- The poetic name Mariposa, Spanish for “butterfly,” was first applied in this region by members of the Moraga Expedition, to a small stream at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The party had left the Mission San Juan Bautista on September 21 of 1806, on an expedition to locate suitable sites for a proposed string of inland missions to parallel those located along the coast. Led by Alferez Gabriel Moraga, they crossed the San Joaquin River on September 27 and during that afternoon encountered, “myriads of butterflies, of the most gorgeous and variegated colors, perched about on the surrounding trees.” Camping that evening on a slough not far from the main river, the chaplain and diarist of the expedition, a Franciscan priest named Father Pedro Munoz, made this entry for September 27, 1806:
“This place is called the Mariposas because the great multitudes of these, especially at night and in the morning, could not be more troublesome, their eagerness to hide from the rays of the sun reaching such proportions that they pursued us everywhere, so much that one got into the ear of one of the Expedition Leaders, causing him great discomfort and not a little effort to extract it.”
The mining camp of Mariposa materialized in the spring of 1849 when a miner named Alex Godey found a few flakes of gold while prospecting the streams of Colonel Frémont’s Las Mariposas Grant. Gold was plentiful in the vicinity and it wasn’t long before a good number of miners were settled in along the small flat bordering Mariposa Creek, a little ways below the present Hwy 140 bridge. Later that fall, Palmer, Cook & Co. sent about fifty men from San Francisco to work a claim they had leased from John Charles Frémont, which later became the Mariposa Mine. Their arrival soon led to a townsite being laid out, and Mariposa took its first step towards permanency.
In addition to the rich placers of the area, the camp chanced to be located on the gold-bearing quartz veins of the Mother Lode. Its future thus insured, the small mining town grew in size and importance as miners from the surrounding areas gravitated to the rich diggings. Saloons, general stores, restaurants, and hotels were quickly established to take care of the miners’ every need.
Mariposa County was one of the original twenty-seven counties created in California when the boundary lines were drawn in 1850. At that time it occupied more than one-fifth of the state’s area or approximately thirty thousand square miles. Stretching from the Coast Range to the present Nevada state line, and touching Los Angeles County on the south, Mariposa County unwillingly became the “Mother of the Counties,” as huge parcels of land were annexed away to create six new counties and add pieces to five others. It was eventually whittled down to it present size, a mere 1,455 square miles. The county seat was moved here on November 10 of 1851 from the nearly abandoned Agua Fria, which had lost most of its population to the rapidly expanding Mariposa.
Although he never lived in Mariposa, Colonel John C. Frémont—the famed explorer, army officer, and presidential candidate—had a major influence on local events. In fact, he at one time owned the entire town as it was located within the boundaries of his vast, forty-four thousand acre Mariposa Land Grant.
In 1847, Frémont gave $3,000 to Thomas O. Larkin, the U. S. Consul to the Territory of California, in order to by the Santa Cruz Ranch, a choice piece of property located near San Jose. When next Frémont and his wife happened to meet Mr. Larkin, they were in for a little surprise. “To their stupefaction the Frémonts learned that Larkin had not bought the Santa Cruz Ranch as he had agreed to do, but instead had bought for them a wild tract of land somewhere high in the Sierra Nevada called the Mariposa Ranch. It was inaccessible, a hundred miles from the nearest settlement, one hundred and fifty miles from San Francisco, with no farming land, too wild and cold in winter even to graze cattle, and overrun with hostile Indians.” Quite possibly, Larkin may have bought the Santa Cruz Ranch for himself.
Frémont was bitterly disappointed at having been sold what he considered a worthless parcel of land. However, when gold was discovered in placer deposits near his property, Frémont became less bitter. As his grant was a “floating” grant, with its exact boundaries undetermined at the time of making, Frémont quite probably laid claim to some land which wasn’t his in an effort to gain control of the mines. The U.S. Land Commission eventually ordered a survey to determine the exact boundaries of the grant. Allexey W. von Schmidt did the survey during the months of April and May of 1852. Laid out in three sections, the grant (which was for agricultural as well as mineral land) was often referred to as the “Frying Pan Grant” due to the survey’s resemblance to that utensil. The survey also chanced to include a section of the Mother Lode gold belt.
The town’s streets were laid out in 1849, with many of them being named for members of the Frémont family. The main thoroughfare, Hwy 140, is also known as Charles Street, after Frémont himself. Jessie Street was named for his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, while Bullion Street was named for her father, Senator Thomas “Old Bullion” Benton. Jones Street honors Frémont’s brother-in-law, William Carey Jones.
Located on Hwy 49, Mariposa remains one of the most important towns in the Southern Mines. In addition to being the county seat, it is also on the main road to Yosemite National Park, which accounts for thousands of visitors each year. The town has a good number of historic structures still intact, and an excellent museum and history center that should not be missed.
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