|Home -> Other California History Books -> Down the Mother Lode -> Chapter 5|
"Those brave old bricks of forty-nine!
What lives they lived! What deaths they died!
Their ghosts are many. Let them keep
Their vast possessions. The Piute,
The tawny warrior, will dispute
No boundary with these . . . . . . . . .
- Joaquin Miller.
High water on the American came, usually, when the first warm rains melted the snow on the mountains.
The placer miners toiled at furious pace all during the summer and fall. The water, then not more than a rivulet, was deflected through flumes from the river bed, so that all the sand of the bars could be put through the sluices.
The men worked till the last possible moment in the narrow river bed, only leaving in time to save their lives, and abandoning everything to the sudden rush of the water. Their sluices, logs, flumes, water-wheels, all their mining paraphernalia, sometimes even their living outfits, were swept away in the floods.
The river was known to rise from 20 to 60 feet in 24 hours, in its narrow and precipitous walls.
At flood time, then, we often went down to the river through the orchard of big old cherry trees planted by my grandfather, to watch the mass of wreckage rushing by. Great logs would go down end over end; mining machinery caught in the limbs of uprooted trees; quantities of lumber, and once a miner's bunk with sodden gray blanket and a wet and frantic squirrel upon it. I worried for days over the fate of that squirrel.
They tell the story of a Chinaman floating down upon a log.
"Hello, John, where you go?" was shouted. John shook his head, sadly.
"Me no sabe! Maybe Saclimento - maybe San Flancisco. No got time talkee, now."
* * * * *
"Look, the water is up to the top of the old stone pier," said one of the others.
"Mammy Kate's 'ghost' would have a hard time haunting it now," I laughed. "He'd be under twenty feet of water."
"Why, the tollkeeper's, of the old bridge. The one who hated the Indians so."
"The Bear River tribe?"
"They were Diggers, but I think that nobody knew exactly which ones were guilty. It was a fine bridge, the first suspension bridge in Placer county."
"It was washed away in the floods during the winter of '61 and '62, wasn't it?"
"Yes and they built the new one a mile up the river at Rattlesnake Bar, where it still hangs."
"What about the tollkeeper?"
Here is the story - with a bit of a prologue.
* * * * *
Captain Ezekiel Merritt, one of the "Bear Flag" party in Sonoma, came in '49 to try his luck at mining on the Middle Fork of the American. His party came at last, through a deep canyon to a large bar on which they found among unmistakable evidences of a plundered camp both white man's and Indian's hair. A great ash heap containing calcined bones was undoubtedly the funeral pyre of white men and red men alike, and some yelling savages upon the upper bluff confirmed the tragedy which Captain Merritt's party had been too late to avert.
They drove the Indians away and Captain Merritt cut into the bark of an alder the name "Murderer's Bar," by which the place has been called ever since.
The Merritt party stayed to work the bar. Before the summer passed the river swarmed with men, some of whom joined forces to make up mining companies. One of the rules of such a company: "Any shareholder getting drunk during the time he should be on duty, shall pay into the common treasury of the company a fine of one ounce of gold dust and shall forfeit all dividends during such time." These fines, in some instances, became so frequent as to cause a total disruption of the company.
The Indians returned to their villages in the hills. The foothill Indians were not a particularly intelligent lot. They were Diggers, so named on account of their habits of digging in the ground for roots, and the larva of various insects for food. Eggs of ants, and the maggots found in wasp's nests were considered great delicacies.
They also ate dried grasshoppers and young clover plants cooked as greens. They ground acorns and manzanita berries into meal with the stone mortars and pestles so commonly found through the countryside and gathered and stored great caches of pine burrs full of nuts for the winter. They were not as a rule quarrelsome, but - .
* * * * *
"Good morning, Phineas. I have brought your grub from Auburn, and here is the bill."
It was a bright day in June and Phineas Longley, tollkeeper for the new suspension bridge on Whiskey Bar, had had a busy morning. There was a barbecue that day at the town on the other side, and a stream of people had come down the Whiskey Bar turnpike and crossed the bridge. It was getting warm and he was tired, and he read the bill gloomily:
"1 bottle gin, $6.00; 2 lbs. biscuits, $2.50; 1 ham, $24.00; 1 bottle pickles, $6.00; 4 fathoms rope, $5.00; 1 watermelon, $4.00; 1 tin pan, $16.00; 2 apples, $3.00."
Longley stuffed the bill in his pocket, and returned for his noon meal to his log cabin on shore.
It was quite palatial - boasting a real floor made of puncheons, or hewn logs. A bunk, against the wall, was made of a second log set four feet from the log wall, with a hammock mattress of sacking stuffed with dried bracken stretched between them. There was the usual huge fireplace of granite rocks used for both warmth and cooking, and a box pantry-cupboard nailed to the wall.
His cup and plate and saucer were of tin, and his cutlery was an iron spoon, a three-tined fork and a hunting dagger. The dishes had not been washed for weeks.
In warm weather he kept a few things in a small palisade driven in the shallow water at the river 's edge, which was cool the year 'round.
Longley put his raised bread dough in a frying pan, put a second pan on top, raked the ashes off some coals, and started it baking. A man on horseback, driving two pack animals before him, stopped at the low doorway.
"Hello, John! Glad to see you," called Longley.
"Glad to get here. Like to sleep in a house again. Tired of shaking the lizards out of my blankets every morning."
"Ever shake out a rattler?"
"Not yet, though they say it's been done more than once."
"You're just in time. Turn the beasts into the corral. And then will you just ride back to Kitty Douglas' for me? She promised me a pie, and I need a new starter for my sour dough (batter). By that time everything will be ready to eat."
"You mean the 'Kitty Douglas' of the signs I've just passed?" asked John, grinning.
"Yes. What were they, today?"
"'Fresh pies, by Kitty Douglas,' 'Bread made every day, by Kitty Douglas,' 'New-laid eggs every day, by Kitty Douglas'!"
"Kitty's cooking is as fair as the reputation of her house is not. She charges two dollars for a meal of pork and beans."
"'Tis the regular price everywhere. I'll be back soon." After the meal John went to, the barbecue, imbibing rather freely of the fire-water barrel and making a night of it.
Heavy travel continued over the bridge all afternoon - a prairie schooner with three oxen, two mules and a bronco pulling it; a prospector in his red flannel undershirt, driving a laden donkey; a hurdy-gurdy troupe on its way to the barbecue; a stage-coach drawn by six half-broken wild horses; an old Spanish settler on a beautiful, black thoroughbred; a late arrival from Oregon, mounted upon a sturdy mule with his young wife upon a pillion behind him, and a whole drove of China-men being taken out to work a white man's claim up on the Divide.
There passed Welch miners, who were to be the fore-runners of quartz mining; miners from Australia, who were to replace the wooden "bateas" of the Mexicans with the rocker and the iron gold-pan, and the term of "specimen" with "nugget."
Finally came a hale, old voyaguer whom Longley greeted heartily as he swung open the toll gate:
"Greetings, Monsieur Francois Gendron, and from whence came you today?" The big Frenchman handed over the "six-bits" toll for himself and his horse.
"From New Helvetia."
"Ah - Sacramento."
"And I am bound for the North Fork Dry Diggings."
"Auburn?" smiled Longley.
"Bah! the new names! In my day we called them differently. I came across the Rockies in '32, Monsieur. But I must be en route - here are sheep coming."
After the sheep were counted and gone, Longley glanced scowlingly across the bridge and hastily closed the tollgate. A band of Indians, several on ponies but most of them on foot, crossed the bridge and halted before him.
"Go back, ye varmints!" growled Longley.
"No Indian pay," said the old chief. "He go the bridge and the road - no pay."
"Well, the Chinamen paid."
"But the Indians, no! No pay. Me go Whiskey Bar - big pow-wow. Plenty ox, plenty bear meat, plenty firewater - "
"You go back!" roared the tollkeeper, swearing, "and go ford the river. That's good enough for a Digger! The ferry's been taken off, but the water is not so high."
The old Indian scowled, and the young bucks began a guttural complaint which he silenced with a gesture and a grunt of command.
"Water is cold, and those," pointing to the sheep, "have passed."
"You go back, I tell you! I hate every filthy brute of you! My best pal was sent to glory in that funeral fire on Murderer's Bar, and no Indian will ever get aught from me."
"Me pay," said the Indian leader slowly, "Me pay cayuse, me pay boy."
"No, you won't pay! You'll go back and wade the river like the low beasts that you are."
The chief began a fierce oration. Longley ran into the tollhouse and came out with a sawed-off shotgun.
"Now, will you go?" he cried, defiantly.
The Indians were sober, and they went. As they came abreast of the pier under the bridge the toll-keeper jeered and laughed at them, and pelted them with rocks.
They looked up with hate, but went stolidly on their way.
With darkness, the roistering at the barbecue became louder. The Indians' money was gone by this time, and the fun was getting rougher. The toll-keeper, after a weary day, was dozing beside his candle. He did not see nor hear the stealthy forms which crept up the bridge. A board creaked, and he jumped up and swung about, to find himself quickly overpowered by a dozen lithe redskins.
They robbed the till, then held a palaver as to the disposition of their prisoner. They finally left him tied with his own new rope to a huge drift log at the base of the pier, and went back to buy more firewater.
It was a wild night!
John noticed, very late, that the Indians seemed to be having a special pow-wow of their own on the river bank near the bridge. There was a great fire, and mad dancing and war whooping. He started toward them.
"Don't go there, pardner," called an old trapper. "Them bucks is crazy with drink, an' if I knows anything about Injuns, it won't be no safe place for a white man."
So passed Longley's last chance for his life! His cries for aid were mingled with the savage whoops of his ferocious enemies. Even the people living across the river who heard his continued shouts, took them to be part of the celebration.
Maddened by drink and by the ever mounting excitement of their incantations, one of the most ghastly deeds ever perpetrated by Indians upon the whole river was finished before daylight.
The condition of Longley's body upon its discovery roused the entire settlement, but the Indians had vanished over the hills and across Bear river. The chief had gone home at sundown, and it was as impossible to find those who were on the bar that night, as to distinguish one grain of sand from another.
The old pier stands to this day, notwithstanding the fierce battering of the floods of nearly seventy years; a monument enduring long after the Digger Indians are gone off the face of the earth, as though to commemmorate the power of the white race and that member of it who gave up his life at its base.