The small valley that came to be called Mokelumne Hill was inhabited by American Indians for several thousand years before the arrival of European settlers. The Northern Miwok were more recent arrivals, establishing villages in the area between 500 and 1,000 years ago.
The first known Europeans in the area were French trappers who worked for the Hudson Bay Co., who settled in Happy Valley east of town as early as the 1830s.
“Mokelumne” likely derived from the name of a American Indian village along the Central Valley portion of the river.
The name first appears in the writings of Father Narciso Duran in 1817, who spelled it “Muquelemnes.” John C. Fremont claimed that the river was named after a local Indian tribe when he passed through the area in March of 1844, following his winter crossing of the Sierra.
After gold was discovered at Coloma in 1848, numerous camps quickly sprung up along the Mokelumne River.
A party of argonauts from Oregon was reportedly the first to prospect at Big Bar, a mining camp that grew up where Highway 49 passes over the Mokelumne River today. The gold was so abundant that the men refused to travel to Stockton to get supplies.
Their supplies running dangerously low, the prospectors convinced a man named Syree to go to Stockton for replenishments. Even though the mining was exceptionally good, he found the selling of goods even more lucrative, and quickly set up a store on the hill above the river.
Later that fall, Col. John Stevenson’s Regiment of New York Volunteers arrived at the diggings on the Mokelumne River and began prospecting the waterway and its associated drainages. Samuel Pearson, a member of the group, was the first to discover gold in Mokelumne Hill, striking rich deposits on the north slope of Stockton Hill.
In November, a French miner found a nugget worth $2,000, prying it out of the earth with a small pocket knife. His discovery and other strikes sparked a rush to the region, and soon the small valley was dotted with tents offering anything the miners might desire.
Soon after, Mokelumne Hill residents promulgated the first Miners’ Laws of Calaveras County. The diggings were so rich that prospectors were limited to claims 16-feet square. Despite the small size, some claims were said to produce up to $20,000.
Mokelumne Hill quickly grew into an important trading and social center for the surrounding camps, and was soon the largest and liveliest community in Calaveras County.
Unfortunately, it was also among the most violent. During one week in 1851, five men were reportedly murdered. For 17 weeks in a row, it was claimed, one man was killed every Saturday night.
The outbreak of violent crime led to the creation of a vigilance committee, which met at a local saloon and dispensed its own brand of justice to suspected criminals in the early 1850s.
While Mokelumne Hill began as a dry placer camp, the discovery of rich tertiary deposits in ancient riverbeds in the hills above town prompted the town’s residents to bring more water to the camp.
In the fall of 1852, the Mokelumne Hill Canal and Mining Co. was formed to build a canal to the town and surrounding camps. Bringing water from the South Fork of the Mokelumne River, the 16-mile flume was completed in June of 1853.
The arrival of water immediately increased the value of mining claims, which amplified disputes and spurred the creation of a court and the election of a civil government.
The first courthouse was constructed on Center Street, but was lost in a major fire that leveled much of the town in 1854. A new two-story courthouse was built of stone on Main Street later that year.
Though most of the early buildings in town were made of wood, many of those built after the fire were constructed of rhyolite, a volcanic stone quarried on a neighboring hill.
Following the fire, Adams and Co. built a two-story brick building at the intersection of Main and Center streets. In 1860, the building was purchased by the local International Order of Odd Fellows, and in 1861, a third story was added, making it one of the first three-story buildings in the county.
The Odd Fellows held their meetings on the top floor and rented out the bottom two stories, with the Wells Fargo Express Co., other fraternal organizations and various local merchants among the tenants over the years.
Mokelumne Hill was home to a cosmopolitan community during the Gold Rush, even for the diverse Southern Mines.
While Americans, Irish and Jewish residents tended to live in the main part of town, the French congregated around French Hill and in nearby Happy Valley.
Chinese immigrants lived in Chinatown, which stretched along East Center Street to the Catholic cemetery and also along China Gulch.
The Chileans lived in nearby Chile Gulch to the south of town, while most Mexicans gravitated toward distant Campo Seco.
Germans, Italians, English, Spanish, African Americans and others also made up the town’s eclectic population during the early years.
The Catholic Church, the first house of worship in Mokelumne Hill, was built in 1851. It was followed by the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1852 and the First Congregational Church in 1853.
The current First Congrega-tional Church was built in 1856 and is the oldest of its denomination in California. It was built after the fire of 1854 destroyed the old building, with funds collected by the ladies of the congregation outside of local saloons on Saturday nights.
The Protestant and Catholic cemeteries were established in the early 1850s. A Jewish cemetery, the only one in the county, was located within the Protestant cemetery. The Protestant cemetery also housed a plot of earth that was once known as “Murderer’s Row,” where those who met violent ends were laid to rest.
The Chinese were buried in two plots outside of the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries. However, this resting place was only temporary – almost all Chinese arranged to have their bones shipped back to their home villages. There isn’t a single known Chinese grave in Mokelumne Hill today, although several tombstones have been recovered over the years.
The Mokelumne Hill post office, one of the first in the county, opened in 1851.
Later that year, the Calaveras Chronicle was established. It was the first newspaper in Calaveras County, and reported a circulation of 16,000 by 1872.
In 1854, the first public schoolhouse opened its doors. Five pupils attended classes taught by the wife of the local Methodist minister. The school was expanded in 1865 and again in 1900, providing an education for first through eighth graders into the 1960s.
In 1855, a large brewery was constructed of rhyolite by J.C. Gebhardt on Center Street, just past the Protestant cemetery. The main building was two stories high, while one wing had three levels. The brewery workers produced 2,250 gallons of lager per week, and used old mining tunnels to store and cool its beverages.
The building was vacated in 1930s, and only a few remnants of its stone walls remain today.
A soda factory was built in 1858 at the site of a spring on Lafayette Street. By 1876, it was producing 50,000 bottles per month. The factory continued operation well into the 20th century, finally closing down in 1950.
While the numerous saloons and gambling houses in the center of town provided residents with their main source of amusement, Mokelumne Hill also boasted a race track and a skating rink during the early years.
On Sundays, drinking and gambling went well with bull and bear fights, which drew large, rambunctious crowds during the 1850s.
From 1852 to 1866, Mokelumne Hill served as the seat of county government. In 1866, the seat was moved to San Andreas following a countywide vote. By this time, most of the placer deposits had played out, and the town’s population began to decline.
At its height, Mokelumne Hill and its surrounding camps boasted a population estimated as high as 10,000 to 15,000.
In 1874, another fire raged through town, destroying many homes and businesses. In contrast to the rapid recovery following the fire of 1854, many of the town’s structures were never rebuilt.
This was not the case with the Hotel Leger. George W. Leger, a Prussian immigrant, quickly rebuilt his establishment, even acquiring the courthouse next door and incorporating it into the hotel. The business would serve as a gathering place for the townspeople of Mokelumne Hill through the 20th century and up to the present.
As mining declined, cattle ranching became the most important local industry. Some families homesteaded 160-acre plots, while others acquired huge holdings. To this day, the town is still surrounded by large, active cattle ranches.
Mokelumne Hill’s unusual microclimate allowed the cultivation of a wide variety of plants. Even as the population declined, the Upper and Lower Italian Gardens continued producing fruits and vegetables for town residents and the outlying camps.
The community received a much needed boost when quartz mines were developed on the outskirts of town in the late 1800s. The richest were the Lamphear, the Easyz Bird and the Boston.
While these mines never produced as much as the richer districts of the county, they were an important source of employment for the people of Mokelumne Hill through the 1930s.
When the logging industry expanded in the early 1900s, many Mokelumne Hill residents sought employment in newly opened mills in West Point, Glencoe and the surrounding areas.
The opening of the Calaveras Cement Co. plant south of San Andreas in the mid-1920s was also a boon to the town’s residents.
Chili Gulch was dredged into the 1930s, while drift mining continued sporadically on Stockton Hill and Corral Flat up until World War II.
Since the last of the gold mines closed down in the 1940s, most new residents of Mokelumne Hill have been retirees and second-home owners. Fortunately, the newcomers are drawn to the area for its colorful history and rural charm, and seek to preserve the town’s historic character.
Far from the rowdy town of the Gold Rush years, Mokelumne Hill is now a quiet foothill community. Most of the evidence of mining has been erased over the years as nature reclaims the landscape.
The old reservoir that once stored water for miners and farmers is now the location of the town baseball field.
The site of the last Chinatown structure is now Shutter Tree Park, named after an iron shutter from the building that became embedded in a neighboring ailanthus tree.
And the lot where a blacksmith shop once stood is now the Mokelumne Hill Library and History Center.
But in town and in the surrounding hills, many Gold Rush era structures still remain. While some have been drastically altered, others retain much of their original quality.
In a period of rapid change, Mokelumne Hill residents have made the preservation of their town’s heritage a high priority, and it is very likely that the community’s historical assets will continue to be treasured and preserved well into the coming years.