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Washington Flat

The area known as Washington Flat, where gold was discovered in the auriferous gravels on Washington Flat in 1852, started a small rush of placer miners to the area. The source of the name “Washington” is unknown, but could have been named for the Washington Mining Company Claim, filed February 11, 1852 in Mining Claim Book A:258, which is missing from the County Archives. The name Washington Flat was given to the flat on the south side of the Murphys Grade Road, about two miles from Angels Camp, but used loosely over the years to encompass a fairly large area between the Altaville to Murphys Road, south by the Altaville to Vallecito Road (now a private road on the Rolleri Ranch), and the Angels to Vallecito Road, bounded on the east by the steep bluffs.

The first extensive newspaper account of the Flat was noted in November of 1857, when the correspondent described a visit to the ranch of Messrs. Reynolds & Hockman, from where they “passed up Angel’s Creek to a rich valley, where are several ranches and much mining, of which we will speak in a future letter, as time and room, admonishes to ‘hold up’” (San Andreas Independent, November 14, 1857).

The “future letter” evidently was published in January of 1858, when the reporter and his friend “Swoggle” took a walk to Washington Flat and reported upon their findings. In addition to various orchards, fruits, grapes, melons, grain, gardening, and other agricultural pursuits, the reporter noted the presence of several placer mining operations.

The following month the correspondent for the San Andreas Independent described the Flat:

This morning was cool, and we resolved to walk for our health to Washington Flat. We admired the perseverance and taste displayed by Mr. George L. Crocker, in planting out so large and so fine a collection of fruit trees and ornamental shrubbery. We looked at the honey bees (for he has two stands), then at friend Crocker building fence, then at the house, almost hid by vines and blossoming plants, and we voted unanimous that he lives at Angel’s. Then we hailed Paul, who is sluicing by himself and hires the co. part. He said he had struck the “lead” and was following it around the point of the hill. He makes $6 to $8 per day, and will follow it till it ran into the creek or up a tree. The next man we met, there were two of them going to town to sell their dust and buy some vegetation (they did not offer to buy us), so we touched noses like ants and marched. Then our health took us to Mr. James Matteson’s claim. He runs two strings of sluices and does the blacksmithing each day for Washington Flat. Then we went to the store with N.W. Green, who was plowing a piece of ground where we once raised the color and he expects to raise Irish oranges. Green & Harvey have a good ranch for grain, gardening, and fruit raising, as I have judged many times, from the size of the melons, the quality of peaches and flavor of the grapes. Well, we tried the gin at the store, found it good, gave the appropriate permission to keep some on hand till we came round again—then we went home to dinner with Messrs. Wood and Harvey, the miners who are making good wages. After that we went back to the store and saw the man who discovered Washington Flat in 1852, and the one who had stole my loaf of bread on that Christmas Eve. They have claims that pay well. We saw Joe Matson and others, all doing well. Plenty of water in Eureka and Sebastopol ditches, and good wages for the working. Then we turned up Jack ??pantly, and he warned us off the Flat, not to come back for two months (San Andreas Independent, February 13, 1858).

By the following October, however, most of the readily available gold had evidently been exhausted, and the water was no longer running. An account, published in the San Andreas Independent that year, noted:

As you have correspondents from almost every camp in the country, and none, so far as I have seen, from this place, I will give you brief description of Washington Flat, and may at the same time say something of the folks that live on it.

It is a little valley (I like the word better than flat), situated in the south-eastern portion of this county, which is watered by Angels Creek; bounded on the south by Angels Camp; on the east by Vallecito, Douglass’ Flat and Murphy’s; on the north by a county road called the Murphy’s and Hawkeye Road, and on the west by Altaville. There are four farms located on it which are well fenced, and have many choice fruit trees growing on them, with several thousand grape vines, many of which have borne well this year. The valley is inhabited by farmers, merchants and miners, who all agree on one point. vis: that these are hard times; the cause of which is the Fraser River emigrants took a large portion of money from this section at the time the water ditches dried up, and they have had no chance since to make any more by washing on their claims. There is another point on which they nearly agree; that is, “that there is a good time coming.” The miners think they can do well when there is plenty of water; the farmers think they will do well when all of their fruit trees and grape vines are bearing, and the merchants think that if every one around them has cash, then can do a cash business (San Andreas Independent, October 16, 1858).

In March of the following year, with water flowing, the newspaper correspondent was more optimistic:

Washington Flat.- The mining claims at this point are chiefly surface diggings. Closely verging upon Angels Creek there are several parties engaged in sluicing ground which is from eight to ten feet deep. The greater number, however, are employed in shallow diggings, which, it seems, are quite extensive—Creaser & Co., F. P. McArthur & Co., Jos. C. Harvey & Co., J.R. Snell & Co., Robt. McCoy and others are all engaged at working in surface diggings and doing a fair business. Quite a number of companies, besides those named, are plying away assiduously. There is not a solitary loafer in camp (San Andreas Independent, March 26, 1859).

During this period, two stores and a saloon were operating on the flat, including the store of Lambert and Ray, and that of Nathan W. Green, who arrived on the flat in 1852. In 1858, one Watt was noted as the proprietor of a saloon on the flat (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls). These enterprises were evidently located on the northeast side of the flat, near the extensive placering operations and the ranch of Green & Harvey, which was noted in Green’s 1862 probate record as “property damaged by mining operations” (N.W. Green Probate File, Record Storage Box 19). By 1863 there were no stores or commercial establishments assessed on Washington Flat.

Thereafter Washington Flat disappeared from the newspaper accounts, undoubtedly because the placers played out and the area settled into more prosaic agricultural activities.

A few ranches, which were established in the early 1850s, continued to produce fruit, grapes, livestock, poultry, honey, and other marketable items into the mid-20th Century. 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. 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. The most well-known of these were the Slab Ranch (now Rolleri), Stag Ranch (later Massoni), the Green & Harvey Ranch (later absorbed by the Richards and Massoni ranches), and the William Richards Ranch.

The mines on Washington Flat were “shallow diggings,” located close to the surface and mined with water from the Sebastopol and Eureka ditches, their branches, and branch ditches from Angels Creek and Six Mile Creek. Evidently no shafts or tunnels were dug in recovering the gold, and most of it was either ground sluiced from the gravels along Angels Creek, or placered with water coursing down the gulches to recover the gold in sluice boxes or Long Toms.

An 1859 account mentioned the names of several men engaged in working the flat: Creaser & Co (with N.W. Green), F.P. McArthur & Co., James C. Harvey & Co., J.R. Snell & Co., Robert McCoy, and others. The account noted that the shallow diggings were quite extensive, and that several companies were at work, therefore it appears impossible to ascertain exactly who worked the ground in particular areas. Of the men noted above, however, several of them resided on Washington Flat through the mid-1870s.

Not noted in the accounts, however, were the numerous Chinese miners working in, or adjacent to, the Washington Flat area, probably along Angels Creek. The census for 1860 noted the presence of 25 Chinese miners, in eight households, between the Richards Ranch and Slab Ranch. However, only one Chinese, Ah Kin, who was working a two-acre garden on Angels Creek in 1858, was noted in the assessment rolls (Calaveras County Assessment Rolls; U.S. Federal Census 1860, 1870).

The lure of gold drew the Chinese to California just as it had the other immigrant groups, with Angels Camp the center of Chinese activity for Southern Calaveras. Like Europeans, Chinese immigrants were preponderantly males who were single or had left their families in China. Working in companies ranging from a handful to 25 or 30, they reworked the placers abandoned by the Euro-American miners. After the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, however, their numbers dwindled until in 1910 there were only 49 in all of Calaveras County (Giovinco 1980b). 

In 1870, only five individual miners, in addition to five members or employees of the Massoni family, were noted as miners on the Flat, with an additional three Chinese miners, probably working on Six Mile Creek. When the federal census taker visited the Flat in 1880, less than a handful of miners were counted. It appears likely, however, that members of the farming families continued to prospect in the area, but the heyday of placer mining had ended for Washington Flat.


By Judith Marvin


Giovincco, Joseph, 1980, The Ethnic Dimenson of Calaveras County.  Completed under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to the Calaveras Heritage Council.