"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
Gold Rush Names Tell Some Rich Stories of Wins and Losses

by Don Baumgart

Yellow Jacket Mine, Smuggler Mine. Hangtown. Gold Hill, Poverty Hill, Rich Bar and Poorman Creek. Grizzly Canyon, Jackass Creek. Humbug, Stringtown, Angel's Camp. Volcano.

Gold Rush place names are bits of history, each holding a story, sometimes untold. But there's no mystery connected with the naming of Whiskey Creek.

A prospector was leading a string of pack burros, on one of which he had roped a keg of whiskey. Crossing a nameless creek, the burro swam, the keg sank.

"That keg was worth fifty burros!" the prospector cried as the West's biggest "whiskey and water" washed away down the creekbed. He promptly named the creek after his lost liquid fortune.

* * *

Solid fortunes were made there, but today all that remains of the once-prosperous Gold Rush town of Red Dog are a few tall tales and a cemetery. Most of the stories revolve around the town's name.

One version mentions a miner with long red hair who was usually found lying drunk in the town street. There's another tale about miners who were awakened by a giant red howling dog accompanied by a wild and beautiful woman in tattered clothes.

Water finally washed up Red Dog. In the winter of 1867-68 more than 100 days of steady rain flooded away hydraulic flumes and ditches and buried mining equipment under tons of mud. Most of the miners and merchants left the area, but a few moved their buildings a mile or so to the community of You Bet.

* * *

It was somewhere around 1857 when Lazarus Beard built a small saloon for thirsty gold miners in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Business was so good he decided to expand from his 12'x12' building and become a town.

Needing a town name, he supplied some of his regular customers with a steady stream of thinking whiskey as they mulled over some possiblities. The customers liked the fringe benefits, they tried to come up with names Beard was certain to reject, according to Juanita Browne's book Nuggets of Nevada County History.

Then one day the name thinkers mentioned one of Beard's favorite phrases, the town was named, and they were out of a job.

"You Bet!" became a prospering town surrounded by mining operations. Today it's remembered as the town whose creators drank themselves out of a job.

* * *

The little community of Rough and Ready in the Gold Country separated itself from the United States so the miners who lived there could take their revenge on a cheating outsider without the restriction of laws.

It was April, 1850, and the city slicker was getting ready to walk off with nearly $200 he had dug from a miner's claim. The deal was, if the claim yielded more than $200 in a day, the stranger would buy it for a handsome price. But, when he got to $180 worth of gold, he stopped, said the deal didn't require him to dig all day, and took the gold for his labor. He was within the law.

So, the miners seceded from the Union and made their own on-the-spot laws to deal with the slick stranger.

But, California was preparing for its first Fourth of July as a part of the United States. The residents of the Great Republic of Rough and Ready knew they lacked a reason for celebration -- and the drinking that went with it. They rejoined the U.S. just in time for a rousing party.

* * *

Just how California got its name is a mystery.

Some believe it came from a wildly popular Spanish novel, written in the 1500s, that mentioned an amazon island named California.

Hernan Cortez, who conquered the Aztec empire in central Mexico, probably had read the book, or at least heard about it.

In a letter to the Spanish King, Cortez said he had hopes of finding an island of amazons a few days' sail northwest from Mexico.

Or, perhaps the name came from the Latin "Calida fornax," or hot furnace, possibly exclaimed by Cortez and his men when they landed at the hot and inhospitable Baja penninsula.

But it does seem appropriate that the land destined to give the world Hollywood should take its name from a romance novel.

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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