Alarm reached a fever pitch in the mining towns and camps along the Sierra Nevada. In early 1853, A marauding gang of horsemen led by the enigmatic leader known as “Joaquín” terrorized the Mother Lode communities—Hornitos, Murphys, Sonora, Mariposa—plundering gold, stealing horses, and killing anyone who dared resist.
Newspaperman Andrew Joshua Bell followed the events concerning the dreaded Joaquín, writing notices for The Republican concerning the murders committed in the lonely gulches and solitary outposts of Calaveras County.
Then on August 19, 1853, the reign of terror appeared to come to an end. Willing spectators lined up around the Stockton House, paying a dollar apiece to view the severed head of Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo displayed inside a jar of whiskey. Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, identified the pickled head as belonging to the notorious Bandido with signed affidavits. Read more
Sheriff Harry Morse crouched outside the adobe. He had a critical decision to make: he could wait for the fugitive to emerge and take him by surprise or boldly march in and make the arrest. Juan Soto was inside, and the sheriff was not about to let him getaway.
Morse had relentlessly tracked Soto over several months from Alameda County, where Soto killed a man. The outlaw had also raided a Sunol grocery store and shot the clerk to death. The store belonged to Assemblyman Thomas Scott, who demanded justice. Newspapers were calling Juan Soto “The Human Wildcat,” because of his erratic behavior.
And now, fifty miles southeast of Gilroy in the dry and rocky Panoche Mountains, Morse had him cornered. But, how does one take an unpredictable wanted man into custody? Whichever course of action the sheriff chose, he knew he would have a bloody fight. Harry Morse continued to ponder his options until a white mist of fog rolled in, deciding for him. Read more
To someJim Gilliswas the “Thoreau of the Sierras.” Others knew him as the “Father of Pocket Mining.” But, Jim Gillis’ most enduring quality was his cock-and-bull storytelling.
By his own account, Gillis was solely responsible for giving a certain unemployed junior reporter his first big break.
After losing his job at theMorning Call,Sam Clemenshung around San Francisco with Gillis’ younger brother Steve. One night Sam had to sign a $500 promissory note to bail Steve out of jail after the younger Gillis slugged it out with a saloon owner. Sam had not the means for paying the bond. So, he and Steve lit out of town for the Sierra foothills, fugitives from the law.
Steve invited Sam to lay low at his brotherJim’s cabin on Jackass Hillin Tuolumne County. It was a hovel really: leaning badly to one side with plenty of loose planks and a saggy roof that leaked when it rained. But to Clemens, it was a cool place to drink during the day and sturdy enough to keep the wind off the card table at night.
Many a good yarn was spun in that tumble-down, ramshackle of a cabin, and Sam, being an upstart writer that he was, wrote them all down. Jim’s favorite story was the time Clemens tussled with a pig. It went something like this…
Gillis trained his pig, John Henry, to dig pocket mining holes along the hillside by burying biscuits. He also had a good for nothing bulldog named Towser. Towser and John Henry got along famously except for their clashes at bedtime. Jim looked forward to letting in the two each evening and watch the battle royale over the rights to the bunk directly beneath his.
Sam was not privy to the nightly spectacle. After sleeping several weeks on a hard couch, Sam asked if he could stow away in the bottom bunk that evening. Jim said he could, and Sam had no problem falling asleep with John Henry and Towser clamoring outside to get in, thinking they were forgotten. When Gillis unlatched the door, the two rushed for the bunk, at which point they engaged in a fierce struggle for the territory where Sam bedded down.
Sam, who’d been dreaming about piloting riverboats up the Mississippi, was rousted in the roughest and most unfriendly manner. He could not extricate himself from the topsy-turvy bedlam. And, it didn’t help matters that Jim shouted, “Go to it, Towser! Give it to him John Henry!”
Clemens did the only thing he could do: he swore and yelled and swore some more—hurling insults at John Henry, Towser, and Jim. The more Sam cussed, the more Jim laughed, until the latter had to hold his sides to keep them from splitting. Gillis finally showed some compassion and took Sam in on the top bunk.
Still indignant that next morning, Sam began to pack his bags. Jim persuaded Clemens to stay with a promise that he would secure the young writer clear title to the story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in recompense, as Jim put it, “for damages sustained to Sam’s sensitive nature.”
Sam, never one to let a good story go to waste, jotted the yarn down in his notebook: Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50—the stranger had no frog and C got him one—in the meantime, the stranger filled C’s frog full of shot so he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won. Sam changed Coleman’s name toJim Smileyand embellished the fable with all sorts of ironies and witticisms, but beyond that, the gist was pretty much the same.
As you probably know, under the pen name Mark Twain, Sam made the most of it. The story was published inThe New York Saturday Pressin 1865.
According to Jim Gillis, the most successful pocket-miner in California, it was he who gave his young house guest the story that would make him famous the world over. Gillis told his well-preserved yarn to anyone gullible enough to listen.