Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tale of a Grizzled Prospector

An unknown grizzled prospector and his mule.
Each Jan. 24th, we commemorate the 1848 discovery of gold in California by celebrating "Talk Like A Grizzled Prospector Day." All y' gotta do to take part in this here holiday is t' talk like a grizzled prospector, gol-durnit!

January 24, 2013, marks the 165th anniversary of the day James Marshall first saw flakes of gold at Sutter's Mill, thereby launching the California Gold Rush. The ensuing mania brought more than 300,000 fortune seekers to The Golden State. After the rush, many found other lines of work or went home to resume their normal lives. But some stayed in the West, prospecting, mining, and following whatever seemed to be the next "big strike."

One such boom occured when silver was discovered in Orange County, California's Cañon de la Madera in 1877.  Santa Ana residents Hank Smith and William Curry stumbled across ore while hunting, and within a week of them staking a claim hundreds of prospectors were pouring into what eventually became known as Silverado Canyon.
Slightly less grizzled miners at the Blue Light Mine in Silverado Canyon.
One of the old Forty Niners who arrived with that contingent was described in historian Terry E. Stephenson's classic 1931 volume, Shadows of Old Saddleback...
Perhaps the most interesting of all the many men who rushed into the Silverado was “Dad” Justice, described as “a veritable pioneer of the West,” a friend of Mark Twain and credited with being the original of Mark Twain’s Colonel Sellers. Beginning with the days of ’49, he had gone from mining camp to mining camp all over California and Nevada and as far north as British Columbia, always a picturesque figure, always optimistic, always seeking millions.

It was in the Silverado that “Dad” Justice’s mining days came to an end. He died as he had lived, among miners and mining excitement. A grave was dug in the little flat near his cabin, and silently his friends laid him away and filled in the rocks and earth. His grave is there today unmarked, and “Dad” Justice is almost forgotten,...

“Dad” Justice died still firm in his belief that a great silver ledge, as rich as the richest Virginia City had ever known, lay hidden somewhere in the Silverado’s ridges awaiting the lucky strike of some miner’s pick. He died not living to see the gradual fading away of hope, the abandonment of tunnels and drifts, the sinking of the sun upon Silverado’s dreams.

Cash Harvey, for many years a prominent political figure in Orange County, was fond of relating an incident in which “Dad” Justice figured. The two men were prospecting over a steep mountainside when they discovered a likely looking piece of ore, loose on the surface. Immediately, Harvey started toward the summit eagerly seeking the ledge. Justice started downward.

“What you going downhill for?” asked Harvey. “That rock wouldn’t roll up-hill.”

“May be when that rock broke loose from the ledge, the mountainside tipped the other direction,” declared “Dad” sagely.

In the remark “Dad” Justice hit upon a geological fact that points to the reason why big mineral bearing ledges have never been found in the Silverado. The country is geologically broken up. In the formative ages so much happened thereabouts that formations are criss-crossed with breaks.

A few rods above the forks of the Silverado, the line of the Cleveland National Forest crosses the canyon, and above that line no cabins have been built. The flats along the creek bed, most of them not more than half an acre in extent, are grown over with scrub oak, sumac and greasewood. Here and there on the steep rough mountain slopes a bit of bare rock marks an old mine dump, with brush and trees bravely doing their best to hide these man-made scars upon the landscape; a black hole shows the entrance to an old-time tunnel, where miners wasted their energy and hopes in a vain quest for treasure.

Here and there is a rotting timber, a line of rocks laid to mark the tidy dooryard or the foundation of a cabin long since torn down. Here a forge stood, there an open-air fireplace where miners cooked their food.

This, perhaps, is the unmarked brush-covered grave of old “Dad” Justice…
It’s hard to find much of a paper trail for Justice – Hardly surprising for a man who spent his life rambling from strike to strike. Even a search of many recently digitized newspapers from the Gold Rush era show no signs of a “Dad” Justice. Certainly, knowing his first name or initials would help in future research efforts.
Photo of Silverado Canyon by Clara Mason Fox, circa 1900.
Mark Twain, in his autobiography, stated that the character of Colonel Sellers, who first appeared in his 1873 novel (with Charles Dudley Warner), The Gilded Age, was based on his mother's favorite cousin, James Lampton. That pretty much sticks a fork in Justice’s claim to literary fame. However, the fact that people readily believed this story attests to the fact that Justice bore more than a few similarities to Sellers.

Col. Sellers was a comically offbeat character who lived in an eternal state of hopeful expectation, who always had a plan for certain success, yet was perpetually flat broke. It's a description that suited “Dad” to a tee.
Another unidentified grizzled prospector, dadgummit!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember seeing that prospector labeled "unknown" in an old western movie (maybe a Clint Eastwood flik). I believe he is a character actor, but the movie eludes me.