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


Women, especially marriageable ones, were scarce in the early gold-rush days. Some of the miners, provided they had left a sweetheart back home, after they had made their first stake, would send gold for her passage and the marriage would take place immediately after her arrival. It was dangerous to delay, for there were many suitors for the hand of each fair lady. There were some very interesting early-day romances, but there is one, in particular, which fits in with the story of Fremont’s millions and the main facts have been handed down by descendants.

Margaret Bigler was the first white woman in Bear Valley. The mental struggles, which she experienced, can easily be imagined. Here as a bride she found herself in an environment totally different from anything she had previously been accustomed to. But she was game. Her husband, Joseph, was employed by the Merced Mining Company. Being thrifty, he soon saved enough money to start a saloon, which he operated in as straight a manner as possible. No gambling was allowed and it soon became very popular with the better class of people, for Bigler knew mining, and customers liked to linger and talk to him for that reason.

Peter Fee dropped in occasionally, but one drink was his limit and oftentimes, he took none. He was a very thrifty man, believed in temperance and his ambition was to acquire a ranch. He was, also, quite religious and, at times, would endeavor to give a little sound counsel to some of his reckless friends, but, generally, this advice went into deaf ears.

Another customer was Karl Peterson, just the opposite to Fee. Karl had travelled all over the world as a sailor and had been shipwrecked on his trip to California. He liked to tell how he had clung to a dry-goods box for two days in the Atlantic, before

The Mariposa County Court House and pioneer officials
[click to enlarge]
The Mariposa County Court House and pioneer officials.
[Editor’s note: Taken in the 1880s. From p. xii: The Mariposa County Court House, completed in 1854. The clock was added in 1866. Left to right are: Fred Schlageter, Under-sheriff; Bill Turner [William Turner], Sheriff; Joe Ridgeway [Josephus H. Ridgeway], Assessor; E. D. Skelton [Edwin D. Skelton], Deputy Assessor; J. M. Corcoran [John Mahon Corcoran], Superior Judge; Judge L. F. Jones [Lewis Fuller Jones]; S. P. O. Counts [probably George Counts], Treasurer; G. W. Temple [George Washington Temple], Justice of Peace; G. A. Robinson [probably George Henry Robinson], Surveyor; Maurice Newman [Maurice Henry Newman], Clerk; James H. Lawrence [James Henry Lawrence], ex-Editor and ex-Senator; L. N. Jones [probably Lewis Fuller Jones], District Attorney; H. P. Farnsworth [probably Calvin Eldridge Farnsworth], Constable; unidentified boy behind fence, third from right. —dea].

being rescued, and said he was now through with the sea, that he had dropped anchor and would never pull it up. He was quite a singer and, after he had a few drinks and when requested, and many times when not, he would stand up on the bar and sing Norwegian and American songs. He never knew when to stop drinking and it was difficult to refuse him. His favorite expression was “forget the noise, give me another drink” and people called him “forget-the-noise Karl”.

Another frequent visitor was “By Crout Bill” or “Cow Bill Owen”, the man who donated the site for the County Court House. Always ready to spin a yarn, he was a colorful character, and when meeting anyone for the first time, he would always explain: “I was born in North Carolina, County of Bunkum, near the mouth of Bull Creek, between Upper and Lower Hog Thief, right at Screamville and am always known as ‘Old By Grout’.”

Then there was Huck Boland, so named because he liked huckleberry pie. Huck, one day, said, “Boys, I got a claim with millions in it. The spirits told me so”. Pike Smith, standing near, whispered to a friend, “I must have been the spirits, for I told him the spot where he found the flyspecks on the rock.”

Many a mining yarn was spun and many specimens of new strikes shown in Bigler’s saloon. Generally, it was just like one big happy family, with each one calling the other by a descriptive nick-name, especially applicable to the person addressed. But one day, a drunken brawl occurred, while arguing over the Fremont title, and Bigler, in trying to separate the participants, was killed.

A great crowd attended the funeral. A young man, who had started to study for the ministry before coming West, preached a short sermon consoling the bereaved widow and her family and then said, “Boys, our job is to help this widow with something more than verbal phrases. I propose that we take up a collection and raise money, so that she can change this saloon into a bakery or some other business and support herself and family. The ravens fed Elijah but they won’t feed her, for we have no ravens here.

“Tiptoe Charlie, you get a gold pan and pass it around to each one. Start in with Rufus Lockwood. I have been told that he drinks his coffee from a cup made of ten twenty dollar gold pieces. Anyone who can do that ought to afford a couple of twenties for this worthy cause.”

Rufus, giant of a man, quickly replied: “It is a pleasure and a privilege to help a deserving and distressed woman. In the East, where I came from, no pity was extended to the distressed. I know, because my own family suffered there from the pangs of starvation, but, thank God, out here it is different. I will start the fund with a fifty dollar Mt. Ophir gold slug and I may do even better.”

“Forget-the-noise Karl, you spend plenty for fire-water. Can’t you give two or three ounces of gold dust out of your buckskin bag, so that when you die, St. Peter will remember that you did some good on this earth. That’s good, but just tip her a little more for good measure.

“Money-to-burn Pete, I have seen you going around the country with your wheelbarrow and you always land up where there are good diggings. They tell me that when you get hold of paper money, you burn it up. I have also heard that you do a lot of other foolish things with your money, so why not pull out your buckskin bag and do the same as ‘Forget-the-noise’. You know where you and your wheelbarrow can get plenty more.

“Dull Pick Jack, I saw a big stack of winnings on your side of the table last night at Missouri Pete’s so divvy up in this good cause.”

And so, the pan went the rounds, not a person being missed and everybody donating. When the collection was counted, it approximated one thousand dollars.

Bigler’s saloon thus became a bakery. Her place was quite popular and for a time she was able to make a very good living. She was besieged by many suitors, but she refused offers of marriage, vowing that she would wait a few years before any further matrimonial adventures and even said that she contemplated returning to the East in a snort time.

This was right at the time when the controversy over the Fremont title was the all-important topic of discussion everywhere. Her husband had worked for the Merced Mining Company and her sympathy was at first favorable to them. But being in busi ness, she tried to appear neutral and on every occasion she endeavored to settle arguments by showing there were two sides.

She, however, invested her surplus savings in stock of the Merced Mining Company. After the decision of Judge Burke the value of her stock shares went away down and the time came when there were no dividends and no market to sell, and even assessments were called. And like all mining camps, there came a down period, business became poor and she found herself unable to pay her rent.

Fremont’s agents were about to evict her, when entirely unexpected, Colonel Fremont dropped into her store, said he had heard she was having a hard time, and assured her that she would not be evicted, but could stay as long as she wanted, even if unable to pay her rent.

From that time on, she was a loyal supporter of the Colonel. Her favorite suitor was a handsome young man working for the Merced Mining Company. He was sober, industrious and thrifty, but he was bitter against the Colonel. The widow had been considering him quite favorably, but now she felt that it would be impossible to marry him, unless he changed his attitude toward the man who had befriended her.

“My dear, how can you stick up for the Colonel, when you know he only paid $3000 for the whole grant. How can he be entitled to property worth millions?”

To which the widow replied, “Suppose you bought a ticket in the Swiss lottery for a dollar and won $25,000, wouldn’t you feel that you were entitled to the winnings? And how would you feel, if someone made you spend half your winnings trying to collect what was legally yours?”

Her suitor still differed from her viewpoint and she still postponed any decision as to when they would be married, but without giving him the reason.

After the first Supreme Court decision, which was in favor of the Merced Mining Company, the miners became even more bitter against the Colonel when they learned that he had appealed the case. Mrs. Bigler’s loyalty to Fremont was having some effect, for on one occassion, her favorite suitor knocked a rifle out of the hands of one of the Colonel’s enemies, as he levelled it to shoot.

Time passed on. The Supreme Court seemed slow in making their final decision, but finally word came that, within a few days, the decision would be made public.

Each day a crowd of interested persons would assemble at the newspaper office, where the word would be first received. One day the crowd was surprised to see a procession of about twenty-five women march up to the newspaper office and ask for Mr. Holmes. It seems that the women had been annoyed by some of his editorials against the raising of families in such a tough environment. One day, when he was in a saloon across the street, they filled their aprons with type and carried the metal to a local artist to cast a medal.

On this day, they had come to present the medal, in an endeavor to humiliate him. One of the ladies made a short speech but the tone seemed a little sarcastic. Editor Holmes accepted the medal, and as he examined it, several of the men stepped up to his side to see what it was all about. Upon its face, there was an excellent likeness of the editor and the legend, worded, “To the Ill. Ed. of the Gaz.” And on the reverse side appeared, “Presented to L. A. Holmes, by the mothers of Mariposa for the interest and ‘affection manifested to their children”.

One of the men asked, “What does ‘Ill.’ mean?” Holmes replied, “It must mean ‘Illustrious”, whereupon a dozen voices piped up, “Oh, rats, we thought it meant ‘Illuminated’.”

Pike Oldham entertained the crowd describing some of the rich

'Rock' Greeley, with his logging team
[click to enlarge]
“Rock” Greeley, with his logging team.

David Clark’s home and saw-mill
[click to enlarge]
David Clark’s home and saw-mill.

strikes he had made. “Boys”, he said, “if you find that you cannot mine on the Grant, I can tell you where there is some rich ground, at least, pretty close to the spot, say, within a half mile of it.” This dry humor of Pike’s caused an outburst of laughter, when “Dull Pick Jack” exclaimed, “I’ve been within one foot of a rich pocket of over a thousand dollars and then passed by it, only to learn later, that a tenderfoot, who didn’t know gold from a piece of Limburg cheese found it a short time afterwards. And now Pike says he will show us within a half mile of a rich strike, when I couldn’t find one, when I was only a foot away. I tell you, boys, it’s all a matter of gol darned luck.”

The crowd that was waiting each day, in front of the Gazette office, was surely an interesting group. One, who helped to keep them in good humor, was Tom Bichard, called “French Tom” in his younger days. He came from the Isle of Man, his father was French and his mother English, and he was undoubtedly one of the greatest talkers and wits of the community. “Boys”, he said, “let me tell you how I came to be called Doctor. I’ve told this story many times and I know it’s true. We were out prospecting once and had to contend with Indians. There were twenty-three of us and it took half of our Company to be on the alert for the red devils. One day we had all we wanted of fighting. The Indians came down on us like so many wolves, and at it we went, from nine in the morning till darkness closed the battle, with one wounded on our side and seven Indians killed and a good many of them wounded.

“Our wounded was a young man, by the name of Tim Murphy and here is how I came to be called Doctor. There was no one in our party who knew anything at all about surgery, so I told the boys to take Tim into my tent and I would attend to him.

“ ‘Well, Tim,’ I said, ‘where are you shot?’

“ ‘Oh, Doctor,’ said Tim, ‘It’s meself is entirely kilt and dying. I em hit in the bladder by the red devils. Oh. arrah acushla, why did I lave ould Ireland to come out here and be kilt? Oh, Doctor, is there no hope?’

“ ‘Well Tim,’ says I, ‘I think it is a bad case and if you have anything to say, you had better hurry up.’

“Very sadly and slowly, poor Tim replied, ‘Well, be after telling me darlint Maggie that me heart is ever beating for her and if I die, I will be dead, and if I live, I won’t be dead at all.’

“ ‘I will do as you say, Tim,’ says I, ‘and now let me examine your wound. You may not be as bad as you think.’

“Tremblingly, he replied, ‘Oh, Doctor, be aisy, and if you can’t be aisy, be as aisy as you can.’

“I examined his body all over but found not a sign of a wound, except that a shot had struck his canteen and that was the reason he thought he was hit in the bladder, for the water from the canteen was the cause of all the trouble. That’s how, boys, I came to be called Doctor.”

Finally the messenger on horseback arrived with the long-awaited final decision of the Supreme Court, which was read in full by editor Holmes. Most of the disappointed miners took it in sportsmanlike manner and made for the saloons to imbibe in liquor that cheered. A few, however, felt that a great injustice had been done and that the miners should take matters in their own hands.

The favorite suitor, either was convinced of the logic of the final decision or else felt that there was no further use in hanging on to a hopeless cause. With the great question settled, which had been in agitation for so many years, it was not long before the leaders of the opposition to Colonel Fremont left for other parts and harmony prevailed.

Within a few weeks, the long-delayed marriage of Margaret Bigler and Maurice Newman took place. It was a church wedding and Polly Duff was there, the large parrot, with amazing eyes, who enjoyed the freedom of the town, roaming here and there but who always knew without fail when and where a church service was to be held. Then she would perch on the church steeple and laugh and talk to the guests, as they entered the church. Maurice Newman proved a distinguished citizen, serving fourteen years as County Assessor and then as County Clerk, County Auditor and County Recorder.

Next: 23. John S. DiltzContentsPrevious: 21. Fremont Judgment

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