Californians tend to consider the gold rush as the beginning point of their history. In terms of establishing permanent towns and leaving a written historic record, this belief is understandable, if incorrect. The truth, of course, is that human societies dwelt here for 8,000 to 10,000 years before the gold rush, though our knowledge of that period is incomplete. Even the first Europeans, the Spanish, left no settlements in present day Mariposa County, and few written records, although it was the expedition of Gabriel Moraga in September, 1806, which bestowed Las Mariposas, the Spanish name for butterflies, on the region because of the incredible number of these insects they encountered.
The first American to make a mark on Mariposa was John C. Fremont, soldier, explorer, and (later) presidential candidate. In 1847, while California was still Mexican territory, Fremont instructed his acquaintance, Thomas O. Larkin, to purchase the Santa Cruz ranch, a piece of property near San Jose. For some reason, Larkin purchased the Rancho Las Mariposas instead, to Fremont’s annoyance, since this worthless land was over one hundred miles from the nearest settlement, had no farms or ranchlands, and was inhabited by hostile Indians. The discovery of gold the following year, however, completely altered Fremont’s reaction. The gold rush was on and settlers flooded the area. Mariposa turned out to be at the southern end of the mother lode, and in addition to the town of Mariposa, a number of other settlements sprang into being, such as Agua Fria (briefly the Mariposa county seat in 1850 and 1851), Hornitos, Indian Gulch, Bear Valley, Coulterville, Mount Bullion (Princeton), and Bagby.
If you’re looking for an authentic gold rush experience, check out the Northern Mariposa County History Center located in Coulterville.
As the placer gold played out during the 1850s and early 1860s, hard rock quartz mining, organized by companies and worked by employees (who often lived in company housing and patronized company stores) replaced most of the thousands of individual miners and their tents, shanties, and the entrepreneurial businesses that had served them. “Less colorful, more orderly”, is how one expert describes the change in communities that survived. A dwindling number of individuals, however, continued working small claims and mines.
Although the gold rush frenzy faded, it was responsible for roads being built and communities established, so that now settlers could turn to ranching, farming, and the small businesses serving them, along with the mines. The Railroad built along the Merced River to El Portal enabled various large scale enterprises. In fact during the 1920s close to 2,000 people lived and worked in the Merced River Canyon between Bagby to El Portal.
The Yosemite Lumber Company logged sugar pines from the slopes bordering Yosemite from 1912 until 1942. Faint signs of the inclines (tracks going straight up the side of the hills) are visible today in El Portal. Smaller logging operations continued elsewhere in Mariposa County through the 1950s. The Yosemite Portland Cement company quarried limestone from 1928 until 1944. A surviving building and sheds still exist across the river from Highway 140, about two miles west of Savage’s Trading Post at the South Fork of the Merced. In the 1930s and 1940s a barium mine and crushing plant operated in El Portal. Also in the 1930s, due to an increase in the price of gold, many mines resumed or stepped up the level of their operations, and individuals again took to the river and creeks to do placer mining.
The presence of Yosemite meant that tourism, as far back as the 1870s, played a role in the life of the county. Two competing stage roads to Yosemite Valley were opened in 1874, the Big Oak Flat Road (which evolved into present day route 120) and the Coulterville Road (today’s Greeley Hill Road and Old Yosemite Road). Not much later, the Washburn brothers built a Road connecting their Wawona Hotel with the Valley (today’s Wawona Road, although it descended through the hills rather than the tunnel, which was built in the 1920s). In 1875 the railroad got as far as Raymond, in Madera County, whence stages carried passengers over Chowchilla Mountain to Wawona. Big progress came with the Yosemite Valley Railroad from Merced to El Portal in 1907. Initially stages took passengers the rest of the way into the Valley, but they were soon replaced by motor busses. In 1926 the “all weather” highway, present day route 140 was completed. Among other changes, this was the first route into Yosemite that brought travelers directly through the heart of Mariposa town.
The growth of automobile travel since World War II has seen annual visitor levels to Yosemite rise from a few hundred thousand to four million. With the decline of small industrial operations (mining and logging) and of family farms, the county’s economy today is more tied to tourism than in earlier decades. Another change, which has been accelerating since the early 1990s, is an influx of retirees and second home owners from the Bay Area, Southern California, and the Central Valley. These new citizens are drawn by the climate (over 300 days of sunshine yearly), the beauty and accessibility of the outdoors, and the relaxed lifestyle. The opening of the new University of California campus in nearby Merced is likely to gradually influence the influx of newcomers who have younger economic and lifestyle interests.
The General Plan of Mariposa County, a recently updated version, continues the desirable rural lifestyle. Minimum parcel size in rural areas is five acres. Seventy percent of the county’s residents live outside the towns of Mariposa and Coulterville, with many choosing to develop either on individual parcels, or within the large parcel subdivisions, which are still developing. Most new citizens are expected to provide for their own utilities and minor roads.
The towns of Mariposa and Coulterville have utility districts, with various levels of service provided within the subdivisions. Basic emergency services are available with the Sheriff Department, Mariposa County Fire Department and CalFire, Mercy Ambulance, and the Mariposa County Public Works Department. John C. Fremont Hospital, opened in 1950, provides emergency, primary and long-term care with air transfer available.