History by Subject


Calaveras Agriculture

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, ranching became more important to the foothill economy. Settlers established farms in the area where they grew hay, alfalfa, and wheat and planted orchards, Most families practiced a mixed agricultural economy, raising cattle, sheep, hogs, and poultry, which supplied them with a steady supply of foodstuffs augmented by vegetable gardens and orchards.

Livestock, however, has always provided the backbone of the agricultural industry, with the practice of transhumance opening up the high country to cow and sheep camps. Upland grazing of cattle, sheep, and goats was an important early historical land use, beginning as early as 1849, with livestock herds annually moved to the mountains during the hot summers, returning to the valleys below before winter. Most of the geographic names in the high country were derived from the summer pasturing of the foothill ranching families, i.e. Tryon Peak, Hiram Meadow, Adams Camp, Wheat’s Meadow, and many others.

Some families established vineyards and produced wines and brandies for personal use and for sale, while others bottled the clear, fresh waters of local springs and sold them commercially. Hops were grown and baked in kilns for breweries that produced local beers and ales. Olive trees were planted and the olives cured or made into oil, in both family and commercial orchards. Commercial winemaking began in 1851, with 1,000 vines set out on the Calaveras River. Mokelumne Hill was another center of wine production, but vineyards were also planted in virtually every community in the early years.

Nineteenth-century impetus for agricultural development came from disenchanted county boosters who blamed mining for Calaveras’ socioeconomic problems and perceived farming as a panacea. A host of problems plagued the county’s agricultural development, not the least of which was the public perception of the foothills as mining territory incapable of fostering anything better than infertile “bedrock ranches.” Local farming never developed beyond a subsistence level and gradually gave way to livestock operations. As the mining economy declined, however, farming gained importance as a family enterprise which helped to establish more permanence and stability in the society.


Calaveras Transportation

The earliest routes into the gold regions followed long-established Indian trails. As Native American trails were superseded by stage and wagon routes, roads became increasingly important after the advent of the automobile and eventually became State Routes, 49, 12, 26, and 4. Railroads, completed to the lower elevations of the county in the 1870s and 1880s, provided the impetus for the development of the lands in the western part of the county.

The first route into Murphys and the Stanislaus Diggings followed the Antelope Trail, also known as the “Old Stockton Trail,” and “Marshall’s Trail.” The most direct route from Stockton to the Calaveras mining camps, it followed a route which led easterly from the Plains over the Antelope Trail through Salt Spring Valley and over Bear Trap Gap to Nassau Valley, Alabama House, Kentucky House, and on to San Andreas, as well as to Angels Camp, Murphys, and the Stanislaus River ferries. From San Andreas to Angels Camp, it reversed the route, following the route from Kentucky House to Alabama House, over the hill to Fourth Crossing, then to Fifth Crossing (Hawkeye), and on to Angels. By 1854 it had been improved to handle wagon traffic, but by 1859 it was known as the “old road,” having been superseded by the route of present State Route 49 to Angels Camp down Scott’s Grade to Calaveritas Creek, constructed in 1854-55.

The wagon roads from the Southern Mines’ principal source of supply at Stockton were at first few and difficult. The earliest and most traveled road to the northern portion of the county was the Stockton to Mokelumne Hill Road along the Calaveras River (followed closely by present State Route 26). It served camps along the way, camps on the Mokelumne River to the north, and Angels and Murphys camps through a branch stretching south from San Andreas. Another branch of the road passed through Jenny Lind to Salt Spring Valley, where it connected with the Stanislaus ferry roads.
In the San Andreas area, the “Old Stockton Road,” established in the earliest years of the Gold Rush, was superseded by the New Stockton Road” in 1856. It coursed northeasterly from Stockton to North America House and on to San Andreas, approximately along the route of present State Route 12.

The Mokelumne Hill-San Andreas Road was another early road, connecting “The Hill” with San Andreas, Angels Camp, and the mining camps in Tuolumne County. Known at various times for its most important destinations, in 1859 as the Mokelumne Hill to Murphys Road, and in 1869 the segment southerly from San Andreas was known as the San Andreas to Columbia Road. This route follows the approximate route of today’s State Route 49.

The present Highway 4 alignment follows the approximate route of an early emigrant trail over the Sierra Nevada that was improved in 1855-56 and known as the Big Tree Road and in the early 1860s as the Big Tree and Carson Valley Turnpike. Originally a free trail, it became a toll road from 1864 through 1910, and then a free county road in 1911. It was accepted into the state highway system in 1926 and portions were paved in the 1930s. The road was realigned in the mid-1960s when the Bear Valley Ski Resort was opened, making it an all-weather highway.


Calaveras Landscape

Comprising a 660,352-acre wedge of land on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, Calaveras is a diversified landscape with a wide range of natural resources and climatic conditions. The narrow eastern border lies in rugged alpine terrain 7,200 feet above sea level, where total snowfall approaches 50 feet in an average winter. The broader western border is drawn across the low-lying Sierra foothills adjacent to the great Central Valley, a fallow but hot and rainless land from May until storms begin in the fall. The ragged lines of the flanks follow the northeasterly trend of two major tributaries of the San Joaquin River, the Mokelumne on the north and the Stanislaus on the south, almost to their sources high in the mountains. Those rivers supply much of the water for farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, and for industrial and domestic users along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. In between the county’s northern and southern borders is the Calaveras River, actually much smaller in recent geologic times than the ancient river system that once traversed the central Sierra. It still drains much of the county and provides the principal water resource for San Joaquin County communities and farms downstream.

Gold miners first gained access to the southern Sierra foothills by following the rivers upstream from the San Joaquin plains through the Bear Mountain Range, a north-south trending barrier the Calaveras River breached near Toyon Flat. Gold Rush overland routes evolved into major arteries-Highways 4, 12, and 26 today -connecting the supply centers in the Central Valley to the mining camps, once the county’s principal population centers. Now, new structures are sprouting along these transportation corridors all the way from Wallace and Copperopolis on the western boundary to neighboring _-Alpine County on the Sierra crest. Most of the newcomers, however, settle in the foothill towns and suburban developments, close to the Central Valley but still part of the Mother Lode. Angels Camp, the county’s largest town with an estimated 3,150 residents as of 2001, is growing about 2.3 percent a year, slightly faster than the county as a whole.(1)

The varied life zones ranging from lower Sonoran to Canadian in this angular country support an abundance of wildlife, with many species endemic to the area, although some have been endangered by human and exotic :plant intrusions over the past century. The forest canopy extends from the scattered digger pines and oaks at lower elevations through the foothills to the mixed pine, fir, and cedar forests in the higher elevations. The diversity of surface resources attracted the first humans to Calaveras shortly after the last ice age some 10,000-12,000 years ago. For thousands of years Native Americans lived quietly and successfully on the land, adapting to its rhythms and natural cycles, utilizing its animals and fibers, learning to drive game by setting fire to the grassy rangeland and the brushy understory of the upper slopes, moving higher and lower as the food supply and living conditions changed with the seasons, keeping population in tune with the resource base.(2) Environmental historians recognize the impact of early human changes on natural ecosystems, correcting distorted pioneer portrayals of starving “diggers” as well as romantic views that fostered an idyllic image of Indians living in unchanging “harmony” with the land.(3) But the pace of change accelerated rapidly with the coming of Europeans, and escalated explosively with the arrival of Americans during the Gold Rush.

Beneath the placid Calaveras foothills, the Mother Lode angles across the western part of the county in a northwestern-southeastern direction. This deep and tectonically significant structure of faulting and mineralization testifies to the long and violent geological history of the Sierra Nevada range. A relatively narrow zone stretching more than one hundred miles from Mariposa to El Dorado Counties, the Mother Lode is sliced by numerous faults, many of which were mineralized with gold-bearing quartz veins. The subsequent deep geologic erosion of the Sierra Nevada freed the gold from the grip of quartz, and concentrated it in many placer deposits in the rivers and streams. The Gold Rush followed directly from the discovery of nuggets in these deposits.


1. U.S. Census Bureau at http://www.census.gov/population/estimates/metro-city/scful/sc98F_CA-DR.txt; California statistical Abstract, table B4 (Sacramento: California Department of finance, 2001), online at http://www.dof.ca.gov.html.fs_data/stat-abs/toc.htm.
2. Eugene L. Controtto, Miwok Means people: The Life and Fate of the Native Inhabitants of the California Gold Rush Country (Fresno: Valley Publishers, 1973), 8-9.
3. William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New Yoork: Hill and Wang, 1983), 9-14, 48-51; Cronon, “Under an Open Sky: Rethinking American’s Western past,” in Kennecot Journey: The Paths Out of Town, ed. W. Cronon, G. Miles, and J. Gitlin (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 28-51; Lary M. Dilsaver and William C. Tweed, Challenge of the Big Trees of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (Three Rivers, Calif: Sequoia Naturla History Association, 1990), 22-24; M Kat Anderson, Michael G. Barbour, and Valerie Whitworth, “A world of Balance and Plenty: Land Plants, Animals, and Humans in a Pre-European California,” California History 76 (summer and fall 1997): 14-16, 33-39.

By Judith Marvin, 2010

Gold was first found in Calaveras County along the banks of the Mokelumne, Calaveras, and Stanislaus rivers, as well as in virtually every stream drainage. Towns, such as Murphys, Angels Camp, and Mokelumne Hill quickly sprang up around the major strikes.


Native Americans

Recent archaeological studies have identified the presence of people in Calaveras County as long as 12,000 years ago. More abundant evidence exists, however, for the relatively recent residents of the last 2-3,000 years. These people, descendents of ancient Great Basin tribes, are identified by distinctive projectile points, rock art, burial practices, and food technologies. Somewhere between 1,000 and 500 years ago the Northern Miwuk arrived in the area, often settling on sites occupied by their predecessors. It was the Miwuk who intensified use of the acorn as a stable food and utilized milling stations with multiple grinding holes. They lived in tribal groups identified by family lineages, and moved seasonally through elevations in their territories. Oriented to water courses, the Miwuk of the Mokelumne River encompassed villages in both modern Amador and Calaveras Counties.


Populating the County

The California Gold Rush is identified as the greatest worldwide migration in peacetime history.  Within a few years, hundreds of thousands of hopeful miners and enterpreneurs poured into the Sierra Nevada foothills and then spread out across the landscape.  Although most returned to their homelands, many stayed to make new lives in this land of opportunity.


Recreation & Tourism

Since the discovery of the Big Trees in 1852, Calaveras County has been a major recreation and tourist destination. In fact, the Big Trees are considered the longest continuously operated tourist facility in California. Natural and human history, most notably that associated with the Gold Rush and Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County,” remain significant draws for visitors from around the world.


Water, Dams, and Ditches
by Judith Marvin, 1993

Water has always been and continues to be of major importance in the development of Calaveras County. Water was essential to the recovery of gold, and since foothill rivers are seasonal and unpredictable, it wasn’t long before entrepreneurs constructed dams to store water, and ditches and flumes to transport it between drainages. Often transitory in nature, many of these ditch systems were abandoned as the placers played out, while others were improved and extended for hydraulic and hard-rock mining.