In History: Gold-seeker of El Dorado County, James Mason Hutchings
Like many other gold-seekers, James Mason Hutchings passed through El Dorado County and dabbled in mining before moving on to greater fame in another arena.
Hutchings was born in England in 1820 and immigrated to New Orleans in 1848. Struck by gold fever, he set off for California in 1849, purchased a mining claim in Placerville, and struck pay dirt. Working alternately on his own and with companies of other miners in the Georgetown, Coloma, Placerville and White Rock Springs areas, he soon amassed several thousand dollars, which he deposited in a San Francisco bank.
When the bank collapsed, Hutchings again took up the pick and shovel and returned to the mines, working a rich claim on Weber Creek that netted $8,000 in one year. While working this claim in El Dorado County, he penned a tongue-in-cheek “commandment,” which put him on the path to a new career. The commandment was written in response to an ongoing discussion regarding whether merchants should conduct business on Sundays. It appeared in the Placerville Herald in 1853 and stated:
“Thou shalt not remember what thy friends do at home on the Sabbath day, lest the remembrance may not compare favorably with what thou doest here.”
It was so popular that Hutchings was compelled to write “The Miners’ Ten Commandments,” which touched on many of the daily events of mining life. Illustrated by Harrison Eastman, they were printed on 11-x-18-inch letter sheets—a popular item of the time. He eventually sold over 97,000 copies.
In 1855, Hutchings read about the recently discovered Yosemite Valley and set out to visit the area. He recognized great possibilities for the valley, and began developing Hutchings’ California Magazine, which published 60 issues between 1856-1861 and included some of the first illustrations of the Yosemite Valley.
He was eventually forced to give up the magazine because of his health but still retained an interest in Yosemite. In 1864, he purchased the Upper Hotel, a very rustic building in the valley. Together with his wife and mother-in-law, the hotel was updated—glass was added to the windows and partitions of muslin were added to provide some privacy—and renamed the Hutchings House. In addition, they constructed the Big Tree Room, a combination kitchen and sitting room that was built around a 175-foot-tall living cedar. Other improvements to the property included a sawmill. To run the mill, Hutchings hired a Scotsman named John Muir, who became an expert in his own right on the valley. The men parted ways after two years.
Hutchings continued to upgrade his investment—planting orchards and gardens and building a house for his family, which included a daughter, Flo, who was the first non-native child born in the valley.
The Yosemite Valley Grant Act of 1864 put the valley under government control and negated Hutchings’ private ownership of land there, which led to a legal battle that raged for 10 years and resulted in Hutchings giving up his property and moving to San Francisco. In 1880, he returned to his beloved valley as guardian of the Mariposa Grove and Yosemite Valley, a post he held for four years.
Hutchings continued to visit the valley for the rest of his life. In 1902, at the age of 82, he and his wife were sightseeing there in a carriage. The horses were spooked by a wild animal, and Hutchings was thrown from the carriage and killed. He’s now buried in his beloved Yosemite Valley’s Pioneer Cemetery.
Article by Jerrie Beard // “The Miners’ Ten Commandments” photo courtesy of San Francisco-Sun Print via tavbooks.com. Hutching’s California Magazine photo courtesy ofpbagalleries.com. Portrait photo by Thos. Houseworth, courtesy of yosemite.ca.us. Hutching’s Hotel photo by artist Robert D. Wilkie, courtesy of the Boston Public Library.
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