Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mokelumne Hill was bloodier than Tombstone

After researching Tombstone, Arizona, I've come to the conclusion that the facts were hard for me to believe at first. My conclusion is that the violence in Tombstone, the town of know as "Heldorado," paled in comparison to the California Gold Country town of Molelumne Hill.

I looked at the violence that took place within the first 2 years of their boom, and compared apples to apples. The facts don't lie, Moke Hill, as it is known to folks in these parts, was bloodier than Tombstone and in fact was possible a more violent place than Tombstone and Deadwood combined.

The town of Mokelumne Hill took its name from the Mokelumne River, which was named after a Mi-wok Indian village located on the valley portion of the river. The Indians were most likely known as the Mokels, as the Mi-wok suffix umne means “people of.” Father Narciso Duran, the president of the missions in California, was the first to record the name in writing.

In April of 1817, Father Duran spelled it "Muquelemnes." During the Gold Rush, the name was spelled in a number of phonetic ways including Mokellemos, Moquelemes, Moquelumne, Mokelemy, and no doubt many others.

It started when a group of prospectors from Oregon discovered the rich placer gold along the Mokelumne River. That  happened in October of 1848, a little ways below the town’s present site, and the diggings were rich. In fact, it was so rich that even with their provisions almost gone, the men chose to risk starvation rather than abandon their claim to make the long trip to Stockton for supplies.

A man named Syree was finally persuaded to go and when he returned, he set up a trading post up the hill from the Mokelumne River atop a hill near the scene of operations. That spot became known as Mokelumne Hill. By 1849, Syree sold food, tools, and supplies out of his canvas tent. Yes, all at a price that more than made up for any mining he missed.

Most of the early mining in the area took place at Big Bar, the spot located by the Oregonians, and as word of the diggings spread through the mines, more and more miners began arriving and soon the land was covered with their tents and various shelters. Among the first to arrive were those already in the vicinity were French trappers from the Hudson’s Bay Company, Mexican and American settlers from the central valley, and ex-soldiers from Stevenson’s Regiment who were mustered out of service and looking for gold.

Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson’s Regiment of New York Volunteers reached Mokelumne Hill in 1848. In later years Colonel Stevenson claimed to have been the first "alcalde" of the town. One of Stevenson’s men, Samuel W. Pearsall, discovered the first gold found up a ways from the river in Mokelumne Hill on the north side of Stockton Hill. Pearsall’s find marked the beginning of the end of Big Bar, as most of the miners left their claims to give the Mok Hill mines a try. And no, they were not disappointed.

The ground around Mokelumne Hill was so rich that the miners were allowed only sixteen feet square for a claim, many of which are reported to have yielded as high as $20,000. That's right -- the claims were only 16 feet by 16 feet and brought in as high as $20,000 in gold.

While hunting frogs for his breakfast in a prospect hole one morning, a Frenchman spotted a speck of gold. Using his pocketknife, he dug out a nugget which he sold for $2,150. With these kinds of prospects, "Moke Hill" drew gold-seekers from all over the world.

By 1850, Mokelumne Hill was one of the largest communities in all of California. The town was bigger than even that of San Francisco. And yes, in 1850, at the height of the Gold Rush, there were 62 males for every one female in all of Calaveras County. By 1860, thankfully the ratio was just over 6 to 1.

Major gold strikes were discovered on each of the four hills that surrounded the camp. French Hill was named for the "French War" which occurred there in 1851 during what became known as the "French and American War" at the time. Stockton Hill was named as such because several trails passed over it on their way to Stockton. Negro Hill was where gold was discovered by a black man in 1851. Sport Hill was where gold was discovered near where a horse racing track was constructed.

Mokelumne Hill area's population is said to have reached as high as 15,000 with people of all sorts of nationalities there. Among them were Americans, Frenchmen, Germans, Spaniards, Chileans, Mexicans, Chinese, Italians, Jews, English, Irish, Negroes, and many others from all corners of the world. The town has the only Jewish cemetery in Calaveras County, along with Protestant and Catholic Cemeteries.

It had numerous lodges, hospitals, and societies in addition to the more common I.O.O.F., Masonic and E Clampus Vitus. Besides those, located in the community were French, Italian, German, and Chilean hospitals and societies and a hall known as the Manor Char Hall.

Life was not a bed of roses for the early miners in the Mokelumne Hill area. The early newspapers tell of robberies, murders, and all manner of human difficulties associated with people living under trying conditions.

French Hill was the focus of a short war between Frenchmen and Americans. At Chile Gulch, two miles south of Mokelumne Hill, the Chilean War began where Chilean miners took aggressive action against American miners.

Further south a struggle began at Central Hill between the American and Mexican miners for dominance of Six Mile Creek. An American miner and a Mexican were killed in the fighting. The battle was followed up by several lynchings.

Besides racial tensions, the easy gold attracted criminal elements, and the town gained a reputation as one of the bawdiest in the area. The gold and the easy pickings brought in a bad element, and the town became a wild and wicked place during its early years.

The elusive and mysterious Black Bart robbed stages not far from Mokelumne Hill. In fact he robbed at least 27 stages in a nine year period of banditry in California. Bart was a lone highwayman who dressed in a mask and a linen duster.

Even though he always traveled on foot, Bart's once remarkable endurance allowed him to cover great distances. Yes, legend has it that he once robbed two different coaches 60 miles apart in mountainous country within the same 24 hours. And no, I don't believe it either.

Fact is, it seems as though every highwayman robbing a stage at the time all up and down California was said to be Black Bart even though that would have been impossible. As for the real Black Bart, he would often hide the larger amounts of loot and return at a later time for recovery. It is likely that he did not recover all of the hidden treasure and some lucky person is yet to find some of Black Bart's stash.

As in the case of most Calaveras County towns, Mokelumne Hill was a haunt of the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta. Often disguised, Joaquin would play cards in various saloons and discuss problems of his capture with the miners.

The women in the Murrieta gang would live in the town and gather information about the shipments of gold that went through Mokelumne Hill. Joaquin is said to have friends in town that sheltered and shielded him. On the side of Schrack Mountain in the vicinity of Chile Gulch was said to be a cave used by the bandit.
Murrieta probably operated this shelter as a resting spot where he could survey the surrounding countryside without being seen.

It is said that Mokelumne Hill was an extremely violent place. Robberies and killings were a commonplace event. Within two years of the boom, the year 1851, it was especially violent times as there was at least one homicide a week for seventeen consecutive weeks.

Compare that to the town of Tombstone two years after its boom with a similar size population where the entire town saw 5 murders all year -- three by gun shots, one with an axe, and one with a rock.

Thompson and West's History of Amador County reports that Mokelumne Hill was a very dangerous place, stating, "Death by violence seems to be the rule. For seventeen successive weeks ... a man was killed between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Five men were once killed within a single week."

To give you an idea of how bad it was, during the Gold Rush a Frenchman who was the local butcher was stabbed by a Chinese man. It happened when the butcher turned his back on the Chinese man who came in as a customer. The butcher turned to get what was had ordered, that's when the Chinese man stabbed him. When the butcher didn't immediately die, the Chinese man stabbed him again.

During the attack the butcher was able to reach a pistol he kept nearby, and he quickly took a shot at his attacker. The bullet grazed the Chinese man across the side of his face, but that was enough to send the attacker running out the door.

A man passing the shop heard the shot and saw the Chinese man run away. He ran after him, and he soon caught him. After a fight of his own with the Chinese man, he led the attacker back to the butcher shop where others were there treating the butcher's wounds.

The Chinese man was brought back to town and waited with others to see if the butcher would live. He was identified as the attacker and they kept waiting. It's said after the Frenchman died, the Chinese man was taken to a tree and hanged.

Things became so desperate that a Vigilance Committee was formed. Gongs would sound in the streets when serious trouble occurred, calling the committee to arms. On one such occasion, a man was caught stealing and sentenced to be hanged. Before the sentence was carried out, the man confessed to eight murders between Mokelumne Hill and Sonora.

Several other criminals were caught, tried, punished, some hung, and some banished, simply run out of town. The so-called "French War" or "French and American War" for possession of gold mines occurred in 1851.

Because of the rampant violence, the first Code of Laws for Miners in Calaveras County was drawn up in Mokelumne Hill. About the same time, a post office was established, and a company of militia called the “Calaveras Guards” was organized in 1851 to keep the peace. And yes, even though vigilantes and the militia was organized, the town was so violent that the merchants built a labyrinth of tunnels under the town to safeguard their clients.

In fact, even today, if one goes to the Hotel Le'ger in Mokelumne Hill, they can go beneath the hotel and see the entrance to the tunnels beneath the hotel. They are not hidden and were actually used for special dining at one time.

Today, the tunnels are blocked off and don't go all the way across the street anymore, but they were built so that patrons would be able to cross the street without being in the open and susceptible to being robbed. With the tunnels one could move from on merchant to the other and not worry about being killed for what little money or possessions they had.

As Mokelumne Hill was dry during most of the year, it soon became evident that water was necessary to successfully work the placers. The Mokelumne Hill Canal and Mining Company was organized in 1852 and for $180,000 a canal was constructed from the South Fork of the Mokelumne River 16 miles to the mining and agricultural districts surrounding Mokelumne Hill. In 1853 water arrived from the Mokelumne River and the area boomed.

The fire department there was initiated in 1861. Gas lights illuminated their streets in 1857, electrical in 1897. The first local telephone in that area was put into operation there in July of 1898. In 1861, the I.O.O.F. added a third story to the former Adams Express Company building, making it among the earliest three story buildings in the County. The first school there was taught in a tent by the wife of the Reverend J.F. Fish, the Methodist Episcopal minister, with five pupils in attendance.

Their first school district was organized in June of 1859. Township No. 6 was established by the Board of Supervisors on August 11, 1857, and included Mokelumne Hill, Big Bar, and Rich Gulch. Several churches were established in the early days. Their first church was the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1852, held in a tent. Later a building was constructed adjacent to the present Catholic Church. The First Congregational Church was organized during 1853, the present and oldest Congregational Church in California was constructed in 1856. The St. Paul’s Episcopal Church was dedicated in 1895 and discontinued in 1907.

Their Catholic Church was founded by Father John Bobard in 1851 and held services in a canvas structure. Various other Catholic Church buildings were erected after fires destroyed them until the present St Thomas Aquinas church was completed about 1900.

Chili Gulch was the richest placer mining section in Calaveras County. It received its name from Chileans who worked it in 1848 and 1849, and was the scene of the so-called Chilean War.

In December 1849, Anglo-European miners in Calaveras County drew up a local mining code that called for all foreign miners to leave the county within 15 days, leading to much protest and violence. The so-called "Chilean War" resulted in numerous miners being killed before ending with the expulsion of Chilean miners from their claims.

The "Calaveras Chronicle" newspaper was established in 1850. The early newspaper tells of robberies, murders, and all manner of human difficulties associated with people living under trying conditions. It also tells of entertainment such as fights between grizzly bears and bulls meant to amuse early residents. The diarist Byron McKinstry saw such an encounter in 1852 in front of 400 persons. The bear won.

On another occasion, two bulls were to take on a single grizzly bear. The bear, "General Scott", was estimated to weigh 1200 pounds and severely injured both bulls in short order.

At the bull and bear fights miners made bets as to the outcome of the event. It seems that gold coins or nuggets would easily be lost in the excitement of the skirmish. And yes, some have been found in the area dating back to those wild and woolly days in the mining camp.

Mokelumne Hill served as the Calaveras County seat from 1852 to 1866. The population continued to grow, the mines continued to pay, and the town continued to prosper. Along with the usual businesses and organizations of the time, Moke Hill also boasted a race track, skating rink, rock quarry, and a good-sized brewery and a large Chinatown located on the outskirts of town with an estimated population of anywhere from 300 to 2,000.

Of course the 1860s in Moke Hill also saw battles over water rights, and many were killed during that period. The gold began to give out in the 1860’s -- it always does at some point -- and the town’s population drifted away. One event in 1865 illustrates how bad it was.

A group of Chinese miners were robbed after being hung close to death. Once the robbers got the information as to where they kept their money and gold, the robbers who were only described as speaking the English language disappeared. The newspaper noted how many of the Chinese miners had rope burns and bruises around their necks from being hung.

Mokelumne Hill’s Chinatown stretched along East Center Street, from present-day Shutter Tree Park east to the edge of the Catholic Cemetery, and south up what is now called China Gulch. It was said to be one of the largest Chinese communities in California, and featured two temples: the Taoist Temple in the now-empty lot next to the park, and the Buddhist Temple farther to the east.

Surviving earlier fires and floods, the community was nearly wiped out by a fire in 1898, and during the Tong Wars -- rival Buddhists bombed the Taoist Temple.
The Chinese lived in flimsy wood homes that were built close together, which created a constant threat of fire. Three such devastating fires swept through Mokelumne Hill, each one nearly obliterating the town.

The first occurred on a Sunday morning, August 24 of 1854. Breaking out in Levenson’s Store, a canvas covered structure on Center Street, the fire consumed everything in its path except two stone buildings which were able to withstand the flames. Losses were estimated at over $500,000.

After this fire, many of the buildings that were rebuilt were made from a light brown stone known as rhyolite tuff, a material common to much of the Gold Country. This building remained the seat of County government until 1866 when the Courthouse was moved to San Andreas. After the Courthouse moved to San Andreas, business slumped off and advertisements proclaiming the sale of businesses and homes filled the newspapers. In fact, it's said when the county seat was lost to neighboring San Andreas, the decline quickened and the town faded even further, never again regaining its Gold Rush size or importance.

Because the county seat was located here for ten years, many lawyers, judges, clerks, and county employees settled in Mokelumne Hill. This permanent population and the commerce it engendered required the opening of numerous businesses. Among these were soda works, breweries, saloons, doctor and dentists’ offices, drugstores, billiard and pool halls, hotels and restaurants, carpenters and tinsmiths, bakeries, dry goods and grocery stores, livery stables, meat markets, liquor stores and cigar stores.

The town’s second great fire took place on February 26th, 1865, originating on the second floor of the Union Hotel. The third major fire occurred on September 4th, 1874, in which practically all of the business section of town was destroyed, along with many surrounding homes.

After the fire of 1874, many of the commercial structures were not rebuilt, due to the conclusion of the boom years for Mokelumne Hill as a commercial and political center. Because Mokelumne Hill was favored with an unusually moderate microclimatic condition for the foothills, it was able to grow many crops successfully. Madam Cataia and Frederick Mayer were early vintners, and various vegetables, fruits, oranges and hay crops were grown prosperously for many years. The Upper and Lower Italian Gardens supplied vegetables and fruits to the miners and homeowners in Mokelumne Hill and the surrounding communities.

During the latter part of the 1800s, cattle ranching became the most important agricultural enterprise surrounding Mokelumne Hill. Families homesteaded and purchased large landholdings to run livestock and much of the land around the town remains grazing land to this day.

In the first half of the 1900s, logging became an important industry in the mountains to the east and many of the townspeople went to work in the mills around Glencoe, Railroad Flat, and West Point. This is hill country and not flat like Tombstone, Arizona. As in years gone by, today Mokelumne Hill is scattered about the hills with the main portion of the old town still in pretty good condition.

Visiting there today you'd never think that once upon a time it was known as one of the most violent bawdy towns in the Mother Lode. Compare Moke Hill to the relatively quiet streets of Tombstone, Arizona and the level of violent at Moke Hill becomes startling.

And yes, that's just the way I see it.

Tom Correa



  1. Barbara Davis TrostMay 17, 2014 at 2:43 PM

    Rail Road Flat was known for more than logging since it had a productive gold mine called the Petticoat Mine. It has been a few years since I have been to the Petticoat, but it was always a fun pace to explore!

    1. Hello Barbara, Since I live in Glencoe, I do may Cowboy Action Shooting over in Rail Road Flat across from the buffalo over where the old Petticoat Mine once stood. And there of course is a great story as to why it was called the Petticoat Mine. As the story goes, three miner's wives were on there way to visit another of the wives when "nature called". Well, both women went over to the bushes and pulled up their petticoats to do nature's business. When one was done peeing, she looked down and saw something wet and gleaming. Yup, it was gold! The three husbands were told about what was found, and in honor of their women's petticoats -- it was called the Petticoat Mine. And yes, I love that story. Have a great day!

  2. Thank you, I can't wait to share this with my Dad, Otto Henry Becker Jr.

  3. Having been one of the string of owners of the Leger (no 'd' in that name) for 5 years I looked hard for any tunnel entrance and came up empty. But I'd be happy to be proved wrong.

    1. Mr. Rohde, you are joking right? Go do the back stairs into the patio area behind the hotel. Instead of turning left to the pool area, turn right and walk under the hotel. The tunnels are right there. It's not like they're hidden. Everyone can walk in them and take them back as far as they can go. In fact, I know that at least one tunnel was used for wine storage not too long ago, and another is used a formal dinning area. Here's the website to the Leger's photo album, You can see there are about 3 pictures of the tunnels. The picture with the blue clothes covered chairs, the long table, and the one with the big mirror are all under the hotel in the tunnels. In the picture with the one with the long table, there's a great picture of a tunnel entrance which led across the street. If you are really being serious in that you were really an owner of that hotel, and you never went out back and under the hotel, how could you have missed them? It's one of the most fascinating things about that hotel. I don't know what else to tell you. Thanks.


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