James Mason Hutchings
● By Style
The heavy winter rains of 1849 flooded the diggings, heaped the ravines and streams with mud and debris, beat down shelters and ruined the golden dreams of miners along Hangtown Creek.
As rumors of gold strikes elsewhere reached their ears, many '49ers from the settlement – later called Placerville – hastily abandoned their claims for the season. James Mason Hutchings wasn’t one of them. He predicted that in a short time good weather would prevail and the camp would flourish. The claim he staked out on Hangtown Creek just a few months earlier had provided him a decent livelihood, and besides, he found the outdoor life, fair or foul, much to his liking.
A mild-mannered, reserved figure given to books, he, in many ways, ranked among the most “uncommon” citizens in the rough and ready population of early Hangtown. He practiced abstinence and other exemplary habits. On Sundays, he left camp to wander for miles, admiring what he referred to as “the beauties of nature.”
Ten years before, as a school boy in England, Hutchings visited the renowned Indian Gallery of artist Gorge Catlin, where he beheld not only spectacular views of the American West but three live grizzly bears and a troupe of Sioux Indians brandishing tomahawks. The exhibit apparently sparked his imagination. As soon as he could, he left for America, reaching it in time to join one of the early wagon trains bound for the scene of the gold discovery. One glimpse at life in Hangtown and he settled in to prospect.
James Mason Hutchings photo digitized by Dan Anderson, April 2007, from a copy at San Diego State University.
So far, he had seen scarcely no more of California than the Foothill mining camps. Many of his fellow argonauts cared little for the natural wonders that surrounded them and regarded them as hindrances to their golden dreams. Ever mindful, Hutchings recorded all that he heard and saw, and his curiosity grew as he filled one notebook after another. With those writings he ambitioned, one day, to devote a magazine to the natural wonders of California, but his future publication, Hutchings’ California Magazine, would have to wait until he did some exploring himself.
Meanwhile, Hutchings witnessed Placerville’s growth into a “respectable” town of churches and civic groups. But according to Hutchings, its new air of decorum “blew foul” on weekends when the miners came to town to buy supplies and celebrate. He observed that “the weekly quietude gave way to revelry and disorder.” Saloons and gambling houses overflowed, and for two days the town became the site of “uproarious intemperance and rowdiness.”
Hutchings, who served as a devout member of Placerville’s short-lived Temperance Society (established in 1850), wrote an epistle to the miners, setting before them a code of 10 moral precepts, designed to instruct them in the ethical standards of the camp. In a homily titled “The Miners’ Ten Commandments,” that appeared in the July 2, 1853 issue of the Placerville Herald, Hutchings exhorted the miners to “walk in the path of rectitude,” to observe the Sabbath, abandon “the cup” and “with Heaven’s grace” comport themselves “as they had been taught at their mother’s knee.” He also urged them to restrain from gambling, as it cost many a miner “a hard earned raise.”
Two years after the publication of his maxim, Hutchings would embark on a journey that would spark the imagination of an entire nation.
To see what happens next, check back in August to read Part Two.