Did You Know My Aunt Was the First Queen of the Frog Jubilee? (Part 1: How It All Came About)
It’s true. For over a half century, I have had a compulsion to tell new acquaintances that my aunt was the first queen of the Frog Jubilee. Normally the response would be, “What?” as if they didn’t hear me correctly. I then would mention Mark Twain and his short story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” and that my aunt was the first queen of the Frog Jubilee held annually in Angels Camp, California. I really did not go much farther than that because all I knew was that her picture (at right) was on the front page of The Stockton Record in May of 1937.
It was not until last year, while doing research in the gold rush town of San Andreas, California, that I found out that Aunt Betty was really the first “Belle of the Camp.” As such, she was the queen selected to reign over the activities that would follow in the two days after her coronation.
I was lucky that San Andreas, 11 miles north of Angels Camp (a town named by Mexican miners in 1848) held precious historical records in the old county courthouse on Main Street. (Note 1) This building had old newspapers, documents, and large leather bound books. Upstairs was the old court room and outside, around the corner, was the jail. At one time, that jail held Black Bart, the infamous 19th century stage coach robber. His picture was on the wall to prove his capture.
While reading the archived newspapers in this unique building, I felt an excitement within as the latter years of the 1930’s started to come alive – a time when my parents were young and my Aunt’s name, Betty Cummings, was spoken throughout Calaveras County -- a time of feeling their youth and seeing their handsome faces. I was excited because it was like bringing them back to me, but instead of their final days on this earth they were the young ones, and I was the elder.
Delving deeper in the old Calaveras Prospect newspapers, I started to visualize this very fun weekend in the California foothills during May of 1937. As I did, there was a nagging force inside me to learn more about how Mark Twain (aka Samuel Langhorne Clemens) first heard the story of the jumping frog. Twain, one of the greatest American humorists, actually began his road to fame with his first short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” which was published in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865. It was then reprinted in numerous newspapers across our country and Europe. It even made it to India and China. (Note 3:62) People loved his rough, raw, and rare style of writing as he described the gold mining characters in the Mother Lode, located on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
I was filled with pride that a little gold miners town in the foothills of northern California – a place where my parents met and had lived – was the same place that Mark Twain got his inspiration to write his first published short story.
As I looked back on my childhood, I was oblivious to the fact that this extremely popular writer, got his first major notoriety from the town of Angels Camp, and that this town had made such an imprint on his career. It certainly was not obvious to me at age of 12 as I spent weekends at my father’s old home on Finnegan Lane – a place he grew up in and was now gutting on the weekends after he purchased it for $11 from his mother in 1956.
As the property was being remodeled I was unaware that the street, Finnegan Lane, was named after William Finnegan, one of the original pioneers of Angels. I was also unaware that it was one of the original streets in town. (Note 5:19)
At the back of the property, we could see Angels Creek twisting and turning over large brown boulders. This same creek had produced large deposits of gold nuggets which made men instantly rich in the mid-1800's. It also made men lose their lives because it was a ruthless time, and gold and greed did not bring out the best in the miners.
My grandparent’s house -- built around 1910 (Note 4) -- was less than a long block away from the Angles Camp Hotel where this famous person had spent time. (Interestingly, Finnegan was in the same room at the hotel when Mark Twain first heard the story about the jumping frog.) I now find it intriguing that I was actually walking the same streets that Mr. Twain walked almost 100 years before me. When the family continued to travel to Angels on weekends, I felt deprived of my friends. After all, I was becoming a teenager, and there were no cell phones in those days. So instead of really exploring the area, I probably spent most of my time pouting and not appreciating the history around me.
Little did I know -- or care -- that this literary humorist arrived in the Gold Country the first week of December 1864. (Note 5) Little did I know or care that he stayed in this area for three months before returning to San Francisco. And little did I know or care that he stayed in a one room cabin, 20’ by 10’, that had been built 14 years earlier, and that he stayed with two other men, who were prospectors. My biggest embarrassment, though, now that I did care, was that this cabin – a California landmark – was located just 11 miles south of downtown Angels Camp on Jackass Hill, which I did not know existed. This hill got its name from the mules that rested there when not pulling carts to and from the mines. (Note 3: 37)
Now that I did care, I also wanted to know why a person who had travelled the East Coast, was born in the Midwest, and enoyed a good career in Nevada decided to travel 100 miles from the luxuries of the big city to the rural and dangerous parts of the California Gold country. Simply put, he was stressed and broke, and was afraid he was going to be thrown in jail. He was stressed because he worked long hours for a newspaper, The Call, as their only reporter and was not able to use his unique style of writing as he had in Virginia City. He was told to only write the facts. He was broke because the paper did not pay well and living in a city of 130,000 had too many costly temptations. Plus he posted bail for a friend charged with assault with intent to kill. When this friend, Steve Gillis, left town, Twain was responsible for the bail bond, and he did not have the money. Also, he had written an article about police corruption in San Francisco and thought it might put him in harms way. (Note 3: 34-35)
It seems, while the doors were closing around him in San Francisco, there were other doors opening elsewhere. During this time, he was tired and stressed. Plus he was only 29 years old. Between 28 and 30 years of age, we all have an astrological transit called a “Saturn return.” This astrology transit – even if you don’t believe – shows our births are connected to our life path, and Saturn is known for its teaching and restricting energy. It is one of the planets that is involved in stopping us for our own good as we reevaluate what we want out of life. (Note 6)
When Mark Twain left for the rural California foothills, it was a time to start focusing inward. Luckily for him, Jim Gillis – Steve’s older brother -- was in San Francisco. Jim, along with his mining partner, Dick Stoker, had digging rights on Jackass Hill, near the decaying mining community of Tuttletown. So it was Jim Gillis who brought Mark Twain to the Mother Lode, and it was Dick Stoker who owned the cabin. (Note: 3:35)
Once he arrived, he stayed close to that log cabin on the hill. He was tired and took advantage of the first month, surrounded by an environment so opposite from the San Francisco arena he had just left behind. He had a known pattern: intense work followed by long rest. (Note 3:34) He spent time outside reading Byron, Shakespeare, and Dickens. He tried pocket mining – with no success, but enjoyed playing billiards with his new roommates down at the only tavern left in Tuttletown. On New Year’s Eve, the three of them headed north to Vallicito. It was during this trip that he started his fourth notebook, which helps pinpoint when he first heard the jumping frog story from Ross Coon an off-duty bartender at the Angels Camp hotel.
As I continued my quest to find out exactly when Mark Twain heard the story of the infamous frog, I encountered a contradiction on dates. However, I chose to use the information the author wrote in his fourth notebook. On January 22nd , Twain and Gillis left the cabin and headed toward Angels via the Carson Hill route. They had planned to prospect the pocket claims Gillis and Stoker owned in the hills around town. However, they were forced to stay indoors for two weeks because of rain. At the end of January, they moved into the Angels Hotel for a few nights until Stoker could join them. (Note 3:56-57) Once the weather cleared, they travelled for two weeks, camping out and mining in the area. They returned to Angels Camp around the 20th of February and once again visited the saloon in the Angels Hotel. It was at this time the jumping frog story was told by the off-duty bartender Ross/Ben Coon who had been playing chess with William Finnegan. While some of the original Angels Camp pioneers listened, Twain seemed uninterested, but obviously heard enough to write the story a few days later. (Note 3:59-60)
When the group returned to Jackass Hill, Mark Twain stayed for a few more days and wrote his humorous story about the jumping frog. He then borrowed a horse and rode to Copperopolis and stayed there for two more days. On February 25th, he left for San Francisco via stage coach through Stockton. (Note 3:62)
In the fall of 1865, he sent his frog story to Artemus Ward, a fellow writer/comedian. It was Ward who sent the story to the New York newspaper, and on November 18th, 1865, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog” went “viral” (as we would say now). (Note 3:70)
Interestingly, this story was not new. It had been written about in the Sonora Herald in 1853, by a friend of Twain’s, Jim Townsend (a person he would meet 10 years later in Virginia City, Nevada.) Also, an article about the buckshot frog had been written a year before Mark Twain arrived, by Samuel Seabaugh, in the San Andreas Independent. (Note 5:22)
It must have been time for Mr. Twain’s talents to be recognized and rewarded. Although this story had been circulating for years amongst the miners of the Mother Lode, it seems the stars were aligned in his favor, which spotlighted his unique talent. And the rest is history!
However, it took 63 years for this little mining town to start celebrating the frog that made Mark Twain famous. And actually, it was started not as a celebration of a frog, but rather to celebrate the completion of paving the town’s main street in 1928. (Note 7)
- Williams, George III, Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Tree by the River Publishing Trust, Carson City, NV, 2010
- Even though the house was recorded as being built in 1934, my brother and I have personal knowledge that it was much older. For example we knew that our father had been hit by a truck in front of this house in 1922 when he was eight years old. The house was built with vertical boards 1” by 12” that were rough and unfinished with no foundation, and was it insulated with old newspapers stuffed in the airspaces.
- Buckbee, Edna Bryan. Pioneer Days of Angels Camp, Calaveras Californian, Angels Camp, CA, 1932.