Living in Gold Rush country keeps us aware of the dramatic events that triggered California’s population explosion from about 35,000 in 1848 to more than 265,000 a few years later.
Yankee frontiersmen, soldiers, sailors and other adventurers rushed to the Sierra Nevada foothills with their picks and pans and shovels and dreams. Thousands more came from China, Mexico and elsewhere, all bent on striking it rich in the gold fields.
Driving Calaveras County roads today, we still see evidence of hydraulic mining and other endeavors to pull as much treasure from the earth as possible. Old mining equipment stands silent along the streets of Angels Camp. And at the entrance to most little leftover Gold Rush towns along State Highway 49 there are historic markers announcing how much gold was taken out of that area during the Gold Rush heyday.
I often think about the dreamers who lost their lives here. And those who lost everything except their lives seeking gold here. And those few who actually struck it rich. There are lessons to be learned everywhere you look, if you have the time and interest to eke them out (like nuggets from the icy rivers flowing through our county).
But this week, I’m thinking about one particularly colorful character who haunted this area – the stage robber Black Bart. I’m thinking of him because 228 years ago this Nov. 3rd he robbed his last stagecoach just a few miles west of our house.
Black Bart, like Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Juaquin Murietta and other fairly famous Gold Rush characters, left an indelible imprint here. The county history museum in San Andreas is proud to show off the local jail cell where he was briefly imprisoned.
This Old West outlaw had several things that distinguish him. Although he robbed 28 Wells Fargo stagecoaches across northern California, he never fired a gunshot. Because he was wary of horses, he committed all of his robberies on foot. He was always courteous, used no foul language during his robberies, did not steal from the women passengers, covered his face with a flour sack sporting eye holes, and instead of a Stetson, wore a bowler.
But what really sets him apart is that on two occasions, he left poems at the scene of his holdups.
You’ve got to admit, a guy like this would fascinate writers. Anyway, he fascinates me.
On August 3, 1877, he robbed the stage going from Point Arena to Duncan’s Mills, and left this poem:
I’ve labored long and hard for bread,
For honor, and for riches,
But on my corns too long you’ve tread,
You fine-haired sons of bitches.
Nearly a year later, on July 25, 1878, he held up a stage traveling from Quincy to Oroville and left this poem:
Here I lay me down to sleep
To wait the coming morrow,
Perhaps success, perhaps defeat,
And everlasting sorrow.
Let come what will, I’ll try it on,
My condition can’t be worse;
And if there’s money in that box
‘Tis munny in my purse.
His real name was Charles Earl Boles (sometimes he spelled it Bowles). He was a Civil War veteran with a wife and children living in Hannibal, Missouri (Mark Twain’s hometown). He lived in San Francisco and was viewed there as a sophisticated gentleman.
The story is that he’d catch an overnight boat from San Francisco to Stockton, and then walk the 40 miles or so from Stockton to the site of his various foothill robberies.
Both his first and last robberies took place a few miles west of our house. His last holdup turned out to be his undoing. During that Nov. 3, 1883, heist, he was shot in the hand and dropped a handkerchief as he made his escape. The handkerchief had a laundry mark on it (FX07). A determined detective traced the hanky to a San Francisco laundry and arrested Mr. Boles.
Boles was convicted and sent to San Quentin Prison. His six-year sentence was shorted to four for good behavior. Upon his release in January 1888, he joshed a little with reporters who were eager for a story about the gentleman poet bandit.
One of them asked if he was going to rob any more stagecoaches and he reportedly replied, "No, gentlemen, I’m through with crime."
Then another reporter asked if he was going to write more poetry, and Boles laughingly responded, "Now, didn’t you hear me say that I am through with crime?"
Black Bart disappeared shortly after his release.
Although no one knows where he went, how he died or where he is buried, all of us living in the Gold Rush foothills of Calaveras County know what he did in our neighborhood.
And now you know, too.
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