- Henry and George Angel arrived in California as soldiers, serving under Colonel Frémont during the Mexican War. After the war’s end, the brothers found themselves in Monterey where they heard of the fabulous finds in the gold fields. The tales proved too strong a lure, so they joined the Carson-Robinson party of prospectors and set out for the mines. The company parted ways upon reaching what later became known as Angels Creek, with the Murphy group heading east and the Carson party continuing south. It was September of 1848.
Henry set up camp and began placer mining the area, trying his luck in Dead Horse Ravine, Dry Creek, China Gulch and Angels Creek. But gold mining was truly hard work. Prospectors walked for miles carrying heavy loads to and from their claims. They worked for hours on end under the burning glare of the summer sun, or in the freezing winds, rain, and snow of the icy winter. Digging, shoveling, swinging a pick, lifting sand, gravel, and rocks out of their way in search of bedrock. And let’s not forget the insects; the lice, ticks, gnats, flies, mosquitoes, wasps, yellowjackets, hornets, and the friendly tarantulas, scorpions, lizards, and rattlesnakes which all enjoyed sharing the miners’ bedroll.
After a few weeks of this back-breaking labor, Henry realized there were easier ways to make a living, and later that fall gave up mining to open a trading post. George joined his brother in operating Angels Trading Post, which did business from a simple canvas building located at the confluence of Angels and Dry Creek. The business thrived (shirts sold for $50, mining tools reached $200) selling provisions to the incoming miners and neighboring camps. By the end of the year, over one hundred tents were scattered about the creek and the settlement was referred to as Angels Trading Post, later shortened to Angels Camp.
Many rich placer strikes were made during the camp’s first year of life; in fact, the grounds were so rich that claims which produced two ounces of gold per day or less were ignored. With returns like these, the miners swarmed into the region and it is estimated that several thousand miners were camped along a one-mile stretch in Angels Camp during 1849.
The problem with placer mining is, the placers eventually give out. After a few years of great prosperity, Angels Camp began to fade away as the streams played out and could no longer provide the abundant returns they once did. The town’s future looked grim. Until gold-bearing quartz veins were discovered running practically under the main street of town. Angels Camp jumped into the quartz mining age and the town’s survival was assured, for with the advent of hard rock mining, miners and merchants once again poured into the born again town. Stores, homes, schools, and churches were built as families settled down to stay.
One of the most extensive gold-bearing quartz veins ever discovered in the Mother Lode was located here by the Winter brothers during the mid-1850’s. Created some 160 million years ago, during the Jurassic Period, the Davis-Winter vein followed Main Street from Angels Creek up to the southern edge of Altaville. Five major mines worked the rich vein: the Stickle, the Utica, the Lightner, the Angels, and the Sultana. These mines reached their peaks during the 1880’s and 1890’s when over two hundred stamps were at work, crushing quartz ore brought in to several mills by hand cars via track from the mines. Angels Creek ran milky white from the mill wastes and it’s said that when the last mill finally ceased operations, the townspeople couldn’t sleep, the silence was so loud. The five mines are credited with producing a combined total of over $20 million in gold.
Angels Camp had its share of characters, notorious badmen, violence, and mob justice during its early years. The fiendish Joaquin Murieta is said to have skulked about the back streets, frequenting the town’s rougher saloons. Black Bart is also known to have passed through town, on his way to or from one of his many stage hold-ups.
On September 25 of 1856, a man named William Colbrook stabbed and killed Dr. Thomas Armstrong during an argument in which Armstrong allegedly called Colbrook a thief. Immediately taken into custody by the town constable, Colbrook was soon forcibly taken from the protection of the law by an angry mob and promptly hanged. Another such event occurred in 1858. Edward Sargent and a fellow named Brooks quarreled over a game of cards. Later that day, Sargent (an elderly man) was dozing on a bench in front of a local saloon. Brooks stealthily approached and cut Sargent’s throat, a jagged, mortal wound. Arrested and put in jail, Brooks met his maker late that night when a group of vigilantes broke him out of jail and hanged him on a convenient tree.
An interesting glimpse of the Gold Country can be seen through the eyes of two writers who spent some time in Angels Camp and the vicinity during the wild days of the Gold Rush. Bret Harte visited the gold regions for a few short months, teaching school at a camp in the Southern Mines, and then mining for a brief time at nearby Robinson’s Ferry before returning to San Francisco. The harsh life of the gold camps was not for him, but during the short time he spent there, Harte accumulated enough material and first hand experience to last his literary career. Stories such as The Luck of Roaring Camp, M’liss, and Outcasts of Poker Flat gave the world a unique view of the western frontier and are still in print today.
Mark Twain was a frequent visitor to Angels Camp while staying with the Gillis brothers at Jackass Hill. One of his favorite haunts was the Angels Hotel saloon, since it contained a billiard table and Twain was a billiards fanatic. On February 20 of 1865, he visited the saloon where Ben Coon, the bartender, told him a story about a man and a jumping frog. Back at the Gillis cabin, Twain turned this story into a “villainous backwoods sketch” entitled Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog. Published later that year in newspapers throughout America and Europe, the story earned Twain world-wide recognition. Reprinted in 1867 in a collection of Twain’s western writings, the story was re-titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, by which it is known today.
The world’s premier frog jumping contest takes place each May at Frogtown, located at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds near Albany Flat just south of town. Thousands of spectators watch as the contestants position their frogs on the starting circle and then begin their efforts at frog provoking. Frog jumping is a lot of fun, but it’s also serious business, with many contestants bringing in their stable of thoroughbred frogs. Visitors are encouraged to participate as rental frogs are available and no license is required. The winner is the frog who jumps the farthest in three consecutive jumps.
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