Striking Gold in Angels Camp
Mark Twain said he based his short story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” on what he thought, at the time, was a poorly-told yarn he heard from Ben Coon, the Angels Hotel bartender at Angels Camp.
Twain heard Coon’s version of a talented frog tall tale when he spent a night at the hotel in 1865, while living in a rented cabin at nearby Jackass Hill, on a self-imposed, three-month “sabbatical” from the demands of newspaper reporting. Twain’s story, first published as “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog” appeared in the November 18, 1865 issue of The New York Saturday Press.
Set in the early mining days of 1840s Angels Camp, the tale surely struck gold for Mark Twain. Immediately immensely popular, the story was soon re-printed in many newspapers and magazines, putting Twain square on the path to a successful, well-documented career as a writer and humorist.
The same can’t be said of Angels Camp’s founder Henry Pinkney Angell, of whom much less is known. We know he spelled his surname with two l’s. We know he was a native Rhode Islander, the youngest son of Charles and Susan Westcott Angell, Rhode Island farmers; that his father died when Henry was two, and that Henry was about twenty-two years old when he found gold at the confluence of two creeks in Calaveras County in July 1848.
As to how he got there in the first place, no one is entirely sure. There is some evidence he was a visitor at John Sutter’s trading post near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers in February, 1848, around the time that talk about James Marshall’s January gold discovery on the South Fork of the American River was beginning to circulate at the outpost. Another source says he was part of a mining expedition that left Monterey in May, when word of the discovery reached the coast. One way or another, Henry Angell was swept up in the gold frenzy that swept through the region in the spring of 1848.
We do know that Henry invested his newfound wealth by opening a tent store on his gold discovery site, thus becoming one of the first merchants in the newly established gold camp named Angels Camp (misspelling his name); a year later, by the spring of 1849, the camp was growing and flourishing. However, sometime in 1849, for unknown reasons, Angell sold his mercantile business to a Mr. J.C. Scribner. Some say he returned home to Rhode Island that year. If so, he was back in California by 1852, but at another mining camp in Calaveras County.
Angels Camp continued to grow and prosper in the coming decades, while Henry Angell’s dreams of further success met with mixed results over the next 45 years of his life. In 1853, in partnership with a Mr. McGee, Henry opened a hotel and tourist attraction in Cave City—but they sold both operations in 1855 to satisfy a mechanic’s lien. Later, Henry ran a pack train into the mountains to supply distant mining camps. Two years after Mark Twain had spent a night in the hotel of the mining town he had founded, Henry Angell was just another humble miner in Copperopolis. Twelve years later on, he and another partner operated a gravel mine near Calaveritas.
Henry Pinkney Angell, still a miner, died of heart failure at his home in the rural village of Fourth Crossing on March 17, 1897, aged 71. His obituary in the Calaveras Prospect made no mention of his role as the founder of Angels Camp. Shortly before this, Henry had sold all his meager possessions to provide a decent burial for his years-long gold mining partner Henry O'Dell. Now, friends in the community raised funds to inter Henry Angell in the People’s Cemetery.
Although no longer the major gold-producing, lode-mining boom-town it was in the late nineteenth century, Angels Camp still celebrates its own legends, if not the first treasure hunter who found gold in its creeks. Each May the town, which still retains iron-shuttered stone buildings dating back to Gold Rush days, sponsors the Jumping Frog Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds.
Angels Camp is registered California Landmark #287.