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Tour of a California Gold Rush Museum

Updated on December 18, 2017
Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle's interest in California history was rekindled when she began leading tours at a local museum in an 1850s gold rush town.

Springtime at the Museum


Some docents amuse and mislead tourists with tall tales and a few outright lies.

Visitors from all over the world come into The Mariposa Museum and History Center each year.

One of the unique and important things about this museum in California's Gold Country, is that almost all of the items on display were owned and used by people who actually lived in the immediate area.

The ordinary household items are mostly not terribly valuable but they give an accurate material picture of what everyday life was like in the mid -1800's.

As one of the sillier tour guides, I try to make museum tours entertaining, while presenting an overview of California Gold Rush history.

Along with the standard information, I have an overwhelming compulsion to say silly things that may someday get me a public flogging and a request to move on to the next town. It would be an appropriately historical chastisement, as this was a common punishment for wrongdoers prior to the building of the first town jail.

Gold Prospector

Central figure of the Mariposa Museum Mural.
Central figure of the Mariposa Museum Mural. | Source


Our focus in this museum is the California Gold Rush-- even though history goes back thousands of years before that and has continued almost uninterrupted since that time.

This time-frame limit is partly because our museum is small, and partly because nobody remembers what happened thousands of years ago.

Also, anything we can personally remember, is not technically considered to be history yet. In any case, the mural above the door depicts some of the people, places and things that influenced the early history of California. Much of what the guide tells you is ACTUALLY TRUE.

The central figure in the mural is a just-arrived prospector who is overwhelmed by the activity and takes no notice the butterflies and the poppies in the lower left corner which give an important clue to where he is, (Mariposa, California) since there are no street signs.

The Mexican Vaquero (don't worry, that means 'cowboy') seated upon his cayuse (don't worry, that means 'horse') on the left side represents our area's early history of Spanish exploration and the later Mexican ownership of the territory.

California was ceded to the U.S. by Mexico at almost the same exact moment that gold was discovered in Coloma. Observing the scene, early in Gold Rush days, he is thinking " Que sucedio el infierno!" or, roughly, "What the heck happened?"

Kit Carson

The famous scout and explorer was tougher than he looked.
The famous scout and explorer was tougher than he looked. | Source

On the right side, Western frontiersman and explorer, Kit Carson, is seated upon his cayuse, (which still means horse, even though his horse understands English) reading a map. Carson is reading the map; the horse can't read.

He is trying to figure out how the "floating" outline of John C. Fremont's original Mexican land grant magically developed into a into a frying pan-shaped tract which included the best gold bearing areas along Mariposa Creek. He is ALSO thinking, "What the heck happened?"

In this painting you can see the upper part of Half Dome (in Yosemite National Park) peeking above the horizon. If you step outside on the front porch of the museum building, stand on your tippy-toes and look eastward, you may see it.

Actually, you won't, but it is included in the painting as a symbolic indication of our community's economic over-dependence upon visitors to Yosemite.

Those giant cone shaped baskets, like the one the Miwuk Indian woman on the right is wearing on her back, were used by native people to scoop up snow in the higher elevations and make giant snow cones drizzled with acorn syrup to be sold to unsuspecting tourists. Some will insist they were really the traditional acorn gathering baskets.

In the upper middle left area, two men aim a strong stream of water at the hillside, to wash dirt away and expose hidden gold. Though the method was effective, it was even more efficient as a way of destroying the life-supporting topsoil so that nothing, not even the most noxious weeds or crabgrass, could grow there.

It also silted up rivers so badly that water supplies were contaminated. Rivers near these operations became unnavigatable, --innaviggable -- uunnnavigatab.. -- they couldn't get boats down them-- and the fish were forced to swim backward to keep the dirt out of their eyes. Hydraulic mining was banned when trout were allowed to vote in a special recall election.

In the early days of the California Gold Rush, people stampeded in to this area from all over the world. About 98.5 percent of those hoping to find riches were young men between the ages of 15 and 30. Perhaps 2% were women with various talents and inclinations. The remaining .5% has not yet been identified, but they may have been intergalactic travelers checking out the level of progress toward civilized behavior on our planet. They have not been seen here since.

Mariposa County Courthouse Display

Walking down the center aisle of the museum is like peeking into the windows of history.
Walking down the center aisle of the museum is like peeking into the windows of history. | Source

Law and Order -- sort of.

It is probably a good thing that prospecting and mining was such VERY hard work, and that men were totally compulsive in their tendency to work past the point of total exhaustion.

Both of these factors undoubtedly kept the level of mischief down, by making them too tired to get into much trouble. At first, especially when gold was relatively easy to find, it was much simpler, and less hazardous, to discover your own treasure than it was to steal it from someone else.

Those who were willing to work hard enough to get to California in the early days were not neer-do-well, lazy louts who were looking to take advantage of others. They were industrious, single-minded, determined and perhaps a little crazy. For the foregoing reasons, crime rates were miraculously low in the early days.

This was a good thing, since there was no jail and not much government structure in place. One thing that delayed establishment of a legal bureaucracy, was that EVERYONE was out looking for gold, rather than serving as officials, deputies and government functionaries.

Men came from every inhabited area of the earth. Those in the coastal California towns, forsook shops and farms. Sailors coming into the village ports of San Francisco and Monterey, abandoned ship to become treasure seekers. Though racial, cultural and nationalistic bias was rampant, there was still a fair amount of cooperation and and a surprising level of civilized behavior.

It was almost like an early version of the U.N. which showed that people of many cultures and countries can live together peaceably with only occasional shootings, stabbings and fist fights. Under the circumstances things were not as bad as they might have been, and probably safer than some inner urban areas today ... except the air quality was better due to the lack of vehicles powered by internal combustion.

Some of the Exhibits


The man with the long white beard, shown in an oval framed picture, was Mariposa's first sheriff, James Burney.

He was also said to be one of the first non-Indian men in the area to see the Giant Sequoias of the Yosemite area.

His natural inclination was to describe the incredibly large redwoods to everyone he knew, but he left off telling tales about the enormous trees because it was damaging his credibility -- nobody believed him.

In the photo he looks a little tired and sadly bewildered. In fairness, the photo on display was probably taken long after his term of office, at an age when many Old Western Sheriff's were already living in homes for the seriously bewildered.

The grumpy looking woman in the photo next to him was his wife, who has good reason to look grumpy.

In the early days there was no jail, so Sheriff Burney brought any arrested culprits home where his wife could keep an eye on them. She also, of course, took care of any additional cooking and laundry chores that the incarceration might require, accounting for additional well earned grumpiness.

Mrs. Burney would probably have been glad to have Peter Lynch around. Lynch is the gigantic man in the life size poster on the inside wall of the jail exhibit. (The photo proves that his head was approximately 2 feet wide.)

His job was to deliver punishment, for those who committed felonies and misdemeanors. A public whipping, followed by strongly worded and categorical recommendations to leave town, was dispensed by the official flogger, whose expression suggests an attitude to inspire potential perpetrators to return to a righteous path for ever and ever, amen.

The little guillotine device on top of the Sheriff's desk with the cast iron representation of a sassy imp on top thumbing his nose, is a tobacco cutter.The evil imp perhaps knew what the tobacco companies were not telling everyone at that time.

The twenty-four hour clock on the right hand wall was for those too lazy to get up and see if it was dark or light outside. All the shaving stuff is there because the Sheriff might spend long hours with his duties at the office, rather than going home to face his grumpy wife.


Quicksilver or Mercury was used in the stamp mill operation to trap the specks of gold freed from crushed ore as it was washed across a broad copper table. The relentless stamps crushed the rock into particles finer than beach sand.

The amalgam of mercury and gold was scraped together into a ball and placed in a retort where it was heated to separate the elements by converting the mercury into vapor (which was re-cooled into liquid form to be used again) and the gold dust into a pure button of solid gold. We are often asked if working with mercury didn't affect the brains of those handling this dangerous substance. The answer is: It is hard to tell, because most of those who came way out to California thinking they could "get rich quick" were already half crazy.

How to Pan for Gold-- It takes a little patience and finesse.

In the strongbox, below the representation of the Mariposa mine shafts, is a splendid collection of specimen gold. The crystallized samples were left in their original natural form, rather than being melted down. These bits of naturally formed jewelry have been hidden away in a family safe for years, but were recently put on display, where they can be enjoyed by all of our visitors.

To your left in the Daulton Room where some of our older displays are located, I will be giving some details about various items on exhibit. I'd like to give you he option of going off in any direction and discovering the museum, for yourself if you prefer, or you may wish to follow me closely and hang on my every word. I am not offended either way. If no one chooses to follow me, that's OK too. I have been known to wander around here talking to myself from time to time.. and people are used to that.


A newspaper advertisement of the mid 1800's. called for a "competent person to undertake the sale of a new medicine". The ad promised that the enterprise would " prove profitable to the undertaker". This may have been an early, though unintended, example of truth in advertising.


Young Horace Snow came to Mariposa in 1854. In a severe fit of homesickness he immediately began writing letters to his friend, Charlie Fitz back in Massachusetts. Horace was better educated than most gold seekers. He was quite possibly one of a minority who could even read and write. In fact, in some areas even the postmaster was illiterate, but usually did know the alphabet so he could identify addressees by the first letter of names.

There were occasional mix-ups, but if the letter was given to someone who could read-- and most people who got letters could --the mystery was solved, and the message was redirected.

Horace was able to get four pages of letter on one sheet of paper by writing in "crisis cross" style. He would write one page in a small point size in closely spaced lines, then give the page a turn and write across the lines he had already inscribed at a right angle.

He did the same on the back. Some people think he did this so his letters last longer, by making them impossible to read. People had no TV or radio back then, so supposedly they could spend several entertaining evenings trying to guess what the heck Horace might have written. Actually, the writing is not quite as hard to decipher as you might think, but I usually warn school groups not to do their homework this way because it gives the teacher a headache.

Little did Horace know, as he penned his epistles, that they would inspire Mariposa artist, designer and historian, Muriel Neavin to use his words to build the museum's theme. Excerpts based on his observations of everyday life complement the exhibits. So how did the letters find their way back to Mariposa?

It seems that Charlie (aka "Dear Charlie") preserved them carefully and passed them down to his family, who later realized their historical significance and sent them to the Mariposa Historical Society. It is not true that it took 100 years for the family to finally decipher the criss-cross writing.


If you lived on the East coast and wanted to get to California, there were three major routes. They offered a choice of various combinations of: interminable seasickness, risk of shipwreck, an extended stay in a hot tropical climate attended by parasites and mosquitoes transporting tropical diseases, starvation, attack by bandits or warlike tribes, floods, drought, storms, exhaustion, dysentery, Cholera, Typhoid fever, wild animal attack, snakebite, heatstroke and frostbite plus other unexpected unpleasantness. Some of the routes offered several of these features, and all of them usually took about six months or more to complete.


Early prospectors hastily set up makeshift tents near their claims, but if prospects for gold looked especially good, they sometimes upgraded to a hastily set up makeshift shack. Finding shelter was always secondary to finding gold.

One prospector wrote to his family that his cabin roof leaked so badly that it rained harder inside his cabin than it did outside. This exhibit depicts a forty-niner's utter disregard for interior decorating principles, not to mention acceptable standards of proper housekeeping. Miners cabins and shanties dotted the countryside for years after the gold rush wound down, until a concentrated effort was made to remove most of the dilapidated eyesores. Many old prospectors who had not been seen in decades were discovered in this effort.

Jesse Fremont's Furniture

 She was used to fine things, even on the frontier.
She was used to fine things, even on the frontier. | Source


Celebrated western explorer, General John C. Fremont, whose personal and political fortunes waxed and waned, was also repeatedly involved in various grand schemes which alternately made or lost large sums of money.

After putting up funds to invest in a big real estate deal, he was frustrated when he found out that his friend and agent, Thomas Larkin , had used it to purchase a Mexican land grant in this remote foothill region. He thought he was buying a a coastal plot near the Bay area which seemed much more desirable. (Larkin probably bought that piece for himself).

The "Floating grant", of over 600,000 acres, ("floating", meaning that the perimeters had never been officially surveyed and measured), turned out to be in potentially rich in gold deposits. Fremont may have taken full advantage of the "floating" nature of the boundaries to establish his rights in an advantageous manner regarding gold ore prospects.

His wife, Jessie Benton Fremont, being an influential senator's daughter was used to some of the finer material advantages of mid-19th century life, but she seemed to manage the challenges of frontier living with exceptional good grace and humor. In a letter to a friend on the east coast, she remarked that living in California was like being King Midas -- gold was everywhere but she couldn't get the things she needed to run a "proper household".

Her elegant marble topped furniture in a style all the rage in the 1850s -- was later gifted to some of her new neighbors before the Fremonts returned to the east. It was a generous, yet practical decision, considering that the probability of damage or destruction was high in a trip back to New York. Shipping rates were also extraordinarily high, and based on weight. Her descision made it possible to have three pieces on display.

County Courthouse

The Mariposa Courthouse, local seat of justice for more than a century and a half.
The Mariposa Courthouse, local seat of justice for more than a century and a half. | Source


The courthouse didn't start out being famous, but it was built to last, and perhaps the builders would not have been so amazed that it would still be in use over 150 years later. Some additions and changes have been made, most of them reluctantly and with respect to keeping the basic design intact.

After a time it became the symbol of unchangeable stability and respect for tradition in the county. Additions of such things as telephones, electric lighting, modern heating , plumbing conveniences, even computers has been done with an eye to retaining the original feeling of the old building.

Certain bits of nostalgia, like being too hot or too cold, the smell of wood smoke or kerosene lamp fumes have been lost. Certain structural enhancements have been made for the sake of earthquake safety-- and also to correct the "sag" problem which made it impossible to open the front door on the first story when the upstairs courtroom was full of people.


Minor disputes, (and also some miner disputes ) were often handled on an immediate or personal level, especially in the earlier days. However, when these controversies reached a certain level -- perhaps involving lethal weapons, they were often referred to legal authority, which might include court proceedings.

In earlier days, the Sheriff sought out citizens for jury duty, by sneaking up on prospectors who were working a placer, on the creek bed. The veterans kept a wary eye out for an approaching lawman and ran for cover when they saw him, leaving unsuspecting newcomers to be summoned for civic duty.

Jurors were not paid for their service, so each day in the courtroom was a day away from the diggin's. One wonders if this didn't cut way back on deliberation time, making justice at least swift, if not always sure. Horace Snow, a proper Massachusetts gentleman, was appalled to see formal trials held in a room where most of the spectators were likely to be armed with pistols and deadly looking knives.

Miss Jennie owned the general store in the town of Hornitos..
Miss Jennie owned the general store in the town of Hornitos.. | Source


The infamous Californio Bandito, Juaquin Murrieta, who suffered an unconscionable injustice in the loss of his family, terrorized early California with vindictive and merciless acts of criminality and chaos upon hapless citizens of the state. He reputedly had helpful friends throughout the area... especially in the reputedly lawless settlement of Hornitos, his reputed hideout.

His legend grew to include numerous misdeeds and even Robin Hood-like heroics, many of which he probably had no hand in. He certainly earned his ruthless and romantic reputation in many ways. The fear that his notoriety engendered led to a single-minded effort to capture and destroy the infamous bandit.

The purported capture and execution of the terrible felon was finally effected and ... as proof.. his head was detached and placed in a jar of alcohol which was toured around the state as a display to prove that he was no longer a threat to the population. The hand of "Three Fingered Jack", his accomplice was similarly displayed., A nominal admission fee was charged for those wishing to view the ghastly evidence to prove to themselves that the threat had been terminated.

When the hubbub died down, his pickled head was auctioned off for a reported fee of $36 . It is believed to have eventually ended up in the basement of a building which was destroyed in the calamitous San Francisco earthquake of 1906. So, Unlike that guy who lost his heart in San Francisco, Juaquin Murrieta... ( and they always answer... "lost his head.")


One room schools usually had students from first to eighth grade levels and there might be a total of ten to twenty children of various grades in each school. By 1880 Mariposa County had about 30 such schools, meaning that there were approximately 500 children in the county.

Pioneer families often had lots of kids, so one could surmise that there were at least a dozen or more families... perhaps more. We know for sure, that one couple had 21 children and now one can hardly go through a day without bumping into one of their descendants.

In the old days.. the "Board of Education" was not a group of reasonable and kindly old citizens... It was an actual wooden "board" cut to reasonable kindly old, paddle-sized dimensions, and intended to be applied to the "seat of the problem". Corporal punishment was direct and unavoidable for those who deviated from the clearly stated rules.

Though the teacher in this tableau bears a slight resemblance to Jouquin Murrieta by reason of her headlessness, we have been assured that she probably lost her head as a result of job stress, and the depression caused by continually wearing a long black dress.

Teachers were mostly young unmarried ladies who were prohibited from even thinking about getting married anytime soon, because the community understood that taking care of a house, husband and children was more than a full time job. The teachers rules of the day also warned them against hanging out at the ice cream parlor.


A semblance of civilized society become more of a reality as women of respectability, wives and families began to come into the area. The nature of entertainment began to change.

Such things as picnics, plays, concerts, balls, church suppers, prayer meetings, box socials, and polite convivial gatherings began to edge out former common entertainments such as bull and bear fighting, impromptu boxing matches, high stakes gambling marathons, brothel visitations and saloon brawling.

Bull and bear fights were especially popular in the early days because it offered the men a chance to gamble on the outcome. The two beasts would be chained just within reach of one another, and the contest commenced when a barrier between them was removed. Things got even more exciting when -- as sometimes happened-- the bear slipped it's chain and came after one of the cheering "fans" gathered in a circle around the contestants. At this point, several of the onlookers would draw their revolvers and begin shooting at the bear.

Since the spectators were in a circle, those on the other side were in danger of becoming former innocent bystanders. One newspaper account of such an incident, marveled that no one was seriously wounded by gunfire, though the bear expired on the spot with several bullets finding their marks.


The ranch wife's pride and joy, was the substantial black iron cook stove, which required armloads of wood to keep it burning, and a certain amount of engineering skill to regulate the temperature for cooking and baking. It was a beast to be tamed with art, science and muscle, though an improvement over cooking on an open hearth.

The ranch kitchen includes several examples of heavy flatirons, iron cooking utensils and other handy, yet hefty, implements such as a hand cranked bread dough mixer. In other parts of the collection you will see a hand pumped vacuum cleaner, treadle operated sewing machines, wire rug beaters, washboards, and two handed laundry plunger/agitators. It can wear you out just thinking about using these things. We have been unable to locate any antique exercise equipment.

In the sitting room next to the kitchen you may see one labor saving device -- a mechanical apple peeler. Students sometimes think this is an "apple sharpener" because it has a similar appearance to a common classroom device. Since that revelation, many of us have started sharpening our apples, rather than simply peeling them.


In the late 1800's the family read letters or the Bible, sang, played music, looked at photos albums or the stereopticon. They played games at home in the evening and also annoyed each other by repeating stories that everyone had heard dozens of times.

Sometimes the women did needlework, or made personally handcrafted decorative articles out of their hair, the preferred crafting material of the day. The oval framed piece on the wall to the left of the pump organ, which looks like a cross surrounded by flowers, is made out of little loops and bundles of hair.

The hair decorations, sometimes fashioned into jewelry, were considered a very special and personal gift, since it was grown out of someone's own personal head. The glass lamps on each side of the pump organ without chimneys, are clean-burning whale oil lamps, which did not require chimneys like the smoky kerosene lamps. (This was before anyone thought of saving the whales.)

----- end of part one---- (There may be more, since this covers only half.)


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