It took awhile for people to agree on how to spell the name. Mokelumni? Muquelumes? Mokelemy? In 1848, the government explorer, John C. Fremont, picked Mokelumne and his choice made the cut.
More than 150 years later people are still stumbling over the pronunciation. Mo kuh lo me. (Is there any wonder many just say Mok?) The word means people of the Mokel, a tribe believed to have lived in the area for nearly 1000 years.
The peaceful tribe of Northern Sierra Miwoks thrived unnoticed until 1817 when a foraging band of Spanish soldiers came through. Father Narisco Duran of Mission San Jose, searching for fresh converts to augment his dwindling workforce, recorded the Indians as Muquelmnes. Indians allowed to remain on their ancestral lands saw life change before their eyes. French trappers were the next arrivals, fanning out along the Mokelumne River in search of beavers. Many historians believe they found gold as well—and hid it on French Hill.
A few years later, Yankee adventurers were less discreet. By 1848, the whole world knew that gold had been discovered in the Sierra foothills and the race was on. In August of that year, Col. Jonathan Stevenson’s Seventh Regiment was discharged in Monterey. The colonel and 100 of his New York Volunteers headed straight for the Mokelumne River. One of his men, riding where present day highway 49 crosses the river, dismounted for a drink and stumbled on a gold nugget weighing 24 pounds and valued at $5000.
So rich were the diggings that miners faced starvation rather than leave them long enough to ride to Stockton for supplies. Finally a man named Syree— hungrier than the others or more astute—was persuaded to make the trip. When he returned, Syree set up a trading post on the hill above the river where he sold food and tools at prices that made the other miners wish they’d been the one to go for supplies. “Let’s go up the hill” was a suggestion that rang out loud and clear along the river. Through the alchemy of time, the hill became Mokelumne Hill.
Another of Stevenson’s regiment, Samuel Pearsall, was the first to discover gold in Mokelumne Hill proper. With money from his strike, the young Mexican War hero bought a saloon said to have netted up to $500 a day. Pearsall lived on in Mokelumne Hill for more than fifty years. Today one can see his grave in the town’s Protestant cemetery.
Within two years of Pearsall’s discovery, Mokelumne Hill was bursting at the seams. The ground was considered so rich that miners were allowed only 16 feet square for a claim. That was all many needed, yields ran as high as $20,000.
One morning while hunting frogs for breakfast, a Frenchman spotted a speck of gold. Digging with his pocket knife, he pried out a nugget that sold for $2,160. By 1850, Mokelumne Hill was among the largest Gold Rush communities. Major strikes were discovered on each of the four hills: Stockton Hill named for trails leading to Stockton, African American Hill euphemistically christened for the discoverer of gold there, Sport Hill where a race track was located, and French Hill for the trappers who’d already established their turf there.
Small wonder that Argonauts flocked to Mokelumne Hill from all over the world. Mexicans, Frenchmen and Americans were already prospecting, but soon Germans, Chinese, Chileans, Italians, Australians, and Hawaiians arrived.
It was an uneasy alliance. The French did well. So well that jealous American miners challenged them, triggering the “French War.” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The French Consul from San Francisco and state officials put a stop to the fighting almost before it began. The canny French were left to mine their gold pit—50 feet by 50 feet.
The Chilean War, which lasted through the winter of 1849-50, was far more brutal. It began when Chilean miners led by a Dr. Concha were accused of unfairly filing their claims. After a fierce dispute, the Americans prospectors drove the Chileans off their gulch. Not to be dismissed so easily, Concha appealed to authorities in Stockton. Returning with a legal warrant and an armed guard, he arrested 13 of his accusers and killed two others. Concha’s prisoners escaped, set up their own court and summarily hung three Chilean miners.
The “wars” didn’t discourage anyone. C.B. Dickinson’s boarding tent joined Syree’s trading post. Soon there were dozens of tent enterprises crowding Main St. One was a school founded by the wife of the Methodist Episcopal minister, the Reverend J.F. Fish. Five students, two white children and three black, learned their sums and letters in the Fish tent.
In 1854, the tent structures were destroyed in the first of three fires to devastate Mokelumne Hill. Breaking out in Levinson’s Store, site of today’s Double Springs Brewery, flames consumed everything in their path. Damages were estimated at more than $500,000. A second great fire, originating in the Union House, occurred in 1865. The third conflagration, in 1874, ravaged most of the business district along with many surrounding homes.
The I.O.O.F. Hall is a grand survivor. Built after the first fire in 1855, the building was sold to the Odd Fellows in 1860. The organization immediately began construction of a third story. The Odd Fellows celebrated their feat—constructing the first three story stone building in California—with a grand ball. Tickets were $6, plus $1.50 for dinner. Some may have grumbled at the price, but the whole town attended. Little has changed. The I.O.O.F. Hall is still party central. The first floor houses the Hole in the Wall, one of the Foothills’ liveliest bars.
The Congregational Church, arguably the prettiest in the Gold Country, is also among the oldest wood church structures in the state. Rebuilt in 1856 following the first fire, construction was financed by miners’ donations collected every Saturday night by ladies of the congregation. The church stands on a stone foundation and was constructed of board and batten. Its windows and much of the millwork was brought around the Horn by sailing ship.
One of the grandest and most historic inns in the Mother Lode, the Leger has always been the hub of town activity. As early as 1851, a hotel has stood at the corner of Main and Lafayette. Originally it was the Hotel de France—a pretty hifalutin’ name for a tent, but still serving the purpose. The bon vivant owner, George Leger tried other names over the years but townspeople still called the hotel “Leger’s place.” A stone addition was built in 1855 for use as the county courthouse. An annex, also stone, was added in 1862. They are all that survived the 1874 fire. The hotel as we see it today dates from 1875.
Then, as now, the Leger bar was the town’s living room. Above it are magnificent stain glass windows dating from 1851, brought by boat and buckboard from San Francisco.
The bar scene has always been big in Mokelumne Hill. Back in the early 1850s, the Alta California described the saloons as “fine as you
will see in any town in the state.” But fine as they may have been, they didn’t always attract the best element. Habitué, Joaquin Murieta, the notorious bandit, hadn’t far to look for kindred spirits. For 17 consecutive weeks a man was shot between Saturday night and Sunday morning. Five men were killed within one week.
Life became so precarious that the Mokelumne Hill Vigilance Committee was formed. When things got dicey gongs were sounded on Main Street and men came running. Miscreants were incarcerated in a dungeon beneath the Leger Hotel. The large tree directly behind the building is said to have been a scaffold.
Despite these disruptions, Mokelumne Hill was Calaveras County’s major town during the 1850s. It was here that the Calaveras Chronicle, the first county newspaper, was born, here that the Code of Law for Miners was written, and here that the first hospital was founded.
Not surprisingly, Mokelumne Hill was selected as the county seat. Though many important cases were deliberated there, surely the most typical of the times was Owens versus Shackles. Almost immediately after buying a mining claim from Mr. Owens, Shackles struck a very large vein of gold. Owens, feeling cheated, sued Shackles.
After days of testimony and impassioned arguments from both attorneys, the jury retired to deliberate. No one knows what was discussed in the sequestered room but when the jury returned, the foreman casually walked toward the nearest exit. From there he declared that neither party had proven possession and the claim was now vacant. With that he rushed out the door. The entire courtroom followed. Of course, a new fight erupted over just who reached the claim first, but that was readily settled over a hand of poker.
Although the Mokelumne Hill Rifles fought with the Union Army in the Civil War, the hottest debate of the era was the 1866 campaign to move the county seat to San Andreas. To this day questions are raised as to the validity of the vote, but San Andreas remains the victor.
Nothing was ever quite the same after that. As the gold slowly gave out, much of the population drifted away. For those who remained, ranching and agriculture assumed new importance. Marredda Gardens, who supplied vegetables to the valley, developed the famous Moke Red onion. Today Marredda Gardens is the site of the Mokelumne Hill Veterans Memorial Park. But one thing hasn’t changed. Mokelumne Hill residents still like to belly up to the bar. With both a beer pub, Double Springs Brewery, and a boutique winery, French Hill, they don’t have to go far.
Historians can’t seem to agree on the population of Mokelumne Hill during its heyday. Reports ranged from 10,000 to 16,000. Today there are about 800. A surprising number are gifted artists of one kind or another. Three are world famous. Song writer and entertainer, Randy Sparks is founder of the New Christy Minstrels. Pamela Hill and James Aarons have work displayed in the Smithsonian Institute.
Residents are often a curious blend of expatriates and repatriates. Many (too many some old timers say) are newcomers fleeing the City. But others, like Ashley Canty who owns the Leger with her parents, and Kathy Olson, who recently opened the antique shop, Keskydee, grew up in Mokelumne Hill, moved to the Bay Area and then came home.
By accident or design, the “modern” highway 49 bypasses Mokelumne Hill. This is the town that time forgot, a hidden treasure, off the beaten track and far from any freeway. Most like it just that way.