Town of Mariposa ~ A Short History by Tom Phillips
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The Mariposa area was said to have been named by a Spanish Priest under the direction of explorer, Gabriel Moraga, who was the leader of a 25-man troop that explored central California in 1806. When he and his expedition came upon a creek laced with thousands of yellow butterflies, they named the area “Mariposa,” which is the Spanish word for butterfly. The Mariposa town site was first the home to the Southern Miwok Indians, who lived in the Central California area for untold generations before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
Juan B. Alvarado, Mexican governor of California (1836-1842) was awarded the Las Mariposas Grant, a “floating” grant, meaning that it had no fixed boundaries. It was ten square leagues (approximately 44,400 acres) located generally on the Mariposa Creek between the San Joaquin, Chowchilla, and Merced rivers and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In 1846 John C. Fremont gave $3,280 to Thomas O. Larkin, the U.S. Consul to the Territory of California, to buy the Santa Cruz Ranch in the San Jose area. Instead, Larkin purchased for Fremont a desolate land grant in the middle of Indian country, called the Las Mariposas Grant. Before Fremont could rectify this mistake, word came from Coloma that gold had been discovered along the American River. Fremont immediately sent a group of Mexican miners, under the direction of Alex Godey, to the Grant area to determine if gold was also to be found there, as well. They soon traced a large vein – a mile long – which they called the “Mother Lode.”
Before Fremont could solidify his grant boundaries and substantiate it through the legal establishment of the day, thousands of miners arrived on the scene. Few miners acknowledged Fremont’s claim, and Fremont was tossed into a legal battle that would take until 1856 to settle, and 1859 to finalize. The Las Mariposas Grant finally began to take shape along this wide vein that stretched from Mariposa Creek to the Merced River.
The first “49ers” that arrived in Mariposa set up camp along Mariposa Creek, but after the high waters of 1850, the flat above the mine area was chosen as a better site. Fremont never worked the mines himself, choosing instead to lease the mines to different entities. The Mariposa Mining Company, one such entity, hired C. Armstrong to survey the area prior to setting up the town of Mariposa. By November of 1851, Mariposa was named the County Seat and had begun to grow into a little boomtown. A few of Mariposa’s streets bore the names of Fremont and his relatives:
Charles Street (Main Street) – Named for John Charles Fremont
Jessie Street – Named for Fremont’s wife, Jessie Benton Fremont
Bullion Street – Named for Fremont’s father-in-law, Senator “Bullion” Benton
Jones Street – Named for William Carey Jones, Fremont’s brother-in-law
In 1859, Fremont deeded the unsold property in town to John F. “Quartz” Johnson. Another survey was conducted and lots were established.
Throughout the early 1850s stores, hotels, saloons, and stables sprang up, while state and county governments began to take shape, as Mariposa grew and prospered. The Mariposa Mine produced $200,000 in gold between 1849 and 1859. In five short years, Mariposa evolved from a tent-mining camp to a city of several thousand people. A courthouse and newspaper were established here in 1854.
Mariposa would feel many growing pains, the first of which occurred after the fire of 1858 that destroyed the lower portion of town. The rains that began in the winter of 1861 continued into 1862 until the seasonal Mariposa Creek was more of a rushing river. Mariposa was cut off from the world as the entire state was plaugued with a disastrous flood that brought damage to all. The lower end of Mariposa felt the brunt of the flooding waters as several businesses washed away in the torrent.
The community of Mariposa, however, would recover and rebuild, growing steadily until it would suffer the pain of another fire. In 1866 a fire broke out at the Mariposa Free Press office and, before the day was over, seven blocks in the main portion of town were blackened. As in the past, rebuilding efforts once again took place, though this time with fireproof buildings, for the most part. Fire would ravage Mariposa again in 1884 as the east side of the downtown area burned, and yet again in 1887 when the Gallison Hotel succumbed to a fire.
Mining remained the driving force in the community, but the tourist trade began to pick up with the opening of the Yosemite Valley to stage roads. Entertainment also progressed over the years: bear and bullfights, bordellos, fist fights, and shootings gave way to horse races and grand balls. The Assembly Hall, Concert Hall, Crockett’s Hall, Daveney’s Hall, Good Templar’s Hall, Victory Hall, Opera House, and Parish Hall were constructed and used during different time periods in Mariposa to house community events. Lodges such as the Masonic Order, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, and Sons of Temperance also became active in the community.
Modern conveniences soon found their way to Mariposa as manifested in 1895 when the first telephone lines were installed. This was followed in 1903 by electricity provided from the hydroelectric plant built on the Merced River, in response to the need for power to operate the mines in Mariposa, Bear Valley, and Mount Bullion.
With the economic changes of the First World War the mining industry began to decline. Though it was sporadically revived over the years, it would no longer be the driving force of this community. Mariposa began to stabilize as a small community dependent upon agriculture and the tourist trade to Yosemite. The “All Year Highway” of 1926 opened Yosemite to a booming tourist trade based on the proliferation of automobiles.
The 1930s brought the National Recovery Act (NRA), State Emergency Recovery Act (SERA), Work Projects Administration (WPA), cement sidewalks, and the rebuilding and extension of highways. The effects of WWII were felt in the 1940s with the rationing board, rubber drives, and a slowing of the economy. Much of the old mining equipment throughout the County was used for scrap metal during the war. As the war came to a conclusion, Mariposa slowly began to grow and prosper. Mariposa Public Utility District (MPUD) began development in 1947 to provide water, sewer, and fire protection. Mariposa has continued to grow at a slow rate with an occasional spurt of growth, while today it is the home of approximately 2,000 people and numerous old buildings that chronicle Mariposa’s past.