Gold Districts - Auburn

Auburn California

In the spring of 1846, Claude Chana joined an emigrant train heading west from St. Joseph, Missouri. He arrived at Johnson's Crossing on the Bear River that October, after which he went to work for Theodore Sicard, a French sailor who had established a ranch about one-half mile upstream on the other side of the river. Sicard had received the land via a Mexican grant in 1844 and built an adobe house there in 1846. Chana worked for Sicard until he left for Sutter’s Fort in the spring of 1847. Employed by Mr. Sutter as a cooper, Chana remained at the fort for seven months before leaving to return to Sicard's Ranch. It was while working at the fort that Chana met and became friends with
James Marshall, so when rumors of gold reached the Bear River, he decided to pay his friend a visit and see if they were true.

Chana set out for Coloma during the first week of May in 1848, traveling first to Sinclair's Ranch, thence to Sutter’s Fort, and from there to Coloma. Upon arriving at Sutter’s Mill, he found several of his countrymen digging for gold, from whom he quickly acquired the art of collecting it—mostly with the aid of tin or wooden pans. Chana returned to Sicard's Ranch after a few days, determined to outfit himself and return immediately to the south fork of the American River and mine for gold.

At the ranch, Chana formed a party which included Francois Gendron, Philibert Courteau, and another Frenchman known as Eugene. This company of men, which also included some twenty-five Indians, set out for Coloma soon thereafter led by Gendron, an experienced mountain man who had been west of the Rocky Mountains since 1832. He informed the party that he could lead them across the country directly to the vicinity of Coloma, rather than taking the longer route via Sutter’s Fort. May 16 found the men camped besides a small stream in what would later be known as Auburn Ravine, near the present town of Ophir. Perhaps just for practice, Chana took his pan and went down to the creek to wash out the first pan in the district. And when the dirt and gravel were swished out of the pan, three large nuggets lay glittering at the bottom. All thoughts of traveling on to Coloma were forgotten. The men hastily set up camp and began mining. Chana and his party worked the main ravine for about two weeks, then switched to Baltimore Ravine, digging there for another week and finding some large pieces. The result of their three week’s work was somewhat disappointing; however, only three pounds of gold. They decided to head for the Yuba.

Among the earliest arrivals at North Fork Dry Diggings, as the camp was first known, were several former members of Stevenson’s Regiment, led by John S. Wood. They settled down for a short time and commenced mining near a clear body of water they named Soldiers Springs. It’s a rare miner that can resist the lure and promise of richer diggings, but Wood proved up to the task. When word of a rich strike on the Yuba—gold nuggets lying atop the sandbars—reached the camp, he remained while many left to follow the call. He settled down, built a cabin, and continued to mine and the place came to be called Woods Dry Diggings.

The early names of the camp reflect the major problem with the diggings in the ravine: no water. While the creeks and streams which converged in the ravine provided plentiful water during the winter months, they all but dried up during the summer, forcing the miners to carry the dirt great distances to water for panning. If a miner was willing to cart the dirt, stories claim it was not unusual for him to make up to $1,000 a day; one instance is reported of five cartloads of earth yielding $16,000. As this required a substantial amount of work, it’s no wonder that many of the miners looked for easier diggings, which resulted in the camp being sparsely occupied during the summer of 1849. But as summer gave way to fall, and fall to winter, the water returned and so did the miners. They were a little more experienced now and equipped with better tools and methods for working the diggings, which resulted in a lot of gold being taken from the ravine.

Towards the end of the year, the citizens of the growing settlement called a public meeting to discuss the merits of renaming their town. When the possibilities had been whittled down to one, the one which remained was Auburn. It was most likely nominated by one of Stevenson’s Regiment, many of whom hailed from Auburn, New York.

The year 1850 proved to be an important one for the town of Auburn. When the original twenty-seven counties of California were created, Auburn fell within the boundaries of Sutter County. Five towns vied for the honor of being the first seat of the newly created county: Auburn, Nicolaus, Vernon, Yuba City, and Oro. Due to the imposing presence, persuasive tongue, and good-natured personality of State Senator Thomas Jefferson Green, the “town” of Oro won the county seat, even though it contained not one house or building. It was; however, owned by Mr. Green who put up a zinc structure for the holding of court. It was described as “without glass or shutters for the windows, or doors for the entrances. Not a tree, or bush, or shrub grew near enough to give its shade to the building.” The first court met in the “zinc house” under a brilliant May sun, but “law and equity, lawyers and litigants, jurors and witnesses, with a spontaneity of action that would astonish nothing but a salamander, rushed out of and fled that building, never again to return.”

The county seat was removed to nearby Nicolaus until an election could be held to choose a permanent seat. The spring of 1850 saw four precincts in the race; Auburn, Nicolaus, Ophir and Miners Hotel. Auburn won, its “favorable location, its preponderance of population, and the inexhaustible powers of voting possessed by its citizens and partisans, decided the contest in its favor by a majority considerably exceeding the entire population of the county.”

Auburn’s population in 1850 was approximately twelve hundred, and many of these most likely witnessed the town’s first lynching which took place on Christmas Day of that year. Murder was the crime and the outraged mob which assembled thirsted for blood. Apparently, an Englishman named Sharp shot and killed another miner, after which he surrendered himself to the sheriff. The crowd reportedly seized the prisoner from the sheriff, convened a miners’ court, handed down a guilty verdict and hanged the condemned man to an obliging oak tree conveniently located in the middle of town.

It wasn’t long before Auburn became the main trading and supply point for the region, with trails branching out to the numerous camps which were springing up in all directions. The trails were rough, narrow, and often dangerous for the drivers of the pack mule trains which carried supplies to the remote mountain camps. Toll roads were eventually built to the more important camps, allowing stagecoach and freight wagons to reach those destinations.

Auburn was rapidly becoming one of the leading mining towns of Northern California, but it never gained the reputation of a wild place and didn’t suffer the level of violence experienced by some of the gold camps. The general hospitality and good nature of the miners in the region is related by the following tale. A boy supposedly came into the camp one day, footsore, weary, hungry, and penniless. Sitting down on the bank, he watched a group of miners working in the ravine. His face told the tale of his misfortunes and at last one miner spoke to his fellows, saying, “Boys, I’ll work an hour for that chap if you will.” At the end of the hour, $100 worth of gold was placed in the boy’s hands, along with a list of tools and necessities. “ You go,” they said, “and buy these and come back. We’ll have a good claim staked out for you. Then you’ve got to paddle for yourself.”

One of the Gold Country’s first stagecoach robbers was a young man from Quebec named Rattlesnake Dick Barter. For seven years he terrorized the highways of the Northern Mines, holding up stagecoaches with his armed gangs of badmen. Apprehended several times, the Rattlesnake always managed to escape. A sheriff’s posse finally caught up with Barter and a fellow gang member in 1859. After a brief exchange of gunfire, in which Barter was shot twice, the two outlaws fled into the night. The posse found Barter the next morning about a mile down the road. The ’Snake was dead, shot through the head, the killing blast either self-inflicted or from his partner’s gun. A note clutched in his hand read: “Rattlesnake Dick dies; but never surrenders...”

Auburn is sometimes referred to as a “three-story town.” The camp began in the bottom of the ravine where the gold was first discovered. It was a tent city, the buildings made from brush, wood, cloth and canvas. It was prime combustible and the first fire to strike the camp destroyed it completely. The next settlement to rise was located a little ways up the hill. Here they built more substantial structures, many of brick and stone, fitted with iron doors for fire protection. This was Auburn’s second-story, and is the most historic portion of town. The streets in Old Town follow the contours of the hills and gullies, some are steep, many are narrow, and most wind and twist through the hills, allowing for some confusion to a first-time visitor. The best way to get to known the town is to park your car and walk. Most of the old brick buildings that were built during the 1860’s are still in use today, so go inside and look around a bit.