Yuba County History


by George Emmanuel Hanson



Social Progress

Every one of the old mining camps many of which have long since been abandoned had its special history containing more or less romance, and each played its part more or less important in developing the character of the people of California

        In the early days the pioneers of each camp or settlement were restless prospectors who were never contented to remain in a place so long as there was any possibility of doing better elsewhere.  Until a large investment of capital was necessary in mining every town in the gold region experienced every three years an almost entire change of population.

The Men Of 1848 - - The earliest miners, or the men of 1848 as they were sometimes called, were a very different lot from those who arrived in the next few years.  They were composed chiefly of the old population who had come either as frontiersmen or in the government service.  Towards the end of the year miners began to come in from Oregon, but they were of the same general class as the California settlers.  The main body of the miners of 1848 were steady and hard-working men who in the various camps lived together in peace and good fellowship.  It was the universal testimony that among the men of 1848 there was little or not quarreling.  Disorder and theft and other crimes were almost unknown.  Colonel Mason who visited the mines at that time came back with a most decided testimony as to the good behavior of the country.  No theft or robberies, he declared, had been committed in the gold district, although everyone lived in tents or in the open air and frequently had about their person thousands of dollars worth of gold.

The Forty-Niners - - When the year 1849 began the rush of the outside world was already under way.  Thousands of men of diverse character and nationality flocked to the mines giving up ease and comfort and civilization to sojourn in a wilderness with the conditions of which they had no experience.  There were no laws or rules or customs of binding authority and no restraints of any kind.  They were for the most part young and middle-aged adventurers who came out for the sole purpose of digging gold and were in the main steady and laborious.  But among them were numerous professional gamblers.  With the inrush of this element the old neighborly feeling of 1848 disappeared and murders, robberies, highway robberies, and crimes of every description became every day occurrences.

Saloons And Their Effects - - The most prominent place in the mining camp was the gambling saloon.  It became a feature in California life and while capitalists, merchants, and others hesitated in the improvement of property, the proprietors of saloons furnished and decorated their apartments in a style of the most showy exuberance.

        Gold was readily obtained by digging on the bars and as easily lost on the tables in the saloons, for miners were not at all careful as to the amount of their stakes.  Fortunes were often made or lost on the turn of a single card.  Gambling and drunkenness were always among the most common scenes of the mining camp, and there many a man was ruined who under ordinary circumstances might have escaped their influence.

The Leveling Tendency - - One of the most noticeable features of the time was the extraordinary leveling tendency of mining life.  Clothes, manners, positions, family connections, and letters of introduction never before counted for so little.  As to the social and financial inequalities between man and man they were completely obliterated.  All had to work for their gains, and as the labor required was physical instead of mental the usual superiority of the head-workers over the hand-workers disappeared entirely.  This condition of things lasted for quite a few years.

Kindness And Hospitality - - Among the characteristics of the old miners none perhaps were more prominent and genuine than their kindness and hospitality.  Borthwick relates that while traveling on the Middle Yuba he overtook a young fellow who was on his way from Downieville to the camp of some friends about thirty miles distant.  In the evening they stopped at the same public house at Oak Valley.  When supper was prepared and a number of men were seated at the table it was observed that the young man had not made his appearance.  Upon being asked why he did not come to supper he reluctantly admitted that he had no money.  But the moment this was found out not only the other guests but the landlord himself lectured him most unceremoniously on the absurdity of his intention of going supperless to bed merely because he happened to be "dead-broke."  They insisted upon his accepting the hospitality of the house.

        At the Downieville theater in 1851 a lady belonging to a traveling concert won the hearts of the miners by singing very sweetly a number of old familiar ballads.  In the enthusiasm  that followed her efforts an old miner got up and on behalf of the miners of Downieville made her a speech of thanks and presented her with a purse containing five hundred dollars worth of gold specimens.

        An incident further illustrative of the condition of society at this period is given by Mr. Barton who wrote a number of interesting reminiscences for the Messenger - - the Downieville newspaper.  In an article he gave the following account:

                "There was an absence of women in 1850, and well on to 1851.  There were not half a dozen women in town, white or Spanish.  In the fall of 1851 I was mining on Durgan Flat, and was in the shaft drifting, when suddenly I heard the most exciting yells and hurras on the surface, and called to find out what was the cause.  It was some time before I could get an answer.  My partner at last hallooed down, 'Come up--come up; they are coming.'  'Well, who is it?'  'Why, the women!'  All hands knocked off, and soon the flat was alive with men.  They were four or five of the demi-monde, under the care of the afterwards notorious Rose Cooper; as they neared town it grew dark, and the miners crowded in from up and down the river cheering and yelling up the crowded main street, till they landed in the Gem saloon.  One of the women was so frightened that when she entered she fainted, fearing they were going to be lynched, as the Spanish woman had been hung by a mob on the 5th of July the same year."

Women And Their Influence - - It was not until respectable women became numerous and miners in general became married men that any great change in the appearance of things throughout the gold region became apparent.  Then, however, villages began to be built, gardens laid out, flowers planted, and homes established.  In innumerable ways the change made itself manifest.  Tastes and habits altered; course conversation, gambling, low conduct, and drunkenness began to fall in disrepute while neatness of dress, civilization, refinement of manners and culture became the order of the new day.  Without the women the country never could have advanced in the path of progress or amounted to anything worth the name.

The New Order - - But women came to California because the miners and others found the State a desirable place in which to live.  The early population of the country consisted of people from all parts of the world, all coming with no intention of remaining.  Their only object was to secure a fortune and then return to their homes and native lands.  Indeed, thousands of miners returned; but many of them remained while others came.

        When the deep gravel deposits were found and the quartz ledges were opened and developed the character of the mining population changed.  The flush times were over.  It was no longer possible for a nomadic miner with pick and pan to gather a fortune in a few days from a deposit which nature had concentrated for him in a few yards of earth.  It became necessary to employ capital as well as labor in the mining operations.  Companies took the place of individual miners.  With great cost they built ditches to bring water to the gravel claims, and mills to crush the ore from the quartz veins.  Prospectors and miners gradually stopped working for themselves and were employed by companies for daily wages.  They became settled in their habits.  Giving up their nomadic instincts they became permanent residents of the little mining camps and larger towns where they were sure of steady employment in the mines and mills.

Further Developments - - During the succeeding years rapid strides in social and economic progress were made in various parts of Yuba Valley.  Brick buildings arose, gardens were planted, orchards began; families gathered about them the comforts and elegancies of life, and a character of permanence became more and more apparent.  Churches too sprang up as plentifully in the mining region along the Yuba as in other parts of the country.  In the early days, however, there was but little encouragement for preachers unless they were such men as Taylor and Owen who could shoulder their way among the roughest crowds.

        In 1870 numerous thrifty and growing towns flourished on the Yuba.  The largest of these - - Marysville, Grass Valley, Downieville, and Nevada City each contained numerous well constructed halls, churches, school houses, and other public edifices.  Each had an efficient fire department and a well organized local government with various social, literary, and charitable institutions reflecting credit on the benevolence, enterprise, and enlightenment of the inhabitants.

Early Government

        Following the conquest the country had been under a Military Government with such laws as could be adopted from the Spanish Codes and American customs in vogue among the people.  With the new immigration local government organizations were effected, laws were made, and courts held.

Early Mining Courts - - The mining courts which in some cases were found necessary towards the close of 1848 were nothing more than assemblies of freemen in open council.  Except where the alcalde plan was adopted there were no permanent officers nor were there any written laws or records of proceedings.  A person who thought himself wronged would tell his friends and they would tell others.  If the miners of the region thought the cause sufficient, they would assemble; if not, they would ignore the call.  Crimes against society found swift enough punishment.  But men had to settle their financial affairs and their petty quarrels among themselves.

Systematic Development of Courts - - Shortly thereafter camps, towns, and cities brought almost miraculously into being by the inward rush of gold seekers dotted the hills and valleys.  Many of them had no court and no law but that administered by the settler and miner.  To remedy this defect, General Riley, then Military Governor, issued a proclamation June 3, 1849, in which among other things he called upon the people to elect Alcaldes and Judges under the Mexican laws which were then in force.  These were to administer justice until the courts to be established by the constitution, which he was then calling for, should become clothed with the powers to be given by that instrument.

        Hope of ordered existence still depended on the inherent capacity of the American population for political organization.  In the early camps miners learned what strength there was in organization and the result was that in 1849 a systematic development of mining courts, alcalde courts, and other forms of camp government came into existence.

Law And Order - - In the Mexican system as known in California after 1837, the alcalde was chief officer in all towns and always presided over the town-councils when such existed.  But there were camps in the mining region which were governed perhaps quite as well though in a much more primitive manner.  These were ruled by a chosen committee to whom all authority was intrusted; or governed only by the irregular assemblage of the miners.

        Governor Richard J. Oglesby of Illinois was one of the pioneers of Nevada County in "the days of '49 and '50."  In one of his letters which has been published he says, - -

                "There was very little law, but a large amount of good order; no churches, but a great deal of religion; no politics, but a large number of politicians; no offices, and strangely to say for my countrymen, no office-seekers.  Crime was rare, for punishment was certain.  I was present one afternoon, just outside the city limits and saw with painful satisfaction, as I now remember, Charles Williams whack three of our fellow-citizens over the bare back twenty-one to forty strokes, for stealing a neighbors money.  The multitude of disinterested spectators had conducted the court.  My recollection is that there were no attorneys' fees or court charges.  I think I never saw justice administered with so little loss of time or at less expense.  There was no more stealing in Nevada City until society became more settled and better regulated."

The Justice Of The Peace  The first legislature in February 1850 ordered the election of justices of the peace in every township, and abolished or specific property when the amount of value did not exceed two hundred dollars.  In 1851 his powers were considerably increased.  The length of term was at the outset fixed at one year.  Hon. A. A. Sargent, in his "Sketch of the Nevada County Bar," says 'The jurisdiction of justices of the peace in 1850-51, who were then the only judicial officers known in these diggings, was a little shadowy, or very substantial, as the reader pleases."

        The justices were not always fit men to hold office.  Numerous amusing cases reported from the Yuba region could be given to exemplify the fact.  At Nevada City, in 1852, a thief was sentenced by the justice, to receive twenty lashes; so he was tied to a pine-tree, and given his punishment before the court adjourned.

Justices At Downieville  Many of the localities along the North Yuba were governed by the alcalde system promulgated by Governor Reily in 1849.  When the justice of the peace superseded the alcalde, certain parts of this region, it appears, seldom saw an officer, for in the vast territory of the Upper Yuba no more than two justices of the peace served at one time.  These officers were stationed at Downieville.

        Richard Galloway who was the first to administer legal justice at this place was succeeded in 1851 by Thomas Graham.  The latter was a tall dignified man who wore a long blue coat embellished in front with a long row of brass buttons.  He had a thorough consciousness of his official importance in the community, and was very rigid in exacting the utmost obeisance from the frequenters of his court.

        But although the numbers of those authorized in the regular way to dispense justice were few, their courts were not over-burdened with business.  The miners courts organized in nearly every part of this country, settled most of the litigation and tried a very large majority of the criminal cases.  This assumption of authority was absolutely necessary at times because of the great difficulty in reaching the higher seats of justice over the mountain trails, and especially in winter when the snow lay in great depth on the intervening ridges.

Lynch Law  The change of title of local officers from Alcalde to that of Justice of the peace in no way improved conditions.  In fact it had the effect, as was exemplified in the Downieville country, of delaying justice and increasing the opportunity for the escape of the guilty.  When crime continued and grew worse, the infuriated miners resorted to the grim expedient, the Lynch Law.  A number of these proceedings took place in various mining camps and towns along the Yuba.  The lynch-law execution that made the deepest impression and was the most widely talked about in the Northern Mines, took place in July, 1851, at Downieville, when a young Mexican woman stabbed and killed a Scotchman named Jack Cannon.  The news of the homicide spread like wild-fire and in a short time an immense crowd collected.  Seizing the woman they carried her to the mainplaza of the town where the stand erected for the Fourth of July exercises of the day previous still remained.  The crowd quickly elected a judge and a jury and appointed counsel for the people and the defendent respectively.  There was little for the prosecutor to do; but the attorney of the defense received very bad treatment.  In venturing to show the enormity of hanging a woman the barrel upon which he stood was kicked from under him.  His hat flew one way and his spectacles another while he himself was driven off.  Predetermined to be avenged the infuriated crowd would suffer nothing to be said in favor of the victim.  The end was not long in coming.  In a very short time the jury returned the verdict of guilty; and the judge without waiting to be prompted by the crowd sentenced the woman to be hanged.  An hour afterwards she was executed on Jersey Bridge.

Vigilance Committees  Soon after the organization of the celebrated Vigilance Committee in San Francisco in 1851, similar institutions for mutual protection were formed at various places in the gold region.  The occasion for the organization was the continuance of crime and the increase in numbers of the desparados who made for the miners both life and property insecure.  The effect of the prompt if somewhat summary administration of justice proved satisfactory as was demonstrated at Marysville, Barton's Bar, Rough and Ready and other towns on the Yuba.

New Law And Order  The lawless methods of enforcing law engendered in time a strong reaction, and as the country became better settled and grew in moral strength the judicial system was improved and to it was relinquished the duty of preserving order.  But the mining camp fostered freedom, and aided the beginning of law, for each was a little republic by itself.  When men settled as permanent miners or as citizens of other trades they abandoned their old form of organization, for township, county, and state forms; "for they were not only miners, but also citizens of the Republic, and they looked forward to State life and national relationship."

Organization of Counties

        The region watered by the Yuba and its tributaries as we have previously noted occupies parts of the three counties Yuba, Nevada, and Sierra.

        Owing to the fact that the population was ever shifting, the first Legislature experienced some difficulty in making a proper assignment of county territory.  Sections then occupied were liable in a few months to become populated with thousands of eager miners or perhaps they might never have sufficient inhabitants to demand a county organization.  The courses of the rivers and the character of the mountains were almost unknown, and thus many queer boundaries were given to counties or most ungainly shapes.

Yuba County - - By an act of the first Legislature February 18, 1850 the State of California was segregated into twenty-seven counties.  Yuba which was created at that time embraced the territory now included in the counties of Nevada and Sierra and a portion of Placer.  The seat of justice was located at Marysville.

        The population of the region rapidly increased during the summer and fall of 1850.  Pushing further into the mountains, miners occupied the ravines and deep canyons of the Sierra.  Thus it was that a few months after the creation of Yuba County this remote region became the scene of life and activity.  But the miners derived no benefit from belonging to Yuba County, with Marysville the county seat situated miles away over impassable trails.  The towns of Grass Valley, Nevada City, Downieville, and others in the canyon and on the bars of remote tributary streams were all in Yuba County.  These isolated camps and towns complained that they had nothing to do with county matters, seldom seeing any other officer than the Tax Collector.

Nevada County - - The necessity for the reorganization of the counties as made by the Legislature of 1849-50 was apparent, and on April 25, 1851, an act was passed dividing the State into counties, and repealing the act of the previous year.  By this act the new county of Nevada, among others, was created.  The county derived its name from Nevada City, at which point the seat of justice was located.

        A strip of land on the north was added to Nevada County the following year, and in 1856 a further addition was made which included the bend of the Middle Yuba River.

Sierra County - - A bill for the segregation of Sierra County from Yuba was introduced in the Legislature in the winter of 1851, and by an act approved April 16, 1852 the new county was formed.  Since that time the boundaries of Sierra County have been shifted or re-defined a number of times.  None of these changes, however, affected any great portion of territory.  From the beginning the seat of justice has been located at Downieville.



 ©2008  Kathy Sedler   ALL RIGHTS RESERVED