Calaveras gold – Harte, Twain, Murieta and Black Bart

Joaquin Murieta

John and Daniel Murphy were early California merchants who rushed to the gold country in 1848. The first place they mined, once called Murphy’s Old Diggings, is now Vallecito. But the brothers soon moved on to Murphy’s New Diggings where the gold was so plentiful that claims were limited to eight square feet and yet many men became rich. The Murphy brothers returned to their roots and made far more money as local merchants than at mining. In 1849 John left town, never to return, with over 2 million dollars. Over $20 million in gold was discovered in local mining sites like Owlsburg and Owlsburrow Flat. Joaquin Murieta, the famous outlaw, once dealt cards in a Murphys’ saloon.

Bret Harte

Henry and George Angel, members of John C. Fremont’s California Battalion during the war with Mexico, were the first to prospect in Angels Camp. But mining was hard work so the brothers set up a trading post and the town grew around it. When the placer mines dried up men began to leave but quartz gold was found and the town prospered.

In the 1855 a young Bret Harte arrived in the Southern mines. He found the gold country hard and lawless and the people ugly, unwashed, and vulgar. But his experiences left him rich with inspiration. Harte moved to San Francisco and began writing about the Gold Rush. There he befriended another young writer, Mark Twain, and it was to Harte’s cabin in Angels Camp that Twain went in the winter of 1864. There, in the Angels Hotel, Twain first heard the yarn that he turned into the short story that launched his literary career, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Cover for Twain’s story

Between Mokelumne Hill and Angels Camp is San Andreas, first mined by Mexican prospectors in 1848 and named after Saint Andrew. It’s now the county seat of Calaveras County. Like most places in the Southern mines after the easy gold was gone more deposits were found, this time in underground river channels. San Andreas went on to become a major gold producing center through the Civil War. After the war another notorious Gold Rush bandit and early dime novel villain, Black Bart, pulled a series of stagecoach robberies around Calaveras County. After his capture he was tried and convicted in San Andreas.


  1. Nice story John…

  2. Jon Lorensen says

    Great story. I find the history of Joaquin Murieta a bit fascinating. If my old 32 k memory is correct he was killed\hanged in Monterey County?

    • It is a powerful story, Jon. Off hand I’m not sure exactly where the posse caught him, or even if it really was Murieta they caught, but his head was cut off and carried back as proof the famous bandit was dead. The head later wound up on display. It was a gruesome event.

  3. What a story, John! And you tell it so well, too. It seems like then or now, wherever there was/is gold, there’s also greed.


    • It is an interesting look into a small slice of the California gold country. Joaquin Murieta and Black Bart were colorful and I have great admiration for Twain and Harte. I think Harte was Twain’s mentor. Harte published a magazine called the Overland Monthly and his writing was very popular at the time. Anyway it all came up at the right time and gave me an idea. If you don’t mind I’d like your expert feedback on it next week.

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