Second Garrote, CA

On the Mark Twain–Bret Harte Gold-Rush Trail

Statue of Mark Twain in Angels, Camp, California

Statue of Mark Twain in Angels Camp, California. It was in a saloon in Angels Camp that Twain heard the anecdote he turned into his famous short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
MITCHELL SMYTH/Meridian Writers’ Group

THE OLD OAK tree is dead, but three metres of its trunk still stand, a stark reminder of the lawless days in California during the gold-rush era that began in 1849.

It’s called the Hangman’s Tree and in its busiest period, in the 1850s, it was the scene of many an execution, some legal, some by lynch law. No wonder the community in which it stands was called—and is still called—Second Garrote. (Garrote is Spanish for death by choking or hanging; there was a strong Mexican presence here in those days. First Garrote, a few kilometres away, later changed its name to Groveland.)

Bret Harte visited Second Garrote in its heyday, while wandering gold-rush country in the Sierra Nevada foothills west of Sacramento. Although Harte is little-read now, in the 19th century he and Mark Twain were both hugely popular authors. Harte in particular was known for his adventure tales of miners, gamblers and other colourful characters in America’s wild west.

Hart’s stories were fiction, but often based on facts. While visiting Second Garrote, for example, he learned of two men, inseparable friends, who died within weeks of each other.

Harte was intrigued by the tale, making it the basis for “Tennessee’s Partner,” a short story he published in 1868 about two lifelong buddies, one of whom—Tennessee—is strung up on the Hangman’s Tree. The execution was Harte’s embellishment; the real duo died natural deaths.

Sixty kilometres from Second Garrote is a more conventional writer’s memorial, this one for Mark Twain. The one-room cabin at the top of Jackass Hill, near the town of Angels Camp, is a reconstruction—though the fireplace and chimney are reportedly original—of the place where Samuel Clemens, who became Mark Twain, lived for one winter and where he penned his first short story after hearing a bar-room anecdote about a jumping frog. “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” published in 1865, launched his writing career.

Hangman’s Tree and Jackass Hill are two stops on the Mark Twain-Bret Harte Trail, which pinpoints sites associated with the two authors who helped implant America’s first big gold rush on the world’s consciousness.

Other stops, all marked by historical plaques, include:

• Murphys Hotel in the town of Murphys, which features in Harte’s story “A Night at Wingdam.” The hotel register shows that Mark Twain lodged here, as did Black Bart, a notorious highwayman of the Sierras.

• Angels Camp, which stages a jumping-frog festival every May. There’s a statue of Twain in the local park. Twain writes about his days in Angels Camp and Jackass Hill in his famous travel book, Roughing It. Angels Camp is also thought to be the setting for Harte’s “Luck of Roaring Camp.”

• Chinese Camp, which inspired Harte’s narrative poem “The Heathen Chinee.” It is, admittedly, a tad racist by 21st-century standards, but perspectives on “foreigners” were different in the 1850s.

• Copperopolis, a section of which used to be known as Poker Flat and is immortalized in Harte’s oft-filmed story “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.”



For tourist information on the area, check the Gold Country Visitors’ Association website, www.visitgoldcountry.com.

For information on travel in California go to the Visit California website at www.visitcalifornia.com.