Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

John Wayne's Great Western Mistake.
Or, The Time the Society Wrote a 'Dear John' Letter.
Former Corresponding Secretary, SCV Historical Society.

February 2001.

John Wayne did a commercial for Great Western Bank in February 1978 in which he stated that gold was "first" discovered at Sutter's Mill. At our Society's next general meeting, the members decided that I should write to Mr. Wayne, telling him he was wrong about his statement in the television and radio commercial.

At the following general meeting I proceeded to read what I had written to Mr. Wayne and was treated to howls and laughter as I began ...

Dear John:
    Knowing that you have "shot" more Indians than ever lived here in the Santa Clarita Valley, we of the Historical Society are shocked that you did not know that gold was first discovered right here in Placerita Canyon at the location of many of your Western films - near the Walker cabin located in Placerita Canyon near the site where Francisco Lopez discovered the first gold here in California on March 9, 1842 - seven years before your Great Western TV and Radio commercial erroneously claims gold was discovered in Sutter's Creek.
    Rights to the Placerita mine were granted April 4, 1842, and the first great gold rush in California history began. Twenty-dollar gold pieces were minted in Philadelphia in 1843 from Placerita Canyon gold. By December 1843, two thousand ounces of gold had been taken from southern California gold mines.
    Millions of school children as well as adults have seen and heard you on the commercial, and the Santa Clarita Valley residents who now number 65,000 are thinking of going on the war path, and find the commercial disheartening and a mark against your integrity!
    Very Truly Yours,

    Helen Blancher,
    Corresponding Secretary

John Wayne's reply:

Dear Ms. Blancher:
    You are so right! I don't know whatever possessed me to use the word "first" in that commercial.
    I have kicked horses up and down the hills around Placerita Canyon and stepped on every foot of it. Matter of fact, they built that Western street that used to be there off my back, so I certainly knew that the first gold was discovered in Placerita Canyon.
    I think it is quite interesting, and I am going to check with Great Western and see if I can't get them to let me take the word "first" out of the video advertising and make a radio correction by saying, "I don't know how it ever happened, folks, but I kicked horses up and down every hill around Placerita Canyon and knew that an awful lot of $20 gold pieces were minted Philadelphia from gold taken out of that Canyon."* I am sure I can arrange it.
    The true fact is better than the mistake. Thank you for calling it to my attention.

    John Wayne

John Wayne did get the word "first" removed from the commercial immediately, but he never did make the correction he wanted. He grew very ill from cancer shortly after this, and a few months later he passed away.

At the general meeting at which I read the letters, a man came up to me and said, "Good work! Can't let John get away with that!" Then he walked out of the building, never giving me the chance to reply.

I discovered later that Harry Carey, Jr. was the man who said this to me. In case you are of the younger generation reading this, Harry Carey, Jr. was also a famous Western movie hero, and he made movies with John Wayne. Harry Carey is also a past resident of this valley, once living on a ranch up in San Francisquito Canyon.

* Webmaster's note: John Wayne may have overcorrected himself a bit. It is doubtful that any U.S. $20 gold pieces were minted from gold extracted from Placerita Canyon, much less "a lot" of them. Congress first authorized $20 gold pieces in March 1849 as a vehicle for the big influx of gold coming out of the Sutter's Mill area. California had just joined the Union and by that time, Mexican mining in Placerita had waned.

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