A birth can often be a protracted event, the effort of bringing something new into existence lingering on long after the initial labor has begun. As it is with newborn children, so it can also be with a newborn village.
The year was 1879, and the place was a wide flat meadow on a mountainside where a large stand of sugar pines stood quietly undisturbed about a mile to the southeast of the General Grant Tree. Although this now famous two thousand year old neighboring monarch was beginning to garner some attention from tourists, most of those who came to this part of the Sierra Nevada had yet to stray far from the grove of Giant Sequoias which were bringing notoriety to the area. Those who did make the arduous journey up the mountain tended to pass their time only amongst those giants, camping for a few days at their base, having a few drinks at the Gamlin’s Saloon, and perhaps carving their names into one of the huge trees before returning home with a bag of cones or a hunk of bark as a souvenir. They didn’t wander far. There were grizzly bears and mountain lions which roamed freely through this part of the Sierra and those who came to gawk at the trees were warned that they were ill equipped to deal with such an encounter. Those few who did wander freely around this part of the Sierra did so for a living; they were the hunters, trappers, and prospectors whose kind had roamed this part of the mountain range for over a century, and to whom the company of the wild life was often preferable to that of their fellow humans. One such traveler in this year of 1879 was a man by the name of Daniel Perry. Mr. Perry was a sojourner who loved these mountains, but he was also a man who had the ability to see just a few years into the future, and this vision told him that, whether the mountain men liked it or not, the years of isolation in these mountains were quickly coming to an end and that one must adapt in order to survive. Industry was on its inexorable way up the mountain, and these trees, he knew, must soon fall to the force of men’s hunt for wealth. Yet, understanding that profiting from the giant trees was going to offer much more competition than he was prepared for, Perry instead chose to acquiesce that struggle to others and rather to file a homestead on one hundred and sixty acres about a mile to the southeast of those Giant Sequoias which were beginning to garner so much attention. The land he chose was filled with tall mature sugar pines; much easier to cut down than the famous brittle giants and excellent for milling into lumber for construction.
The filing of this homestead in 1879 turned out to be the first birth pain of a Sierra village coming into existence.
But the actual birth of the village was destined to be a difficult and protracted one, because the government shelved Perry’s homestead claim and refused to act on it without giving him a reason. Six years passed, and Perry’s patience was wearing thin. So in 1885 he refiled his homestead claim, again with no response from the government. Four more years passed without any kind of action from the government. Perry was a patient man, but this was becoming hopeless so he decided to give up and move on to other ventures. So as 1889 was drawing to a close Perry sold his homestead claim to the Smith Comstock Lumber Company. Smith Comstock was prepared to wait because they wanted the vast number of sugar pine trees which they viewed as just waiting for the swing of the axe. All of the many miles of flume being planned needed to be constructed from seasoned knot-free sugar pine, and having this hundred and sixty acres of this specialty wood was just what the company needed.
The next year, 1890, saw the creation of General Grant National Park, four square miles of neighboring land which did not impinge upon Perry’s claim. So the next year Perry finally received acknowledgement of his hundred and sixty acre homestead and promptly signed it over to Smith Comstock.
With the homestead now official, the birth of the mountain village moved one step closer.
Smith Comstock immediately set out to cut and mill all of the sugar pines and didn’t finish this extensive undertaking until 1895. The homestead then passed to its third owner, a Mr. E.O. Miller, in 1900. Miller soon opened the area to campers, charging a nominal nightly or weekly fee. The place proved so popular that many from the San Joaquin Valley used it as a protracted escape from the summer heat, even building wooden platforms to give their tents a semi-permanent status and staying long into the Autumn. Miller’s Campground remained a popular destination for the next seventeen summers. In 1918 the Miller family sold the homestead to Andrew Ferguson, who promptly tried to resell it to the federal government for the optimistic asking price of $65,000, thinking the government might want it to add to their new park. His offer was refused, as Congress would not appropriate such an outrageous amount of money for something so unnecessary. After all, General Grant National Park had already been created to save the Sequoias – why add to it a hundred and sixty acres of useless rotting pine stumps? So Ferguson immediately put into effect his Plan B. He christened the homestead with a new name – Wilsonia, after the then president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, and subdivided most of the homestead into 292 lots and offered them for sale for $50.00 each.
And, after thirty-nine years in labor, a Sierra mountain village was finally born.
The infant village grew quickly after that. Within a few years the lots in Wilsonia were selling for $125, then $200, then $400. In 1920 the Masonic Family Club of Dinuba purchased twenty acres in the northeast corner of Wilsonia for the exclusive use of their members. By 1924 there were so many houses in the village that the property owners all contributed to a fund to build a clubhouse – and they decided to build something unique to represent the new village instead of merely constructing a traditional place to get together. They opted for a large, eight-sided structure with an open middle courtyard where community barbecues could be held all summer long. The clubhouse itself soon held a grocery store, barber shop, butcher’s store, and hair salon. Andy Ferguson continued to help his newborn infant village grow and dug a community well for the residents so they wouldn’t have to keep hauling water from park wells. A riding stable opened, and a year later a bakery went into business. A herd of cows were set to graze in a meadow just south of Big Stump, and a small dairy came into existence – very small, as the milk was bottled on top of one of the giant stumps and then sent by wagon into Grant Grove and Wilsonia for sale. Just to the South of Big Stump a chicken farm was established and provided fresh eggs for both the park and for Wilsonia. In 1926 the General Grant tree was formally dedicated as the nation’s Christmas Tree, and the following year saw over one thousand people ascend into the mountains for the Christmas ceremony. Wilsonia fed and housed many of those visitors both as campers and at the new Osbourne Lodge. By 1935 Andy Ferguson had opened his own retail store as well as a photography service and a gas station. Outside of the gas station he erected a large wooden signboard, in the center of which he proudly displayed a picture of the man after whom the village had been named, President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilsonia was by now – 1935 – a bustling mountain community; the beating heart of Grant Grove which offered more variety of services to mountain visitors than the park itself. In the late 1930’s the Western Music Camp came into being in Wilsonia, offering students two weeks of summer musical training under the tutelage of Major Earl Dillon of Fresno notoriety. By 1938 the Fresno Bee newspaper was being delivered in Wilsonia, courtesy of Dorothy Wilson and her horse. In 1942 Ferguson’s store burned down, but he promptly built and opened a new venture called the Big Stump Lodge. At about the same time the old chicken farm to the south was turned into a chinchilla farm.
During these first few decades of Wilsonia’s existence it continued to thrive, partially because those who came here wanted to build something special; partly because those who came loved the mountains; partly because those who worked for the National Park Service were happy to have such a good neighbor.
But that was about to change.
In 1955 the McGee Fire burst onto the scene, roaring its way unchecked toward the park. Wilsonia residents were ordered to evacuate. The park superintendent’s office ordered fire fighters to stand in a firm line around the giant Sequoias and to save the General Grant Tree at all costs. At the same time a new attitude toward Wilsonia was signaled – those same fire fighters who were being ordered to possibly sacrifice their lives for a tree were also instructed to offer no protection at all for Wilsonia. The park administration told them to let it burn. But Fate had a different path in mind, and when the fire reached into the high mountains near Grant Grove it seemed to change its mind and moved away from the park structures and campgrounds, away from the big trees, and away from Wilsonia. The president’s village had been saved by an unseen hand, but the National Park Service wasn’t to be as easily deterred.
By the 1960’s Wilsonia was under attack from the park service. The agency wrote letters to property owners offering to purchase their property for ridiculously low amounts, and rumors were spread that the government would soon take the property to make it part of the national park. The commercial property was among the first acquired by the federal government, as that was identified as being the heart of the village. The Wilsonia Lodge, the Kings Canyon Lodge, and Osbourne Lodge were all acquired and demolished. The county stopped sending fire engines to Wilsonia, and the sheriff deputies also soon stopped coming. The grocery store closed and the horse stables were pulled apart. A feeling of being under siege fell over the village as the government acquired more and more property; an in-your-face attitude as park personnel moved themselves into many of the nicer properties while bulldozing others. By the mid-1980’s the park service had spent over two and one-half million dollars in purchasing land in Wilsonia. This was coming to the notice of those of a more frugal nature in the government, yet they were just as determined to take the private property away. So in their written multi-year plans it was seriously proposed that Wilsonia be completely acquired by the National Park Service; that all of the structures be demolished; that the acreage should then be paved and turned into a parking lot for park visitors and a staging area for bus tours. The Joni Mitchell song, “Pave Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot”, once just a satire, appeared to have become a frightening official government policy.
But by the late 1990’s the government appeared to have changed direction and backed off on its aggressive policy of land acquisition in the area, and seemed content to let the remnants of Wilsonia exist in relative peace. Half of the homes were by now gone, and many of those lots which Andy Ferguson had once so proudly sold now fell under the uncaring grace of the federal government. By now there were no stores; no restaurants; no fire station and no sheriff’s presence; no barber shop; no bakery. The horses were gone, along with those pioneer spirits who had once enjoyed that primeval link with the past of riding a racing beast across the mountains. The octagon-shaped clubhouse burned to the ground and was replaced with something smaller and more traditional. Where Osbourne Lodge and Wilsonia Lodge and Kings Canyon Lodge once stood there were now only empty, uncared for lots. Where Andy Ferguson’s home once stood there now sat a garbage dumpster – a fitting statement, perhaps from the park’s view, of their opinion of his efforts to create and nurture a mountain community.
In the years that have passed since Andy Ferguson brought the village of Wilsonia into existence it has often been speculated as to why he gave the village that name. The most popular theory held that, in the 1916 presidential election, Wilsonia voters had overwhelmingly voted for Wilson and tilted the balance of a very close election in his favor, thereby giving him a second term in office. That was, perhaps, a view that best reflected the boisterous, can-do attitude of the builders of the new village rather than a more candid reality. The 1916 presidential election was indeed a very close one, with the final results not being known until a week after the election. And California was indeed one of the swing states that, by a very small number of votes, did indeed hand the election to Wilson. But Woodrow Wilson ended up winning California by about 3700 votes, and although that was a very small figure it still vastly exceeded the entire population of Wilsonia. So the people of Wilsonia did not send a president into office. The truth, as is often the case, was much more mundane. It was simply that Andy Ferguson’s son was married to a cousin of President Wilson. And, since that made President Wilson part of the family (or almost, anyway), it was a handy way of showing pride in that relationship.
Woodrow Wilson passed away in 1924, suffering first a stroke and then from continuing heart problems; leaving this world peacefully without ever having visited the village that bore his name. And Wilsonia, the village which holds the memory of this man perhaps more vibrantly than anywhere else, should itself continue to be remembered as a part of the human history of Kings Canyon National Park; of the Sierra Nevada Mountains; a picture frozen in time of the way in which people have loved these mountains and embraced life within them. Wilsonia lives on – perhaps, like President Wilson, now deprived of the vibrant heart which once kept it alive. But the president’s village nevertheless continues on with a dogged spirit of survival; a stubbornness to keep the village alive in the face of weighty opposition from a federal bureaucracy which exists under the motto “Preserve and Protect”, but which apparently considers that a motto to be exercised selectively; a federal agency which, ironically, was created by President Wilson just one year before the president’s village itself was born.
The year is 1873, and this early October evening has brought a distinct chill to the air, a coldness which is seeping through to your bones as you ride through a dusty ravine in the mountains of the High Sierra. Although the sunlight can still be seen glinting off of sharp rocky peaks in the distance the shadows around you have grown long, melting together to form a dark cloak wrapping itself heavily onto the path you follow. As the horse’s hooves clop softly on the rocky soil of the trail and the cold penetrates deeper you wish that you had a cloak just as heavy as this nightfall in which to wrap yourself, and you pull your buckskin coat just a little tighter. Winter is growing close. It won’t come tonight, or even tomorrow, but you can feel it growing nearer. Your horse can sense it as well; that dark black beast upon whom you ride – you can see this in the way she sniffs the evening air. Raven is her name, and she’s the best friend you have on your travels through these mountains. You’ve lost count of the times she’s carried you confidently through snow drifts deep enough to have buried you both; carried you sure-footedly around rock slides so huge you thought them impassable; carried you carefully across mountain trails back to camp when you shook with fever and could have fallen from the saddle had she not been so gentle. She’s your friend, and more. So when she lifts her nose into the evening breeze and sniffs again, then snorts knowingly, you reach out and stroke her neck softly, telling her that you feel it too. If she’s half as smart as you think she is then she’s wondering about just what place you are planning for the two of you to spend this approaching winter – high up here in the mountains, where you have passed most of the past decade of winters? Or perhaps you will go down into the valley, where bones which are growing older and which more readily feel the penetrating chill might rest for a few months and move more easily in warmer comfort? You reach down and stroke her neck once again, and tell her that you don’t know. You just don’t know, because you really haven’t even thought about it until this moment. And you don’t really want to think about it now, either. Darkness is falling and you just want to make it the last few miles to that place you heard about several days ago and so many miles back; that strange and lonely saloon hidden high up here amongst these tall trees; hidden somewhere in the middle of all this nowhere. So you nudge Raven with a touch of your knees and urge her forward into the growing darkness, trusting her to guide you along a trail you can no longer see to a destination you know not where. You smile softly, knowing she will do it. And Raven turns her head slightly, rolling one dark wet eye at you, thinking; Yeah, I can do it. You bunch up the folds of your buckskin jacket even tighter, and ride on.
Yet, when you suddenly come into the grove of large red trees a couple of hours later you are both surprised. The shadows long ago faded to complete blackness and your eyes, good as they are, have for many miles only been able to make out the shaded forms of things too huge to be real. But this grove is now dimly lit with a tentative flickering light spilling from the window of a small log cabin. Horses in the corral along one side have sensed your arrival and whinnied their greeting, and two large dogs have jumped through the glassless window of the cabin to inspect their unexpected guests. You ride up slowly, dismount, and stretch. A man comes from the cabin carrying a shotgun which might be considered to be pointing generally in your direction. You nod and hold out your hand, telling him your name. He shakes your hand firmly, and introduces himself as Israel Gamlin. You exchange pleasantries for a few minutes, then tell him that you heard that this might be a place where a man might get a drink. Israel nods and points at a location lost in the darkness back over your shoulder, telling you to go on and make yourself at home and he will follow shortly. He disappears back into the cabin, leaving you to make your own way through the trees. You look at Raven and you could swear that she just shakes her head; No, she’s telling you; not this time. So you sigh and turn and walk off into the darkness, this time it’s you leading her.
Within moments you come upon the carcass of a huge tree laying on the ground before you, stretching off into the darkness in both directions and you stand there, staring. Soon a shadow moves up from your left and then appears to melt into the lines of the dead tree. A match flickers and then touches the wick of a lamp. Then, several feet off to one side, another match and two more lamps add their glow and help to light the tableau before you, and you know that you have finally reached your destination – that high mountain bar about which you had heard; Israel’s Bar. The saloon is pretty much as it was described to you, but you still have trouble believing your eyes. The dead tree is huge – even laying on its side its reclining diameter is much taller than you. But it’s the fact that it is hollow that grabs your attention. Completely open on the side facing you the hollowed interior blends into the darkness where the shadowed details of its inside escape from the yellow flaming light of the lamps, but you can see from the charred interior that the work of creating this setting must have been done by some long-ago fire. The first lamp that was lit by Israel is sitting on a roughly hewn small oblong table, alongside of which are two small benches. The other lamps light the top of a bar which stands a little taller than the table, and the surface of which seems, in this flickering light, to be much smoother and shinier from the repeated sliding of glass along its surface. You start to step forward but then remember the reins you hold in your hand, but Israel seems to have already read your mind and is filling a bucket of water for your horse which he places farther down inside the tree, and nods for you to leave Raven there. You hesitate, but Israel is already adding a second bucket into which he has shoveled a stingy scoopful of oats, and he drops that next to the water. So you lead Raven over to her dinner and, with a quick promise to return soon and remove her saddle and brush her, you drop heavily onto one of the benches near the table, and you sigh. Israel asks if you would like a drink of whiskey, or if you would instead prefer a drink of whiskey, and you smile at his joke; an attempt at humor you are certain he has offered as many times as there have been guests in his bar. You hadn’t exactly expected a cold beer to be on tap, and you wouldn’t want one of those fancy drinks you could order in the city, so whiskey – you reply – will be just fine. When it comes it’s in a glass larger than is seen in most saloons, and its smoky flavor hints at it likely originating from a local still. But it goes down smoothly and it tastes just fine. You sit back and sigh again. You have just ordered a drink in Israel’s Bar, the first saloon to grace this part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and it’s proven to be worth the long ride. Israel brings a bottle over and joins you, dropping onto the other bench, and together you sit there talking long into the night. You try to ignore Raven’s reproachful gaze as she stares at you after her dinner has been finished, but you apologize to her later when you finally keep that promise about the saddle and the brushing and then you fall onto your blankets next to her at the bottom of the hollow log, musing to yourself of the strange things which life can unexpectedly bring one’s way. As you drift off into the edge of sleep a memory from long past slides into your head and you suddenly recall your Sunday School teacher from all those years ago admonishing you never to let your vices follow you through life. And you laugh softly, thinking that – this time, at least – your vice preceded you across the mountains and was here waiting for you when you arrived. And then you and Raven both sleep.
The morning brings more wonders. Those giant shadows which had lined your road last night now show themselves to be real giants; trees larger than any you have ever seen or could even imagine. Israel and his brother, Thomas, escort you through the grove where each red monolith seems even bigger than the last; hundreds of giants reaching hundreds of feet into the sky, many of them even more monstrous than the fallen monarch which holds the mountain tavern in which you were entertained last night. Just like kids in a candy store the Gamlin brothers save the best for last, finally leading you up to the largest of the monarchs standing guard in this grove. As you stand before it you know that it must spread forty or fifty feet across in diameter, making a pale shadow of its hollow fallen cousin which serves as a saloon. And then you squint, trying to make out something you see near the base. You walk a few steps closer and can now make out that it’s a sign on a rough board that has been nailed to the tree, and the words on the board spell out a name – General Grant. You are puzzled, and give the Gamlin brothers a curious look.
Thomas then explains that a few years ago – in 1867, he thinks it was – a woman by the name of Lucretia Baker made a three day wagon trip up the mountain from the town of Porterville to see the big trees she’d heard so much about, and ended her visit by tacking that sign to the biggest tree she could find – the biggest tree in the world, she thought; a tree worthy of bearing the name of her war hero, General Ulysses S. Grant. You gaze at the tree and shake your head and wonder again at the oddities of life, of the utter strangeness of a woman from the San Joaquin making a pilgrimage to name this wonderful living entity before you after a person who was so efficient at killing so many other living creatures. You are snapped out of this brief reverie by the sound of chopping, and you refocus your eyes to see Israel whacking a large hunk of bark off of General Grant with an axe kept by the base of the tree for just this purpose. He walks over and offers this odd souvenir to you, but to his obvious puzzlement you decline. What would you do with that hunk of bark, you ask? And why would you and Raven want to carry it around in your travels across the mountains?
You wander off to spend the remainder of that morning and the early afternoon strolling through the trees by yourself, relaxing in the warm afternoon sun and letting Raven take a much earned rest. By early afternoon you’re back in the bar, ready to again sample the Gamlin brothers’ home brew. To your surprise you see a stranger already sitting at your table gazing out into the trees with a broad smile on his bearded face. Even more surprisingly, it looks suspiciously as if his glass holds . . . water? He leans forward and introduces himself, offering his hand, and says his name is John – John Muir – and he asks you to join him – which you immediately do, of course, because a conversation with another man of the mountains is something you haven’t shared for many long weeks. Yet after listening to him talk almost without pause for several minutes it doesn’t take you very long to realize that this conversation is going to be pretty one-sided, and so you decide to just give in and nod occasionally as John expounds his philosophy of the utter magnificence of these trees; of these mountains. He is on a walking trip from up north, from the valley of the Yosemite, and he’s come here because he’s heard of the trees, not this unique saloon which attracted you. And although you have walked these mountains for years you now find yourself looking at them with different eyes because of the words he speaks and the eloquence with which he offers them. Perhaps it’s the smoky whiskey which you drink which causes this; perhaps not. But John’s ideas of preserving and protecting somehow seem to make sense, and they seem so logical that you wonder why they have never before occurred to you. But somehow everything seems so logical now; now at this time and here in this place. Later that evening you and John walk through the grove of giant trees one more time, talking long into the night of the magnificence of nature as well as of the follies of men. John has brought his blanket along and spreads it on the ground beneath what might be the largest tree on earth and says he thinks he will pass the night here beneath the giant and the stars, so you end the evening with a sudden goodbye and wander alone back to Israel’s Bar where you lift another glass of whiskey to the trees, and the mountains, and the thirst which brought you here.
It all seems suddenly quite normal now to have been sitting in the hollow remains of a giant tree listening to a man who calls himself John of the Mountains eloquently argue the near sentience of the trees while Israel served homemade whiskey and General Grant offered his generous shade.
The next morning you give Raven some extra brushing and then mount up, saying goodbye to this saloon in a dead tree; Israel’s Bar. You know that you won’t be returning, because things this strange, this good, never last. They can’t, because people find out about them, and tack names on them, and they become famous and lose that Something which makes them so special. So you know that Israel’s Bar will soon fade away to a memory held by just a few, and you’re just grateful that you had the chance to taste it while it still flickered with life.
“Which way, Raven?” You ask as you settle into the saddle. “Where would you like to spend this Winter?”
She looks around at you, that one wet eye glistening brightly in the sunlight, thinks a moment, then turns slightly and heads off through the trees, taking you to the place where you will pass the coming winter while thinking of the oddities of men, the eloquence of John, and of the strange pleasures of Israel’s Bar.
It is two o’clock on a coal-dark Tuesday morning in March, and you are sleeping very soundly high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. There is nothing taking place so far this night to disturb this sleep – the sparse traffic which consisted mostly of the occasional clatter of horse’s hooves and the rumble of wagon wheels on the road passing by your wood frame cabin have died away many hours ago, and your few neighbors in this high mountain valley have long ago drifted off into a sleep just as deep as your own. As this year has thus far progressed only as far as late March and the temperature outside is still well below freezing, your valley, though beautiful, has seen few visitors for the past several months; a state of affairs which is completely to your preference. There are still numerous deer and bear, of course; as well as many wolves and coyotes; they are at home here any time of year. But the human element of this valley – your valley, as you sometimes like to think of it – has mostly migrated to the lower elevations of the mountains and they await the return of warmer air before they once again begin their summer sojourns back to this beautiful place; a valley which was a well-kept secret until just a few short years ago. But you have chosen to spend the winter here in the High Sierra, a prospect which would bring trepidation into the hearts of most, but for you it has instead been an experience which has been found to be challenging, even exciting. You have taken on a job as a winter caretaker for a hotel which is empty of residents on this cold spring night. Watching after the building and its contents takes little of your time, which is worth exactly the little amount of money being paid to you by its owner. In return you get a cabin in which to live, enough food to keep body and soul together, and perhaps just a bit of pocket change left at the end of it all. But that last bit really doesn’t matter all that much as there is no place nearby for you to spend that money; nor is there anything more you need on which you wish to spend it. After all – what more could you possibly want? You already have everything you need – a bit of food (good, even though it is mostly beans and crackers); a roof (true, it leaks in places); and the mountains (splendid!).What most people spend their lives chasing after you find superfluous, even laughable. And so you lay here on your cot in warm contentment; your blanket covering almost all of your long body as it is pulled up past your chin, leaving your sock-clad feet exposed as the fire dies out and you resist getting out of bed to feed into it some of those pieces of wood which lie scattered on the floor near the hearth. The year is 1872. Tuesday, the twenty-sixth day of March, has barely circled into existence on the hands of your pocket watch – if you were to bother to look at your watch, but keeping track of time is very far down, or not even on, the list of things you consider enjoyable. This winter has thus far shown few surprises, but many pleasures, and you sleep on soundly, snoring gently. You are in a rough wood cabin on the floor of Yosemite Valley. Your name is John Muir, and life is good. The hands on your pocket watch, unseen, silently move to show that it is 2:10.
Then the Unexpected suddenly barges into your sleep like some monster of the mountains with giant hands, shaking you violently from your slumber and knocking you off your cot onto the floor, sending your long skinny legs into painful confrontation with the sharp edges of those scattered pieces of firewood which should have been keeping you warm on this heretofore peaceful winter night instead of banging into and bruising your bony shins. You try to get to your feet but the rough plank floor beneath you just won’t cooperate; it keeps shaking and moving and sliding out from beneath your socks as you slip around on all fours. You finally manage to make it to your feet but almost immediately wish you were back on your hands and knees, a much more stable position in this unstable reality which has suddenly overtaken your peaceful valley. As you stand there in the dark with only the red glow of the embers in your fire to cast a dim glow, you see one of the log remnants roll out of the fire and onto the floor. At the same time the door to your cabin flies open letting a rush of cold air inside. But you are oblivious to the brisk March night air and the open door stands as a welcome invitation to quit this shaking cabin and take refuge outside. The irony of the great outdoors offering refuge does not escape you as you kick the smoldering piece of firewood off the floor and outside then quickly follow it through the door as fast as your legs will take you, noting on some distant mental level that getting about has suddenly taken on aspects somewhat similar to navigating oneself along the rocking deck of a sailing ship caught in a storm. Once outside and clear of the cabin by several feet (it would, after all, be an ignoble end to one’s life to be crushed to death by the collapsing detritus of some long lost mountain man’s shack), you pause and look around, your knees bending in time to the swaying of the ground in a sort of primitive dance with the earth itself. Then you come to grips with what is actually taking place and your heart soars with happiness at being able to experience the nature of the High Sierra in all of its violent fury. A smile lights up your face and you raise your hands high at the glory of it all. You run several staggering steps more so that your view of the valley walls is unimpeded by the cabin and turn in circles and take it all in. Then you take a deep breath and shout with joy.
“An earthquake!” But the valley floor is rumbling, drowning out your voice.
“A noble earthquake!”
As you look around you can see that the rocky walls of the valley are also moving violently as they shimmer in the moonlight; shaking from side to side and beginning to flake off here and there like the uneven crust on a loaf of bread which is being handled too roughly. Then the shaking suddenly stops just as quickly as it had begun and you find yourself having difficulty finding a balance for your body in this sudden calm. Your knees still try to bend and twist as they anticipate the next rolling movements of the earth, but the shaking has ceased as the earth itself seems to have found a balance. The night is suddenly silent, completely still; an unnatural peace which seems at best to be an uneasy truce brokered between the gods of the Underworld. As your legs gradually resume a somewhat normal posture you turn and look around, gazing at the high valley walls and wondering how they are still standing in place after all the shaking; why have they not tumbled to the valley floor, filling your beautiful valley and burying it forever. Your gaze comes to rest on Sentinel Rock, a huge outcropping which rises some three thousand feet above the valley floor, and a shiver of anticipation runs down your spine at the thought of what it might do to you and your shack should it become disengaged from the valley wall and arc across the night sky toward you. You watch, looking for any sign of portending instability, but it remains still. You sigh in relief. Then you hear something; just a small sound, and far away. Still, it catches your attention and you try to focus, leaning one ear into the night air to see if you can catch it again. After a few seconds it does indeed repeat and you swivel your gaze to focus on that part of the valley wall from whence you think it came. It comes at you again, but this time the sound does not stop. Instead it increases to a rattle, then to a roar, then to a crescendo. Part of the valley wall is moving. It’s not the part about which you were so worried just a moment ago; not that high outcropping of Sentinel Peak. Instead this roar seems to be coming from a neighboring rock; one almost as high and large; one known to the locals as Eagle Peak. As you stare you can see it moving in the moonlight, shaking from side to side there on the valley wall even though everything around it has come to rest. The roar increases and it moves, slowly at first, but with a definite sinking as it separates from the rest of the valley wall and begins its descent. Then it seems to hang there for a moment, a very long moment, as if it can’t quite make up its mind if it really wants to leave behind the home which has held it in place for unknown millennia. Finally, almost sadly, it gives in to the tug of gravity which proves irresistible after it has now been loosed from its hold on the mountain by the earthquake. It arcs away from the rocky wall and out into the cold night air; Eagle Peak falling silently as the loose rocks below and above it crash down the valley wall in an avalanche which gives every indication of being headed straight towards you. So you run, seeking cover. A large pine tree stands near and you angle toward it, keeping the tumbling rocks in view as you move. You take cover behind the tree and then peer out around it, watching the spectacle unfold before your eyes. It seems to you that the earth itself has found a voice and is shouting in joy at being able to let loose. The rocks themselves, as they tumble toward you like a broad wall of advancing soldiers, seem to light up with a fiery glow as if alive with an inner fire. Eagle Peak is moving closer now, plummeting down to meet the advance guard of house-sized boulders which have raced it to the valley floor. And you laugh at the sheer joy and absurdity of it, knowing that the pine tree behind which you have taken cover, though large in comparison to its neighboring trees, will offer no shelter whatsoever should the mountain of falling rock make its way this far across the valley floor. But you laugh again, because this would indeed be a noble way to end one’s life.
But the advancing rock does not make it as far as your place of refuge, nor does the head of Eagle Peak find you as it comes crashing to its final resting place amongst the boulders as they slow to a stop. There is still a clatter of smaller stones falling when you deem it safe enough to move from your refuge behind the pine tree and run toward the fallen monolith. You scramble up on top of some of the smaller stones, then leap from rock to larger rock until you stand high enough so that your eyes can now command a view of the entire field of carnage. The moon shines down on you as the fall of rock ceases and a cloud of dust slowly rises like a bank of fog, shutting off your view across the valley and diffusing the moonlight into a soft glow. Then the world falls into total silence once again, just as it had been silent before this all happened – How long ago was that? Just moments, but in those moments you feel as if you have lived a lifetime. You stand there on top of that boulder for a long time, reveling in the unpredictability of nature and the changing beauty of the mountains you love. It might be minutes or hours before you finally leap down from the boulders and make your way back to your shack; you don’t know and you don’t really care; your pocket watch is still in its pocket; still in the shack if the shack is still standing. In years to come many will write of this great earthquake. Seismologists will conjecture that it is one of the largest in all of recorded history; one which gave birth to thousands of aftershocks felt over the following months. Statisticians will count the number of crumbled buildings and the sad toll of fallen bodies. Historians will observe that it was felt all the way out to the Pacific Ocean to the west and to Nevada in the east; all the way to Oregon in the north and to Mexico to the South. But you, John Muir; you in later years will share the most eloquent description of them all. You will write of the feeling that sprang from your heart as the ground shook and the rocks fell, and your pen will once again give voice to those few brief words:
“A Noble Earthquake!”
The Land of Lost Content
“Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows . . .”
The decade of the1840’s saw an air that kills blow into California. It was only a breeze at first, a whisper of air that few noticed; a killing air which soon grew to an orgy of violence that swept countless lives away before it. It was a wind that was conjured by the few designed to kill the many; one which accomplished its purpose so effectively and to such a degree that it actually astonished many of its conjurors just as much as it did its victims with the swiftness with which the lethal dose was administered. This killing air was not, as one might at first think, the war of the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexico. Nor was it the result of one of the frequent earthquakes which rocked the state back then even as they do now; nor one of the frequent plagues of flu or dysentery which ravaged the mining and logging camps of the Sierra Nevada. This killing air which moved across the land was carefully planned by very calculating minds, and over the period of just a few decades it effectively buried more than a quarter of a million men, women, and children. This Air That Kills blew from the hearts and minds of greedy immigrants and snuffed out the hearts and souls of almost all of the native Californians who had lived here so peacefully before those interlopers arrived.
It was the mountains in which we live, the Sierra Nevada, which sparked this fire, for beneath their surface lay unimaginable deposits of gold, silver, and other ores, while high upon their mountaintops grew timber in such quantity as to offer the promise of building countless great cities throughout this Golden State. Yet the land was already occupied by almost three hundred thousand peaceful people who did not crave wealth and who showed no interest or enterprise whatsoever when it came to exploiting the land. Instead they looked upon the interlopers with amusement and bewilderment, refusing to help pave the road of progress to a future they could not see; to one which they would not want. These people were very much in the way, blocking the progress of the new Californians and their ambitious plans, and savvy political minds immediately recognized an opportunity just waiting to be exploited. So early in the year of 1850 the first governor of California, Peter Burnett, proudly announced that the state was officially in the business of exterminating the native residents. He and the state legislature authorized funding for numerous private militias to set out and indiscriminately hunt and kill natives. The state would also generously pay for all of the bullets which were necessary. And – as if offering to fund hunting parties comprised of licensed murderers wasn’t enough – the hunters could also collect a cash bounty if they returned to the state capitol with trophies; proofs of their kills. Body parts were preferred - especially hands and heads – but just about any anatomical piece would earn the bearer anywhere from ten to twenty-five dollars. There was virtually no opposition to this widespread murder. Only one lone editor in Humboldt dared to write a front page article about the indiscriminate massacre of Indian women and children. He was run out of town for his un-American sentiments, and was lucky to escape with his life. Over the next ten years the state government paid out about one and one-half million dollars in rewards, while the federal government joined in with another quarter million. Native American body parts had become a political windfall.
Later that same year of 1850 the state legislature decided to provide an alternative to licensed murder and passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. This sounded benevolent and innocent – even beneficial – but in an excellent demonstration of political doublespeak the law allowed any white person to kidnap and enslave any native child, purportedly for the child’s own protection. They were soon being abducted by the thousands for the purpose of slave labor and sexual use. This proved so popular that the terms of the law were expanded a few months later to allow for the kidnapping of Native American adults as well. Upon the testimony of any white man, any native could now be immediately declared a vagrant and then bound into slavery to any white landowner for permanent indenture. It was now also illegal for any native to carry a weapon, own real estate, attend white schools, testify in court, or intermarry with whites. Drinking alcohol in public was still allowed, for the beneficial reason that it would lead to an obvious charge of vagrancy and hence to indentured slavery.
This management of the native population didn’t completely begin with the white settlers in the mid-eighteen hundreds – they just proved themselves to be much more efficient at it than their predecessors. The real beginning can be traced back to the year of 1769 when a Spanish padre by the name of Junipero Serra accompanied a group of Spanish soldiers on an expedition north from Mexico into California and initiated his construction of a long string of twenty-one Catholic missions throughout the length of this new Spanish territory. He found himself thrown into a state of constant amazement at the sight of the thousands of natives whom he saw wherever he went; quiet people who were living in peaceful contentment. He condemned their lifestyle as lazy, slothful, and godless, and set about saving them.
“When I saw their general behavior, their pleasing ways, and engaging manners,” he wrote, “my heart was broken to think they were still deprived of the light of the Holy Gospel.”
So he immediately set into motion a series of plans to save their souls. This included rounding them up, dressing them in uniforms and shoes, and requiring them to work as closely guarded slaves on the mission farmyards and vineyards. They were also forced to make bricks, tend livestock, make soap, and do whatever other manual labor as was deemed necessary for the glory of god. If they disobeyed, the good padre introduced them to whippings and execution. Yet the Spaniards were intent on using the natives for their value as labor, and that entailed the necessity of keeping most of them alive. It was the whites who were now intent on their complete elimination. Even so, the Spanish brought death to thousands of natives through the unconscious introduction of smallpox, malaria, venereal disease, and even the common cold. It was only in the brief period of Mexican rule that the natives were relatively safe; those years which began when Mexico won independence from Spain in 1834 and lasted until Mexico lost California to the Americans in 1848; a very few, very brief, fourteen years of peace and safety.
“What are those blue remembered hills; what spires, what farms are those?”
When men seek to kill other men, it has often been the great height and the remoteness of mountains which has offered the hope of refuge for the victims who have fled there for sanctuary. But in California it was ironically those very mountains which were the reason for the killing; the mountains and the treasures held within. So the Sierra Nevada became the first killing ground for the natives as the white settlers, drunken with the lust for quick wealth, flooded into the mountains from the north, east, and west and pushed the natives to the south. As the number of immigrants grew and the gold fields spread out from Sutter’s Mill the natives were pushed farther and farther away. If they paused to look back they could see in place of their once peaceful, beautiful mountains the horror of deep shafts now being sunk into the ground, the tall framework of giant stamp mills erected to crush ore, and rivers of mud flowing downward as hydraulic pumps were flushing away entire mountainsides in the search for mere ounces of gold. The mud flowed into the streams where yet more men lined the banks to swirl it in their pans, then it washed down into the great central valley to water and fertilize the growing acres of farmland where once great herds of elk had roamed. Their ancestral home was being washed away before their very eyes as they had to run before the invaders; and it was to become their death knell as well if they lingered too long before fleeing. Farther and farther they went until they suddenly encountered the armies of loggers coming at them from the south, cutting down the mountainsides of great trees; leaving most of the shattered remains of the great behemoths in waste where they fell as small pieces were tugged to the mills by belching donkey engines, cut up in the sawmills by giant whirling blades, and floated down to the valley floor in miles-long flumes that spanned the canyons and gorges. There was nowhere left in the mountains for the Native Californians in which to take refuge. They were forced down into the San Joaquin Valley where they were hunted for bounty, and for sport.
“That is the land of lost content; I see it shining plain . . .”
Life in the Sierra Nevada Mountains had been good for the Native Californians. Up in the higher elevations they could pass the hot summer months in cool contentment. Game was plentiful and the streams ran full of fresh trout. There were blackberries, gooseberries, elderberries, and acorns to be had for the picking. Wild herbs were plentiful. If they dug in the ground it wasn’t for yellow nuggets but rather for a variety of tasty mushrooms. When they rested beneath the giant Sequoias it was in awe of the age these giants had achieved and in appreciation of the shade which they offered; it wasn’t to name them after a favorite general or to sell their shattered remnants for curious pieces of paper with pictures of other favorite generals. Life was easy; life was good. Yet it was that ease of accepting what life had to offer which led to them being labeled as lazy; and it was the natural richness of their life from which it was deemed that they needed to be saved. But saving was work. It was easier to kill.
“The happy highways where I went, and can not come again.”
By the late 1860’s reservations were being established around California – and all over the country – to house Native Americans in confinement upon less desirable land while the mountains and valleys upon which they had once roamed freely were appropriated for more profitable use. The survivors of the extermination were not given a choice, and internment in a reservation usually became a sentence of death by starvation. There was no game to hunt and no food to gather, so the state of California grudgingly allowed them to slowly waste away on a daily diet of only 200 to 400 calories of cheap food provided by their captors. This was so effective at eliminating the natives who had not already been murdered that, by the year 1900, the population of Native Americans in California had declined from some five hundred tribal groups containing almost 300,000 people to a mere 16,000 ragged survivors. Ninety-five per cent had been killed, and four hundred of those tribal groups had been completely eliminated. One biographer of Adolph Hitler later wrote that upon reading of the American government’s solution to the Indian problem, Hitler was inspired to design similar camps for his campaign of genocide against those whom he wished to exterminate. Yet, ironically, Hitler was much more generous in giving food to his prisoners. Although adopting the same blueprint for extermination as his California mentors, he allowed inmates at Auschwitz a daily allotment of a relatively generous 1300 calories.
Today the population of Native Californians stands at about 725,000. Many of them still live on reservations. Many of those reservations can now be visited by you. They are called casinos, and when you arrive on these new reservations you can sometimes even see genuine Native Americans as they once again gaze upon their captors with amusement and bewilderment; watching the white invaders drink alcohol in excess and play games of chance for curious pieces of paper with pictures of generals on them. As you visit, you might ponder the curious twisted path which has brought them here. And if you later find yourself high in the mountains resting in the shade beneath a giant Sequoia, then close your eyes and listen. Perhaps, within the sounds of the forest, you might also hear the whispered words of the poet. It is doubtful that he held the natives of California in his thoughts as he wrote, yet perhaps there was something; some great feeling of pain and anguish that traveled halfway around the world and took root in his heart without his even knowing, and which then guided his pen to write these words:
“Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills;
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went,
And can not come again.”
A.E. Housman; 1896
The Ghost of the Canyon
Wanted: One Hermit
Tradition dictates a male, preferably middle aged or elderly.
Must prefer the company of animals to that of people.
Salary: None. Benefits: None. Retirement: None.
Should be elusive and rarely seen.
Apply in person at the Kings Canyon Hermit Hole
The Hermit Hole in Kings Canyon was just a wide spot on the bank of the Kings River in the Sierra National Forest; a place where sometimes, if one were to look closely, you just might catch a glimpse of a frail, hunched figure disappearing into the bushes; a shadow of a man adept at making himself invisible; a ghost who blended with the rocks – the Ghost of the Canyon. But unlike most phantom figures in the dark, this ghost had a name – Clarence Quigley; a lonely man who preferred the company of his animals to that of people; a man with no salary, no benefits, no retirement; the perfect definition of an invisible man.
Clarence Quigley was a hermit, a man born in the closing years of the eighteen hundreds. He didn’t begin life as a solitary man but rather eased into the lifestyle; moving, along with his brother George, from his family’s home in the Sierra Nevada foothills up into the high mountains to live his life away from cities and the crowds of noisy people they harbored. Once in the mountains he found work with the Hume Bennett Lumber Company and made his new home in the area of Hume Lake where he worked as a Flume Snake for twelve years, walking the planks along the wooden flume as it crossed high above the canyons and clearing up clogs in the floating timber with a long stick wherever they occurred. On his day off he excelled in the logging camp sport of flume riding, sitting himself down on the tiny, V-shaped seat and tearing down the flume at speeds of up to fifty miles an hour, raising his hands high in the air as the wind blew through his long hair and he leaned perilously to one side as the flume boat raced around the turns. Then, as the flow of the water slowed through a level spot, he would jump off and walk into the woods to try his hand at some random prospecting.
Soon his search for gold and other precious metals grew to share equal time with his life as a flume snake, and then took over completely. One of his earliest successful mining claims came to be known as the Garnet Dike Mine, located deep in Fox Canyon near the Kings River. Quigley worked it for several years but sold the claim in 1935, losing it before it went into maximum production during World War Two, and losing it also before it grew to produce its maximum profits. But in 1935 Quigley had other issues to deal with and the profits from a tungsten mine fell far from his mind, because in 1935 Clarence Quigley’s wife passed away. Clarence was not quite a hermit yet, and he had chosen to share his life with the woman with whom he had fallen madly and deeply in love. She had accompanied Clarence into the mountains and shared the life of flume riding and prospecting with him. They had spent thirteen very happy years together when she suddenly passed away in 1935. Despondent, he sadly escorted her body back to the family’s home and stayed to see her buried in the Tollhouse cemetery. He said his goodbyes to her, silently promising that he would one day lie by her side; that one day they would be together again. Then, sunk in depression, he went back to his home amongst the mountains of Kings Canyon. But he was broken hearted, and that pain and lonliness moved him a large step closer to becoming a hermit.
With his brother George, Clarence went on to file several more mining claims in the forest which surrounded Kings Canyon. He also tried his hand at hunting and trapping – other mountain professions which might earn him a stake, but professions which would only require infrequent contact with others. He grew fearful that strangers might hear the sounds of his shots and learn where he lived and mined, so he took to hunting by knife and club because of the silence they promised. In his later years he reckoned that he had killed some sixty-five or seventy bears, many of the deaths counted in hand-to-claw fights with the large beasts. Sometimes he used a mining tool, such as a pick; once there was only a hammer at hand; often just a large stick. For several years Clarence and George made a good living from their claims, packing mostly gold nuggets out of the mountains to trade for food and tools. But then in 1942 George died as one of their mines caved in on him, burying him alive beneath a pile of rock and smothering him before Clarence could dig him out. After long days of digging Clarence finally managed to retrieve George’s body and inter him in a more fitting grave. But his last contact with society and civilization had now passed out of his already lonely life, and Clarence took his final quiet step toward becoming a true hermit.
It wasn’t that Clarence didn’t like people – he just didn’t seek them out. When he did accidently meet someone in the mountains he was friendly and affable, but if he saw them coming he was quick to disappear into the brush. This uncanny talent soon earned him the nickname of the Ghost of the Kings, and he became well known for his talents of fading away almost as soon as he was glimpsed. Yet if one was lucky enough to surprise him with a greeting, Clarence would engage in an easy conversation with him until he could comfortably take his leave.
Realizing the inevitability that someone would occasionally stumble onto his cabin or find one of his claims, Clarence took to posting signs to warn them away, and those signs often rambled on long after the warning had been declared. One such sign near his shack stated: “there is nothing in the house of any particular value, and I am writing this for the purpose of saving those who have a desire to pillage the trouble of breaking in.” Another warning sign began: “This sign is not placed here for honest people, but for crooks, meddlers, and pillagers.” It then went on to discuss people who just can’t leave things alone, how he had set traps for bears on the property, and concludes with “my advice is for everyone to stay on the outside for it is much safer than on the inside.”
Clarence held no anger or fear toward outsiders, but with the only two people in his life whom he had loved now gone forever, Clarence just preferred to be alone, and now no longer liked the idea of visitors even when he wasn’t home.
Years passed and Clarence came out of the mountains rarely, perhaps twice a year at the most. He would file proof every year that his claims were being worked in order to keep his title to them – but his fellow mountain men knew very well that Quigley had found many other sources of gold that weren’t filed on official claims. Then he would disappear back into the mountains with a half year supply of food packed on his burros, not to be glimpsed again – if he could help it – until at least another six months had passed. If winter had set in and he needed supplies, but there was no food for his burros to graze on during the trip, then Clarence would hike out alone for twenty miles or so to the nearest neighbor and carry back sixty or seventy pounds of food on his back, if he could barter for it. If winter was heavy and cold and the burros could dig out no traces of grass whatsoever, then he would hike out and pack back in with bales of hay strapped to his back. Clarence’s burros were his friends, and he was loyal to those friends.
An excellent hunter and trapper, Clarence was able to provide most of the food he needed on his own. But, in addition to hay for his burros, Clarence also sought some variety in his diet in addition to the meat he could easily harvest from the forest. So, what does a hermit like to eat? Besides the usual beans, bacon, and flour, Clarence also had a taste for peanut butter and chocolate. He saved the bacon grease from the pan and used it to add flavor to the quail and raccoon which fell to his traps. Raisins and dried milk also went back into the mountains with him, primarily because he’d found they made an excellent addition to his favorite breakfast dish – a large bowl of corn flakes. Two burros could pack in enough of these staples to keep him going for at least six months.
With his contacts to the outside world growing less frequent, Clarence moved farther back into the mountains as the years passed. He still had a shack close to the Garnet Dike Mine but was rarely seen there. Instead he ranged farther into the high country, sometimes to the lesser known claims to which he still held title, but often staying in one of the many randomly hidden shelters he’d constructed out of rock and timber. Other miners in the mountains thought these hideouts might number in the dozens, but no one knew for certain how many there might be as only a few of them had ever been discovered. If Clarence found himself on the trail when darkness fell and none of these shelters were near, then he had no difficulty in easily constructing something to fit his needs for the night. He once described how he did this – he would find two fallen trees near each other, peel long strips of bark off one of the trees and then arrange them in a semicircle around the base of the other tree. He would then light a fire inside this semicircle and the heat would radiate back onto him, keeping him warm while the smoke leaked out through the cracks. Another long strip of bark would serve as a mattress and he would sleep in comfort, waking every few hours to feed the fire. The one blanket he usually carried on his back did little to help keep him warm as it had at least one large hole in it for each of his years alone in the mountains, but it might have been carried more for psychological rather than physical comfort; it was perhaps one of the last links with civilization to which he still clung. Quigley was a man at home in the mountains, more comfortable with trees and animals than with people – as any self-respecting hermit should be.
Clarence Quigley continued to live an increasingly reclusive life as the years went on, eating his corn flakes and chocolate and talking to his burros until he passed on in 1975, eighty three years old. His body was found by a hiker, lying next to the Kings River in the canyon he called home. He had lived a life of contentment, a claim few can make, and ended that life by the river in the mountains he loved. His body was carried out by a burro, and he was buried next to his wife in the Tollhouse cemetery, keeping the promise he had made to her some forty years before. His secrets died with him; the secrets of those hidden sources of gold and the many lean-to shacks which might still hold a sack or two of nuggets or dust.
Now the Ghost in the Canyon is gone forever, and the high country of the Kings River has no hermit walking its hidden trails. So there’s a job opening here; a career opportunity for anyone who thinks he or she might be able to live such a life; to maybe even prefer it. It doesn’t pay much – perhaps just that elusive contentment in a world which offers us so very little of that commodity; a treasure far more scarce than gold.
Wanted: One Hermit
Qualifications: Male or female; happy with oneself.
Must prefer the company of animals to that of people.
Salary: None. Benefits: None. Retirement: None.
Should be elusive and rarely seen.
Apply in person at the Kings Canyon Hermit Hole.
The Kings is waiting. Care to submit your application?
Two men are standing in the dirt street before the open doors of a saloon in the eastern Sierra Nevada mining town of Bodie. It’s a cold January day in the year of 1878. They have come outside to settle a dispute which began inside the bar over drinks. How many drinks? Well, they can’t really remember. What was the argument about? By now they probably can’t remember that, either. But as the glasses had emptied and their voices had grown louder, anger had then erupted between them, and what had been a simple disagreement had slid into insults and one had challenged the other to a duel. It had become an Affair of Honor, and since neither would back down then one would have to die. In consideration for the safety of their fellow drinkers they had decided to take this part of the dispute out into the street, lest any stray bullet harm an innocent onlooker. Now they stood a mere two feet apart, feet planted wide as they swayed slightly, each with a hand poised over the handle of a revolver wedged into the front of pants held in place with a belt made of old rope; each waiting to pull his weapon and open fire, settling the matter once and for all. With any luck they would not pull the trigger until the barrel had cleared the rope belt and was levelled at their opponent, instead of where it now pointed down inside their pants at their own genitals, a result which would be a painful – and very embarrassing – end to the fight. They stared at each other as the seconds passed, then the fingers of one man twitched slightly. That was the signal for the other’s hand to drop to his weapon, and in an instant both guns had been drawn and leveled and bullets were flying as each of the men emptied his revolver. Since the two combatants stood only inches apart none of the shots missed, and none of the dozens of observers who had followed the two men out into the street were in any danger of being hit. In ten seconds the fight had ended, and both were spouting blood from numerous wounds in the chest, belly, arms, and hands. One of the two, satisfied that his honor had been successfully defended, staggered back into the saloon and ordered another drink to stem the pain as he leaned against the bar and bled on the floor. The other man, not at all satisfied that his honor had been restored, thought things over for a minute as he dropped rivulets of blood into the dusty street. Then, with one arm paralyzed from a bullet and the other hand having only two fingers that still worked, he lowered his revolver and clamped it in place between his knees. With the two working fingers that remained he slowly pulled the empty shells from the cylinder and replaced them with fresh live rounds. Then he turned and, hobbling painfully, made his way back into the saloon, leveled his revolver with a shaky hand, and proceeded to empty it once again into the back of the man who had disagreed with him. As the unwary man slid to the floor and lay still, the still-standing man nodded in satisfaction. Then he, too, dropped to the floor and bled to death.
But this had been an Affair of Honor, and he died knowing his honor had been defended.
Barbaric, you are thinking? Perhaps. Or, perhaps not. This was an integral and unquestioned part of California life a century and a half ago. A man’s honor was very important. It was a time when men, either alone or in groups, did not always rely on an officer of the law for help; a time when they only rarely turned to a lawyer to iron out a dispute. Such things took time and, when acting alone, matters could often be settled much more expeditiously.
Such an event took place one evening in the mining town of Sutter Creek where two men died within a short space of time without the law being asked to step in. A poker game was taking place in a saloon and an argument erupted between a local miner and a man who was looked upon with suspicion as a professional gambler. The argument led to blows being exchanged. The gambler, who was getting the worst of the fist fight, drew a long-bladed knife and stabbed the miner, who fell to the floor screaming. As his friends laid him out and bandaged his deep wound, a dozen others quickly formed a miner’s court and tried the gambler for assault. Within minutes he was found guilty and sentenced to a whipping. He was stripped to the waist and taken outside where he was tied to a pole and given seventy-five lashes with a bullwhip. The gambler lived through his punishment, but had to crawl away and try to tend to his own wounds. Yet he couldn't crawl far enough. The next day the miner died of his knife wound. So the miner’s court reconvened and tried the gambler for murder, finding him guilty. He was hung from a tree an hour later, after the court had indulged in a brief recess for drinks.
In 1857 the town of Hornitos saw a similar episode take place, only this time both men drew knives. Again it began with a poker game, and an accusation of cheating quickly saw both men pull their weapons. But before they could draw blood the dealer drew his own pistol and asked them to take their dispute outside so the game would not be interrupted. They looked at his weapon cautiously and nodded, and while the dealer and the other players returned to the game the two men went outside. Several minutes later one of them walked slowly back, bleeding profusely. He went to the bar, ordered a large brandy, and then raised it to his lips with one hand while he held his intestines in place with the other. He then resumed his seat at the card game and asked to be dealt in. That hand was his last; it was still being played when he slid from his chair to the floor.
In 1873 the silver mining town of Panamint was a booming metropolis on the eastern side of the Sierra, and it was often said that the Boot Hill just outside of town was the personal cemetery of a gunfighter by the name of Jim Bruce because it held so many of his victims. One time a prospector picked a fight with Bruce out on the street in front of the Bank of Panamint and drew his weapon. Although late to the draw Bruce’s hand was much faster and he walked away calmly, leaving it to others to dispose of the miner’s body. On another occasion Bruce was being entertained in a local brothel – not just by any of the girls, but by the Madame herself, a very desirable woman who limited her clientele to a select few men who were invited to her private chamber. As Bruce and his paramour were locked in a passionate embrace the door to the room flew open and a man walked in, demanding female companionship. Although caught unaware, Bruce reached out over the bedside to draw his weapon, then twisted to turn and fire. As the impatient client fell dead Bruce resumed his lovemaking, having successfully defended his bare-ass naked honor without missing a beat.
It wasn’t always just individual men who felt comfortable in being self-reliant in the face of adversity. Sometimes whole communities became involved.
In nearby Fiddletown, three suspicious characters were rounded up by the citizens following the robbery of a Wells Fargo office. Although no one had actually seen the men commit the crime, they were all pretty certain of their guilt because they were strangers. Still, they didn’t want to act too precipitously, and thought it would be best if the men confessed before they were hung. Yet the strangers refused to cooperate and instead professed their innocence. Hearing that a sheriff had learned of the robbery and was on his way, the citizens thought it would be good if they could wrap things up before he got there. So they placed nooses around the necks of the three men and hauled them up into the air until their feet dangled and kicked, then lowered them, loosened the nooses, and asked if they wanted to confess. They didn’t, so this procedure was repeated. Again, no confession. And again. And again. When the sheriff arrived all three were surprisingly still alive. He took them into custody and with a collective shrug the crowd dispersed, having done their best to further the cause of quick justice.
A man from Austria by the name of Pete Nicholas found himself in a somewhat similar situation in the town of Columbia when he got into a fight with a fellow miner named John Parote. As they rolled around in the street trading punches, Nicholas drew his knife and stabbed his opponent. Pete was arrested by the sheriff and thrown in jail. Then his story began to get a little more complicated, with perhaps just a bit of slapstick. The following morning a group of Parote’s friends broke into the jail and dragged Nicholas down the street to where they had a noose already hanging over a sturdy tree limb. As they were hanging him the sheriff and a deputy climbed up the tree from the other side to cut the rope. But the branch broke under the weight and all three of the men fell to the ground.
The mob pushed forward and shoved the sheriff aside, determined to hang Nicholas again. One of Nicholas’s friends made his way to the front, pleading with the mob to act in a civilized fashion, stalling them until reinforcements could arrive. His strategy worked, and Nicholas was quickly transferred to the Sonora jail. In Sonora he was tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced to hang. But even though his trial was over, his attorney still had one more card to play.
As was pointed out earlier, men in California rarely sought the help of an attorney, usually wishing to resolve their own problems. However, Nicholas had made a wise decision not only in hiring a lawyer, but also in choosing a crafty one. While the local drama of Pete Nicholas was dragging on, the entire state of California was engrossed in the larger drama of what city was to be chosen for the state capital. San Jose and Sacramento seemed to be the most popular candidates but other cities were still in the running and the state legislature was being flooded with petitions for their consideration – petitions which often had thousands of signatures attached. One small mining town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the name of Pine Log felt that the mountain folk who made up the backbone of California were being largely ignored, so they had started passing around a petition to make Pine Log the new capital city of California. Miners from neighboring communities also eagerly signed it, and soon the petition had over ten thousand signatures attached. While Pete Nicholas was awaiting his date with the hangman, one day his lawyer saw this petition sitting on a store counter in Columbia awaiting more signatures. In a stroke of inspiration he quietly pocketed the petition and its pages of attached signatures. Back in his office he removed the original petition and threw it away, then attached in its place a plea for leniency for Pete Nicholas. Then he forwarded that, along with its newly attached ten thousand signatures, to California Governor John Bigler. Having no clue as to who Nicholas was – nor did he even care - Governor Bigler immediately saw a way to possibly garner ten thousand votes in the next election and promptly reduced the sentence of Nicholas from hanging to ten years in prison. Then, upon further consideration, reduced it again to a mere four years. Instead of storming the jail the men of Columbia took it with good grace, seeing the humor in the situation and praising the lawyer for his creativity. In this case it was the lawyer who successfully defended his own honor even more than that of his client. And he did it with humor.
Humor was always one of the mainstays of mountain life. Whether you were a miner, logger, hunter, or trapper you would not have been able to survive life in the high country without being able to hand it out to others, and to laugh when you became the victim of it.
One day in Nevada City two men fell into an argument over drinks, and it quickly escalated to the deadly level of other such confrontations. But in this case friends of each of the men tried to intervene, urging them to separate and let things just cool off before it turned deadly. But the men seemed incapable of doing this. So their friends tried one more tactic and took away the revolvers both men were carrying, telling them to let things cool down for just one more hour. If, at the end of that hour, the two couldn’t see eye-to-eye and shake hands, then they would give the men back their weapons and let nature take its course. The two antagonists agreed, and sat down to wait. At the end of that hour neither had changed his mind, so their guns were returned to them. Finally the moment of satisfaction had arrived. The two stepped apart, faced each other, drew their weapons, and fired. Both men then grabbed their chests as thick red fluid ran down from between their fingers. Both thought they had been mortally wounded. Both expected to die within moments.
But neither of them did die. Because while their friends had held their weapons, they had decided to play a little joke on them. First they pried the lead from the casings and pocketed the bullets, replacing the shells into their chambers. Only now the shells held just gun powder. Then one man went across the street to a restaurant and borrowed a jar of strawberry jelly. They then filled half of each gun barrel with jelly and packed it in. And when the two men who could not be reconciled drew and fired, each splattering jelly on the chest of the other, the bar broke out into a roar of howling laughter with men rolling on the floor. The two antagonists had to laugh at themselves, and they finally shook hands.
It was an affair of honor, and honor had been satisfied.
Rite of Passage
Eating this coyote meat, Moses thought to himself, has to be worse than chewing on a lumberjack’s boot.
But Moses kept on chewing, because the tough, stringy meat dangling from the blade of his knife was the only thing hanging between him and death, and the foul taste which was filling his mouth was the only thing reminding him that he was still trying to breathe, sucking air through his mouth and around the foul meat because his nostrils were frozen shut; but still clinging to life as the snow piled up around him on this freezing November evening high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. So he chewed, and swallowed, then filled his mouth again and chewed some more as he watched the daylight fade and the cascade of a million snowflakes blurred into just one continuous white wall, limiting his world view to just the few feet surrounding him and his fire, until that too faded and he was left with only the small dancing flames.
This isn’t how I thought it would happen, he mused. This isn’t how I thought I would die.
Not many seventeen year old boys spend time pondering how they will die. But then, not many seventeen year old boys find themselves suddenly and unexpectedly left to face a Sierra winter, and to face it all alone, not knowing if it will last three months or eight; not knowing if the first man to pass this way in the Spring will find him, or instead by chance just come across the remains of his body.
In the year 1844 Moses Schallenberger was just a boy who was emigrating to California, making his way west with his family and neighbors in a train of wagons in what would later come to be remembered as the Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party. They are remembered in the history books primarily because they were the first party of immigrants to arrive successfully in California with covered wagons. Yet what history tends to forget is that they were also famous for abandoning a seventeen year old boy in the wilderness, leaving him to find a way to survive alone as winter descended into the mountains – or, more likely, instead leaving him to starve and freeze.
The Stephens, Murphy & Townsend Party arrived at the eastern base of the Sierra late in the Autumn of 1844; later than they had planned because of a dozen delays along the way; none of which were serious but all of which resulted in them staring up at the Sierra from the East as October drew to a close instead of from the West. Scouts were sent out to try to discover an easy and quick way to cross the mountains, but no such path was to be found. Yet time was pressing, so they decided to begin the crossing on what appeared to be the least arduous route. They had barely begun when the trail led them to a Native American who was catching fish in a rocky stream that tumbled out of the narrow gorge. So they paused and talked to him – or tried to talk, but their communication ended up being mostly hand gestures, pointing, and a few words they optimistically hoped were mutually understood.
The native, whose name they understood to be Truckee, was very emphatic that they would not be able to cross the Sierra on the route they had chosen. He instead directed them farther North where they would find a passage by which they could ascend the mountains. He bid them to hurry, indicating that winter’s arrival was very close.
So the Stephen’s Party turned around and went looking for the path indicated by the helpful native. When they found the entrance next to a raging stream they wasted no time and immediately started up, naming it the Truckee Trail after the man who had guided them to the path. But the Truckee Trail soon turned into a series of zigzagging rocky declivities filled with one obstruction after another. Soon they were forced into the river itself as that offered the only way wide enough for the wagons to pass. Then they reached rock outcroppings ten feet high and more and had to lead the oxen around one at a time, then haul the wagons up by ropes. It was exhausting work, and November was entering its latter days when they reached a lake where they made camp, and they christened it Truckee Lake in memory of the helpful native whose advice had gotten them this far. There was little grass to be found for the livestock this late in the year, but the lean, boney creatures dug along the shore for what green shoots they could find. Game, at least, was still plentiful, and the men managed to shoot a few deer for food as well as a nice fat bear. With full stomachs they went to sleep hopeful that the coming days might see them safely across and down the other side.
But that night snow fell, and the camp awoke to more than a foot of the white stuff covering the ground. The temperature had dropped to well below freezing and the Truckee Trail lay buried and hidden. They knew that the wagons were not going any farther, so each of them bundled up food and some possessions and set out on foot, hoping to finish the crossing while they could still walk through the snow. Seventeen year old Moses, along with two other men, was chosen to stay behind for the winter and guard the wagons.
As the snow continued to fall, Moses and his two companions chopped down trees and hastily built a log cabin, a small enclosure measuring about twelve feet by fourteen feet in size. They had nothing with which to fill the cracks between the logs or the spaces between the roof poles, so they piled brush on top and along the sides. They also built a stone hearth with a chimney made of thick limbs going up one side. The cabin had no windows; just one low doorway for entrance and egress. But there was no door to close - just an old blanket hung across the opening to keep out the elements. They cut as much firewood as they could as the storm continued. The party had left them two oxen, which they slaughtered and butchered and hung outside to freeze. Then they settled down to wait out the winter.
The snow continued to fall without letup. Within a few days there was over ten feet of snow on the ground, and there was no end in sight. The three had quickly come to the realization that they were not going to survive the winter if they just continued to sit and do nothing. The wild game, which had been so plentiful upon their arrival at the lake barely a week ago, had now completely disappeared, and the two stringy oxen were not going to feed them for long. They decided they had to get out, and get out fast.
The next morning they cut branches to fashion some makeshift snowshoes, then headed out in a westerly direction. The snow was soft and they sank several inches with each step, then had to lift their feet back up out of the snow along with several pounds of snow that would fall in on top of the snowshoes with each step. Progress was slow and painful. Not knowing how many miles they had gone that first day the men made camp, cutting branches for a fire then huddling around it in their blankets. When they awoke the next morning they saw that their still smoldering campfire had melted down through the snow and now lay on bare dirt at the bottom of a fifteen foot deep circular hole in the snow. Without cooking a breakfast, they moved on. It was still snowing.
They had just started out when Moses began to get cramps in his legs. He could soon barely take twenty steps without excruciating pain lancing through his muscles, and had to stop to rest every few minutes. After only a couple of hours of this he knew he couldn’t go on. The three men sat down in the snow to talk, and Moses volunteered to stay behind. He said that he could probably find his way back to the cabin by Truckee Lake, and he would spend the winter there while his two companions went on. The others agreed. It was a brief but emotional farewell; all of them thinking that they would never again see each other. Then they turned and went their separate ways while the snow continued to fall.
Moses was successful in finding his way back to the lake by the end of that day - which was no small feat for a boy now alone, trying to follow a trail buried in snow, and with only a few feet of visibility before him. He dug his way into the cabin, lit a fire, then he collapsed from exhaustion. When morning came he rekindled the fire and then settled down to munch on a frozen strip of ox meat as he pondered his options.
Moses knew he couldn’t survive a winter of seemingly endless snow on just the little bit of meat left to him. But he also remembered that he had several wagons parked close by. True, there was no food in any of them and they now lay buried in almost twenty feet of snow, but he realized there might be items hidden in them other than food which could prove useful. So he started digging and, when he found the wagons, he began to search through them. He brought up more blankets and thick clothing to cover the walls as well as the open doorway to keep more heat in. He brought up armloads of books to read, because he knew that most of his time was going to be spent sitting quietly with little physical activity throughout the endless snowfall of winter. And, in one wagon, he found what he thought just might get him through the winter – a set of traps that one of the party had left behind. The next morning Moses baited the traps with pieces of ox meat from the precious little that was left, then set the traps out in a circle around his camp, and he smiled to himself as he walked across part of the now frozen Truckee Lake.
Moses is walking on water.
And he laughed, startled as his own voice echoed back to him across the frozen stillness. Then he went back to the cabin to wait. The next morning he got up and at first light went out to walk his trap line. To his surprise and delight one of the traps held a coyote. He killed it, reset the trap, then went back home to feast. After he had roasted it over the fire to a nice medium rare, he blew on it and then took a bite. It was horrible – the worst thing he had ever tasted. And he knew that it must really be bad because, in his starving state, anything should taste good. Yet no seasonings of any kind – not even salt – had been found in any of the wagons. Later that day he tried frying a coyote steak, but it tasted just as bad. The next day he tried boiling it, but that didn’t help. The day after he slow-cooked what was left in a Dutch oven, but even that didn’t improve the flavor of the meat as its taste seemed to grow even more vile with each attempt at cooking it. Each morning he went out to check the trap line, hoping for some variety. But, for the next three days, the traps remained empty.
I was wrong, he mused as he chewed. I think coyote must taste more like cow dung than a lumberjack’s boot.
Then, one morning, two of the traps held foxes. Moses was ecstatic, knowing in his heart that anything was going to taste better than that damned coyote meat. Moses hung one of the foxes along the back of the cabin to freeze and butchered the other, then cut a leg from the carcass and roasted it over his fire. The aroma of the roasting meat drove his stomach into a frenzy of noisy anticipation, and he could hardly wait until the meat was warmed through. Then he took his first bite, and smiled. It was delicious.
As the days passed the trap line continued to yield a steady supply of food. Coyotes and foxes, it seemed, were the only two local animals which didn’t migrate or hibernate in this part of the high Sierra at Truckee Lake, and Moses found himself living on a diet of fox, which continued to taste delicious no matter how much he ate. Fortunately, those tasty foxes comprised most of what he caught in his traps. When he did trap a coyote he would keep it in the event of wild game again becoming suddenly scarce, hanging it and letting it freeze along the back wall of the cabin; a supply of emergency meat if winter eventually drove all the game away and into hiding.
As December passed, Moses kept count of the days and celebrated Christmas all by himself. In one of the wagons he had found a small folded paper with a few spoons of coffee grounds inside, and he had saved that as a Christmas present for himself. On Christmas Day the aroma of coffee boiling in a pot joined that of roasted fox, and the cabin was host to a happy and warm Christmas.
As December passed into January, Moses continued in his solitary existence. It was easy for him to believe that he was the only person in the world; a world which he shared only with foxes and coyotes, spied on by the occasional crow flying overhead. Firewood was plentiful, as all Moses had to do was snap off tree limbs to keep his fire fed. His cabin now lay totally buried in snow – except for the tunnel he had dug – and the insulation the snow offered helped to keep him and his shelves of books warm.
January turned into February, and still the snow continued to fall. But wherever the foxes had hidden their dens they still managed to come out and up to the surface, enticed by the small pieces of meat in Moses’ traps. After walking his trap line every morning and starting a pot of meat cooking, most of Moses’ day was then spent reading. There were dozens of books in the wagons, enough to keep him entertained and educated for months.
It was at the end of February that Moses suddenly felt he was hallucinating; that the winter had finally gotten to him and driven him mad. He was out walking his trap line when he glanced up and swore that he could see the figure of a man walking out of the trees along the shore of the lake. Moses blinked, then rubbed his eyes and blinked some more. But the man was still there; still walking toward him. And when the man shouted and waved, Moses knew that he wasn’t alone in the world any more. It was the twenty-eighth of February, 1845, and Moses’ winter of isolation had ended.
For many months Moses’ sister had been begging members of the Stephen’s Party to return to Truckee Lake to rescue her brother, and for months her entreaties had been refused. No one wanted to return to face the mountain winter on foot, and all had felt that Moses had probably passed on to the next world very quickly after he’d last been seen to walk off into the snowy wilderness. But finally Moses’ sister had been able to cajole, or to shame, one man into going back to save Moses if he could, or to discover Moses’ fate if he couldn’t. When that man finally got to the lake, he was surprised to find Moses very much alive and not at all in need of saving. So after catching up on news over a meal of roasted fox he helped Moses construct some new snowshoes and together they walked out of the mountains. Moses left behind a string of eleven uneaten coyotes hanging outside on the wall of his cabin, forever grateful that he wouldn’t be forced to taste that meat ever again.
A few years later another party of immigrants got stuck at that same lake when winter fell, and they didn’t do nearly as well as that seventeen year old boy. Instead of taking the initiative to save themselves they instead sat down and waited to be saved. They starved, and they ate each other, and the lake got renamed in their memory, forever becoming Donner Lake - now a lasting memory of an epic failure instead of a tribute to a helpful native called Truckee. But in that winter of 1844 – 45 a young boy not only survived there alone by his own wits but he thrived, ending his winter in the mountains with more food than he started it with. He began that winter as a seventeen year old boy, and ended it as an eighteen year old man.
It was a Rite of Passage; a test which few men of any age or experience could pass. Moses did so with determination and intelligence, a passage through the mountains and into manhood.
Pause, if you will, and take a few moments out of your busy schedule to accept an introduction to a colorful individual named Smokey Jack. He’s not the main topic of this story, but meeting him will serve as an interesting path to the real subject of this tale, and that in turn will eventually lead us to the final destination of discovering how a 7,818 foot mountain peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains got its name. Smokey Jack was not the man’s real name, of course, but an acronym settled upon his colorful personage by those who repeatedly chanced upon him over the years as he tended his flock of sheep in the higher elevations of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This was just one of many acronyms which were tossed about, which included not only Smokey Jack because of his countless hours spent alongside a campfire, but also Baked Bean Johnnie because of his limited diet, and the inevitable Sheepshit Jack because of his years spent trailing along behind his herd of sheep and plodding through the byproducts of his profession. Unusually – at least in the case of mountain men – the gentler nickname of Smokey Jack was kindly settled upon as the more commonly used phrase to reference him.
Smokey Jack was a loner, yet cheerful in the company of his sheep. As he roamed through the mountains, camping for a week or two at one meadow before guiding his animals on to the next, he survived almost entirely on a diet of beans, slowly baked in his cast iron Dutch oven over a campfire and seasoned with mountain herbs he would pick along his walks. Rarely would there be any meat to add to the pot – Smokey Jack was a shepherd, not a hunter. Jack would begin each day with a bowl of beans, and after he had eaten his fill he would then proceed to stuff the pockets of his greatcoat with them, taking large handfuls from the pot and simply dumping them into the various pockets until they were full to overflowing, which he would them dip into and eat along the way, all day long. As evening fell he would again sit by the campfire and eat more beans, and the next day begin the same routine all over again; the Happy Shepherd with the pockets full of beans. As the days, months, and years passed without Smokey Jack ever changing his clothing, his pants and shirt as well as the greatcoat inevitably became soaked through with bean juice. The thick liquid also dripped down onto his socks and into his boots, which also became saturated with the stuff. But becoming saturated with beans did not, as one might imagine, destroy Jack’s clothing. Instead as it seeped into the cloth it made the fabric thicker and stiffer as it hardened. It also became more compact as Jack sat and laid on it, building upon the cloth and eventually burying the fabric within a sort of bean sandwich. As Jack walked through the hills and the valleys, pieces of the mountains and the meadows began to stick to him. When parts of his wardrobe upon which the beans had not quite completely dried brushed against a tree or shrub, then a leaf or twig would attach itself and become a part of Jack’s outfit. When Jack laid or sat down, then an insect body or dead animal part might become likewise affixed to his wardrobe, as would small stones. Butterflies and bees which flew into him were destined to remain forever. Eventually almost all of Smokey Jack’s original clothing and footwear lay hidden within layers of an impressive collection of botanical and biological specimens, all held in place by an ever-thickening layer of increasingly aged baked beans. With a large fur hat on his head, an impressive crop of facial hair, and a long wooden staff held in the hand that wasn’t being used to feed gobs of beans into his mouth, Jack might rightfully be construed to be someone in whom more than a passing interest would be taken.
Yet Smokey Jack continued to walk through life in the company of his sheep, blissfully unaware of any discomfort to himself or any perception of being slightly strange in the eyes of others. And yet, when Smokey Jack did happen to venture near towns or mining camps – such as on his annual pilgrimages to and from the mountain meadows in the spring and summer, or when he was taking shelter from the winter snow in one of the relatively civilized wooden structures of a mining town – then he was indeed looked upon with wonder. And sometimes with horror. For the mining camps and mountain towns of the Sierra Nevada were filled with immigrants from all over the world, and those new arrivals had brought along with them many of their traditions and much of their folklore. One of those traditions from the Germanic areas of Europe was that of the Habergeiss, which told of a giant goat-demon with snapping jaws and who was clothed in animal hides; a demon who could steal one’s soul as it menacingly approached and gazed into your eyes, jaws moving and teeth grinding; a salivating soul-devourer risen from out of the shadows. So when Smokey Jack walked out of a snow storm on a windy moonless night and pounded on the door of some unfortunate miner who had recently arrived from Germany, then that unlucky fellow might well be excused for having a wardrobe accident of his own as his bladder let loose and he screamed in fright at the sight of this Habergeiss, this demon who had followed him halfway around the world and was here to lay claim to his soul.
But, as I mentioned earlier, Smokey Jack is not the real topic of this story. He’s more of an introduction, useful in illustrating the fact that many of the immigrants to California in the mid-1800’s; many of the miners, loggers, and trappers who made up most of the population of these mountains, may have been Californians in the physical sense but were still rooted in Old Country ways as far as their culture, traditions, and patterns of thinking were concerned. And it was those deeply ingrained ways of thinking that helped to shape their reality.
Jacob Bockweiss was a German immigrant who lived near the town of Coloma in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although he had started life in California by panning for gold, he soon tired of the backbreaking work and decided to trade in his pan and long-tom for a good rifle and a set of traps. He was an excellent shot, and providing food for the camps proved to be easier work than competing for the elusive yellow flakes with thousands of other men. He could sell the meat in town, send some of the pelts to sell in San Francisco, and still have enough leisure time to barter for a native wife and start a family – which he did. Jacob’s wife was named Sally – at least, that’s what he called her. Her real name and tribal affiliation are unfortunately forever lost. Jacob was one of many men in California who boasted German ancestry, and he was one of many first-generation immigrants who still held German culture and tradition fresh in their minds and hearts. It was one such aspect of this Germanic folklore – the Anklopfnachte - which inadvertently led to the naming of a mountain, but naming it not quite in the way which one might expect.
The German tradition of Anklopfnachte, or Knocking Nights, has in modern times lost its historic affiliation of mingling with The Dead and has instead evolved into a passive musical visitation akin to Christmas caroling. But in the mid-1800’s the tradition of Knocking Nights was still frightening in its Other-Worldly elements which it held over from centuries past. The Knocking Nights tradition dictated that the door to another world could open and allow a group of masked, caped demons through who would quietly approach a house or a farm, creeping silently toward the place where animals were kept, then knock loudly on a barn door or corral fence. The sudden noise in the middle of the night would startle the animals and they would vocalize their fear. And, if one listened closely, within these frightening squeals could be heard the names of people in the house or in the village; not just any people, but the names of those who were fated to die within the coming year, their fates foretold by the masked demons and given voice through the animals.
And so, late on the night of the Fifth Day of the Twelve Days of Christmas, there came a group of darkly cloaked and masked men to the cabin of Jacob and Sally Bockweiss; a group of his friends; a group of fellow German immigrants out in the night to play a joke on their German compatriot. They knocked and ran, waking the animals into an uneasy clamor as the masked men made their way off down the road laughing, still visible in the night as Jacob and Sally went out to see what was causing the disturbance. Upon seeing the backs of the retreating men and remembering what night it was, Jacob chuckled and went to settle the animals. But Sally was unfamiliar with the tradition, so after quieting the stock Jacob sat down by the fire to laughingly explain it to her. But Jacob was shocked when, instead of seeing his wife laugh at the prank as he expected, a look of horror fell across Sally’s face. When Jacob asked what was wrong, Sally began to shake and whispered that upon entering the yard she had heard the pigs squealing her name.
Jacob laughed and tried to ease her fears, saying that those weren’t real demons but just their neighbors out to play a joke; that animals could not foretell death; that Sally’s name had not been spoken by the pigs. But Sally would not be persuaded. She insisted that she had heard her name called; that her death had been foretold. And she asked Jacob to take her away from there; anywhere would be better as long as it was far away from the demons who had come calling; away from the pigs which had spoken her name. Jacob, of course, refused. He told her not to be silly. He said this was their home, this was where they made their living. Sally said they could make a living hunting and trapping anywhere; that they could live happily anywhere. Jacob refused. Sally begged him, pleading that she wanted their baby to be born away from this place; that she was afraid the baby wouldn’t be born at all if they stayed because she would die first. Jacob refused.
The holiday season passed and winter settled hard into the mountains. Most of the game had either migrated to lower elevations or was in hibernation, so Jacob was spending most of his time in the cabin with Sally, who never gave up in her pleading with Jacob to take her away. By the time Spring arrived Sally’s baby bump was large, and her pleas to leave became desperate. She could no longer sleep, as each night she awoke hearing the pigs squeal her name. “Sally. Sally.” And each night her sharp intake of breath as she sat bolt upright would also wake Jacob.
Finally, Jacob agreed to leave the town behind, and asked Sally where she wished to go. She immediately replied that farther up into the mountains would be best; away from people and domestic animals. So in May Jacob acquiesced and they departed, heading first in a southerly direction until the remaining snow no longer lay in their path, then higher up into the mountains. By June they were in what is now the Sierra National Forest, and the highest mountain they could see is now called Shuteye Peak. In the shadow of a smaller peak standing directly over them they set up a permanent camp, as Sally’s pains were growing sharp and frequent, and they knew the birth was quickly approaching. On the second day after making camp Sally went into labor. Jacob did his best to help her, laying her on a soft bed of animal skins and bathing her face in cold water. He later told friends that the only time he broke out in an uneasy sweat was when Sally would utter a sharp scream that would then echo off the rocks and through the ravines, as if other women were lurking out there repeating her call. At such times his own perspiration would become a cold blanket and send chills down his spine. On the third day in camp Sally finally gave birth. She had been in labor for more than twenty-four hours and was exhausted from the delivery as well as from the loss of blood; blood which continued to drain out of her after the birth was over. Jacob gave the baby a quick rub with a towel, then wrapped it in fur and laid the little girl in her mother’s arms. Sally moved the baby to her breast, and smiled happily up at Jacob as her tiny daughter attached her mouth and tried to suck.
Then Sally died.
Jacob buried Sally and her little baby girl there at the base of the peak under which she had given birth; Sally on her back with the baby still at her breast, both of them wrapped in soft, warm fur. He marked the grave with a cairn of stones and broke camp, his heart aching at leaving his family, but not able to make himself stay any longer there next to the grave. He said his goodbye, then looked up at the peak standing above and asked the spirit of the mountain to watch over them. And as he gazed up at the peak its shape brought to mind the image of Sally’s breast as he’d laid the baby on it, so he named the mountain Squaw Nipple Peak.
A romantic man? – Most definitely. An eloquent man? – Perhaps not so much.
Jacob left the high country and returned for a while to his cabin near Coloma, then moved onward from town and from history after leaving one name on a map.
The peak continued to carry that name on maps through the end of the 1800’s. But by the turn of the century the name was getting abbreviated to Squaw Peak, and as the 1900’s took hold it underwent another change to Squaw Dome, the name it still carries to this day. Sally and her unnamed baby still lie somewhere beneath, the cairn of stone having long vanished.
The naming of a place can be a strange thing, sometimes reflecting the spirit of that place, or sometimes instead instilling a spirit within it. Sally’s spirit of feeding her newborn daughter, the last act of a new mother as she lay dying, was gifted upon that mountain by her husband and then changed years later, perhaps out of deference to political correctness, or more likely due to anatomical prudishness.
For map makers, ‘Squaw’ is apparently perfectly acceptable, while ‘nipple’ remains offensive.
Smokey Jack, or Squaw Nipple Peak. It’s all in the name.
There’s an old road in these mountains, and it’s time for you to take
a Road Trip.
This is a road which, in its heyday, hosted more daily traffic than
any other road in California; than any other road on all of the west
coast of the United States. Dirty, dusty, and rutted, this unpaved
path through a small portion of the Sierra was cut by foot, hoof, and
wagon wheel over a period of many years, and although it grew to only
four miles in length by the mid-1800’s it proudly boasted far more
pedestrians, wagons, and horses on its rough surface than did any of
its prouder and more smoothly paved counterparts in cities such as Los
Angeles and San Francisco, and in the year of 1850 it was the busiest
thoroughfare to be found in perhaps all of the western states. This
road is still in existence, running the four miles between the old
mining towns of Nevada City and Grass Valley, although all of the
bumps and furrows which helped give it character so many years ago
have long been smoothed over.
And you, as a devotee of California history, you have decided that you
need to go up to the mountains and see it; to ride or walk it; to see
if you can still get a feel for what it was like to be on this road in
1850; to see if it will whisper to you something of its past.
So on a warm almost-Spring day in March you leave the city and head on
up to the Sierra. It’s late when you get to Grass Valley; the numerous
stops along the way to see other relics of the past have delayed you
longer than anticipated, and the warmth with which your journey began
has been replaced by the icy chill of thin mountain air. All the
restaurants you pass have already closed for the evening, with only
the lights from a convenience store still shining into the street as
you reach the edge of town. You stop and, on a whim, purchase a bottle
of rye whiskey from the otherwise unattractive display of food and
drink. After all, rye is what was served in the mountain saloons back
in the day, wasn’t it? As a concession to the tourist industry you
also purchase a shot glass which is decorated with old wooden false
front buildings against a mountain backdrop. Then you resume your
journey out of town, carefully watching the odometer and slowing to a
stop when it shows you have gone two miles from the last structure you
saw. Ahead of you on that dark road – another two miles distant – lies
Nevada City. You are at the halfway point, the dark and quiet median
of this road from the past. You once read somewhere – you can’t
remember where – that there was at one time a sign at this midway
point, a sign with two swinging arms, one pointing to Nevada City, two
miles away, and the other pointing to Grass Valley, two miles the
other way. But that sign fell over and disappeared years ago, never
Cold now, you struggle into your heavy jacket, grab an old blanket –
and of course your bottle of rye – and climb a small hill next to the
road. It’s quiet, with little traffic. You spread the blanket on a
bare patch of dirt beneath a leafless tree and sit down, rubbing your
hands together for warmth. Then you reach for the liquid warmth which
you brought along and pour yourself a shot, waiting for the road to
speak to you. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. But you’re not in a hurry.
You’ve come a long way; you can show patience. You finish the drink
and then grab your knees, hugging them to your chest, and wrap what
you can of the blanket around your back. You pour another drink and,
as you sip it, you think back over what you’ve read of the history of
this part of the mountains. As the night slips by what little traffic
there was earlier has now completely ceased and you are all alone.
You’re warmer now, though you doubt that warmth has anything to do
with the blanket. You’re comfortable too, with a heat now lighting you
from within. As you look upward you see the stars begin to shimmer and
dance in the thin mountain air, and when you look back down you see
the shadows of figures from times long past moving on the road below
And, to your surprise, the road begins to speak.
The 1850’s – both Nevada City and Grass Valley were booming towns,
counting populations of about ten thousand and three thousand
respectively. Each was surrounded by smaller towns, and all were
surrounded by thousands of mining claims, the boundary of which was
generally held to be as far as the claimant could shoot his rifle and
hit a claim jumper. This road between the towns hosted fairly constant
travel all day long as well as through most of the night; miners and
shopkeepers, bankers and outlaws.
It was about here at this midpoint that in 1858 a stage was stopped by
a pair of masked robbers who had heard in town that there was gold
aboard the coach. In fact there was, but it wasn’t in the usual place
within a strongbox atop the coach. It was instead in the pockets of a
banker who was a passenger and who had a few thousand dollars of the
stuff hidden in his suit. After futilely searching atop the stage the
robbers decided to frisk the passengers, at which point the banker
quietly pulled a revolver from beneath his coat and held it on his
lap, saying nothing. At the sight of the weapon the robbers cautioned
the banker to ‘go easy’, and the banker responded that better pickings
were to be had on the next stage coming out of town, a stage coach on
which Wells Fargo would be shipping a considerable amount of gold.
After looking at the weapon again and at the calm, smiling man who
held it, the robbers nodded their thanks and retreated into the brush,
only to reappear later that day and rob the next coach of the
$21,000.00 Wells Fargo had placed on board. When later told of this
robbery, the banker on the first stage just laughed and shrugged. He
was a banker. And Wells Fargo, after all, was The Competition.
Stage robberies were a frequent occurrence here, but the robbers had
to be quick because of the volume of people using the road. One of the
more persistent hold-up artists was a man by the name of Jack
Williams. With his two companions he waylaid many coaches and was
always successful in making his getaway. One day after stopping a
stage and quickly searching the passengers, Williams climbed up and
tried to open the Wells Fargo lock box near the driver. But, tired of
Williams’ repeated robberies, Wells Fargo had installed a new type of
box on this stage; a stout metal safe that was impervious to Jack’s
bullets. Cursing profusely as time was running out, Williams finally
gave up and rode off, promising that he would not be outsmarted by
Wells Fargo, and the laughing stage driver resumed his journey to
town. But a few days later Williams again stopped that same stage.
This time he and his men had crow bars, sledge hammers, and a can of
blasting powder. The tools proved useless, as did the first attempt at
blowing the box open. But on the second try the powder blew the steel
box into the air and opened it, scattering gold over the road. As his
men retrieved the fortune, Williams passed around a bottle of brandy
to the passengers and apologized for delaying them. Then he and his
men disappeared down the road.
One day in 1851 two men from Nevada City walked this road to the edge
of town to settle a dispute. George Dibble and E.B. Lundy had gotten
into an argument and Dibble called Lundy a liar. He then went on to
challenge Lundy to a duel with pistols to resolve this affair of
honor. Lundy accepted, but warned Dibble that he had fought duels
before and that he was a crack shot. Dibble laughed. So the next
morning the men met to resolve the issue. It was early, cold, and
still dark, so the men met in a saloon for a drink to chase away the
chill before dueling. The saloon was barely lit with just a few
candles. Lundy tried one more time to caution his challenger, and as a
warning he drew his pistol and took aim at a candle across the bar
room, then severed the flaming wick with a single shot, leaving the
candle standing untouched. It was a perfect shot in the dark that
impressed every man there – every man, that is, except Dibble. Lundy
insisted he could repeat that Shot In the Dark at will. Dibble again
laughed. So the two men, with their Seconds by their sides and
surrounded by a crowd of men, walked this road to the outskirts of
town. Then they stood back to back, stepped twenty paces, turned and
fired. Dibble grabbed his chest, staggered a few steps, and dropped
dead in the road as Lundy walked coolly away. It was barely light, and
Lundy had made good his promise of a perfect Shot In the Dark.
This was also the road used by Bill Slater as he walked out of
California forever, and he did so in a colorful way. Slater was a shop
keeper in Downieville, another mining town not too far away.
Downieville was much more isolated than most mountain communities in
1850, a rough town in a narrow canyon with no roads connecting it to
the outside world, and for many months a hoard of gold had been
accruing from miners who were becoming increasingly impatient to sell
it. Slater had casually remarked to a customer in his store one day
that there was a place in San Francisco which paid twenty-two dollars
an ounce for gold, as opposed to the common value of sixteen dollars
per ounce. This news spread like wildfire through town, and soon the
eager miners elected Slater as just the right man to pack out their
gold and sell it for them in San Francisco, generously offering him a
fee of two dollars per ounce for doing so. Slater humbly agreed, and
was soon leading a line of heavily packed animals down the canyon and
out of town, carrying an estimated $25,000 of gold with him. He sold
the gold in San Francisco then took the money and boarded a steamer
going south. In Panama he stopped to speak with a gold seeker headed
for California and recommended the man go to Downieville, saying he
couldn’t find a more welcoming community than that town. He was
careful to repeat his name and asked to be remembered to the men
there, then laughingly headed east across the isthmus, never to be
This road was also frequently traveled by the famous dancer, Lola
Montez, who settled into semi-retirement in Grass Valley with her
third husband. A colorful woman who had once been the mistress of King
Ludwig of Bavaria, Lola’s talents and beauty were fading by the time
she arrived here. And the fact that she had never bothered to divorce
either of her first two husbands before marrying her third was a cause
of consternation to some law enforcement officials in Europe. Grass
Valley offered a quiet place to shelter, although Lola had a difficult
time living quietly. She kept two grizzly bear cubs as pets, and often
strolled the streets of both towns in very low cut gowns which proudly
displayed her ample bosom as she puffed on a cigar. When a local
minister preached to his congregation that her famous Spider Dance was
lewd and obscene, Lola took this very road to go to his home where she
walked through the front door and proceeded to give him and his family
a private yet flamboyant performance of that very same Spider Dance,
with a little extra lewdness thrown in for good measure.
Jack Williams continued to rob people along this four mile stretch of
road, but the Sheriff of Nevada City was getting a little impatient
with his antics. Just robbing people had been somewhat tolerable, but
using blasting powder to blow up steel express boxes was garnering the
town too much bad publicity. So one day the sheriff got together a
posse and the six men set off down this road to find Williams’ trail.
Just outside of town the sheriff led the pose off the road, following
what he thought were Williams’ tracks. But one deputy – an unusually
capable man by the name of Steve Venard – was sure the sheriff was
wrong and continued down the road alone. With the other five men still
chasing shadows, Venard came around a turn to see Williams and his men
in the road before him. They had seen him coming and had weapons
already leveled at him, and they immediately opened fire. Deputy
Venard pulled his fifteen-shot Henry Repeating Rifle from the scabbard
alongside his saddle and fired back. His first shot went through
Williams’ heart, and the outlaw dropped from his horse. Venard’s
second shot went right through the head of another bandit. His third
shot missed, but his fourth killed the last of the bandits. Hearing
the gun shots the rest of the posse finally arrived, but they were too
late for the fight. All they could do was to praise Venard’s
marksmanship and pick the bodies up off the road.
Miss Sarah Pellett, a woman long forgotten by history but who was
famous in the 1850’s for her vociferous attacks on the evils of
alcohol and the joys of temperance, also rode in a carriage along this
very road. Miss Pellet came to the gold camps to preach to the miners
against drinking alcohol, one of the miner’s most popular pastimes,
and the miners were surprisingly eager to hear her. In anticipation of
her arrival men from Grass Valley, Nevada City, Downieville, and other
camps joined her Temperance Society by the hundreds. When the day of
her talk arrived these men flocked impatiently to hear her. They were
so impatient, in fact, that they began to boo and shout at the opening
speaker, a man who apparently just didn’t know when to shut up.
Finally the frustrated crowd began to fire guns into the air in an
attempt to quiet him. But this persistent orator refused to yield the
platform and instead got into a shouting match with one of his
hecklers. This led to the challenge of a duel being offered and
accepted. Shotguns were chosen as weapons, and the crowd duly took up
a position a discreet distance from the speaker’s platform where Miss
Pellet sat to watch the duel – a duel which didn’t take very long, as
the speaker, who may have been long on words but was definitely short
on expertise with firearms, took a blast from the heckler’s shotgun
directly to the chest and fell dead in the street. Now, at last, the
men could finally hear the woman they had been so impatient to see.
But Sarah Pellet, seeing the Opening Act lying dead in the dust, had
wisely gotten back into her carriage and was speedily leaving town
without having spoken a single word, once again traveling along this
well-rutted road. Leaving temperance behind forever, the men returned
to the saloons.
A sudden breeze brushes across your face, gentle yet cold, and your
thoughts return from their wanderings as your eyes focus on the grass
and trees around you. The stars have stopped dancing. You take a deep
breath and shiver. The road before you – this road which had once been
the most traveled road in all of California – lies completely quiet
and devoid of movement and you wonder; did the road really speak to
you, or were those men and women whom you watched pass by merely the
result of your own Shots In the Dark?
Below you there is a soft noise which catches your attention; it
sounds just like the gentle squeak of a sign swaying in the breeze.
Two Miles to Nevada City; Two Miles to Grass Valley. But tonight, here
in the middle of this once busiest road in the state, here in the
middle of this cold and starry night, it’s somehow just a few short
steps back to 1850.
There was a time in California when an outlaw might be notorious as
the scourge of the county, stealing horses and robbing stagecoaches,
but he might also earn fame for displaying style, manners, and class
while professionally going through the motions of his chosen
profession. There was a time when a man’s acquisitive eye for an
excellent horse might lead to an eager chase by officers of the law;
yet that same man’s longing eye for a lovely woman would often lead to
those ladies gazing upon him just as eagerly. There was a time when a
man could be a horse thief by day and be a man who was known for his
elegant dancing that same evening. Such a man was John Allen,
otherwise known as Sheet Iron Jack.
Allen came to California in the 1860’s, migrating from his New York
home after a stint in the army. He was in his twenties and showed no
lust whatsoever for the yellow metal which had been bringing so many
Easterners to California for the past decade and a half. Instead he
opened a barber shop and entertained his customers with ‘lively and
humorous speech’ as he shaved their faces and trimmed their long hair.
After work he would be a favorite personality in the bar with his
endless supply of stories, and if he had any faults at all it was
that he sometimes drank a bit too much, and maybe talked a little too
much as well.
John spent his money freely, and it was sometimes remarked upon that
he seemed to have pockets that were deeper than those of a mere barber
should have been. But that was merely idle curiosity as Jack had never
been linked to anything of an even slightly unlawful nature. If anyone
did harbor suspicions about the source of his finances they were soon
charmed out of it by his easy manner and quick wit. And if those
weren’t enough, all such thoughts were bound to be forgotten when John
picked up his guitar and began to sing.
His fingers danced across the strings as his deep baritone voice sang
plaintive Mexican ballads – all the more impressive as John had lost
one finger while serving in the military. Cutting hair, shaving
beards, playing guitar, singing soulful songs; John Allen was just a
great guy to have around.
Until he got caught stealing horses, that is. Then everyone knew where
all that money came from, and they knew there was more to John than
met the eye. Much more.
John had apparently been stealing horses for quite some time and
arranging for their sale far away, quietly pocketing the money and
maintaining his local reputation intact. But on this day he had just
made off with three beautiful mounts from a nearby ranch and was
riding one of them while leading the other two into the hills when the
ranchers caught up with him. Allen was quickly recognized as he looked
back over his shoulder at the five rapidly approaching men, and before
making his getaway he turned to shout a cloud of vociferous profanity
at the rightful owners of the horses. Then he dropped the reins of the
two horses he was leading, spurred his mount, and made a beeline for
thick foliage. Taken aback by John’s colorful verbal outburst and also
by the two horses left standing in the road, the group stopped in
confusion. But two of the pursuing men maintained enough presence of
mind to pull shotguns from their scabbards and fire all four barrels
of shot directly at Allen, which hit their mark. John disappeared into
the foliage and the men chose not to give chase, instead taking the
two horses as their prize and quickly returning to town to spread the
news about the musical barber turned horse thief. Over drinks in the
bar one of the shotgun wielders was quite descriptive about the
episode and insisted that the shotgun blasts fired had hit their mark,
and was incredulous that Allen had shown no injury from their impact.
He said that the shots had actually bounced off Allen with a loud
metallic retort, leaving him unhurt. One of the many eager listeners
in the bar promptly raised his glass and offered a toast to the
tougher than nails horse thief, christening him ‘Sheet Iron Jack’
because of his bullet proof hide. And thus a nickname – and a legend –
Jack’s career as a horse thief now really took off since he no longer
had to take the care to lead a cautious double life, and it wasn’t
long before he was being chased through the hills and valleys by more
than one posse at a time. Yet he not only managed to keep track of his
pursuers’ whereabouts but was also able to easily elude them as well.
But just simply staying ahead of them was sometimes not enough for
this creatively-minded horse thief. It was too easy, and Jack found
himself longing for more of a challenge. On one such occasion Jack was
informed by a sympathetic friend that a posse was quickly
approaching. Jack knew the sheriff leading that particular posse had
never seen him, and was willing to bet that no one else in the group
had either. So he boldly rode back to find them and, when he had,
innocently asked the sheriff what they were all up to. The Sheriff
eagerly told him that they were looking for Sheet Iron Jack, the
notorious bullet-proof horse thief, and Jack promptly volunteered to
join the posse, giving a false name and offering to help if he could.
For the rest of that day he road alongside the sheriff and charmed him
with his engaging stories. That evening, when the posse stopped to
rent rooms for the night, the sheriff was so impressed with Jack that
he didn’t want to part company, even for the night, so he asked Jack
to be his bunkmate in one room, a request to which Jack charmingly
agreed. Late that night, as the sheriff snored loudly in deep sleep,
Jack picked up his boots and silently stole out of the room. After
closing the door he jammed it shut with the blade of a knife,
effectively imprisoning the gullible sheriff inside, then made his way
to the stable where he stole the sheriff’s horse as well as two others
from the posse, fine horses which he’d had his eye on all day. Just
before sunrise he stopped at a farmer’s house and, sitting by
candlelight, wrote a note to the sheriff thanking him for his
hospitality and complimenting him on his taste in horseflesh. Then he
rode off and disappeared, leaving the sheriff and the posse seething
in angry frustration as they read the note.
Months passed, the theft of horses went on, and Sheet Iron Jack
appeared free to roam the country unhindered.
On another occasion – even though he knew that a posse was close
behind – Jack stopped when he saw a Saturday night barn dance taking
place. Tying his horse out front he allowed himself to be lured in by
the sound of the lively music. He looked over the crowd, spotted the
prettiest girl, and promptly went up to her, laying a hand on her
partner’s shoulder. He announced himself as Sheet Iron Jack and stated
that he wished to have the honor of dancing with the lady. The man
backed off, not knowing what to think, and Jack took the lady in his
arms and led her around the floor. When the musicians stopped Jack
asked that they keep playing, and selected another young lady as his
next partner, separating her from her man and leading her around the
floor. And again with another lady. And again; and again; always with
the prettiest young ladies, and always with the men backing away
without offering any trace of challenge to the man identifying himself
as the bullet proof Sheet Iron Jack. After a half dozen such dances
Jack pulled his pocket watch out, looked at it thoughtfully, and
thanked the ladies as he made his way to the door, saying to the crowd
as he passed that a posse was close on his heels and that they would
soon be there. As he didn’t want this evening - what had really been a
lovely evening for him - to be disrupted, he was taking his leave.
With that he got on his horse and rode off. Not ten minutes passed
before the posse rode hurriedly into the farm yard, dismounting and
asking questions. The half dozen besotted young ladies said that Jack
was indeed a gentleman and that his manners were impeccable. The men,
embarrassed and humiliated, refused to speak. Then, as the sheriff and
his posse were ready to resume the chase, one woman observed wistfully
that Jack had danced like an angel. Yes, the other half dozen young
pretty ladies chorused sadly, longingly; he danced like an angel.
The man who danced like an angel had danced off into the darkness
without a trace. The bands of lawmen continued to look, and Jack
continued to effortlessly elude them.
One day while Jack was riding casually along a mountain road, knowing
that no pursuit was close at hand and taking the reprieve to look
about for untended horses, he came across a lone man sitting
dejectedly in the dirt alongside the road. Asking the stranger what
had happened to leave him all alone without any kind of transport, the
man explained that he had started out his journey riding a fine horse
but that his mount had begun to limp so he had stopped to rest. While
he was resting a mountain man had come along, looked over the horse,
and sadly but confidently declared that the cause of the lameness was
serious and would take at least a year to heal, during which time the
horse should not be ridden. Then, as the mountain man walked off, he
looked back thoughtfully at the traveler and kindly offered to take
the lame horse off his hands for thirty dollars and see to the
year-long cure for the poor animal. The traveler had agreed, and
accepted thirty dollars for the horse. Now he had to walk to the
nearest town and see if he could buy another horse for that thirty
Jack just shook his head and smiled at the naivety of this man who
gave new meaning to the word ‘Greenhorn’. But Jack also felt sorry for
him. Telling the man to sit down and wait for his return, Jack rode
off on the trail of the mountain man. When he found the shifty fellow
Jack identified himself, pulled his gun, and told him that he was
going to take the horse back to the greenhorn who had been so easily
fleeced and that the mountain man should shut up and not offer any
objection; that losing thirty dollars was an inexpensive lesson for
learning manners. But the mountain man did indeed object, so Jack
leveled his revolver and told him to empty his pockets; that the man’s
mouth had now cost him whatever other money he had in his possession
as well. To Jack’s surprise and delight, the mountain man had over six
hundred dollars in his pockets, all of which Jack now gratefully took
possession. Jack warned the man that if anybody was going to steal
horses in these mountains it was going to be him – Sheet Iron Jack –
and that he didn’t appreciate any competition from a local con artist.
Then he led the lame horse back to its rightful owner and explained
that the horse’s limp was caused by a shoe which wasn’t fitting
properly, and that a blacksmith could easily fix it. He related what
had happened with the mountain man and told the traveler to keep the
thirty dollars, but cautioned him that, if he ever saw the man in this
part of the mountains again, he would be fair game for Sheet Iron
The traveler had his horse, thirty dollars, and a story to tell, and
Jack had an enhanced reputation.
But Jack was getting tired of life on the road; of life on the run. He
was a social person who craved company; who liked to sing and dance
and drink. So one evening in search of companionship he road into town
and went into a bar for a drink. One drink led to another, and all
those drinks led to Jack’s being a little too loquacious and he got
into an argument with another man. Words led to shouts and weapons
were drawn. The shot aimed at Jack may have simply missed its mark,
but legend has it that it bounced off the chest of Sheet Iron Jack and
fell to the bar room floor. Jack’s shot hit the target, wounding his
opponent. Jack was thrown in jail, put on trial, and sentenced to two
years in San Quentin. Ironically, on the way out of town to prison,
while escorted by two guards on board a stage, the coach was waylaid
by two armed bandits seeking to hold it up. After the first shotgun
blast from the outlaws Jack stuck his head out the stage window and
let go with a loud and colorful burst of profanity aimed at the
would-be robbers, saying that he was on his way to get some sea air
and he would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Astounded, the two
robbers retreated into the brush without completing the robbery.
Jack stayed in San Quentin for less than six months of his two year
sentence, as his lawyer’s appeal for a new trial was successful. Back
in county jail, Jack escaped in less than a week. But the escapade on
the stage while riding to San Quentin had stuck in his mind, so he
recruited two fellows down on their luck and the three of them robbed
a stagecoach. Jack found it surprisingly easy, so he and his
companions promptly robbed two more. Jack had always been successful
while working alone, and having two new companions proved to be his
downfall. After the third robbery those two were easily apprehended,
and they told the sheriff where Jack could be found. Within days he
was back in San Quentin, this time serving a sentence of twenty-four
years for armed robbery.
But Jack’s luck still held, and six years later the governor of
California commuted his sentence and set him free – with the provision
that Jack leave California and stay out. Jack should have heeded that
advice, but he didn’t.
Less than a year later Jack stumbled out of a bar and began shouting
profanity at passersby. When the sheriff came along and suggested that
Jack might want to tone things down, Jack pulled his gun and pointed
it at the sheriff. The sheriff, with cool deliberation, grabbed the
barrel of the gun and twisted it around to point at Jack, then told
Jack to go ahead and pull the trigger. Jack wasn’t that intoxicated.
He allowed himself to be led to jail to sleep it off in the drunk
tank. But while Jack was sleeping a detective from the San Francisco
police force arrived in town looking for him. He had evidence that
Jack had been involved in the theft and resale of a very expensive
horse. And the evidence was pretty persuasive – when he’d resold the
stolen horse, Jack had signed the bill of sale with his real name,
This time Jack was sent to Folsom Prison. He served his sentence in
full, and when he was released, he disappeared forever. Some said that
he belatedly took the governor’s advice and left California for good.
Others said that he went to live with the Modoc in Northern
California, a native tribe amongst whom he had many friends. And still
others said that he immediately returned to his old profession of
horse thievery; a career at which he was actually quite good as long
worked on his own, didn’t take on any assistants to betray him, and
didn’t drink or talk too much.
Playing the guitar beautifully with only nine fingers; singing
haunting Mexican ballads in his deep baritone voice; stealing horses
with ease; Sheet Iron Jack was an outlaw with style; the outlaw who
was a legend because he was impervious to bullets.
And he danced like an angel.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501.c.3 nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy