|Home -> Paul Elder -> A Tramp Through Bret Harte Country - Chapter 6|
E. W. Maslin and His Recollections of Pioneer Days In Grass Valley.
Origin of Our Mining Laws
To Mr. E. W. Maslin, of Alameda, of whom Ben Taylor said: "He is like a brother to me," I am indebted for information of much interest, bearing on the olden days and Grass Valley in particular. Mr. Maslin came around the "Horn" to California, in the ship Herman, on May 7, 1853. He arrived in Grass Valley and went to work as a miner the following morning. He now holds, and has for years, the responsible position in the United States Custom House, San Francisco, of Deputy Naval Officer of the Port. The clearing papers of every vessel that leaves San Francisco bear his signature. Although in his eightieth year, his memory is as clear and his sense of humor as vivid as when, a youth of nineteen, he left for good, Maryland, his native state. Few men in the San Francisco bay region are more widely known than he. His ready wit, cheery laugh and fund of information - for he is extremely well-read - always insure for him an attentive and appreciative audience.
Speaking of Ben Taylor, he told me a characteristic incident, which being also typical of the men of '49, I give, with his consent, as related. When the White Pine excitement in 1869 started a rush of prospectors to Nevada, Mr. Maslin caught the fever with the rest. In common with all who dug for gold, he had his ups and downs, the fat years and the lean ones; at the time, his fortunes being at a lew ebb, he joined the stampede. Several years previous to his departure, without informing his wife, he had borrowed of Ben Taylor, three hundred dollars, secured by mortgage on his house in Grass Valley. At White Pine he met with considerable success, and in a short time sent his wife five hundred dollars, telling her for the first time of the mortgage on their home and requesting her to go to Ben Taylor at once and pay him in full. It so happened that Taylor had called on Mrs. Maslin for news of her husband, as she was reading this letter. She immediately tendered him the check with the request that he would inform her to what the interest amounted. "Why, Molly," said Ben Taylor, "you surely ought to know me well enough to know I would never take any interest on that money!" When it is remembered that the legal rate of interest at that time was ten per cent, and that double that amount was not infrequently paid - Mr. Maslin, in fact, expecting to pay Taylor something like five hundred dollars - the attitude of the latter will be the better appreciated.
This seems a fitting place to pay a humble personal tribute of respect to the memory of the men of "the fall of '49 and the spring of '50." Not since the Crusades, when the best blood of Europe was spilt in defense of the Holy Sepulchre, has the world seen a finer body of men than the Argonauts of California. True, the quest of the "Golden Fleece" was the prime motive, but sheer love of adventure for adventure's sake played a most important part. Later on, the turbulent element arrived. It was due to the rectitude, inherent sense of justice and courage of the pioneers that they were held in check and, by force of arms when necessary, made to understand the white man's code of honor.
So much in song and story has been said of the scramble for gold in the early days after the discovery, and so little attention given to the artistic and aesthetic sense of the pioneers, that the general impression made by the famous old mining towns of California, when seen for the first time, may be worth recording. In the massive stone hotels and stores of that period, as well as in the careful construction of dwelling houses, they exhibited a true perception of "the eternal fitness of things." The buildings of the fifties, in their extreme simplicity, are far more imposing than the nondescript, pretentious structures of today, and will, beyond doubt, in usefulness outlast them.
As a result of ignoring the checker-board plan, and permitting the streets to follow the natural contour of the hills and ravines, these mountain towns seem to have become blended and to be in harmony with the wonderful setting Nature has provided. All buildings, residential or otherwise, are protected from the summer heat by umbrageous trees. Lawns of richest green delight the eye, and vines and flowers surround cottages perched on steep hillsides, or half-hidden in deep ravines. The first glimpse from a distant eminence of any of the old mining towns conveys the suggestion of peaceful homes buried in greenery, basking contentedly in the brilliant sunshine, surrounded by the whispering pines, with the snow-clad peaks of the Sierra Nevada for a background.
You also receive the impression of cleanliness. If there were any old cans, scraps of paper and miscellaneous rubbish lying about in any town through which I passed, I did not notice them. One is struck, too, by the absence of the "vacant lot" - that unsightly blot of such frequent occurrence in all towns in the process of building, especially when forced by "booms" beyond their normal growth. Fortunately the very word "boom," in its significance as applied to inflated real estate values, has no meaning in these towns, with the result that they are compact. One may search in vain for the "house to let" sign. When no more houses were needed, no more houses were built. This compactness of form, cleanliness, and the elimination to a great extent of the rectangular block, contribute in no small measure to that indefinable suggestion of the Old World - a charm that haunts the memory and finally becomes permanent acquisition.
However clever the stories of the romancers - of whom Bret Harte preeminently stands first - after all, their characters were intrinsically but creatures of the imagination; the pioneers were the real thing! Yet such is the nature of this topsy-turvy world, the copies will remain, whilst the originals will fade away and be forgotten! The writer will always hold it a privilege that he had the pleasure of meeting in the flesh a remnant of the men who laid the foundation of the institutions by means of which this great Commonwealth has grown and prospered; big, broad-minded, strong men who, whatever their failings - for they were very human - were generous to a fault, ever ready to listen to the cry of distress or help a fallen brother to his feet, scornful of pettiness, ignorant of snobbery, fair and square in their dealings with their fellows. Alas, that it should have come to "Hail and Farewell" to such a type of manhood!
At my request, Mr. Maslin, at one time a practicing attorney, dictated the following succinct account of the origin of the mining laws of California. The discovery at Gold Hill, now within the corporate limits of Grass Valley, of a gold-bearing quartz ledge, subsequently the property of Englishmen who formed an organization known as "The Gold Hill Quartz Mining Company," led to the founding of the mining laws of California. On December 30, 1850, the miners passed regulations which had with them the force of laws, defining the location and ownership of mines. It was provided that claims should be forty feet by thirty feet; a recorder was to be elected by the miners and all difficulties arising out of trespass on claims were to be tried before the recorder and two miners, an appeal to be taken to the justice of the peace.
When quartz lodes began to be discovered and worked, it was found that the location of claims by square feet did not protect the miner or afford sufficient territory upon which to expend his labor. Accordingly a miners' meeting was held in Nevada City on December 20, 1852, and a body of laws prescribed, governing all quartz mines within the county of Nevada. The following were the salient features: "Each proprietor of a quartz claim shall be entitled to one hundred feet on a quartz ledge or vein; the discoverer shall be allowed one hundred feet additional. Each claim shall include all the dips, angles, and variations of the same." The remaining articles related to the working, holding and recording of claims. This law was incorporated in the raining legislation of the State of Nevada and has formed the basis of the mining laws of each territory of the United States. Thus we have a proof not only of the intelligence of the early miner, but also of his capacity for self-government. It must be remembered that the miners came from all over the United States, but principally from the West and the South. Probably none had seen a quartz ledge before coming to California, yet the necessity for extending a claim as far as the ledge dipped was soon perceived, as also the taking into consideration a change in the direction or course of the lode. Commenting on these laws and the causes leading to their adoption, Mr. Muslin became emphatic. He said:
"No body of rough, uncouth, pistolled ruffians, such as Bret Harte depicts the miners, would have formed such a group of benevolent, far-reaching and comprehensive laws. The early miner represented the best type of American character. He was brave, undeterred by obstacles, enduring with patient fortitude the perils and privations of the long journey of half a year by land, or a tempestuous voyage by sea; undaunted alike by the terrors of Cape Horn or the insidious diseases of the Isthmus of Panama. He met the, to him, hitherto unknown problem of the extraction of gold and solved it with the wisdom and vigor which distinguish the American. Observe that the provision against throwing dirt on another man's claim anticipated by many years the famous hydraulic decision of Judge Sawyer. It is another way of stating the maxim of law and equity: 'so use your own property, as not to injure that of another.'"
Mr. Maslin agrees with Ben Taylor that the hangings and shootings of the period following the discovery of gold have been grossly exaggerated. On this point he said: "I will venture to assert that in certain of the Mississippi Valley States, in their early settlement, more men were killed in one year than in ten of the early mining years in California." Of lynching, he said: "There were few lynchings in California, and those mostly in the southern tier of counties, of persons convicted of cattle-stealing." In connection with lynching he related a serio-comic incident that occurred in Grass Valley in the early days.
Several fires had taken place in the town and the inhabitants were in consequence much excited. A watchman on his rounds espied a light in a vacant log cabin, and entering, caught a man in the act of striking a match. He arrested him and the populace were for taking summary vengeance. A man known as "Blue Coat Osborne" cried out, "Let's hang him! Nevada City once hanged a man and Grass Valley never did!" This was an effective appeal, for the rivalry that has lasted ever since already existed. Fortunately, wiser counsels prevailed; the man was subsequently tried and acquitted, it appearing that he was a traveling prospector who had merely entered the cabin in order to light his pipe! In this connection, I may state that Mr. Maslin confirmed the story of the three friends in Nevada City, who attempted to withstand "the ordeal by fire."
Mr. Maslin is justly jealous for the reputation of the Argonauts. Perhaps Bret Harte's miner, with his ready pistol, was as far from the mark as Rudyard Kipling's picture of Tommy Atkins as "an absentminded beggar" - an imputation the real "Tommy" hotly resented. At the same time, such stories as "The Luck of Roaring Camp" and "Tennessee's Partner," not to quote others, prove Bret Harte conceded to the miner, courage, patience, gentleness, generosity and steadfastness in friendship. If Bret Harte really "hurt" California, it was because, leaving the State for good in February, 1871, he carried with him the atmosphere of the early mining days and never got out of it. He never realized the transition from mining to agriculture and horticulture, as the leading industries of the State. Thus his later stories which dealt with California, written long after the subsidence of the mining excitement, continued to convey to the Eastern or English reader an impression of the Californian as a bearded individual, his trousers tucked into long boots and the same old "red shirt" with the sleeves rolled back to the shoulders! As lately - comparatively speaking - as the Chicago Columbian Exposition, a lady told me she met at the Fair a woman who said she wanted to visit California, and asked if it would be safe to do so "on account of the Indians!" While Indians do not appear in Bret Harte's pages, it is a safe conjecture that, through association of ideas, this lady conjured up a vague vision of a "prairie schooner" crossing the plains, harassed by the Indian of the colored prints!
The following picture of the trying of a civil suit under difficulties, though in all probability causing little comment at the time, would undoubtedly do so at the present day, were the conditions possible. In 1853 Mr. Maslin owned, with his brother, a one-fifth interest in ten gravel claims at Pike Flat near Grass Valley. On the ground of alleged imperfection of location of a portion of these claims, they were "jumped," and litigation followed.
The case was called before "Si" Brown, a justice of the peace, at Rough and Ready, in a building (of which I obtained a photograph) used as a hotel and for other purposes. In the long room, now occupied as a store, Judge Brown held his court. On the right was a door leading to the bar. Extending the whole length of the room were four faro tables. At the rear the judge, jury, attorneys and the principals in the lawsuit made the best of the accommodations.
After stating the case, Judge Brown thus addressed the gamblers at the faro tables: "Boys, the court is now opened, call your games low!" In accordance with this request, though still audible, came in a monotonous undertone, the faro, dealers' oft-repeated call: "Gents, make your game - make your game!" The bets were put down and the cards called, in the same subdued voice. At intervals, an attorney on one side or the other would arise and say: "I move you, your Honor, that the court do now take a recess of ten minutes." The court: "The motion is sustained; but go softly, gentlemen, go softly!" It is probably needless to add that judge, jury, principals, attorneys and witnesses filed out of the door leading to the right; returning in ten minutes to resume the trial to the not altogether inappropriate accompaniment from the faro dealers, "Make your game, gents, make your game!"
The spirit of rivalry between Grass Valley and Nevada City has been accentuated, of late, by the efforts of the former town to secure the honor of being the county seat, on the claim that it possesses nearly double the population of Nevada City. Politics serve to intensify the feeling; Grass Valley, which contains many people of Southern birth, being largely Democratic in its affiliations, whilst Nevada City is as strongly, and, one may add, as conservatively, Republican.
Possibly the oldest building in Grass Valley is the Western Hotel. It is so hidden in the surrounding trees that it was with difficulty I took a photograph in which any portion of the hotel itself appeared. In the garden stands a splendid English walnut over forty years old; and on the porch, the well and pump to which I have before alluded as a distinguishing feature of the old-time hostelry, add a quaint and characteristic touch.
Grass Valley and Nevada City are nearly three thousand feet above sea level. The air, in consequence, is light and pure and the heat seldom excessive. It would be difficult, the world over, to find a more agreeable or salubrious climate.
It was with genuine regret that I left Grass Valley the following morning; not even Sonora possessed for me a stronger attraction. As I paused on the summit of the hill, for a farewell view of the town, I mentally resolved - the Fates permitting - I would pay another and more protracted visit to this land of enchantment.