General Calaveras

Image of River of Skulls
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River of Skulls

The Rio de las Calaveras (“River of Skulls”) was named by members of the 1806 Moraga expedition who are said to have seen skulls of Native Americans along its banks. After the discovery of gold on the American River in January of 1848, strikes were made in Calaveras County along the banks of Carson’s and Angels Creeks, and the Mokelumne, Calaveras, and Stanislaus rivers. Mining accounts for the locations and names of most of the county’s towns and communities, the larger settlements located where major strikes occurred, or where supply camps provided necessities for the surrounding encampments.

The mining industry led to the formation of Calaveras County in 1850, it was the main pillar of the local economy for nearly 75 years thereafter. Settlers soon turned to agriculture as a more sustaining endeavor, and the cattle and lumber provided additional employment for the county’s population.

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Modern day Calaveras County

For many years Calaveras slumbered, but beginning in the 1920s and continuing to the present, water storage and hydroelectric generation began to play major roles in the economy. Of prime importance was the establishment of the Calaveras Cement Company plant in San Andreas in 1927, the largest employer in the county for over 40 years. The centennial of the gold discovery, celebrated statewide in 1948, introduced another generation to the legends and lure of the gold country. Histories were written, pageants produced, and ghost towns and ruins were visited.

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Calaveras Settlements

Close behind the prospectors and miners came the agriculturalists, families from the eastern states and Europe who saw opportunities for stock-raising and truck garden operations on the open grasslands. Following the decline of placer deposits in the Mother Lode after ca. 1860, farming gained importance as a family enterprise, which helped to establish more permanence and stability in the society. Settlers established farms growing hay, alfalfa, and wheat, and planted orchards and truck gardens.

Image of Calaveras Architecture
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Calaveras Architecture

The historically and architecturally significant buildings in Calaveras are diverse in style, as well as in method and period of construction. They are built of adobe, stone, brick, wood, or concrete and have sidings of brick, wood, stucco, and plaster.

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Calaveras Skull

The Matteson shaft, also on the western slopes of Bald Hill, was reportedly sunk in 1866 by James Matteson, a blacksmith from Illinois. Although never reaching paydirt in its earlier years, the Matteson shaft is famous in history as the location of the “Calaveras Skull” hoax. According to one account, the skull was discovered in the Calaveras Central (Victor/Reiner) shaft (1), but as that shaft was not sunk until 1895, that appears unlikely. Boutwell (2) agreed with this theory, while others, including historian R.

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