About a mile east of Mokelumne Hill on Highway 26, after you make the tight turn to the right after the Elementary School, the land opens up into a small valley with fields on both sides. This is called Happy Valley and was the location of an early French settlement, extensive placer mining, and winemaking activities.
Although there are tales of French settling in Happy Valley prior to the Gold Rush, this possibility is questionable. Most of the stories can be traced back to Cecile Vandel (Vandelle) who passed on family traditions, and to the writer Lirrel Starling (a Gardella) and Eve Zumwalt who repeated these stories. These stories propose that the pre-Gold Rush pioneers were linked to French Camp (La Forbrois) in the San Joaquin Valley. French Camp was in use between 1830 and 1845, by French Canadians working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Trapping fur animals - particularly beaver -- common in the Central Valley, these men may have explored up the Mokelumne River. If they had discovered gold and built a settlement at Happy Valley, however, it certainly would have been commented upon by the Argonauts of 1848 and 1849 who swarmed up the area's canyon and tributaries. One group of French miners was noted working near Mokelumne Hill in September of 1848, but these have been identified as being from the ship Noveau Perseverent, at anchor in San Francisco Bay while Captain Boyer mined with half of its crew.
After 1849, emigrants coming from France did congregate in the Happy Valley area where they are well documented in homes, businesses, and mines. The Cretin family members emigrated from France between 1854 and 1856, settling in Calaveras and Tuolumne Counties. Pierre Vandelle came from the same village in France as the Cretins (his mother was a Cretin) and he was writing letters home from Mokelumne Hill by 1852. Louis and Eugene Boudin moved into agriculture, raising grapes and constructing a stone winery in Happy Valley. These families intermarried with other local pioneers and descendants remain in the community today.
Mining activities overwhelmed Happy Valley during the 1850s, 1860s and 1870s when the rich tertiary channels around Mokelumne Hill eclipsed all other mining in northern Calaveras. The ancient river channels, now elevated into ridges, contained abundant placer gold that was recovered through hydraulic mining. Happy Valley was one of the richest locations and extensive remains of washed river cobbles that still cover much of the land attest to the wealth of gold recovered. After the miners, the lands of Happy Valley have settled into the peaceful grazing of cattle and a few residences.
By Julia Costello and Lee Bibb, 2019
Bibb, Lee, 2019. Up on the Hill: The Beginnings of a Gold Rush Town, Mokelumne Hill, CA, from 1848 to 1854. Draft manuscript on file with author.
Starling, Lirrel, 1980. Chronicles of Mokelumne Hill I and II.
Vandelle MacMillian, Cecile, various. Correspondence with Willard Fuller, on file at Calaveras County Historical Society, San Andreas, CA.
Zumwalt, Eve, 1990. The Romance of Mokelume Hill. Pioneer Publishing Co., Fresno CA.