"Mother of Counties"

Chapter 15 of the California Statutes of 1850 was “ An Act Subdividing the State into Counties and establishing the Seats of Justice therein.” It was approved February 18, 1850. Section 1 read: “The following shall be the boundaries and seats of justice of the several Counties of the State of California until otherwise determined by law”:

Section 28 was as follows: “County of Mariposa.— Beginning on the summit of the coast Range at the southwest corner of Tuolumne County, and running thence along the southern boundary of said county, to the summit of the Sierra Nevada; thence along the summit of the Sierra Nevada to the parallel of thirty-eight degrees of north latitude; thence due east, on the said parallel, to the boundary of the State; thence in a southeasterly direction, following said boundary, to the northwest corner of San Diego County; thence due south, along the boundary of San Diego County, to the northeast corner of Los Angeles County; and thence in a northwesterly direction along the summit of the Coast Range to the place of beginning. The seat of justice shall be Agua Fria.”

There were twenty-seven counties established under that act. Mariposa, as will be seen, stretched from the Coast Range to the State’s eastern boundary, and from substantially the northern boundary of Mariposa and Merced Counties as they are at present to San Diego and Los Angeles Counties. More than a dozen of the counties of to-day have taken all or a part of their territory from the original Mariposa.

To understand how the line could hit the northwest corner of San Diego by following southeast along the eastern boundary of the State, we need to remember that there was than [sic] no San Bernardino County, and to read the first clause of the description of the boundary of San Diego County in the same Act___ “Commencing on the coast of the Pacific, at the mouth of the creek called San Mateo, and running up said creek to its source; thence due north to the northeast boundary of the State ....” San Diego County took in all of the State south and east of that line. San Mateo Creek, mentioned in the description, is not far from the present Orange-San Diego Border; it is a short creek, and its head is between 117 degrees  20' and 117 degrees  30' west. The line passing due north from its head would apparently have passed about two miles west of the city of San Bernardino, or about twenty three miles west of the San Bernardino meridian.

South of Mariposa there were only San Diego and Los Angeles; up along the coast came Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Santa Clara, Branciforte (soon to become Santa Cruz) Contra Costa and San Francisco.  Seventeen of the original twenty-seven counties lay north of Mariposa and the Bay, and perhaps as graphic an illustration of the distribution of population in the State at that time is found in the fact that in the vote upon the question of adopting the State constitution of 1849, Mokelumne Hill cast more than twice as many ballots as Los Angeles.

By an act passed April 25, 1851, the early act and the acts amendatory of it were repealed, after redividing the State into counties and providing for seats of government. This act made some slight changes in the description of the boundary of Mariposa County in its southern part, and provided: “The seat of government shall be at such place as may be chosen by the qualified electors of the County at the next general election.”

Agua Fria, the first county seat, has vanished almost completely of the face of the earth. It was situated well up towards the head of Agua Fria Creek, which the State highway to Mariposa now crosses on the fine concrete bridge at Bridgeport, four miles below Mormon Bar. Some five miles up the creek from the bridge was the former county seat. Mariposa soon succeeded it as the seat of justice, but Agua Fria flourished during the mining days.

Carson City, another town which is no more, was a flourishing Mariposa County town of the mining days.

If we look a the original counties lying north of this huge Mariposa of 1850 in the Sierra Nevada– Tuolumne, Calaveras, El Dorado, with Nevada and Placer added in 1851, Sierra in 1852, and Amador and Plumas in 1854—we shall realize, from Mariposa’s large extent southward along, that this was near the limit of the Southern Mines.

Population had flowed into the Sierra foothills in thousands in 1849 and 1850. Sonora’s population, Hittell says, was 5000 before the end of 1849; sometimes up to 10,000 on Sundays—a statement which gives us a pretty clear idea of both the amount of population in the mining camps and its transitory character.

Hornitos,” we quote Hittell again, “twelve or fifteen miles west of Mariposa, was one of the richest localities for placer mining as well as one of the largest and most attractive towns in the southern mines . . . One spot, . . . Horseshoe Bend, . . . had . . . four hundred miners in 1850.”

North of the Merced River, Coulterville flourished. Below Horseshoe Bend on the river, a few miles above Merced Falls, there was a rich camp below Barrett’s, the ruins of which the hawker of the Yosemite Valley train now points out, and tells tourists about through his Megaphone. You may judge that it was rich from the depth to which the ground was worked back into the steep canyon sides, and you may see the dry-laid walls of the old ditch along the south side of the river across from the railroad. A portion of this old ditch wall has recently been torn out in the work of stripping the side hills preparatory to pouring the concrete of the big Exchequer Dam of the Merced Irrigation District.

Just above Hornitos, which originally was largely Mexican in population, was the American town of Quartzberg. It was later abandoned and the population moved to Hornitos. S. L. Givens, now over eighty and a resident on his ranch on Bear Creek a few miles below the Mariposa County line since pioneer days, states that two present residents of Merced County attended school as children at Quartzberg—himself, and Mrs. J. J. Stevinson of the Merced River, who was a daughter of that Cox who gave his name to Cox’s Ferry and the Cox Ferry bridge on the Merced.

A rather vivid idea of early Mariposa County in some of its aspects is to be had from Dr. Lafayette Houghton Bunnell’s book on “The Discovery of the Yosemite and the Indian War of 1851.” Bunnell begins with an account of how he first saw El Capitan during the winter of 1849-1850, “while ascending the old Bear Valley trail from Ridley’s ferry, on the Merced River.”

James D. Savage, a trader, in 1849-1850 was located in the mountains near the mouth of the South Fork of the Merced, Bunnell tells us, some fifteen miles below Yosemite Valley. He was engaged in mining for gold and had a party of native Indians working for him. Early in 1850 a band of Yosemite Indians attacked his trading post and mining camp. They claimed the land in the vicinity and tried to drive Savage off. Bunnell says their real object was plunder. Savage and his Indians repulsed them, but he came to regard the neighborhood as dangerous, and “removed to Mariposa Creek, not far from the junction of the Aqua (sic) Fria, and near the site of the old stone fort.”

Bunnell wrote his book about 1880, and whether he meant that the “stone fort” was old in 1850 or not until 1880 is not altogether clear. If it was old in 1850, we have no account of how it had come to be there long enough at that early date to merit such a description. This location would be perhaps two miles south of the highway bridge across Agua Fria Creek already referred to.

Savage soon built up a prosperous business. He had a branch further south, in what is now Madera County, in charge of a man named Greeley. Savage had several Indian wives. From them he learned that the Indians were planning a general uprising to drive the whites from the diggings. Savage went to the Bay to purchase a stock of goods and took along two of his wives and a chief called Jose Juarez, to show him how many whites there were, with the idea of convincing him and the other Indians of the hopelessness of their plans.

But they were not convinced and rose against the miners as they had planned. The war extended far south. A battalion of two hundred mounted men was formed at Agua Fria, what was lacked to make the quota being made up by a party which Major Savage brought over from Cassady’s Bar on the San Joaquin. Another battalion was organized for Los Angeles. These bodies were organized in response to a proclamation by Governor McDougal, occasioned by the growing depredations of the Indians. The Agua Fria portion of the Mariposa Battalion had already fought a battle in the mountains with the Indians.

The outbreak began after a conference immediately following the return of Savage and Jose Juarez from San Francisco. One of Savage’s men, known as “Long Haired Brown,” brought him word at Agua Fria shortly after that his trading post on the Fresno had been attacked and all the inmates killed except Brown himself. Shortly afterwards a report was circulated that Savage’s post on Mariposa Creek had been attacked and everybody there killed; Savage himself soon appeared at Quartzberg, however, and corrected this rumor. He sough aid from personal friends at Horseshoe Bend. At Quartzberg, Mariposa, and Agua Fria the miners were little moved by the reports. However, besides Greeley, two other men of Savage’s, Stiffner and Kennedy, were killed. Shortly after came the news of the murder of Cassady and four other on the San Joaquin. From another attack an immigrant who had just arrived escaped to Cassady’s Bar with a broken arm, and this and his hard-ridden and panting horse excited some sympathy among the settlers, and roused the community.

After the attack of the Yosemite Indians upon Savage’s camp on the lower South Fork, Col. Adam Johnston, a special agent representing Governor Peter H. Burnett, came into the county to look the situation over, and upon his return to San Jose, then the capital of the State, reported to the Governor on January 2, 1851, as follows:

“Sir: I have the honor to submit to you, as executive fo the State of California, some facts connected with the recent depredations committed by the Indians, withing the bounds of the State, upon the persons and property of her citizens. The immediate scenes of their hostile movements are at and in the vicinity of the Mariposa and Fresno. The Indians in that portion of your State have, for some time past , exhibited disaffection and restless feeling towards the whites. Thefts were continually being perpetrated by them, but no act of hostility had been committed by them on the person of any individual which indicated general enmity on the part of the Indians, until the night of the 17th December last. I was then at the camp of Mr. James D. Savage, on the Mariposa, where I had gone for the purpose of reconciling any difficulty that might exist between the Indians and the whites in that vicinity. From various conversations which I had held with different chiefs, I concluded there was no immediate danger to be apprehended. One the evening of the 17th of December, we were, however, surprised by the sudden disappearance of the Indians. They left in a body, but no one knew why, or where they had gone. From the fact that Mr. Savage’s domestic Indians had forsaken him and gone with those of the rancheria or village, he immediately suspected that something of a serious nature was in contemplation, or had already been committed by them.

“ The manner of their leaving, in the night, and by stealth, induced Mr. Savage to believe that whatever act they had committed or intended to commit, might by connected with himself. Believing that he could overhaul his Indians before others could join them, and defeat any depredations on their part, he, with sixteen men, started in pursuit. He continued upon their traces for about thirty miles, when he came upon their encampment. The Indians had discovered his approach, and fled to an adjacent mountain, leaving behind them two small boys asleep, and the remains of an aged female, who had died, no doubt from fatigue. Near to the encampment Mr. Savage ascended a mountain in pursuit of the Indians, from which he discovered them upon another mountain at a distance. From these two mountain tops, conversation was commenced and kept up for some time between Mr. Savage and the chief, who told him that they had murdered the men on the Fresno, and robbed the camp. The chief had formerly been on the most friendly terms whit Savage, but would not now permit him to approach him. Savage said to them it would be better for them to return to their village—that with very little labor daily, they could procure sufficient gold to purchase them clothing and food. To this the chief replied it was a hard way to get a living, and that they could more easily supply their wants by stealing from the whites. He also said to Savage he must not deceive the white by telling them lies, he must not tell them that the Indians were friendly; they were not, but on the contrary were their deadly enemies, and that they intended killing and plundering them so long as a white face was seen in the country. Finding all efforts to induce them to return, or to otherwise reach them, had failed, Mr. Savage and his company concluded to return.. When about leaving, they discovered a body of Indians, numbering about two hundred, on a distant mountain, who seemed to be approaching those with whom he had been talking.

“Mr. Savage and company arrived at his camp in the night of Thursday in safety. In the meantime, as news had reached us of murders committed on the Fresno, we had determined to proceed to the Fresno, where the men had been murdered. Accordingly on the day following, Friday, the 20th, I left the Mariposa camp with thirty-five men, for the camp on the Fresno, to see the situation of things there, and to bury the dead. I also dispatched couriers to Agua Fria, Mariposa, and several other mining sections, hoping to concentrate a sufficient force on the Fresno to pursue the Indians into the mountains. Several small companies of men left their respective places of residence to join us, but being unacquainted with the country they were unable to meet us. We reached the camp on the Fresno a short time after daylight. It presented a horrid scene of savage cruelty. The Indians had destroyed everything they could not use or carry with them. The store was stripped of blankets, clothing, flour, and everything of value; the safe was broken open and rifled of its contents; the murdered men had been stripped of their clothing, and lay before us filled with arrows; one of them had yet twenty perfect arrows sticking in him. A grave was prepared and the unfortunate persons interred. Our force being small, we thought it not prudent to pursue the Indians father into the mountains, and determined to return. The Indians in that part of the country are quite numerous, and have been uniting other tribes with them for some time. On reaching our camp on the Mariposa, we learned that most of the Indians in the valley had left their villages and taken their women and children to the mountains. This is generally looked upon as a sure indication of their hostile intentions. It is feared that many of the miners in the more remote regions have already been cut off, and Agua Fria and Mariposa are hourly threatened.

“Under this state of things, I come here at the earnest solicitations of the people of that region, to ask such aid from the State government as will enable them to protect their persons and property. I submit these facts for your consideration, and have the honor to remain,
“Yours very respectfully,
“Adam Johnston.
“To His Excellency, Peter H. Burnett.”

Colonel Johnston’s report had the desired effect; as a result, it was, that Burnett’s successor, Governor McDougal, issued the proclamation already mentioned, which led to the mustering in of the Mariposa Rangers.

The men on the Fresno had been killed on December 17, 1850, and buried on December 20, assembled a strong posse to go in pursuit of the Indians whom Colonel Johnston had thought too strong for his small party. He caught up with them on January 11. Major Burney had been elected captain of a company formed the previous May, with J. W. Riley as first lieutenant and E. Skeane as second lieutenant, and numbering seventy-four men. In a letter to Governor McDougal on January 13, 1851, Burney describes his pursuit of the Indians on the 11th. They had but few provisions, and not enough pack horses. But they marched, and the day after starting “struck a large trail of horses,” writes Burney, “that had been stolen by the Indians. I sent forward James D. Savage with a small spy force, and I followed the trail with my company.”

They came upon an Indian sentinel, and being discovered, rushed to the village and arrived almost as soon as the sentinel. Burney ordered the Indians to surrender; some seemed disposed to do so, but others fired on the whites. Burney’s men fired and charged into the village. “We killed from forty to fifty,” he says, and burned the village. Six of Burney’s company were wounded, two mortally, Lieutenant Skeane and a Mr. Little. This fight seems to have been in the vicinity of Fresno Flats in the present Madera County.

The campaign was completed with a battle at “Battle Mountain,” which Burney describes as “a watershed of the San Joaquin,” where the whites stormed a stockade of the Indians and dispersed them.

The campaign was carried on through the early months of 1851. Major Savage, with leaders like Boling, Kuykendall, Chandler, and with Dr. Bunnell as a member of the expedition, proceeded against Chief Tenaya and chased him into Yosemite in March. His band, seemingly made up of outlaws from several tribes from both sides of the Sierras, was dispersed; and after a hard campaign, the greater part of them were brought out to a reservation which had been set aside in the lower foothills near the Fresno. A campaign was waged against the Chowchillas in the region where Burney had fought this battles, and they were finally pretty well rounded up and brought in.

Dr. Bunnell does not seem to mention what is now Merced County beyond the statement that the Indians had removed their women and children from the Valley, and the further statement that he and someone else, when the pursuit was being organized, went to Snelling’s Ranch for horses, which seemingly they had a pasture there. This was in 1851. As we shall see later, the Snelling family did not arrive on the Merced River until the fall of that year. Dr. Bunnell is evidently applying a name which he knew in 1880, when he wrote, to the place they visited in 1851.

The number of Indians involved in these fights in not a thing that can be determined very exactly; but where the number involved in any one fight is given, it does not exceed a few hundred.

We have not found where the Americans as settlers or miners came in contact with any large number of Indians. It is said, though, that previous to 1833 they were very numerous. The author of a history of Merced County published in 1881 by Elliott & Moore quotes Kit Carson as saying that in 1829 the valleys of California were full of Indians, but that when he again visited the State in 1839 they had mostly disappeared. He also quotes a Colonel Warner (Walker?) As saying “I have never read of such a general destruction of a people by any angel, good or bad, or by plague or pestilence, as that which swept the valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin in the summer of 1833.”

Warner (?) Is quoted as saying that he traveled through the valleys in 1832 and that the Indians were much more numerous than he had ever seen on a similar area elsewhere. He describes another trip the following year, when they found whole villages wiped out or deserted by their few remaining survivors, when the dead come so far to out number the living that the latter could not either burn or bury the corpses. Cholera, it is said, was the terrible scourge which thus reduced the Indians population to a small remnant of its former number.

County Auditor S. E. Acker, who lived most of his life on the West Side of the county, informs us that there are in the vicinity of Los Banos a number of rather shallow circular excavations several yards across, which are attributed to the Indians. Whether they were perhaps where their temescals, or sweat-houses, were erected, or served some other purpose, they seem to indicate an Indian population there. Whether the population was permanent, or moved between the valley and the mountains as cold weather in the later or floods made desirable, we can only conjecture. It is to be noticed that in the passage from Fremont’s journal referring to his passage through the county in 1844, he does not mention seeing any Indians in what is now Merced County.

We have digressed from Mariposa County. The space available will not permit us to go into the history of mining in that county. Mining, with the exception of recent dredging along the Merced between snelling and Merced Falls, hardly touches Merced County, except in the secondary sense that it was overflow from the population of miners and those who served them in the Mariposa hills who peopled early Merced.

The two counties are closely connected by several interests. Yosemite and the roads and the railroad which lead to it furnish one of the chief. Another is the fact that within Mariposa County lies the watershed—some thousand square miles—from which the water is collected into the Merced River, and which will shortly be impounded at the Exchequer Dam to irrigate Merced County lands. In the power developed from the streams in Mariposa County is found a third. Cattle and sheep men who ranged their stock in the Valley in Merced in the winter time drive it to the mountains, many of them in Mariposa County, in the summer. In the mariposa mountains many inhabitants of Merced find summer recreation. The logs for the Yosemite Lumber Company’s mill at Merced Falls come from the Mariposa County mountains. And in addition to these bonds of union, many of the people who have helped to make Merced came originally from Mariposa. Such names as Kocher, Olcese, Barcroft, Givens, Garibaldi, and a lot of others will readily occur to anyone who knows the two counties.

It is with reluctance that we turn from Merced’s mother county with no more than such brief and inadequate mention, for it is a story by itself worthy of a volume.

CHAPTER V  The History of Merced County- by John Outcalt, published by  Historic Record Company-  1925

Transcribed by Tom Hilk