Historic Mariposa, CA
April 25, 26, 27, 2008

Mariposa's Beginnings

A Historical Overview, 
Mariposa, CA
As Provided By Leroy Radanovich

Mariposa County
is known as the "Mother of California Counties." 


While the 
first Legislature was awaiting Statehood in the year of 1850, it met and created the structure of the new state.  It made Mariposa the largest county covering one-fifth of the state.  Why they chose to create such a large county is not clear.  One can assume that since the area south of Mariposa was largely considered waste land, and beyond that areas mostly occupied by "Californios" any interest at that time in an area seemingly devoid of promise and gold could be held as a large tract who's value could be determined later.  And that it was.  From that large portion of middle California, all or part of 11 counties were eventually created.

In 1846, Thomas Larkin, American Council in Monterey, represented John Charles and Jessie Fremont in the purchase of a 44,000+ acre Mexican Land Grant, Las Mariposa, from Juan Bautista Alvarado, the last Mexican Governor of California.  Alvarado had received the grant from the Governor of Mexico in 1844 and had never seen the property.  The Grant was an agricultural tract and carried no mineral rights, which still belonged to the crown under Spanish law.  The Grant also had no particular boundaries, as it was for grazing and could, at the will of the owner, be moved to better accommodate the needs of his livestock.

Fremont may have known of the existence of gold on the property, or on property in the area, as when in 1833, his troop was camping in the lower reaches of the Mariposa River, the metal was shown to him by one of his men.  Contact with hostile natives sent the Fremont party south out of the region.  It was Fremont's custom to take sextant readings each night to record his location, but on this occasion the sky was not clear as the night before and after had been- not on the night of the encounter with both Indians and gold.

Jon C. Fremont becomes important to the Americanization of Mexican California through a number of events, culminating in his becoming first the Military Governor for a short time, and then one of California's first Federal Senators.  That term lasted only a short time.

Fremont spent the next six years after statehood attempting to have his Mexican Land Grant accepted under American Law.  Finally, in 1856, the Supreme Court directed the restructuring of his original claim and the granting of title.  This included, as under American Law, the mineral rights not previously obtained.  The restructuring of the Grant gave Fremont property which had been claimed and developed by others.  This set off a series of legal actions that culminated in providing a body of decision which became the basis for the establishment of much of the mining law of the yet to be developed west.

The Gold Rush in California resulted in the greatest migration for the search of riches that has ever occurred in the history of the world.  Within the short five years after the discovery, more than 300,000 men, and at first it was mostly men, crowded into the wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, searching for the pot at the end of the rainbow.  Most were not prepared for privations that they were to experience. 

Spending a winter in a leaky tent or shack, waiting for spring, suffering cholera, typhus, pneumonia and other deadly diseases took a heavy toll.  It is said that one in six who ventured from their home and hearth did not return.  The victim of death, either by violence or disease.  It was truly an international event.  Coming from China, Europe, Chile, Mexico, Central America, Australia, England, Ireland, and the United States of America, they gathered as one polyglot society, quickly establishing a "pecking order" or discrimination.  It was a lawless place and time, where English Law was established and distorted.  Justice was swift and permanent.  No jails were evidence at first, so the most expedient method of punishment was the noose .

In the year of 1851, a militia was formed in Mariposa County for the express purpose of elimination of the Native Americans who found themselves in conflict with the miners.  The issue was simply the supply of natural food.  The miners had arrived with little civilized supplies, save the pick, shovel, tent, and frying pan.  All else had been left along the route of march. 

They did, however, prize their weapons, for they represented protection and the opportunity to revert to the pioneer American method of survival: living off the land.  The available forage was more in balance with the needs of the natives. The miners soon depleted the available game and were unwilling to eat much of what the natives sustained themselves on.  There are, however, tales of men hanging on to their claims on a sustenance of insects and birds, when available.  To give up a claim which promised instant wealth seemed untenable.

To protect their survival, the Indians learned that the horse and mule were viable substitutes for the missing game.  Problem was, they were the valuable property of the miners.  There were raids and depredations on both sides.  A volunteer committee was formed in Mariposa to stop the raids by the natives.  The burning of a store by James Savage and the killing of his workers, caused Sheriff James Burney and Savage to organize the force and carry out raids. 

Concerned about the possibility of a massacre, U.S. Indian Agent Adam Johnson petitioned the state for help.  Governor John McDougal sympathetically authorized the formation of a 200 man militia to protect the Mariposa frontier.  At the command of the Militia, named the Mariposa Battalion, was Colonel James D. Savage, who divided the group into three companies.  Company "A" was commanded by Captain William Dill.  Because of the threat of open war between the Americans and the Indians, a Federal Commission took charge of the operation attempting to implement a policy of moderation. Their goal was the removal of the natives to sites where they could no longer be a threat.

On March 24, 1851 the company, under the command of Savage, entered Yosemite Valley for the first time in pursuit of Chief Tenaya and his band.  While they may not have been the first white men to see Yosemite Valley, they were the first to penetrate the beautiful presence and explore its extent.  As a result of this event, Yosemite Valley became known to the outside world.  Within a few years the valley had become an attraction previously known for its beauty and value.  It attracted artists, writers, adventurers and lovers of nature from throughout the world.

It may be said that the environmentalist movement had its start as a result of the presence of Yosemite.  John Muir came first to Yosemite Valley in 1869 and eventually lead the fight to have Yosemite become a National Park.  The Gold Rush was directly responsible for the discovery of Yosemite, at least at that time, but more importantly, the early development of California was the result of this inrush of an international habitation.  The greed caused by the thought of untold riches to a world population tired of economic recession, drove men and women to seek solutions to their personal fortunes.  The reality of the matter was that out of the $400 million of gold taken from California mountains and streams, little found its way into the pockets of the ordinary miner.  The solution was to prove difficult.

Mariposa County developed differently than the other counties of the Mother Lode.  Due to the long legal entanglements of John C. Fremont and the lack of easy access to abundant water mining in Mariposa County soon evolved into industrial pursuits.  While the placer period lasted for a few years, hard-rock quartz mining conducted underground quickly became the order of the day.  This meant that men no longer held individual claims but worked for the "company," often living in company housing, and buying in the company store. 

They relied on the availability of company capital and resolved to have successful employment.  Towns sprang up which were more orderly than their neighbors outside of the Fremont Grant.  Mariposa, Princeton ( Mt. Bullion) and Bear Valley were laid out on properly surveyed grids with the developers bringing all manner of activities needed for human need.  They also brought debt to the company store and boarding houses. When legal difficulties arose, the miners and their families were left to their own devices with the mines closing.

As the 1850's closed a good part of the original Mariposa County had been divided into new jurisdictions.  People were coming to the foothills more for its grazing and farming land than the gold in the mines.  Employment was offered on a seasonal basis by ranchers and some held mining claims on major streams which were to be worked sporadically.  Many of the pioneer families who still live in Mariposa County were established. 

The 49'ers had long since left, either in pine boxes, with empty pockets, or as deck hands on ships for the east.  Although many migrants during the early rush to the mines came overland, there is no record of any returning east retracing their steps.  The steam ship to Panama was the favorite route with the crossing to the Atlantic side now more secure and easy.

The Mother of California Counties now settled into years of livestock raising, farming, tourism and small family businesses and the occasional opening and closing of the mining properties.  Yes, there were some fortunes made in the mines of Mariposa County and most, with the exception of John Hite, never found public examination.  Most were stock ventures which resulted in loss of one's investment.  A series of owners of the Fremont Grant experienced losses to the point of bankruptcy. 

The last company, The Mariposa Commercial Mining Company, an English company, found more viability in leasing land and claims to individuals than to investing on their own.  The last company that owned and operated a mine closed almost 100 years ago, and no records as to its economic viability can be found.  The greater beneficiaries of the gold rush were the merchants and industrialists who followed and who built the great commercial empires on the sweat of the ordinary miner and farmer.

Mariposa County's contribution to the history of the State of California lies more in the presence within its boundaries of Yosemite National Park.  Its discovery, development and history are intimately tied to the development of the County and the Las Mariposas Grant of John C. Fremont.  While Fremont knew little of the presence of the beautiful Yosemite, his wife, Jessie, certainly did.  She knew Galen Clark, discoverer of the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees and Guardian of Yosemite in later years. 

With Clark, Senator Coness of California and the photographs of pioneer photographer, Carlton Watkins, president Lincoln and Congress, at the height of the Civil War, were convened to grant Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to the State of California for the purpose of the creation of a park.  This act alone saved these mountain features for future generations.  By 1913, all the properties were in the hands of the federal government and became the complete Yosemite National park.

Mariposa County was recognized for its importance as the southern extreme of the Mother Lode when the California State Mining and Mineral Museum was established here in the 1980's.  For more than 20 years, historic routes have been followed by wagon and horse during the spring ride from Eastern Mariposa County, over Chowchilla Mountain, and on to Mariposa, the County seat. 

Located in Mariposa town is the Mariposa Museum and History Center with its celebrated display area showing artifacts of life in Mariposa County from its beginning.  The library and collection contains many research works accessed by writers and students of history from all over the world.  In Coulterville, is the Northern Mariposa County History Center, displaying many items from the historical past of that part of the county.

We wish to extend our sincere thanks
to the Mariposa Museum and History Center, Tom Phillips, and Leroy Radanovich for their generous contribution, whom without, we never would could have provided this amazing pictorial.  

And since NO visit to Mariposa is EVER complete without seeing what the museum has to offer, make sure to stop by in downtown Mariposa,  at 5119 Jesse St., Mariposa, CA 95338, (209) 966-2924.  Only here can you see first hand, a complete history of the Mariposa area, the amazing mining of our past, and Mariposa's contributions to the rise of the great State of California.

For additional on line information about Mariposa and her incredible history, please go to
www.mariposamuseum.com and www.mariposaresearch.net .