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The French of Salt Spring Valley

The 1850 Federal Census listed ten occupants of Salt Spring Valley, of which seven were Frenchmen. Four were listed as miners, two as merchants, and one as a Boulanger (probably not actually baking bread, but listing his occupation in France.  One of them, Joseph Manaudas, age 25 and a merchant, stayed in the valley for many years, purchasing a large ranch and eventually moving to Carson Hill. The 1852 California State Census listed him as a trader but in 1856 he owned 160 acres, increasing that to 800 acres by 1860.

Another important early French settler was Harris Garcelon, who with his partner W.P. Allen settled the “Peach Orchard” Ranch in the eastern portion of the valley, adjoining the Manaudas Ranch, and on the slopes of Bear Mountain. Although he filed a land claim on 160 acres in August, 1853, there is some evidence of his earlier occupation of the ranch. An 1859 account of Salt Spring Valley, by a reporter for the San Andreas Independent, mentioned that the valley was first settled by Garcelon in 1850.  The article also noted that there were 20 other farms in the valley, and that a school was needed.  A commodious two-story hotel was built at the ranch in 1857, but was burned by Mrs. Garcelon in June, 1862, in a fit of anger.

Jacob Tower, Howard Tower's grandfather, purchased what is now the Tower Ranch in 1852, worked at the Peach Orchard Ranch when he first arrived in the valley in 1850. Jacob remembered that the orchard was well established by that time, and so may have been established in the first year of the Gold Rush.

Perhaps the most interesting and enigmatic French person in the valley was Madame Felix, for whom the post office and mining district were named. Most of the information on Madam Felix was obtained from the diaries and reminiscences of members of the Tower family, who knew her well. Family tradition says that the husband of Madam  Felix was killed in a teaming accident in Salt Spring Valley, that she later married the Swiss immigrant Alban Hettick, practiced midwifery, and resided in a house on the old Antelope Trail on the present Ella McCarty Hiatt ranch.

Sylvester Felix, age 30 and a miner from France, was listed in the 1850 Federal Census and could have been the husband of Ma da m Felix, although a thorough search of local records has failed to ascertain that connection, or even her first name .

Her probable second husband, Alban Hettick, was assessed for 160 acres known as the “Madam Felix Ranch” in 1857, on which he filed a land claim in 1858. Presumably Hettick had acquired the ranch through marriage to Madam Felix. Hettick, a native of Switzerland, was a farmer and miner. He was to remain on the ranch until it was transferred to his adopted daughter in 1901 (along with over 1000 additional acres acquired over the ensuing years), who sold it       to by   Jackson D. McCarty the next week.

Although he listed himself as a farmer in the Federal Census records, Hettick was involved in prospecting in the Madam Felix/Hodson Mining District during the mid-1860s. In February, 1865, Hettick and his wife Josephine, along with several others, filed a claim on the Occidental lode. That same day they sold the lode to Benjamin Strickland for $500. The Alban Ranch Lode, claimed by Hettick and others, was sold to J.C. Duncan for $10,000.00, stating that it was known as the “Alban Ranch claim and lode.”  In turn, the lode was sold to Orlando Joslyn of New York. In May, 1865, Joslyn resold it to the Alban Ranch Gold and Silver Mining Co. for $120,000.00. Ass ess me nts for the year 1867 list the improvements on the property as a “steam-power quartz mill, steam engine, boilers, sheds, and improvements known as the Alban Ranch Mill” and valued at $2,000.  They appear to have been situated on or near the Mo u nta i n King or Royal claims.  An organizational meeting to form a mining district was held at Hettick's home, attended by   the Frenchmen Raymond Barut and Auguste Gougelat, Swiss Jaco_b Ziller, and Thomas McCarty and others.  They founded the “Madam Felix Mining District” in Salt Spring Valley in January 1861, another indication of Hettick's probable connection with the elusive Madam Felix. The formation of this district was engendered by the discovery of copper ore at Quail Hill, Napoleon, and Copperopolis the previous May. The Hodson Hills, however, were to yield more gold than copper.

According to Census records, Hettick was living on the ranch with his wife Josephine, a native of France, by 1860. In 1870, Jacob Ziller, 51, and Eugene Barbe, 40, both natives of France, were residing on the ranch and listed as farm la borers. By 1880 the Hetticks had acquired an adopted daughter, Adele Desonneare, born in Salt Spring Valley in 1865 or 1867. Josephine Hettick (believed to be Madam Felix) died at the ranch in August, 1880, and was presumably buried there. In 1900 Hettick was still residing at the ranch, then with Julian Chapin, a boarder, also from France. He moved to Murphys to live with the Marchals and died there in 1904, where he is buried  in the Catholic Cemetery.

Adele, the Hetticks’ adopted daughter (and possibly the daughter of Joseph and Adele Manaudas), married Michel Marchal, another native of Franch, in San Andreas in 1885.  They had become acquainted  when Marchal, a road overseer, was involved in the realignment of the old Antelope Trail/Stockton-to-Angels Road (present Rock Creek Road) which ran through the ranch. They had three sons, Alban, Charles, and Elmer. Both are buried in the Murphys Catholic Cemetery, Michel in 1946 and Adele in 1954.

In the fall of 1985, an archaeology class from Columbia College, under the direction of Historical Archaeologist Julia Costello, conducted a metal detector survey and excavation at the site of the Madam Felix home. Marked today by a row of locust trees, the site is located on a knoll on the south side of Rock Creek Road, midway between the entrance to the Royal/Mountain King Mines and the Ella McCarty Hiatt Ranch.

Excavations revealed numerous sherds of high quality transfer printed tableware, “black glass” wine bottle sherds from the 1850s and 1860s, green glass wine bottles, and glass tumblers.  A metal detector survey, along gri d lines placed by class members, revealed intense concentrations of cut nails, household hardware, and parts of farm tools.

Alignments of flat rocks on the site were determined to be the probable foundations of the house, with a western-facing porch. A rough stone wall ma rked the eastern boundary of the yard. The o n l y other remaining feature from the Madam Felix occupation period was a stone wall, located on the north side of Rock Creek Road across from the homesite. According to local lore, the house burned to the ground in about 1860.

The primary read through Salt Spring Valley during the 1850s was the old Antelope Trail (later known as the Stockton to Angels Road). A road branched off to the south toward the Stanislaus Ferries at Madam Felix's to connect with the ferrys over the Stanislaus River. When Reed and McCarty discovered copper ore at the present site of Copperopolis in 1860, the resultant boom created a rush to the area and the realignment of the major transportation routes in the area. By the 1860s, the Central Ferry Road branched south from the Antelope Trail past Pike's Store, the Pine Log mine, and the Pine Log mill, where it joined the route past Madam Felix's and south to Four Springs Ranch and the Ferrys. The road which branched south at Madam Felix's was virtually abandoned for a newer road, to the east, on a better roadbed to the new town of Copperopolis, and for the western road through Hodson.

The site of Alban Hettick's house is south of, and down the draw from Madam Felix's. It is marked today by exotic trees, an improved spring and a stone-lined basement. After the property was purchased by the McCarty family, the house was used by sheepherders and others working on the ranch. It was torn down many years ago. Farther down the drainage is the Hettick Garden, where a few remaining fig and fruit trees mark the site of the once flourishing garden which bore all kinds of fruit, grapes, and vegetable crops. A stone-lined well and a stone retaining wall are all that remain of Hettick's improvements..

Other French and Swiss settlers in the valley during the 1860s were Auguste Gougelat and Ramon Barut (and Francis Persin, who worked for them), who resided on adjoining ranches east of the Hettick Ranch; Adrian Despencia who had a house near Pike’s store at the New Diggings (Mt. King mine area); Hubert Tiret and Peter Vigier, both with ranches on Bear Creek, at the north end o+ the valley  the partners Augustin Bernard and Barthelemy and H i ppo ly te Andre from Tuolumne County, whose ranch is now part of the Ella Hiatt Ranch; the Swiss, Carlo and Mary Pedroli, who built their stone house on Dry Creek, north of the Reservoir; and his brother and wife Antone and Annie. During the 1870s Augustus and Rosey Aubert purchased the Judge Wilson Ranch west of the Reservoir and his brother John and wife Mary resided near the Pedroli Ranch, as did the Swiss farmer Jacob Meloise.

By the late 1870s, the only French/Swiss family residing in the valley were the Hetticks, and the only other Frenchmen were the small colony of single men residing on a plot of ground on Bear Creek where Eugene Barbe, Hettick's former farm laborer, was granted 160 acres from the Stockton land  Office on May 21, 1877, under the preemption Act.  Long known as the Stone Houses, the area was dubbed “Lost City” in a rather sensational newspaper article written in the 1930s. Unfortunately that name has remained, even as a location on the USGS maps, perpetuating a myth that Joaquin Murietta and his band of outlaws resided there. Pothunters and treasure seekers have dug up floors, torn down parts of walls, and wreaked havoc looking for lost valuables.


By Judith Marvin, ca. 1994