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Angels Camp

Marcia Ehinger, MD, a native Californian, is a retired pediatrician and genetic specialist. She is the California Writers Club Sacramento Branch newsletter content editor.

How many of you remember learning about California history in fourth grade? I do. I've been hiking and driving in the Sierras lately, seeing where the glaciers scraped across the granite, carving out valleys and leaving boulders behind. I'm noting where the rivers run today and finding some of the man-made canals which changed their courses to help bring water to the mining areas. Remains of Gold Rush buildings and rusted metal items dot the land, and burn scars from recent years and the haze of new smoke are hard to miss.

When I was in elementary school we read about the discovery of the New World by Columbus and the building of the Spanish mission chain led by Fr. Junipero Serra. Our project for the year was to build a replica of a mission which we had visited. Since I lived in Los Angeles County, the nearest one was Mission San Gabriel. At that time, it was still being used as a neighborhood church, but the main sanctuary building was all that remained of a once-thriving community.

Most mission sites covered many acres and supported themselves with farming fruits and vegetables, raising livestock--herds of cattle and flocks of fowl, cultivating vineyards--forebears of the "Mission grapes" still growing in Napa, tanning leather, working metal, weaving fabrics, and making adobe bricks. They also moved water for irrigation and household use. Back then, there was no mention of enslavement or mistreatment of Native people and their forced conversion to Christianity. We thought that Indians were willing, happy laborers.

Our mission models were often misshapen buildings made of cardboard or painstakingly stacked sugar cubes in place of adobe bricks, or even cake with frosting and overlapping cookies for the tile roofing. I don't know if any of those creations increased our appreciation for California history or the building of the missions.

By the time my daughter was in fourth grade, the focus had expanded to include many of the Gold Rush places and events, such as the jumping frog races in Calaveras County recounted by Mark Twain. She heard about treasures found and fortunes made in mines such as the Gold Bug and fabled Lost Dutchman.

They learned about the hard work of placer and hard rock mining-- sluice boxes in rivers and streams versus picks, shovels and dynamite, both of which also used toxic mercury to extract the gold. There was discomfort as well as danger.


Much of a miner's time was spent in the water and mud or the cold and snow of winter and heat of summer. Diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera were common.

Some men, and a few women, made their living or amassed fortunes by catering to the miner's needs. The Carson brothers from Sweden didn't have skills needed for mining but knew about logging and cutting lumber. Their wood products were used for tools, buildings, and mines. They became wealthy and built the finest Victorian mansion on the west coast.

Jacoby's warehouse in Arcata sent out mule trains packed and loaded with supplies: food, tools and animals needed further inland. Most towns had at least one saloon and perhaps a hotel or tent village for lodging. There were very few doctors or women, so patent medicines and brothels were also found where men gathered. Old Sacramento had Mexican nighttime tamale sellers for those needing a late-night repast. Scottish immigrants started Highland Games.

My daughter had many intriguing place names to choose from for her school project, such as Grizzly Flat, Bear Valley, White Pines, Gold Hill, and names from the miners' homes: Missouri, Hoosier and Michigan Bars, Chinese and French Camps.

"Mom, I want to build a model of Angels Camp".

We planned a trip to the town in Calaveras County where Twain heard about the jumping frogs. In fact, Angels Camp was often referred to as "Frogtown". However, I was hoping for the story of a miracle attended by angels as the origin of the town's name.

I drove out there, looking for harps and halos. We found a picturesque historic main street with the usual IOOF hall. Fraternal organizations, such as the International Order of Odd Fellows were common in thriving mining towns.

We also found a plaque which said: "The city is California Historical Landmark #287. The mines operating here produced more than $20 million worth of gold over several decades.

"Henry and George Angel, natives of Rhode Island, set up a tent store on the banks of the creek."

~ Marcia Ehinger




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