Although it is not known who first mined for gold in the Stanislaus River area, pertinent evidence points to its being people of Hispanic origin. The first recorded discovery of gold on the Stanislaus River was that of Indians working for Captain Charles M. Weber in May or June of 1848. The find brought an unprecedented number of miners to the region almost overnight.
Gold was also found in Calaveras County along the banks of Carson’s Creek, and the Mokelumne, Calaveras, and Stanislaus rivers, as well as in virtually every stream drainage. Towns, such as Murphys, Angels Camp, San Andreas, and Mokelumne Hill, quickly sprang up around the major strikes. Extensive placer mining was carried out during the early years of the Gold Rush in nearly all the ravines and gulches in the county and the results of this work may still be seen.
Mining accounted for the location and names of most of the towns and communities within the region. The larger towns were located where major strikes occurred, or where supply camps sprang up to provide necessities for the surrounding encampments. Small trading settlements also grew up around placer mining settlements on the river bars.
The early history of the lands in the Black Creek area is ephemeral at best, but the locale appears to have been first worked during the Gold Rush era of mining activity on the Stanislaus River at Spanish Bar, Six Mile Bar, Two Mile Bar, and others to the south, as well as on Littlejohns Creek, Ramsey Gulch, Four Spring Run (Sawmill Creek), Black Creek and other associated drainages. During the early years placer mining activities in the area were carried out by numerous individual miners using simple gold pans, bateas, sluice boxes, and rockers. Later, when the free gold had been picked up, miners formed companies who built Long Toms, elaborate wingdams, flutter wheels, and used other means to turn the rivers and pluck the nuggets from the stream beds.
Within the area, placer mining occurred on the drainages and on most of the bends in Black and Sawmill creeks; the miners leaving behind piles of waste rock, rock-lined channels which diverted the creeks in order to work the stream bottoms, and small rock or earth-berm dams to contain water for mining purposes.
A stone hearth (BC-151), constructed by an early-day placer miner, was identified on a branch of Sawmill Creek, originally known as Four Spring Run, as it originated from the Four Spring Ranch. The hearth was undoubtedly constructed by one of the numerous miners who panned for gold along the creek in the early years.
Placer mining continued in the area at least through the early 1870s, as numerous miners, many of them Chinese, were listed by the census enumerator in 1860 and 1870. The men in the local Spicer family, as well as in others, noted themselves as miners and stock raisers in those years, and in 1880 as miners, suggesting that they were continuing to mine their land, although also carrying on their stock raising activities at the same time. By 1900 all were noted as farmers or stock raisers, the gold evidently having eventually completely played out.
Placer mining required large quantities of water and resulted in the development of numerous water conveyance systems in the area. To a lesser extent these facilities also provided water for agriculture. A mining dam and ditch system, which diverted water from Black Creek to the Bare Hill mine and several placering drainages east and south of the area, was constructed through the northeastern portion of the area sometime prior to 1870. Other small ditch systems turned water from Black and Sawmill (Four Spring Run) creeks at various locations along their routes for placer mining purposes.
The 1860s copper boom began with a discovery by H.K. Reed, a penniless miner from O’Byrnes Ferry. This find created another rush to the southwestern portion of Calaveras County, and prospectors overran the area, locating claims on virtually every possible gossan. These flurries of mining activity, both gold and copper, are reflected in the depiction of several mines, ledges, shafts, and claims on period maps around the area.
A town, first called Grasshopper City, and then Telegraph City, sprang up on Shirley Creek on the Stockton Road. The center of activity, however, was soon transferred to the main Union-Keystone copper lode discovered by Thomas McCarty and William Reed. First known as Copper Cañon, the town that sprang up around the mines was named Copperopolis, and rapidly developed into the second-most important copper district in the United States. The center of town was destroyed in a conflagration in 1867, and, with the cessations of the Civil War and the need for copper for shell casings, was never completely rebuilt. It had, however, for some five or six years, reigned as the most active business and mining community in Calaveras County.
Some few of the agricultural lands in the area were taken up shortly after the initial gold discoveries, but it wasn’t until the discovery of copper at Quail Hill, Napoleon City, and Copperopolis in the early 1860s that the area was extensively settled. The gold rush that had begun with such enthusiasm in 1848, had ended by the mid-1850s, and unemployed miners and merchants were looking elsewhere for their livelihood. The copper discoveries, coupled with the unprecedented need for copper shell casings by the North in the Civil War, created a boom that brought miners, laborers, merchants, and settlers to the region.
As an outgrowth of the early copper discoveries, land in the region was quickly taken up and settled, with 160-acre parcels filed on by most of the claimants, as farmers scrambled to produce livestock, crops, fruit, and vegetables to provide foodstuffs for the hungry miners and their families. Livestock ranching in the area began in the late 1850s, increased in the early 1860s, and declined after the copper boom ended.
In the ensuing years, most of the landholders sold or abandoned their claims. A dearth of water in the summer and fall, combined with the rocky, shallow soils made the land unsuitable for little other than sheep or cattle grazing. A few successful ranchers, however, bought up or claimed abandoned land, forming large parcels and residing on them for several generations, a pattern that has continued to recent years.