Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
THE STORY OF OUR VALLEY BY A.B. PERKINS
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3. The Placerita Gold Rush

Under The Oak

F
rancisco Lopez was apparently living at the hacienda March 9,1842, for on that date, accompanied by Manuell Cota and Domingo Berrmudez he came riding up to what today is called Placerita Canyon, from the hacienda. They may have been checking upon the condition of the cattle, or grazing conditions, or hunting — although the tradition says they were after wild onions, but why they would ride that far for something available much closer to the ranch house would be another question.

Whatever the cause, the party rested under a big old oak tree for siesta. Someone of the party is said to have observed gold dust clinging to the roots of a wild onion. This would of course constitute the first gold find in California.

In general, the story is true. In the archives at Sacramento may be found the following document, which is quoted in full because it constitutes the first mining location notice of California. It reads:

To his Excellency, the Governor —

The citizens Francisco Lopez, Manuel Cota and Domingo Bermudez, residents of the Port of Santa Barbara, before Your Excellency with the utmost submission, appear saying that His Divine Majesty having granted us a placer of gold on the 9th day of March last, at the place of San Francisco, appertaining to the late Don Antonio del Valle, distant from his house about one league toward the south, we apply to Your Excellency to be pleased to decree in our favor whatsoever you may deem proper and just, forwarding herewith the specimens of said gold.

Wherefore we pray to Your Excellency to be pleased to give us the respective permission to undertake therewith our labors jointly with those who may wish to proceed to said work.

Excuse the use of common paper in default of that of the corresponding stamp."

Santa Barbara,
April 4, 1842.
Franco Lopez,
Manuel Cota
("Fran'co Lopez, at the request of Domingo Bermudez, who does not know how to write.")

News Gets Around

A
t that time there were not many people in Southern California. However, the news got around. Dr. Cleland says the labor market at Sespe Ranch was decimated as the men came down to the placers. De Mofras visited the field in 1842, although he accredited the discovery to a countryman, Baric, who mined in Placeritas for awhile. Sandels visited the placers also that year. He attributed the original discovery to one Mexican named Melendez.

It wasn't too pleasurable an experience to the Del Valles, who were suffering from trespassers who cut firewood, disturbed the cattle, and otherwise assumed proprietorship of the ranch lands. Ygnacio del Valle, oldest son of Antonio, immediately petitioned the nearest governmental unit, the Pueblo of Los Angeles, for relief, which was immediately forthcoming.

First Mining Law

T
he next document is quoted in full, for it represents the first Mining District Laws of California, borrowed naturally from Spanish and Mexican customs. Quoting —

This Court has been informed that they continue to prospect in the gold fields near you, and that, in fact, a number of people are gathering at this place, and in order that this work may proceed in an orderly fashion, I have appointed a magistrate for that place in order to keep law and order and when he is absent, due to business affairs, Mr. Fran'co Sorella will be in charge in his place.

You will make this decision known to those who are staying there and that your court will be in charge of criminal and judicial cases and this office will handle civil and State affairs in order that we may issue the necessary orders.

You will take special care that as soon as this discovery is made, you will notify this office immediately so that we can establish what each one is entitled to and what municipal rights should be establish[ed]; and if you have already had reason to do this, you will notify us of it also.

As for the sale of liquor and such, which the community has established, the laws of the town will be observed first, and be careful to have good reason before infringing upon their jurisdiction.

As for the eight dollars which you collect for entering, and for the time they remain there, in consideration of this, they will be in possession and owe it for pasturing their livestock, for water, firewood and even lumber for temporary shelters. This charge seems just, collected only once.

As this office is aware that there are no laws to arrange this affair, I will notify the superiors of this department and secure information about the method to be used.

You will make known this deposition to Mr. Sorella in order that he may aquaint himself with the contents and the duties assigned him.

I hope that I will have the honor of your acceptance and compliance with the orders.

This occasion is presented to me to offer my consideration and appreciation.

God and liberties —

S. Arguello
May 3, 1842.

Senor Ygnacio del Valle.
In charge of Justice of Law Enforcement
Rancho del Mission San Fernando.

According to Bancroft: "The Government of Los Angeles was placed under a prefecture in 1840 when Santiago Arguello was appointed Prefect, which office he held until 1843. The same authority states that Francisco Sorrella was a Sonoran gambusino who worked for a long time in these mines and finally disappeared in the gold rush." Antonio del Valle died in 1841.

The original document, in Spanish, is in Bancroft Library. (This translation is by the courtesy of Miss Lois Phillips of Hart High School.)

Everything considered, news got around. Governor Alvarado wrote for further information as to the Placers in May. In June, Del Valle reported to Prefect Arguello that "only a few miners were not making a dollar a day — the placers were of great extent — many small nuggets had been found — no taxes should yet be imposed — there had been but 100 miners, now only fifty as water was short, but miners would return with the rains — good order was being observed."

Bancroft says prospecting was going on over about two leagues, the prospects averaging about $2 per day. He also says that about 2,000 ounces of dust had been shipped by the end of 1843, probably largely through the accounts of Don Abel Stearns, the Pueblo's leading merchant.

Raids Close Camp

I
ndian raids closed the camp in 1844, subject to later revivals. In 1843, a second field was found in San Feliciano Canyon where Jose Salazar, soon to be the second husband of Del Valle's widow and co-Alcalde of the Pueblo in 1847, is supposed to have taken out $43,000 worth of dust.

There was a letter in the Los Angeles Star in 1860 of passing interest that might fit in here. One Andrew Anderson writes:

The first discovery of gold in New Mexico was made by a descendant of Montezuma in 1828 and by one of the same race in California, about 30 miles west of Los Angeles and near the Rancho San Francisco, a short time before my arrival in 1844.

I was one of the first that went to the mines, and the only American there. I made the first gold washing machine at that time and I think it was the first that was ever made in California.

The natives appeared to be much surprised at its adaptation for gold washing and said that there was never any made of any kind in the country. It was not a rocker, but a kind of a cylinder-shaped machine. I will give you a description of it here. The machine was about 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet in height with a gate an inch from the bottom. A shaft was in the center, with arms on the shaft and, on the arms, at the bottom, there were crow teeth 5/8 inch apart and 1/4 inch from the bottom of the machine. This worked by a crank on the top of the machine, and the arms and teeth at the bottom kept the dirt in motion, and the gold settled in grooves made near the chines in the bottom. It was the best machine for gathering gold that I have ever seen. I worked it 14 days, which was the time I stayed in the mines and got two pounds of fine gold. It was worth, at that time, $14 per ounce. We were driven out by the Tulare Indians and no one ever worked them up to 1850.

All my statements are known to be correct by the old settlers of California, to wit: Johnson, a blacksmith, who made the iron work for the machine, John Rowland, J. Workman, John Temple, Abel Steams, Alexander Bell, Louis Robidoux, John Forster and a Mr. Saxton.

Placerita State Park

S
ome may not be aware that up in Placerita Canyon can be found a memorial plaque worded as follows:

Francisco Lopez
Here discovered the first gold in California,
March 9, 1842.
This plate placed March 9, 1930,
by the Ramona Parlor No. 109, N.S.G.W.,
La Mesa Club, Kiwanis Club of Newhall-Saugus.

A short distance from this plaque stands a very old oak tree. Upon it[9] is another bronze plate reading:

Encino de Los Ensuenos Dorados
de Francisco Lopez
Oak of the Golden Dream
placed by La Mesa Club
March 9, 1930

You will be more surprised to know that you are in a 40-acre State Historic Memorial Park acquired by the State Parks Commission in 1948. Nothing remains to be done except opening an adequate road to the site from Highway 6, cleaning up the place and making it accessible and usable, all of which we are consistently informed, will be done — shortly[10].

There is still mining in Placerita, especially up on the Walker Rancho, and there was the site of the old mining camp.

There used to be a few stone cabins, relics of the older mining days, but they have been gone for years.

The Mountain Passes

T
here is another plaque which stands at the southern end of the deep, narrow cut through the San Fernando Mountains just north of Highway 6. It calls attention to Fremont Pass and unfortunately gives the impression that the present cut is it.[11]

The Fremont party did come through the rancho on their way to the capitulation at Cahuenga. Edwin Bryant, Fremont's First Lieutenant and later Alcalde of San Francisco, in his narrative of the expedition, leaves the impression that the expedition may have stopped overnight at the Del Valle ranch home January 9, 1847. The night of the 10th of January, the expedition camped at the spot where today Highway 6 joins San Fernando Road, south of Newhall. The 11th of January, Fremont took half his party on foot directly over the hills (presumably at today's Needham Ranch or thereabout) while the artillery wagons, etc. went over the old road in Grapevine Canyon.

For decades, authentication of Fremont's route locally seemed impossible. In his memoirs, his reference is to the "Pass of San Bernardo" of which there isn't any. Some early typesetter read a "B" where an "F" was intended. In Bancroft Library, Mrs. Fannie Vande Grift Sanchez found and translated a manuscript of one Jose E. Garcia, who had been a member of the California group charged with delaying, annoying, or otherwise confusing the advance of Fremont.

In Senor Garcia's words:

The next day in the morning we set out [from Sespe, Jan 8, 1847] for San Fernando, in order to reach it before Fremont, which we succeeded in doing as night was falling. We spent the night there. The following day we went as far as the hill of San Francisquito [San Fernando or Newhall Pass], where we arrived at six in the morning. From the top of the hill mentioned we made out Fremont's camp, a very short distance below in the Valley.

Here, within sight of the enemy, we camped and remained until seven in the evening when we returned to San Fernando where we spent the night in the Mission [then the home of General Andres Pico].

There is but one place on the crest of the range where Fremont's campsite and the mission are both visible, and the corresponding entries in Lt. Bryant's (First Lieutenant of the Fremont Party) diary dovetail with those of Garcia's.

Research frequently confirms rumor, as in this case, where old Indians told of seeing the Fremont camp at Lyon Station — where it was — and the parties going over the Pass as it did.

The Grapevine Road was a horrible road. It used to be called "The Road of Despair" in those days.

The Cut, as will be later known, is "Beale's Cut," dating from 1863.

The Jayhawker Party

T
he next historic event, as distinguished from the everyday, rather uneventful life of a California Rancho at that time, as a side issue makes available an eyewitness description of Rancho San Francisco, as it appeared to William Lewis Manly of the "Jayhawker" Party, and in his words as they appear in "Death Valley in '49," Manly is emerging from the narrowed terminal of San Francisquito Canyon.

There before us was a beautiful meadow of a thousand acres (Saugus to the Castaic areas), green as a thick carpet of grass could make it, and shaded with oaks, wide branching and symmetrical, equal to those of an old English park; while all over the low mountains that bordered it on the south and over the broad acres of luxuriant grass was a herd of cattle numbering many hundred, if not thousands. They were of all colors, shapes and sizes. Some were lying down in happy rumination, others rapidly cropping the sweet grass while the gay calves worked off their superfluous life and spirit in vigorous exercise or drew rich nourishment.

As we went along, a man and woman passed us — the woman had no hoops or shoes and a shawl about her neck with one end thrown over her head [as] a substitute bonnet. The man had sandals on his feet, with white cotton pants, a calico shirt and a wide-rimmed, conical, colored hat.

A house on higher ground soon appeared in sight (the Del Valle ranch house, nee the Asistencia). It was low, of one story with a flat roof, grey in color and of a different style of architecture from any we had ever seen before. There was no fence around it and there were no animals, nor wagons nor persons to be seen.

A man soon made his appearance, dressed in the same style as the one we had passed. Rogers now began looking around the house, which was built of sun-dried bricks about one by two feet in size, and one end was used as a store house.

Till the start of World War II, the Jayhawkers Association, descendants of the survivors of that trail, held an annual picnic in the willows of Castaic Junction.

The census of 1850 shows no miners in the Placeritas camp (and) shows the address given for some 25 men, indicating a fairly active camp for that day.

The Colton Version

I
n the San Francisco Chronicle in 1903, John C. Colton, another member of the "Jayhawkers" is quoted. He was returning to his home in Kansas City after attending the reunion of Jayhawkers, that year held at Lodi. It might not be amiss to include excerpts from a hitherto unquoted source:

We began to hold our reunions in 1872. (Originally) thirty-six of us left Galesburg, Ill. and arrived at Salt Lake ... learned of loss of Donner Party ... had heard glowing accounts of the fabulous amount of gold in far-off California.

We secured Capt. Hunt as guide and set out for Santa Fe Trail — 107 ox wagons and large party of men and women ... some of us young fellows decided on striking out across the desert. We aimed to bring up in San Joaquin Valley. We separated and began our march. Later the rest of the party followed our trail.

Feed was poor ... water infrequent ... disheartened, but unable to turn back ... plodded along, often a 5-day journey between water holes ... strongly impregnated with alkali. We abandoned our carts, carried provisions and necessities in packs ... edge of Death Valley reached — four of our number died ... gradually killed oxen and devoured the entire carcasses, even boiled the hooves for soup.

Sighted Sierra Madre range ... several days without water ... struck Santa Clara River. Party emaciated and nearly dead. Men who had weighed 200 pounds ... less than 60 pounds ... reached Rancho San Francisco February 4, 1850.

We were found by some herders and were tenderly carried to the ranch house. How we did eat, sleep and drink. We did nothing else for two weeks. The ranch was owned by Del Valle of this city.

According to Mr. Colton, the party seemed to have been well cared for "at the old milk house" which "must be preserved forever — it must remain a landmark — earthquakes will hardly capture it — I regret you didn't leave a little pile of adobe to mark the locality of the old Ranche House that looked to our starved party like a palace." (From a letter of John B. Colton to Mr. E.H. Bailey, Rancho San Francisquito, Surrey P.O.[12], Los Angeles Co. February 28, 1903.)


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