The Great and Mysterious Gold Lake Excitement

Many gold seeking 49ers passed through the region of Plumas and Sierra counties during the fateful year of 1849. Yet only one of these emigrants was a major cause of the opening up of this region the following season. This man was the hero of an adventure so shrouded in mystery, so possible and yet so improbable, that people with equal opportunities for forming an opinion on the subject differ widely from each other in the amount of credence they give to the story he related. A fantastic tale of a lake lined with gold nuggets, high in the sierra backcountry called the pioneers forth. The writer has conversed with many who were connected with the Gold lake excitement, listened to their narratives, and heard their speculations and opinions, and feels himself unable to do more than give the story in its different phases as it has been presented to him. Gold lake, of which Plumas and Sierra counties each has one, is none the less a creature of tradition. If it ever had an existence other than in the brain of the man who claimed to have found it, some other name has been applied to it, and its identity has never been established. We are confronted at the outset by two stories of the way the author of the excitement claimed the lake was first discovered, the most probable of which is as follows: Among the emigrants by the Lassen road in the fall of 1849 was a man named Stoddard, the cause of all the subsequent excitement. When they arrived in the Sierra, probably in the neighborhood of Big Meadows, Stoddard, with one companion, went out upon a hunting expedition, for the purpose of replenishing the depleted larder of his company. Unversed in mountain life and unskilled in woodcraft, the two Nimrods lost their way, and wandered about for several days in search of the camp they had left, but in vain. They then undertook to get out of the mountains by following the course of the streams. They came one day upon a small lake, with an area of from ten to fifteen acres, enclosed by high and rocky mountains. In a ravine on the lake shore, where the water from the melted snow of the previous spring had washed the bed-rock bare, they found some large chunks of gold.



Frightened by their precarious condition in an unknown wilderness of mountains, exposed to dangers they know not what, and feeling that no time nor effort must be wasted if they would extricate themselves from their enforced seclusion and reach the homes of civilization, they did not stop to examine the place critically, nor even to make such observations as would enable them to return to the spot, but put a few of the golden pieces in their pockets, and hurried on. The next day they were suddenly treated to a shower of arrows from a party of Indians, and Mr. Stoddard took to his heels, and by dint of hard running made his escape. What became of his companion he knew not, but supposed that he fell a victim to their savage assailants. For several days he toiled over high mountains and through dark and rocky canons, scarcely stopping to rest, until at last he reached the north fork of Yuba river. Here he found the advance guard of the miners, who had pushed themselves up that stream, and obtained food and shelter. His story was related, but as the winter was just setting in, no one dared to trust himself to the cold mercies of a winter in the Sierra, so far from supplies, and in a region as yet unknown. The sad fate of the Donner party, in the winter of 1846-47, was fresh in their minds, and the dangers and hardships of a winter in the Sierra were dreaded by all.

Many who had faith in the tale of Stoddard decided to go into the unknown region in the spring, with the hope that if the celebrated lake was not found, or even was a myth, something rich enough to reward them would be discovered. During the winter the miners moved about from place to place, and in this way the story of Stoddard and the wonderful Gold lake was circulated along the Yuba and Feather rivers. Meanwhile, Stoddard went to San Francisco, where he knew were friends of his unfortunate companion, to see if, by chance, he had also escaped, and had gone to meet his friends in that city. Nothing had been heard of the missing man ; and after waiting several weeks, Stoddard became convinced that his body was lying not far from the wonderful lake. He then went back to the Yuba, and sought to organize a company to go in search of the marvelous lake of gold. So strange was his tale, that many believed him crazy, and would have nothing to do with him. His specimens were a convincing argument, however, and hundreds who placed no reliance upon the account he gave of the way he had procured them were none the less anxious to be led to the place where such chunks of gold could be found, without caring whether they came from a lake, river, or any particular place. At that time the miners had a theory that the " source of gold "lay high up in the mountains”. They had noticed that the gold became coarser as they ascended the streams; and what was more natural than to suppose that there was some place up in the mountains where it all came from, and where it could be picked up in chunks such as those exhibited by Stoddard? In many places around the old claims, generally in crevices, had been found "pockets," from which several hundred dollars were taken out in a few minutes, and it was not a violent assumption to think that "farther up," near or at the "source of gold," they could gather in twenty-four hours as much of the precious metal as could be carried away. Stoddard was therefore watched by those who felt a desire to try their luck in the search for Gold lake.

It is best at this point, perhaps, to relate another version of the other story about the way in which the wonderful lake of gold was found. This version says that, very early in the spring of 1850, perhaps around March, Stoddard and four others went into the mountains to prospect, some fifty or sixty miles north-east of Downieville, when they lost their way and wandered about for a number of days. One day they came upon a lake, and went down to the bank to slake their thirst. While stooping over, they saw something shining among the moss at the bottom, which proved, upon investigation, to be lumps of pure gold. While taking some of these out, they were suddenly attacked by Indians, and two of the party killed. Stoddard and the other two succeeded in making their escape in different directions, and were never afterwards reunited. Stoddard made his way out of the mountains and went to San Francisco, where there were friends of the two others who, he thought, had escaped, to see if tidings had been received from them. Nothing had been heard of them; and being convinced that they, too, had fallen victims to the savages, Stoddard went to the Yuba to organize an expedition to search for the "bonanza" that had nearly cost him his life. The improbable part of this version, and one that refutes it, is that it is not possible any one could have gone into the upper mountain regions prospecting so early in the season. The winter of 1849 was a stormy one, and snow lay upon the mountains thirty feet deep. Snow-shoes had not yet been introduced. The miners were unused to winter travel in the mountain wilds; and that a party of prospectors had attempted or were even able to penetrate into this region at that season, is highly improbable. Allowing Stoddard's story any foundation in fact at all, the former version must be nearly the correct one. However that may be, that Stoddard appeared on the Yuba river, told a wonderful tale of heaps of gold to be found in or near by some mysterious lake high up amid the summit peaks of the Sierra, and exhibited some large specimens of pure gold, varying in value from eight to twenty-five dollars, in support of his story, are facts beyond dispute. Lake or no lake, the chunks of gold were proof positive that Stoddard had found something, and a great sensation was created thereby.



It was about the last of May, 1850, that Stoddard appeared at Nevada City with his story and specimens. He exhibited a scar on his leg which he said was the result of a wound received from an arrow at the time he escaped from the Indians ; but the fact that the wound was completely healed did not seem to be noticed at the time. He organized a select party of twenty-five to go in search of the lake. They had an opportunity to receive five hundred members, who were willing to pay anything for the privilege, but the party was considered large enough as first organized. The only member of this original party that the writer has ever met or knows of, save Stoddard himself, is George E. Brittan, now residing in Sutter county. About the first of June they started for the upper country, followed by from five hundred to one thousand men, who had kept a close watch upon their preparations, and were ready to follow them to the end of the world if necessary. They struck right north from Nevada City to the divide between the North Yuba and Middle Feather, and followed the ridge to the head-waters of that stream. Wherever they went the crowd of miners clung to them like a shadow. Having reached the neighborhood where he supposed the lake to be, Stoddard appeared to know as little about its actual locality as any of his followers.

He wandered about from place to place with his party, closely watched and followed by the crowd of hangers-on, who supposed that the apparently aimless movements were made for the purpose of throwing them off the scent and to tire them out. They entered Sierra valley, crossed north to Red Clover valley, and then to Last Chance valley (so named from what happened there at that time). It had now become evident that Stoddard was incapable of leading them to the wonderful lake, to reach which they had encountered so many hardships. There were three opinions held by the deluded men who were then gathered in consultation in Last Chance valley. Some thought that Stoddard was crazy, and the lake simply a product of his diseased brain ; others that he had never visited the supposed lake, but had heard the story from some one but imperfectly, and had represented the adventure as happening to himself, with the hope of forming a party, as he had done, and being able to discover the lake from the faint idea he had of its general location ; others thought that his story was true, but that his sense of locality was bad, and he had become again lost, as he was when the adventure happened to him. The party was badly demoralized. Many of their animals had perished, some in the deep snow, and others by being dashed to pieces upon the rocks of some dark and precipitous canon. For a number of days they had been discontented, and now they rebelled openly. A meeting was called to discuss the situation, and it was decided to hang the author of their woes at once. The sentence of summary execution was suspended for one day at the solicitation of the few who still believed that the lake existed, and that Stoddard had only lost his way ; but the condemned man was informed that he would be given a "last chance," and if the lake was not found by the next night he would be strung up to the limb of a tree and left for the birds to roost upon. If he was crazy, Stoddard had enough "method in his madness" to steal quietly from camp that night and retrace his steps to the mines below, leaving his judges to follow their own inclinations. This incident is claimed by some to have occurred in Humbug valley, Plumas county, and to have been the cause of bestowing that appellation upon the valley.

This was but a small part of the excitement, and these men were but the advance guard of the army of "gold lakers" who rushed into the mountains that spring. The news that Stoddard and his party, followed by a crowd of miners, had left Deer creek in search of Gold lake spread like wild-fire among the mines of the Yuba and Feather rivers. Many who had before heard of the mysterious lake, and many others who now learned of it for the first time, rushed off in the direction the searchers had gone. All the floating population of the mines imbibed the fever, and many also who had good claims abandoned them to go in quest of the place where one day's work was worth a thousand. Away they rushed, carrying but few provisions to subsist upon, and little money or dust with which to buy. It was a perfect stampede. Some organized into small parties; but as a general thing they went along in twos and threes, striving to reach the magic lake as soon as possible. Hundreds had but an indistinct idea of what they were in search of. All they knew was that somewhere up in the mountains there was a place where gold could be picked up in chunks, and they were willing to abandon everything and seek the charmed spot. The infection extended to the American river and the southern mines, and many started from there to follow in the wake of the others. A party of these went as far as Donner lake, and the country immediately to the north of it. The prices of horses, mules, and oxen went up at a rapid rate. Some started with wagons, but owing to the character of the country, and the absence of even a trail, this method of conveyance was soon abandoned, and the pilgrims hurried on, packing their effects upon the backs of their animals. Many of these, as well as some of their owners, slipped on the precipitous sides of rocky canons, and plunged headlong to their death, hundreds of feet below. Perceiving an opportunity for profitable traffic, a number of merchants accompanied the eager throng with loads of provisions, which they sold at exorbitant prices, even killing the cattle that drew the loads, and disposing of the meat to the hungry crowd.

It is claimed by some that miners from Feather river started up that stream even before the Stoddard party left Deer creek, and were, therefore, the pioneer prospectors of Plumas county. The writer has met or heard from no one who claims personally to have been, or knows surely of any one who mined, within the limits of this county prior to June, 1850, and there is but little doubt that the Stoddard party headed the army of invaders. The files of the Marysville Herald, the Sacramento Placer Times, and the Alta California for the month of June speak of Stoddard's party as having just started, and contain long accounts of the excitement and exodus of miners a correspondent of the Placer Times accompanying the throng to the vicinity of the present town of La Porte, where word was received that Stoddard's party had abandoned the search, and he returned. The excitement lasted but about a month, and then resolved itself into the regulation movement from old to new mines. When the party awakened that June morning in Last Chance valley, and discovered that their intended victim had fled in the darkness of night, they concluded to abandon the search upon which they had been engaged. They started back, prospecting as they went. The cloud of followers also took to prospecting. The news passed along the line of the army of invaders that Stoddard was a fraud and Gold lake a myth, carried along by the disgusted ones who were hastening back to the claims they had abandoned. The thousands that had rushed into the mountains commenced prospecting in all directions, or hastened back again, only to find their claims in the happy possession of others. News of the utter failure of the Gold lake expedition was received on Deer creek within a month from the time it had started from that place.

Before considering the effect of this expedition upon Plumas county, it is well to dispose of the Gold lake story entirely. Upon his return to the lower mines, Stoddard endeavored to form another company to search for the elusive lake, but in vain. He was looked upon as crazy, and no one would place any confidence in him or his story. For three or four years he hung about the mines, chiefly on North Yuba river, relating his tale to every one who would listen to him, and spending his summers searching for the lake in the existence of which he appeared to have unshaken confidence. Mr. Brittan, who was a member of Stoddard's party, does not believe him to have been crazy. He thinks the specimens exhibited were ample evidence that Stoddard had found something. To be sure, he could have procured these little nuggets in the lower mines, for they were frequently found ; but there appeared to be no reason why he should do that, and then lead a company up into the mountains on an apparently hopeless errand. Many believe that he was perfectly sincere and truthful, and account for the fact that the lake was not there, and has not since been found, with the theory that a landslide occurred that winter and filled up the lake, or covered that portion where the gold was discovered. If this be true, the Gold lake must be one of a number of little lakes known by different names in this section, none of which have given any indication of possessing deposits of gold like the one in the legend.

There is however, still another story that may give a clue to the whole affair. Before the excitement broke out there occurred a secret expedition to the same locality, which was beyond doubt the first prospecting trip into this county, and the members of the party the first miners to penetrate into this region. This was related to us by John Rose, an old pioneer who came to California in 1841, and after whom the celebrated Rose bar on the Yuba river was named, and near which he is still living. Early in 1850, two men, one of them named Marks, were living with the Indians north of the Yuba river, when an Indian came into camp with some splendid specimens, and said that he had found them on a river farther north, and that they lay loose in the gravel. Marks did not understand the Indian tongue as well as the other man, and asked him what the Indian said, but the man would not tell him, intending, when he recovered from an attack of sickness with which he was then suffering, to go in search of the place himself. Marks had understood enough of the Indian's tale to learn the general direction and about how far to go to reach the desired spot. He went to Marysville and related a tale of adventure, saying that he had been to a, certain place and found great quantities of gold on the river bank, and had been driven away by Indians. He offered to lead a company there ; and a select company of thirty, of which John Rose was one, started with him in search of the river. Marks led them along the divide between the Yuba and Feather rivers, as far as the mouth of Nelson creek, where he admitted that he had lost his way. The party returned in disgust. Mr. Rose thinks that Rich bar, on the middle fork of Feather river, was the place where the Indian obtained his nuggets, and that Marks, who had led them to the general locality, was unable to find the exact place because he had never been there. These were no doubt the pioneer prospectors of Plumas county. There is an idea suggested by this story, which, so far as the fact of a party having been led by Marks to the mouth of Nelson creek is concerned, is certainly true. The idea is, that Stoddard may have received his inspiration from this source, and adopted the same ruse employed by Marks to form his company, claiming the adventure to have happened to him for the purpose of inspiring more confidence, and trusting to luck to find something when they reached the proper locality.

There is still another phase of the Gold lake story which carries out the idea that Soddard had a foundation to build upon, but claimed, as happening to him, an adventure that he had simply chanced to hear of, and for that reason was unable to lead the party to the lake which he firmly believed to exist. The following version was published in the Marysville News in 1858:  "Our friend and fellow-citizen, William C. Stokes, of the firm of Stokes & Shields, proprietors of the United States Hotel of Marysville, has furnished us with a statement in relation to this Stoddard and Gold lake affair which strips it of much of its mystery. Early in 1850 Mr. Stokes was working as a hired hand for a Mr. Terrel, in a rich claim at Deer creek, now Nevada City. One day a man, a stranger to all hands, came to Mr. Terrel's cabin with a large sack of gold. He held a long and confidential conversation with Mr. Terrel, which was overheard by Mr. Stokes, who was lying in a bunk and supposed to be asleep. He wished to raise a company to return with him to a lake somewhere north-east of the "Forks," now known as Downieville, where gold was to be found in great quantities on the shores. His large sack full had been gathered there, with the aid of the Indians, whom he had left under promise to procure provisions and return to them. The only tools necessary for the expedition, he told Mr. Terrel, would be crowbars, cross-cut saws, picks, shovels, and pans. The saws were to be used in cutting out wheels from the trunks of trees to make cars to haul the auriferous earth to the lake for washing. The reason be gave for not wishing to go back alone was his dread of the Indians, with whom he had been guilty of bad faith in not returning with the provisions as he had promised. He offered to pledge his gold to Mr. Terrel for the truth of his story, if Mr. Terrel would raise the required company. Mr. Stokes never knew the reason why Mr. Terrel did not close with the stranger's proposition. All he knows on this point is, that no company was raised, and that the stranger disappeared from Terrel's mining claim, and Mr. Stokes has never seen or heard of him since. Not long after this it was in April, 1850, when Mr. Stokes was mining at French Corral a man who gave his name as Stoddard came to his cabin, stating that he was a miner from Frenchman's bar on the South Yuba, and that he was out on a prospecting tour. Mr. Stokes received him hospitably, after the manner of miners in 1850, invited him to dinner, and after dinner, as the weather was warm, spent three hours in social chat. Mr. Stoddard gave a history of his life. He was of either Scotch or Yorkshire parentage, had served in his younger days in the British navy, was on board the Asia, a ship of the line, on which he was wounded at the bombardment of Acre. He showed his scar of the wound on one of his legs, which might readily be mistaken for the scar made by an arrow wound. Afterwards he had resided in Pennsylvania, and had flourished as a school-master and also as an editor in Philadelphia. In process of time he had followed the crowd of fortune-seekers and come to California. When he finished his autobiography he asked Mr. Stokes to tell him his experience, which Mr. Stokes did, making a considerable feature of that portion of it which related to the man with the heavy sack of gold, who wished Terrel to join him in an expedition to the lake where gold was so abundant. Mr. Stokes is not certain, but he rather thinks that he amplified this portion of his experience very considerably. On this slender foundation Mr. Stokes feels certain Mr. Stoddard based his theory of Gold lake, and induced some hundreds of romantic miners to trot after him, over mountain and dale, in search of his fabulous El Dorado. The next time, which was the last time that Mr. Stokes saw Stoddard, was the first of June, 1850. It was in the previous April when he first saw him. Mr. Stoddard had then got his company of adventurers at his heels, and happened to bring up in the evening at a roadside house which Mr. Stokes, having dropped mining, was keeping at a place called Deerville, twelve miles from Middle Yuba. Mr. Stoddard entered Mr. Stokes's house, but declined recognizing him. He had a crowd with him, some of whom Mr. Stokes endeavored to dissuade from the rash enterprise, but in vain.

The result was, as may readily be anticipated, that poor Mr. Stoddard, having no other knowledge of the golden lake than had been furnished to him by Mr. Stokes, never found it. His followers undertook to hang him, but relented, and he is now a living man, and as the Sierra Citizen certifies, well to do in the world. Mr. Stokes, we may as well remark, is himself fully convinced that such a lake as was described to Mr. Terrel does really exist, and that it will yet be found somewhere to the north-west of Downieville." With this, we will dismiss Gold lake from our thoughts, and turn to what is known of the results upon this section that flowed from the great crusade. Even before the search for Gold lake was abandoned by the Stoddard party and their immediate followers, who then amounted nearly to a thousand, considerable prospecting was indulged in by those who came a few days later than the first invaders. The result was, that the diggings on Nelson, Poorman's, and Hopkins creeks were discovered early in June; and those on Rich bar, middle fork, but a few days later. Important strikes were also made at Gold Mountain – what was to later be known as the Johnsville mining district. As soon as the mythical character of Gold lake was proclaimed, these places were flooded by the disappointed gold seekers. They poured in upon the few who were at work there, and took up every inch of ground. In many cases where the first workers had measured off generous-sized claims, the new-comers called a meeting, made laws reducing the size of claims, and proceeded to stake out their locations. Even this failed to give claims to all, and the hundreds who did not secure ground in these places sought elsewhere. Rich bar, on the east branch, was discovered about this time, and an immense crowd rushed to that place. In this way, the middle fork, east branch, and north fork, with their tributaries, were occupied by several thousand miners during the summer and fall of 1850.  The fear of wintering in the mountains had not yet become dispelled, and as the winter season set in, the miners began to depart for the foot-hills, leaving the mines almost deserted. Where the smoke of hundreds of camp-fires had ascended, and where the rattle of many rockers had echoed from the rocky walls of the river canyons, now was scarcely a sign of animation to be found. Many went to Bidwell's bar and other points on Feather river; others to Downieville and the Yuba river mines ; while many more passed the winter in Onion and Strawberry valleys. A few who were well provided with supplies decided to brave the rigors of winter in the strong log cabins they here and there erected. The mines were practically deserted.

With the return of spring in 1851 came a throng of miners, who crowded the streams of  Plumas county, spreading out and making new discoveries in all directions. Claims were taken upon all sides ; flumes and wing-dams were built ; substantial cabins were erected, and in every way the people indicated their intention of staying at least as long as the diggings held out. A few took up land claims in Indian, American, and other valleys; several saw-mills were built, and in every way tokens of a permanent occupation were given. Large stocks of goods were laid in as the winter approached, and though a great many returned to the valley, the majority of miners who expected to work there the next season remained on the ground. The winter was passed without much inconvenience, and work that had been for the most part suspended was resumed; while spring brought with it several thousand men to try their fortune in the rich mines of Plumas county.

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