Gold Rush History: 49ers Left Rich Legacy of Outrageous Names

By Bob Holton September 15, 2008 19:18

In those wild old days, say from 1848 to about 1853, it was common practice in the foothills for 49ers to christen their “diggings” with ridiculous names. Today these monikers play a curious role in Gold Rush history and provide us with one of the most outrageous legacies of the Wild West.

For instance, from the archives of old Tuolumne County comes a bonanza of odd place names like Jackass Gulch, Pot Hole Bar, Hard-up Gulch, Scrapperville, Squabbletown, Rough and Ready, Six Bit Gulch, Half-ounce Diggings, Humbug, Big Humbug, Humbug Flat, Hungry Hill, Poor Mans Gulch, Poor Mans Creek, Poverty Hill, Ragged Breeches Bar and many, many more. It would be impossible to list all of them in the space of this article.

For readers who know almost nothing about placer mining, the term “Bar” refers to a specific area along a riverbank where the richest gold deposits are usually found.

Calaveras County’s gold washers were not to be outdone in naming their camps. They had a Ragged Breeches Bar of their own, several Humbugs and a number of classics like Cat Town, Dogtown, Frogtown, Hog Hill, Poker Flat, Filibuster Bar, Gospel Gulch, Ragtown, Rag Hill, Mugginsville, Average, Slumgullion Bar and so on.

“Slumgullion” was a 19th Century miners’ term for red mud deposits found in their sluice boxes. It also referred to a meat-and-vegetable stew they ate on a regular basis.

Abstinence from alcoholic beverage was never a gold miner’s strong suit. In fact, many 49ers used liquor as a food supplement. This practice gave rise to a staggering number of groggy camps like Whiskey Creek, Whiskey Diggings, Whiskey Flat, Whiskey Hill, Whiskey Ravine, Whiskeytown, Whiskey Slide (where a whole wagonload of the stuff was said to have overturned and covered the hillside), Port Wine, Brandy Flat, Brandy City, Bottle Hill, Rum Blossom Camp and Rot Gut.

Oddly enough, one of the wettest towns in the Mother Lode was named Dry Town.

The Gold Rush was arguably the most violent era of the Old West. There was a time in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties when a man’s days were short numbered if he traveled alone and wore no gun. One can hardly imagine the horrific dramas that played out at Murderers Bar, Murderers Gulch, Dead Mans Gulch, Dead Mans Hill, Bloody Bar, Hangmans Gulch, and an outlaw settlement near Angels Camp known as Campo De Los Muertos (camp of the dead), where untold numbers of slain men are said to be buried in unmarked graves.

Groveland, on Highway 120 in Tuolumne County, was originally named Garrote in honor of its infamous hanging tree. It is said that the lifeless bodies of many men once decorated its branches. Garrote means “execution by strangulation” in Spanish.

Just down the road was the small community of Second Garrote – now gone from the landscape – whose name derived from another large oak that supposedly held the all-time record for hangings, or so the legend goes. In fact, it was a hoax designed to bolster tourism.

In the northern diggings, around Placer and Nevada counties, pioneer nomenclature had a ring of its own with names like Yankee Jim’s, Donkeyville, Timbuctoo, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Camp Stick in the Wind, Pinch ‘em Tight, You Bet, Rat Trap Slide, Henpeck City, Sucker Flat, Damnation Flat, Git up and Git, Nip and Tuck, Chicken Thief Flat, Stud Horse, Bloomer Flat and the lovely town of Gouge-Eye, where a man lost one eye in a bar fight.

Placerville went by the nickname of Hangtown.

Finally, there comes a story from 1849 of a little town called Freeze Out. So outrageous was this title that its citizens eventually took a vote and changed it to Bed Bug. Unlike most gold camps of olden times that depopulated on short notice and soon vanished altogether, Bed Bug showed signs of a promising future. After acquiring more than its fair allotment of saloons, gambling halls, fandangos and prostitutes, it was renamed Ione.

This town, which still hangs on to existence, was originally located in Calaveras County until the creation of Amador County in1854. It is believed that a few of its other early names were Ricketyville and Hardscrabble, but no one knows for sure. History is not an exact science.

Who knows what inspired pioneers to such creative heights when naming their gold camps? Perhaps it was a burning desire for comic relief from the hardships of life in the frontier. Or, it may have just been that 49ers were extraordinarily eccentric.

The astounding names of mining camps remain today as vivid reminders of a turbulent and fleeting time in our foothills.

Bob Holton of Cedar Ridge has researched and written about the Gold Rush era since the late 1950s when he worked as a cub reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Gold Rush history is world history,” notes the veteran writer, who delights in discovering and sharing what he calls “breaking news from 150 years ago.”

© 2008, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton September 15, 2008 19:18
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1 Comment

  1. The Backpack Storyteller August 20, 20:18

    I really enjoyed this article! Your writing style is very entertaining.

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