately filled up with dirt and the incident forgotten.

The old Merck saloon, on the corner of the Plaza, was the scene of many thrilling happenings. It was quite popular with the French miners, who, when prospects looked bright, would celebrate and, aided by plenty of cheering wine, each would imagine himself wealthy and tell what he was going to do with all his money. On one such occasion, one of the Frenchmen began to cry and bewailed, “Here I am, unmarreed, no relateeves, no one to leeve all my monee.” On the other hand, when things went wrong, these emotional people could not stand failure and in many cases would kill themselves. Mrs. Merck made inquiry one day about one of her French customers, who hadn’t been around for several days, when she was told, “Oh, he made ze brains fly”.

The Plaza was the center of the Mexican celebrations. Here was enacted each year, on the last day of Lent, the old Mexican custom of the “Burning of Judas”. A dummy, representing the betrayer of Christ, with an old hat on its head, a painted face, old clothes and boots, was placed astride a donkey and led through the streets of the town to the Plaza, where it was burned, amid the wild cries and shouts of the spectators. The night previous was “Judas Night” and the children would pick up loose articles around the town and carry them to the platform around the pump in the Plaza. Live roosters in crates, scales, bed-chambers, machinery, in fact, anything that the children could find unguarded, was placed in the pile. Where each article was taken from was kept track of and on the following day a will signed by “Judas” was read, which gave back each article to the rightful owner.

On June 24th, was celebrated the “Feast of San Juan”. As part of the festivities, a live rooster, with a purse containing ten dollars, tied to one of its legs, was buried in the ground so that just the head appeared to view. Then the Mexicans, on their small cayuses, would race by the rooster and endeavor to pull it from the ground. If one suceeded, he was immediately followed by the other horsemen, who frantically strived to secure the bird, or, at least, part of it, and the winner was considered lucky if he retained the leg with the purse.

Hornitos is noted for keeping alive, perhaps longer than any other mining town in California, the old, original Mexican customs. Most of these were discontinued in 1903, with the passing away of the town’s oldest, pioneer Mexican resident, at the age of eighty-five years. Her name was Dona Candelaria de Saphien. She had been a resident since the founding of the town and, at one time, was quite well-to-do and always shared her wealth with the Church and unfortunate neighbors. She was a devoted Christian and very patriotic. Her large Mexican flag was displayed at half mast, on the pole in her yard, on the occasions of the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield and the death of Queen Victoria. She observed all the important Church anniversaries, at which times, her flag would be unfurled from a pole, in the cemetery on the hill. She invited all, regardless of creed, to join in prayers and in the celebration each year of the “Exaltation of the Cross”, and, at these times, the chapel and altar, which she maintained in her home, were decorated with flowers, jewels and candles. She would skimp and save, to buy candles so that in the evening of “All Soul’s Day”, she could place two candles, one at the head and one at the foot, on each grave, many of which were unmarked and the occupant known only to herself. These lighted candles, on the graves, were to her emblems of faith.

A colorful pioneer, around Hornitos, Bear Valley and other diggings, was Ed Reverdy, a Floridan with a university education, who spent whatever money he made by mining, for liquor and gambling. His footprints had covered a lot of ground on this earth, to say nothing of his ocean voyages.

He had been a man-o-warsman on the old ship St. Louis, a soldier in the Texas revolution; an officer of volunteers in the war with Mexico; a Captain in the Mexican army (after the war); engaged in the suppression of Indian hostilities at Yucatan; a forty-niner and successful miner in California, from whence he went to Australia, explored a large part of that continent and by taking a leading part in the foreign or American miner’s riot against the license, became the object of persecution by the British authorities, when he returned to California. Making another raise in the mines, he went on a prospecting tour of Peru and ascended the Amazon River and its tributaries, for several hundred miles, with a single companion, in quest of gold; went broke and worked his passage back to San Francisco before the mast. From 1865 to 1868, he worked a claim on the Merced River, near the mouth of Rum Hollow.

Here was a real soldier of fortune, always seeking excitement, new thrills, and distant fields. Perhaps, it was his disappointments and disillusionments, after making such efforts to reach these distant lands of supposed wealth that caused him to start drinking, not moderately, but in a big way, characteristic of everything he had done or attempted to do, in living his life. When sober, or just moderately drunk, he was congenial, interesting and kind, and a great favorite with the children, but when he was on a “big toot”, he was ugly and troublesome.

One night, his closest friend, Dan Hunt, was found in Dead Man’s Alley, stabbed and mortally wounded. On moonless nights, this short alley, leading from the main street to the vicinity of the hotel, was dark and narrow as a cave. It was lined on both sides by solid adobe walls, cutting off any possibilities of eye-witnesses to occurrences within.

The citizens, who arrived on the scene, found Reverdy, in a drunken stupor, lying near the dying man, who from time to time, in his delirium, murmured, “Oh! Ed.” This seeming accusation was used against Reverdy; he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a term of two years in prison. He stoutly maintained his innocence and the officers were unable to produce the knife used in the killing, yet, notwithstanding, he was convicted and sentenced.

The prison term did not seem to hurt or help him. After his release, he resumed his mining and drinking. He was a large man

Joe R. Souza, and the first twelve-animal team to enter Yosemite
[click to enlarge]
Joe R. Souza, and the first twelve-animal team to enter Yosemite.

and generally carried an old muzzle-loading shotgun, with a stock, which he had whittled out of an oak limb and on the butt end fastened a tee hinge so bent as to fit under and over his arm pit. No one knew of the gun ever being fired.

His home was a brush-enclosed dug-out, under a large rock, with the ground for his bed. When visiting friends, he was known to have refused to sleep on a bed, saying he preferred to sleep on the floor. Being well-educated, he kept himself informed on world events and did a great deal of talking to himself. When asked the reason, why he did so much talking to himself, he replied: “There are three reasons. First, I like to hear a sensible man talk. Second, I like to know to whom I am talking. Third, I know there will be no tales carried.” Visiting friends in Hornitos, one Sunday, he was asked to go out and dig some potatoes in the garden, for the meal. He refused, saying that he just couldn’t break the Sabbath. But he was not so particular with other commandments.

Friends tried their utmost to get him to be moderate in his drinking, but he was now too old to change his habit of years. Perhaps, one reason was his membership in the Whiskey Brigade of Pokerville, one of the now forgotten towns, between Bagby and Coulterville. The by-laws of this famous corps pledged the members never to refuse a drink, under penalty of expulsion, and the records show that there never was an expulsion. So true an observance of law has seldom been witnessed in any association.

Before his death, he was completely exonerated of the killing of his friend, Dan Hunt. A Frenchman, on his dying bed, confessed to the killing, told the spot where the murder weapon would be found and it was found there. He said he came across Hunt and Reverdy engaged in a drunken brawl, in the alley. While they were scuffling, he crept toward them, in the blackness, and stabbed Hunt, mistaking him for Reverdy, against whom he held a bitter grudge. It developed that a number of citizens knew that Reverdy had not committed the murder and knew who had committed it. The murderer was quite popular, whereas Ed had been making himself a pest, so the citizens kept their knowledge secret and allowed Ed to pay the penalty rather than the actual murderer.

There were many others, like Ed Reverdy, men who possessed the pioneer energy but who seemed unable to control or concentrate that energy. It was fortunate, however, to the State and Nation, that the more thrifty, well-balanced class predominated and made successes of their lives, even though surrounded by the same temptations that caused the downfall of this spectacular Southerner.

The historic atmosphere of Hornitos is fascinating; its glamour will always remain. Each scene brings visions of days that are gone and, in fancy, one can still see the bow-legged “niggah”, in front of the butcher shop; the crying Frenchman in the Merck saloon; Joaquin Murietta dancing in the Fandango Hall; the lynching of the Chinaman in the jail; the duel of the dance-hall girls in the Plaza; the burning of Judas, the Feast of San Juan and Dona Candelaria going about her pious duties; the killing of Dan Hunt in Dead Man’s Alley; and Ed Reverdy, with his old gun, talking to himself.

Next: 35. Indian GulchContentsPrevious: 33. Coulterville

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