The Folklore of Big Sur

When I visited Big Sur in the 1990s, a lifelong resident of the community told me a story about a woman who, for many years, lived in one of those Big Sur homes set high upon the edge of a bluff, hundreds of feet above the sea, with the breakers crashing on the rocks below. Day after day, she backed the same automobile out of the same carport, without incident – week after week, decade after decade. Until one fateful day, perhaps diverting her eyes from the rear-view mirror for a mere fraction of a second, she backed out of the carport just a wee bit too far, and went right off the cliff, to her death.

At the time of my visit, this tragedy had recently occurred, and neighbors were still talking about it.

In a few decades, this historical incident will be relegated to the annals of folklore. Future generations who hear the story may doubt its veracity – but they’ll have to admit that it’s a good story.

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The 20th century German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote that, “Traces of the storyteller cling to the story like the handprints of a potter cling to the clay vessel.”

Hannah Arendt, also a German philosopher, wrote thoughtfully about Walter Benjamin’s ideas. She said that Benjamin believed a story or picture could stand on its own two feet, unassisted and unencumbered by too much commentary ­– and that such explanations were, in essence, akin to leading the witness.

Hannah Arendt

According to Arendt, Benjamin thought that “the intention of such investigation,” was “to plumb the depths of language and thought … by drilling rather than excavating” so as not to (as Arendt put it) “…ruin everything with explanations … What mattered to him above all was to avoid anything that might be reminiscent of empathy, as though a given subject of investigation had a message in readiness which easily communicated itself, or could be communicated, to the reader or spectator.

Folklore is what everyone in town already knows and no one thinks twice about – an often-unsupported notion, custom, saying, or story that is widely circulated, and passed on from one person’s mouth to another person’s ear, in an oral tradition. A story is often modified (consciously or unconsciously) in the process of its transmission from one person to another and from one generation to the next. They call this transformation the “folk process.”

Somehow myths endure the inevitable evolution of the folk process better than the actual historical events they chronicle. By the time folklore is documented in literature, it has usually been polished by many anonymous hands, through decades and sometimes centuries of telling and retelling.

“We need not try to make history out of legend,” wrote Sir Charles Leonard Woolley, “but we ought to assume that beneath much that is artificial or incredible, there lurks something of fact.”

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San Carlos Cemetery, Monterey, California

As a boy, I often visited the cemeteries across the street from “Dennis the Menace” (El Estero) Park, in Monterey, California. I especially enjoyed reading the inscriptions on the oldest headstones, in which family tragedies were often reduced to five or six words. That’s where, I first saw the grave marker of Daniel R. Castro, age 13, in the San Carlos Cemetery on Fremont Street.

On Sunday morning, April 16, 1899, two of David Castro sons, Alex and Daniel, age 19 and 13, respectively, left their home (later, the site of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn) to go hunting. Around 6:00 pm, Alex heard two shots from his little brother Daniel’s gun. He went to see what Daniel had shot and found his brother bleeding from a gunshot wound. The bullet had entered just below Daniel’s breastbone and exited the left shoulder blade. The canyon was very steep and Alex had to carry his brother on his back, packing him all the way out of the canyon. Once on the trail, he left Daniel in the shade and ran to get their father and they brought Daniel back to the house.

Two of the Castro’s neighbors, Lola Oled and Lizzie Post, ran a mile and a half on foot, from Post’s to Castro’s and were the first to arrive. There wasn’t much they could do for the severely wounded boy. The father hitched up two horses to a spring wagon and raced the inured boy to a doctor in Monterey. But half a mile from the house, at about 9:00 pm, his young son Daniel died of his wounds.

David Castro, Joe Post, and Alex, transported Daniel’s body to Monterey in the wagon. Amanda Castro, the boy’s mother had, for several weeks, been caring for her sick daughter at a friend’s home in Pacific Grove. E. J. Burns went ahead to deliver the tragic news. Daniel’s body was brought to the Monterey home of a blacksmith from Big Sur named Jose De La Torre, and coroner H. V. Muller was called.

At the inquest the following day, David Castro asked Alex how the accident happened. “Don’t ask me,” Alex replied. “It is done and can’t be help. Don’t scold me.”

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John L.D. Roberts MD, was the first physician to practice medicine in Big Sur, traveling down the coast in a two-wheel cart pulled by his horse, Daisy. In time, Daisy became so familiar with the crooked dirt road that Roberts claimed he could sleep in the cart until they arrived at their destination. They accomplished the one-way journey from Monterey to Big Sur in a brisk three and a half hours. Roberts practiced medicine in the Big Sur area for twelve years.

Roberts told the following story to Rosalind Sharpe Wall, in 1946, when he was 84 years old:

“When I was first practicing down the coast [around 1890] there was an Indian woman living in the Little Sur. She was a widow. She had a little boy, age nine, who was ill. He had a seven-year-old sister. Every day, the mother sent the sister on horseback down the road to get milk and the neighbors saw her going by with her brother behind her in the saddle. But her brother had been home sick in bed all the time.”

“This was Indian magic,” the mother claimed when Doc Robert asked her about it. The boy was protecting his sister. When it was needed, a person could send what the Egyptian’s would call his ka or etheric double in his stead, so that it could be seen by others.

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Olive Hamilton Steinbeck

John Steinbeck’s mother, Olive B. Hamilton was born in 1862. Her parents were from Ireland. Her dad worked as a blacksmith in Castroville. She was a sensible and pragmatic woman who, in the 1880s, taught grade school down the coast in Big Sur. Olive Hamilton’s grandson (John Steinbeck’s son) Thomas Steinbeck, born in 1944, was a gifted writer like his dad. He said of his grandmother Olive, that if, “she couldn’t see it, read it, hear it, touch, or taste it…it didn’t exist.”

So it makes it all the more interesting that Olive Hamilton, a no-nonsense western woman, freely admitted seeing “little dark people” who stood about three feet high, standing in the shadows of the canyon walls, as she traveled on horseback through the dark redwood forests, on her way to the schoolhouse.

Her son, the author John Steinbeck, wrote about these Dark Watchers in a short story called, “Flight,” published in The Long Valley, in 1938, after his mother’s death:

“Pepé looked suspiciously back every minute or so, and his eyes sought the tops of the ridges ahead. Once, on a white barren spur, he saw a black figure for a moment, but he looked quickly away, for it was one of the dark watchers. No one knew who the watchers were, nor where they lived, but it was better to ignore them and never to show interest in them. They did not bother one who stayed on the trail and minded his own business.”

Olive Hamilton was adamant, that on more than one occasion, she traded fruit, nuts and flowers with the Dark Watchers. She would leave gifts for them in a shaded alcove near Mule Deer Canyon on her way down the coast and retrieve the gifts they left for her in exchange, on her way back.

The Spanish had called these Dark Watchers, “Los Vigilantes Oscuros.” A number of other people reported seeing them, including Thomas Steinbeck (who wrote about them in a collection of short stories called, Down to a Soundless Sea, published in 2002), the biologist Edward Ricketts, the author Rosalind Sharpe Wall, and the poet Robinson Jeffers.

Jeffers wrote about the Dark Watchers in his poem, “Such Counsels You Gave to Me” –­ “forms that look human to human eyes, but certainly are not human. They come from behind ridges and watch.”

To this day, there are people who insist that they have seen the Dark Watchers. Others say that the unseen eyes of the Dark Watchers were watching them. Still others dismiss these reports as supernatural superstition.

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Harry Dick Ross

In the early 1920s, W.R. Hearst employed hundreds of artisans during the construction of Hearst Castle. The 24-year old wood sculptor, Harry Dick Ross, worked at Hearst’s estate in San Simeon as a tile-setter.

Harry Dick’s wife, Lillian Bos Ross was born in 1889. She was known to her friends as Shanagolden. She and Harry Dick made their first visit to Big Sur in the 1920s. For years thereafter, they talked about wanting to make their home there.

Fifteen years later, the couple was living in Los Angeles, when Harry Dick learned that Harry Lafler was planning to build his house in Big Sur. Lafler hired Harry Dick as a carpenter for $4 a day. Working with a team of stonemasons from Spain, they built a stone house on the ridge above the future location of Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn.

Lillian was a professional writer and good one. She pragmatically decided that Salinas was the closest place to Big Sur where she might be able to make a living writing for the local newspapers. One day, after they’d lived in Salinas for about a year, their friend Esther Pfeiffer phoned with the news that Beth Livermore needed someone to live in her house on Livermore Ledge, in Big Sur.

In the late 1940s, Shanagolden and Harry Dick bought land on Partington Ridge, which, by that time, had become a neighborhood of artists, writers, and other Bohemians.

“We paid about $1,800 for three-a-half-acres ­– money we’d saved from our wartime jobs as Aircraft Warning System lookouts,” Harry Dick recalled. “We’d accumulated interest on a stack of bonds we’d bought from payroll deductions so we could pay cash for the acreage and the building materials.”

In the 1940s, Shanagolden wrote several books set in the locality of the Big Sur area, including Blaze Allen and The Stranger – a 1942 best-seller that was later made into a film called Zandy’s Bride, in 1974. Harry Dick explained, “Shanagolden had an agreement with herself. She wrote a thousand words every day. So, after coffee and a little breakfast, she’d get to her typewriter. Maybe I’d do a little work in the garden or go to my studio to carve.”

Harry Dick Ross reminisced, “The mailman was gorgeous in those days. He came three times a week and his coming was a big event. On Monday, you could give them your list, and on Wednesday he’d bring you your groceries from Monterey. Everybody loved going to the mailman to get their steaks and what not, for Sunday.”

Shortly after the Rosses finished building their house, Henry Miller moved up from Anderson Creek into the house next door on Partington Ridge. He wound up staying for eighteen years. Shanagolden died in 1959. When Henry Miller’s young wife, Evelyn “Eve” Mcclure (a former chorus girl from the Earl Carroll Vanities) left him, in 1962, she married their next door neighbor Harry Dick Ross.

Harry Dick said, “[Henry Miller] was probably the finest neighbor anybody ever had. He was always bubbling, always full of ideas. When Shanagolden was ill, he’d come over and read to her, be with her, even when she wasn’t fully aware of his presence.”

Back in 1924, Harry Dick and Shanagolden wanted to explore what they perceived as “a blank stretch on the map” that lay between Monterey and San Simeon, just north of the Hearst estate. Years before the new highway was completed, they made their very first trip to Big Sur, hiking up the coast trail from San Simeon to Monterey.

Lillian “Shanagolden” Bos Ross

Shanagolden grew up in Minnesota. She was a novelist and she loved folklore. She’d heard the story how, shortly after Mexican independence, Maria Joseph had lost the deed to the San Jose y Sur Chiquito land grant in a card game.

She and Harry Dick were hiking though a redwood canyon when they came upon the ruins of an old homestead. There they found a decaying child’s cradle and an old stone fireplace with the name “Juan Jaro de Castro” carved into the rotting mantelpiece. Shanagolden was haunted by this image and the experience inspired her to write a poem called The Coast Ballad.

The strongest force in the folk music process is the recycling of familiar melodies. Shanagolden set her poem to the tune of a love song composed by Gussie L. Davis, an African American songwriter in New York City, in 1886, called, Irene, Good Night, that had become part of the oral tradition.

Her lyric began:

My name is Lonjano de Castro, my father was a Spanish grandee

But I won my wife in a card game, to hell with those lords o’er the sea

In 1926, a professional folklorist from Baltimore, Sam Eskin, set Shanagolden’s poem to his original minor key melody and called it, The Ballad of the South Coast. It’s quite widespread now. But it’s a much better song when sung as Shanagolden intended, to the Irene, Good Night melody.

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Frank Post, born in 1859 on the Big Sur coast, remembered his childhood years when his family lived at Soberanes Creek, miles from the nearest neighbors, during the American Civil War – and the “Great Sur Bears.” The California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus) was a ferocious creature – heavier and larger than those found elsewhere in the continental United States. They were said to attack without provocation. Some weighed as much as 2,000 pounds and stood ten feet tall upon their hind legs. Old Clubfoot, the largest grizzly bear ever seen on the North American continent, was shot south of Redding, California, in 1885, by old Trapper Hendricks. The bear weighed 2,300 pounds, when dressed.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the late 1700s, there were about 10,000 grizzly bears in California. Historically, the Indians traveled around the ominous redwood forests, in an effort to avoid encountering these formidable beasts. The earliest recorded European encounters with California grizzly bears are found in the diaries kept by members of the 1769 Portola expedition.

“Native Californians Lassoing a Bear” (1873)

According to one of the Spanish missionaries, grizzly bears on the coast “roamed about in herds, like hogs on a farm.” Father Pedro Font, an early missionary descried the local grizzly bears, writing, “He was horrible, fierce, large, and fat.”

“These enormous bears were everywhere,” wrote Malcolm Margolin in The Ohlone Way. “feeding on berries, lumbering along the beaches, congregating beneath oak trees during acorn season, and stationed along nearly every stream and creek during the annual runs of salmon and steelhead.” Grizzly bears presented a serious threat to human beings armed with only a bow and arrows.

The early homesteaders were terrified of them. One old timer claimed that a “Great Sur Bear” could pick up a whole steer, still kicking, and walk off with it in its jaws.

In the late 1700s, the first Spanish pioneers devised a poisoned “bear ball” made of suet and a lethal dose of strychnine, that hung from the branches of an oak tree, low enough for a bear to reach it, but high enough to avoid poisoning dogs or children.

The Monterey Herald noted on July 4, 1874:

“Last Monday, Captain A. Smith, who resides about ten miles from town, in the Carmel Valley, succeeded in poisoning a large grizzly bear. Bruin had been annoying the neighborhood by destroying cattle, etc., for several years past, and all efforts to exterminate him seem futile. In some manner, however, he was induced partake of that “cold pizen” the captain had prepared for his special benefit. He is not likely to repeat his experiment.”

The California condor, one of the New World vultures, is the largest North American land bird. It has a wingspan of nine feet. In 1910, a rancher in Big Sur named Sabino Gamboa counted fifteen condors feeding on the carcass of a dead cow near Big Creek.

California condor illustration (1844)

The condor was a scavenger and its diet consisted mostly of carrion. One wonders how the use of poisons contributed to their diminishing numbers. In May of 1856, the Monterey Journal newspaper reported that a number of California condors were found dead at Rancho El Sur from eating the meat of a bear that had died from eating a poisoned bear ball.

Some scientists have speculated that populations of both California condors and grizzly bear in Big Sur briefly increased after the arrival of the Spanish in 1770s, as dead cattle and whales were probably more plentiful than ever before, during that period. Burton Gordon hypothesized that the decline of the condor in the Monterey Bay area coincides with the decline of the whaling industry and the changeover from the cattle-based economy of the Spanish period to the agriculture-based economy of the American period.

In the late 19th century, egg collectors removed seventeen condor eggs from nests in Monterey County, which adversely affected the local breeding population. In those days, hunters used the enormous birds for target practice. There were eight California condor sightings in Big Sur during the decade of the 1970s. The California condor became officially extinct in the wild in 1987.

Heine “Henry” Hopken was a country boy who grew up in Big Sur and could climb the Santa Lucia Mountains like a mountain goat. At the end of the 19th century, his family emigrated from Germany and settled in of Big Sur. As a teenager, Henry started live-trapping local condors and eagles, which he sold to collectors of exotic animals. His father was a beekeeper.

On June 28, 1898, 17-year old Henry traveled by himself to the big city – San Jose, California, to meet with taxidermist Frank H. Holmes, an orchardist who lived near Berryessa, to trade two condors and an eagle for a horse. Henry was so proud of his new horse, he’d stopped to have his photograph taken with the animal. As Henry was walking home, he was shot in the head by a drunken Milpitas constable. It was a case of police rage and mistaken identity: the inebriated officer was in pursuit of a robber and mistook young Henry for the suspect. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “it appears to be the wanton killing of an innocent country boy.” Henry’s father, “insane with grief,” traveled to San Jose for the inquest. He said that because his son was fond of San Jose, he would have him buried there, at the Oak Hill Memorial Park Cemetery. The officer was found guilty of manslaughter and served five years in San Quentin.

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Bull and Bear Fight

Salinas Pioneer John McDougall, who died in 1935, waxed eloquent about his boyhood days, watching the oxcarts rumble by the old MacDougall Ranch in Carmel Valley, bound for the twice-a-week Bull-and-Bear fights in Monterey. This Yankee-Californian version of the Spanish arena sport was popular in many California communities before the Civil War.

Capturing a wild California grizzly bear was, in itself, a dangerous and occasionally life-threatening task, requiring as many as a dozen men. The bear was placed in a large earthen pit, where it was often fed small dogs to whet its appetite, before the main event – a fight to the death with the symbol of Spain, a bull. Members of the audience would bet on which beast would survive the battle. Under natural circumstances, these two species never encountered each in the wild, only on cattle ranches.

In ancient Rome, this practice was known as “bear baiting.” In medieval Europe, amphitheaters called “bear gardens” were built to host such spectacles. The Bull and Bear fight was family entertainment. In Monterey, a raised viewing platform was erected for the women and children. The men watched on horseback outside the barricades, rifles at the ready, in case the bear tried to escape. W.B. Post’s in-laws, the Omesimos, owned a lot of property in downtown Monterey, including the arena where the Bull-and-Bear fights were held.

As “gladiatorial combatants,” a particularly large grizzly might kill several bulls in the course of the event. The California Pastoralnewspaper interviewed a spectator who claimed, “I was present when a bear killed three bulls. Sometimes the bull came off victorious, and at other times the bear, the result depending somewhat on the ages of the beasts.”

In 1852, the Daily Alta California newspaper denounced the bull and bear fights held each Sunday after church at Mission Dolores as “a vestige of barbarism” and a “disgrace to the citizens of San Francisco.” Shortly thereafter, ordinances were passed limiting the fights in both San Francisco and Sacramento.

The efforts of the Humane Society combined with a dwindling supply of grizzly bears brought about the eventual demise of this once-prevalent form of blood-sport family entertainment. Although the bull and bear fights are forgotten today, the sadistic imagery lives on in our contemporary Wall Street colloquialism that the stock market fluctuates between a “bull market and a bear market.”

One of the last grizzly bears killed in the Coast Range was shot by Orion S. Blodgett, who worked as a draftsman in the county assessor’s office at Santa Cruz, during the Great Depression. In the fall of 1886, Blodgett’s parents’ hog ranch was repeatedly attacked by an old grizzly. On one fateful night, the bear lifted a 300-pound hog out of it pen, in its jaws. Blodgett shot it in the left eye with an old muzzle-loader, from such close range that the powder burned the bear’s fur. The shot penetrated the animal’s brain and killed it instantly. It was an old female, scrawny and thin, that weighed just 642 pounds dressed. Blodgett sold the meat to the Chace market in Santa Cruz for 10¢ a pound, and the hide for $25.

“Uncle Al” Clark was a legend in his own time. After his death in February 1932, The Monterey Peninsula Herald published this remembrance of the eccentric Hermit of the Little Sur:

Alfred K. Clark, the Hermit of the Little Sur

“One of the best shots Monterey county ever saw. That was Al Clark, The Hermit of the Little Sur, who died here a few days ago, according to two old friends, C. F. [Frank] Post of Oak Grove and Robert J. Richards of Daly City. Both knew Clark for more than half a century and tell many stories of his prowess with the rifle … they told how Clark, in 1874 dispatched a grizzly bear with a single shot. He was hunting deer in the Ventana, roughest part of the ‘coast country’ at the time.

“Coming on the big bear’s track in a field of wild oats, Clark set out and search the animal, armed with an old Henry rifle. It was not long until he found Mr. Grizzly parked on top of a rock hummock. Still some distance away, Clark raise the rifle to his shoulder and fired. The bear fell dead, the bullet having struck him in the tip of the nose killing him instantly. According to Richards and Post, it was extremely rare for grizzlies to be killed with a single shot as they had few vital spots and all were difficult to hit.”

In 1857, a hunter named Jacobo Elias Escobar came down from Monterey and was paid $70 for killing three grizzlies that were eating cattle on Rancho El Sur. Escobar killed the last “Great Sur Bear” at Rancho El Sur in 1881. They say the 1,500-pound beast’s foot-spread was sixteen inches and that it could run at a speed of 45 miles per hour.

The last grizzly on the coast was killed in the summer of 1889 near Gorda, thirty miles north of San Simeon. In 1924, the last grizzly bear in the state of California was shot dead in Sequoia National Park.

Though officially extinct in California, sightings of grizzly bears in Big Sur (real or imaginary) continued for another half century. A teenage John Steinbeck believed that he (and he alone) saw a Great Sur Bear resting on a rock ledge, while he was employed as a ranch hand at Posts, in 1920.

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In the 1930s, James Ladd Delkin, the publisher of The Monterey Peninsula, a guidebook compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress, collected local folklore about the Lost Indian Gold Mine. He said that before the Mexican Revolution, there was a once a large rancheria at the Lost Gold Mine of the padres, and many Indians worked and lived there. One day, a storm of biblical proportions, with raging winds and heavy rains, caused a great avalanche. The mine and the rancheria were buried in the rock and debris, and all the Indians who were there at the time were killed.

Stories about the discovery of lost Indian mines were, for decades, a staple for newspaper editors – an evergreen favorite feature item of periodical literature. On September 21, 1889, the Los Angeles Herald reported:

“It is stated that young Freeman, son of John Freeman, of Salinas, while hunting deer in Carmel Valley, 50 miles from here, discovered the works and digging some of mine that has been sought over 100 years. The mine is said to be very rich in silver and gold quartz. A number of people are leaving for the scene of the reported discovery.”

Three days later, on September 24, 1899, the San Francisco Examiner published a variation of the same tale, this time about the discovery of the Lost Indian Silver Mine:

“An old Indian woman named Roman, who has lived on the Sargent Ranch in the Carmel Valley for 70 years, had a son who used to wear enormous silver spurs and other silver ornaments. He claimed to have obtained the silver from which they were made from a mine in the mountains. His mother, who still lives on the ranch, claims to know the location of the mine to this day, and has been tempting others to divulge the secret, but will not do so, saying that if she does she will bring the curse of the church on her head.

The Lara-Soto adobe house in Monterey, California.

“In the Soto house in Monterey [460 Pierce St.] is the wreck of an old furnace in which it is claimed the Indians used to reduce the ore. It still stands in the old Soto residence here.

“Mr. Martin, a Scotchman [sic] living in the Carmel Valley, some years ago was working in the blacksmith shop attached to the mission, found a ten-pound rock. He thought nothing of it at the time. One day he threw it in the fire, and to his surprise discovered silver. He had it assayed, and says it showed $3,000 to the ton. Mr. Martin is of the opinion that the mine is located somewhere near the mission, and has sunk several shafts in that vicinity. He still has specimens of the rock, and they contain large quantities of silver.”

Three days later, the San Francisco Examiner informed its readers that the ore from the aforementioned Old Woman Mine was, in fact, worthless – “The tools young Foreman found are some that have been abandoned by former prospectors … the Old Woman’s mine is still undiscovered, and will be in the minds of many people here for centuries to come.”

In one sense, the newspaper was right – these stories of lost Indian mines did remain vibrant in the minds of people for centuries. The stories were repeated and shared in a mostly oral tradition, resulting in many versions and variants of the same tale.

Pierre “Pedro” Artellan

Jesse William Artellan was born at the Cooper Ranch (Rancho El Sur) in 1900, and grew up in the Little Sur. He was one of nineteen children born to Juan Artellan (by at least two wives). Jesse’s grandfather, Pierre Artellan (who’d lost one eye and wore an eyepatch) sailed from the port of Havre in 1834, and jumped ship in Monterey, the following year. His grandmother, Maria Garcia, was the daughter of a Spanish soldier who was stationed Monterey. According to Jesse Artellan:

“The gold was no secret to people who lived in the Little Sur, in the 1890s. The gold was held by a spirit. It was on a craggy ridge, in plain sight. It wasn’t hidden. Lots of people knew about it. But they couldn’t get near the gold for the Spirit guarded it. Whenever they disturbed her territory, she appeared as a half spirit, divided into, split down the middle. If you saw the other half, saw her entirety, death would result – or madness. She was a very beautiful woman – mui Blanco. When people got close to the gold, she came down from the headwaters, over the falls. If people didn’t stop and they saw her, something happened to them. Only Indians could get near.”

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The July 8, 1932, issue of the Carmel Pine Cone newspaper reported:

“It appears that the Carmel Indians who resided in the Big Sur district had their own banking system in the form of quills plucked from the tails of chickens. The quills were filled with gold dust and then deposited on ledges in a huge cave that is said to be 10 miles south of Carmel and 10 miles inland. This unique method of hiding money was discovered for the first time by Thomas Morgan, veteran Monterey County pioneer. Morgan last week filed a gold claim…”

Revered for her wealth of information about early local history, “Mrs. Monterey” ­­– Josephine Simoneau Fussell – was born in 1877. As an infant, Robert Louis Stevenson bounced her on his knee at her father’s restaurant, Simoneau’s, in Monterey, where Stevenson ate his meals and played chess with her dad, during his 1879 visit.

She recalled that, “whenever the Posts [Frank Post’s parents, W.B. and Anselma] ran short of money, Mrs. Post [a Rumsen Indian from Carmel Valley] would disappear for two or three days at a time and return with gold dust. She never told anyone where she got it.”

The February 12, 1932, edition of the Carmel Pine Cone published the obituary of a local Indian who was known as Panuchi:

“José Bernabel, 104-year-old picturesque Indian whose tribe once owned all of the Monterey Peninsula was buried this week, a pauper, whose only home for the past 10 years has been a tent at Tortilla Flat. Bernabel is the last of the original tribe of Carmel Indians who roamed over this then primitive wilderness when Father Serra first came to California. He was at one time known throughout the state as a bronco buster.

“Despite the fact that he died practically penniless, Bernabel could have been perhaps fabulously wealthy. Stories have circulated in Carmel from time to time with some foundation that the aging Indian knew the definite location of the famous lost gold mine in the Big Sur district.

“On several occasions, Bernabel was approached by gold prospectors who made alluring offers to him if he would reveal his secret. Bernabel’s father is said to have been one of the Indians who brought huge nuggets of gold to the padres in the early days.

“From his father, Bernabel learned the location of the missing mine on the promise the secret should never be disclosed. True to his word, Bernabel died with his lips sealed although at times he had to beg for his food.

“Bernabel was educated at Carmel Mission in during the early days and aided the padres in their many activities. In the last ten years his only recreation was an occasional walk through Carmel with his dog as his companion.

“Bernabel had a strong hatred of the white population and spoke but little English. Yet he had acquired from the padressufficient knowledge to speak Spanish fluently. He never attended a moving picture show or did he ever accept a ride in an automobile. He would smoke a peculiar Indian weed which he would gather twice a year from the mountains surrounding Carmel.”

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David Jacks

David Jacks, for whom Monterey’s Jacks Peak is named, was born in Scotland, in 1822. As a nineteen-year-old, he came to the United States and worked his way westward. He joined the Gold Rush to California, in 1849, but was quick to recognize the how few miners ever got rich. Establishing himself in Monterey, his first employment there, in 1850, was working as a salesclerk in Joseph Boston’s store, where he kept his bed roll under the counter and slept in the shop at night. Jacks remembered how the miners who came into the store paid for the purchases with gold dust that they stored inside condor quills.

Sing Fat, an elderly Chinese man, was a familiar face to neighbors on the coast. He collected seaweed along the shoreline in Big Sur. Some people were certain that he’d discovered the secret of Indian gold and that he transported his gold dust to town, stored in feather quills, hidden in his spring wagon.

The Last Chance Mine near Gorda, thirteen miles south of Lucia, was discovered by William D. Cruikshank, in 1887. Over the next four years the mine yielded $14,000 worth of gold ore that assayed at as much as $50 per ton, setting off yet another brief South Coast Gold Rush.

The Last Chance Mine was situated in Alder Creek, in the Los Burros Mining District, twenty-four miles north of San Simeon. In 1889, the Grizzly Mine was discovered not far away on Alder Creek. The miners constructed a thirty-foot tall waterwheel on Alder Creek, that powered belts connected to heavy ore-crushing machinery. The wheel was abandoned in 1890 because there wasn’t enough water in the creek to turn it. And there it sat for eighty years, rotting-in-place, until it burned up in the Buckeye Fire, in 1970.

Botanist Alice Eastwood

Over the next five years, the Grizzly Mine yielded more than $9,500 in gold. Almost out of nowhere, the village of Manchester sprung up in the Los Burros Mining District. By 1889, there were (according to some sources) as many as 200 inhabitants, two general stores, a post office, a restaurant, several saloons, and a dance hall. The mail drop was located in a one-room cabin above Saloon Flat at the headwaters of Alder Creek. Miners gathered in the evenings at Davis’ Saloon, where a shot of whiskey could be purchased for a fingernail full of gold dust.

Although Manchester fit the textbook definition of a “boom town,” the place defied stereotypes. Alice Eastwood, the botanist from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, visited Los Burros, in 1893, where she was hosted by the Plaskett family. Eastwood later wrote, “At Los Burros … a literary and debating society had formed and the Plasketts belonged. There was also quite a good school library.”

Local folklore maintains that sometime in the1890s, the whole town burned to the ground after someone crammed too much fuel into a wood-burning stove. Nothing remains of Manchester today ­– not even the stately, sweet-smelling Ponderosa Pines that once shaded the unpaved streets of the village square.

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Robert Louis Stevenson

On August 30, 1879, the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in Monterey after a twelve-day cross-country trip on the transcontinental railroad. He was seriously ill when he arrived. The first week, he stayed at the French Hotel at 530 Houston Street, which is now a museum called the “Stevenson House.” He took his meals at Simoneau’s, a restaurant run by a Frenchman, a few blocks from his hotel, in present-day Simoneau Plaza. Stevenson wrote of Monterey’s water system, one of windmills, “whirling and creaking and filling cisterns with brackish water and sands.”

After ten days of the “vast, wet, melancholy fogs,” of the Monterey summer, he decided to save money by camping out in the sunnier and drier coast range. Describing his situation in a letter to a friend in England, he explained how one night, it got very cold, and by morning he was too sick to move, near San Clemente Creek in the San Carlos Ranch area of Robinson Canyon, east of Big Sur and west of Carmel Valley. Two days later, he was found, “…under a tree in a sort of stupor,” by two retired sea captains, Jonathan Wright and Anson Smith, beekeepers who also grew grapes and peaches on land rented from Bradley Sargent.

Hippolyte de Bouchard

Wright kept a herd of goats and Smith hunted grizzly bears. Stevenson credited Wright with saving his life. There, in the little cabin Stevenson rested, “in an upper-chamber, nearly naked, with flies crawling all over me and a clinking of goat bells in my ears.”

Local folklore maintained that when the pirate Hippolyte de Bouchard raided Mission San Carlos in Carmel, in November 1818, the Catholic padres received sufficient advance notice (some say from “friendly Indians”) that they were able to clandestinely bury their gold and other valuables in the sands near the mouth of the Carmel River, and successfully avoided detection.

Stevenson heard the story about the pirate de Bouchard and, in December 1879, he visited the ruins of Mission Carmel with a local Chinese guide. He attempted to find the padres’ buried gold himself, searching in the dunes and marshes at the mouth of the Carmel River. Stevenson didn’t find any gold, but the experience inspired him to write a book. Stevenson was impressed by the Portuguese whaling station at Point Lobos, with its distinctive whaler’s knoll, and used it as the model for Spyglass Mountain in his novel, Treasure Island, published in 1890.

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Doc Roberts remembered, back in the 1890s, an old rancher who lived on a bluff high above the ocean on the Big Sur coast. The old rancher married an 18-year-old girl, whom he subjected to verbal abuse and physical brutality. The neighbors couldn’t stand him and pitied his unfortunate young wife.

One day the rancher broke his leg, so they sent for Doc Roberts. Robert came down to Big Sur to set the rancher’s leg. Roberts made several follow up visits, but with each visit he found he disliked the old rancher more and more.

One sunny afternoon, on his way to the old man’s ranch, Roberts came upon a lost and dehydrated cowboy crawling on his hands and knees. The cowboy said that he’d come up the coast trail all the way from San Luis Obispo. Doc Roberts could see he was sick and starving, so he tied him to the back of his saddle and took him to the home of the old rancher with the broken leg. Roberts told the old rancher that, as part of his medical fee, he wanted the cowboy to convalesce at the ranch until he recovered.

Three weeks later when he returned, Roberts observed that rancher’s leg was healing nicely, but the old man still couldn’t walk. The cowboy, on the other hand, had made a complete recovery, but was faking further illness because he didn’t want to leave. So, Doc Roberts arranged for the rancher to hire the cowboy as a farmhand.

Another three weeks elapsed before Roberts returned to make a final check on the broken leg. Climbing the front steps, Roberts heard the rancher’s voice coming from inside, screaming obscenities at his young wife. Roberts waited patiently and professionally outside on the porch, listening to the old rancher holler and curse.

The rancher’s verbal tirade was suddenly interrupted by the sound of breaking furniture, which was followed by complete silence. Then, without warning, the front door swung open and the two men came barreling out ­­– first the old rancher and then the cowboy – the cowboy lifting the rancher off of the ground by the back of his neck and by his crotch. Moving rapidly across the yard to the edge of the bluff, where the cowboy unceremoniously hurled the old rancher over the cliff to his death.

The cowboy was casually strolling back to the house when he happened to notice Doc Roberts for the first time, standing on the porch. The cowboy smiled and calmly invited Doc Roberts inside for a cup of coffee. The young wife appeared much relieved and served the three of them coffee without saying a word. No charges were ever filed. The old rancher was widely disliked and in truth, the neighbors were all glad he was dead. A few weeks later, the cowboy and the young widow were married.

It’s such a beautiful story, it hardly matters whether it’s true.

 

 

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