Up The Road: Mark Twain’s Angel’s Camp And All Those Celebrated Frogs

May 17, 2017

We head up the road this week to Angel’s Camp, where—in a sense—Mark Twain got his start as a writer and humorist.

Angels Camp became a mining camp overnight after Bennagar Rasberry accidentally murdered a manzanita bush while cleaning his muzzleloader, thereby liberating an impressive chunk of gold-seamed quartz. Placer gold was found next, but pans soon came up empty. The town boomed again later, though, with help from hardrock mining companies. In 1928, to celebrate the long-awaited paving of local streets, someone jokingly suggested a frog-jumping contest, in honor of Mark Twain’s locally inspired story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Every year since, Angel’s Camp has staged the Jumping Frog Jubilee as part of the Calaveras County Fair. The Jubilee is coming right up, a four-day competition starting on Thursday of the third weekend in May—that would be May 18 in 2017—out at Frogtown, the local fairgrounds. If you want to join in, rental frogs are available.

Hope leaps eternal for the California red-legged frog, as Dan’l Webster might say.
Credit California Department of Fish & Wildlife

Mark Twain’s time in Angel’s Camp is quite the story. Samuel Clemens—who we know as Mark Twain, his pen name—wandered through western Nevada in the early 1860s, suffering from severe gold fever. But his prospecting attempts repeatedly failed, he fell into debt, and his $25-a-week job as a reporter at Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise hardly helped. Later, in San Francisco, Clemens mixed with the city’s original Bohemia, the likes of Prentice Mulford, Ina Coolbrith—a brilliant woman, California’s first poet laureate—Joaquin Miller, and Bret Harte. But then, working again as a reporter, he defamed the city police in print, got fired, and was reduced to sponging off his landlady. Worse yet, out of kindness and loyalty he posted $500 bail for his friend, Steve Gillis, money he didn’t actually have, and then Steve skipped. Destitute and stuck, defeated by so many failures, Clemens considered suicide.

But then, as luck would have it, in the fall of 1864 Jim Gillis—slimy Steve’s older brother—invited Clemens to stay at his isolated cabin near Angel’s Camp, on Jackass Hill along the Stanislaus River. Placer mining had pretty much played out, but there were still a few miners. Clemens wandered through the abandoned town and nearby settlements, symbols of the vagaries of fate and fortune. Most locals bored him, but Jim Gillis and his friends were well-educated, and Gillis a tremendous storyteller. He could spend days spinning one thigh-slapping yarn after another, which was a fine thing in winter. Many of the stories shared by his imaginative friends ended up in Mark Twain’s later books, and, it was at the Hotel Angels that Clemens first heard about Dan’l Webster, famous local toady. His own version of the story was an overnight success with the Eastern literary establishment, and his career as Mark Twain was launched. Read the story yourself to find out what happened to Dan’l, not to mention his incorrigible handler, Jim Smiley, but here’s a taste:

Smiley said all a frog wanted was education, and he could do most any thing and I believe him. Why, I've seen him set Dan'l Webster down here on this floor Dan'l Webster was the name of the frog and sing out, "Flies, Dan'l, flies!" and quicker'n you could wink, he'd spring straight up, and snake a fly off'n the counter there, and flop down on the floor again as solid as a gob of mud, and fall to scratching the side of his head with his hind foot as indifferent as if he hadn't no idea he'd been doin' any more'n any frog might do. You never see a frog so modest and straightforward as he was, for all he was so gifted.

Dan’l Webster might have been less sanguine, though, if he’d known his species would be all but been wiped out in the 150-plus years since the gold rush. That seriously endangered species, the California red-legged frog, the West’s largest native variety, once thrived throughout the state. It has almost disappeared in the past 50 years, due to habitat loss, pollution, and predation from bullfrogs and crayfish. (You’ll see lots of bullfrogs at the Jumping Frog Jubilee.) Yet earlier this year biologists discovered nine egg masses from red-leggeds, in a creek in the Santa Monica Mountains, where the native frogs hadn’t been seen naturally since the 1970s. Finding eggs that the scientists didn’t put there means that reintroduction efforts are succeeding—that frogs are there, and reproducing—which means that there’s hope for the California red-legged frog. As Dan’l Webster might say, if he could talk as well as he jumped and caught flies: Hope leaps eternal. May it keep leaping.