He came in obscurity as a teenager. He ended up teaching school in the bustling foothill gold mining burg. In less than a year he was leaving dead broke but rich in experiences that he would pen into stories that would launch him into immortality as an author.
Francis Bret Harte was touched by La Grange, the tiny hamlet located up the Tuolumne River from Ceres in eastern Stanislaus County.
Harte remains one of the great classic writers in American literature. The father of local color stories, Harte made a name for himself by taking his observations of people, their language, habits and customs and turning them into short stories of humor and substance. His exploits in the Mother Lode gold country would become synonymous with those of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, as both grew in fame simultaneously. Their last names are linked and immortalized in the name of Twain Harte in Tuolumne County though it's doubtful that the pair ever stepped foot there.
Born Francis Bret Harte on August 25, 1836 in Albany, New York, to a literary critic mother and his teacher father, Harte first showed an interest in writing at the age of 11 when he submitted a poem to the New York Sunday Atlas. It was published thereafter.
Harte's education ended when he was 13 but he educated himself by devouring words in the books of his father's library. When he was nine, Harte's father died, leaving the family without financial support and at the mercy of relatives. Harte's mother embarked for California in 1853, ending up in Oakland were she eventually remarried.
On Feb. 20, 1853 the future author boarded a steamer ship bound for San Francisco.
"I went by way of Panama and was at work for a few months in San Francisco in the spring of 1853," Bret Harte wrote later.
Working as an apothecary in an Oakland drug store, young Harte was restless. "I felt no satisfaction with my surroundings until I reached the gold country, my particular choice being Sonora in Calaveras County," wrote Harte.
According to the 1931 biography, "Bret Harte: Argonaut and Exile," by George Stewart Jr., Harte's life was somewhat unrecorded between March 26, 1854 and March 1, 1857. Stewart writes: "...in this period the legendists and the counter-legendists have long made free. The former have declared Harte the two-gun hero of a western epic; the latter have called him an effeminate young ‘squirt' who never even entered the mining country."
The latter were obviously wrong.
Comes to La Grange in 1855
Most historians believe that Harte ended up in La Grange during 1855. That he could be hired as a school teacher with no serious education and being only a teenager was not impausible. In fact the state Superintendent of Public Instruction often complained that children were being taught by teachers who themselves should have been in school.
La Grange had a school as early as 1854, which was a rare thing for most small mining towns.
La Grange, which is 22 miles from Hughson and some 23 miles southwest of Sonora, started out as a camp set up by French miners in 1849. When the flood of 1851-52 wiped it out, the town was rebuilt a mile upstream on higher ground. The town changed its name to La Grange in late 1854.
The impeccably dressed, faintly mustachioed Harte likely arrived in La Grange by way of stage from Sonora, quite possibly by way of Knights Ferry, Cooperstown (no longer existing) and across a ferry. Harte probably was surprised at what he saw for the town was at its zenith with the busy traffic of gold mining and was a good deal larger than one would expect for a two-year-old town.
La Grange was in need of a school teacher as the town merchants, businessman and miners had children who were in need of an education.
Some historians suggest that Harte taught in Jacksonville, which was a mining town not far from La Grange. The town was left in a watery grave in 1970 with the raising of the Don Pedro Dam.
Stewart believes La Grange makes sense. His "M'liss" story was first called "The Work on Red Mountain." An actual Red Mountain is but a few miles above La Grange.
Contrary to legend, Harte did not teach in the present-day relic of a schoolhouse which stands on the hill overlooking La Grange; it wasn't built until 1875. However, there was an early adobe schoolhouse in the town which is where Harte may have taught.
It is believed that Harte arrived late in the school year at La Grange as his name doesn't appear in early county schools records on file with the clerk of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors.
What he found in La Grange was recorded in an early newspaper account of the town. The first surviving report of the town was not written by Bret Harte but read as follows:
"There are now 100 buildings on the bar has been a mining town for some year or two but was not much of note until the Americans came in last August. The population within the last two months has taken a rapid rise -- The town now boast of 10 stores, three boarding houses, three butcher shops, for blacksmith shops, a livery stable, two restaurants, a post office, a barbershop, a gunsmith and a billiard saloon."
Evidence as to how long Harte spent in La Grange is vague but most believe that it probably did not extend past a year.
The experience formed a battery of ideas which later served to drive Harte to the pen and quill and let his literary talent run free. In 1860 Harte published "The Work on Red Mountain," which was based on his experiences as a schoolteacher. Harte crafts the town of Smith's Pocket for the story which was in reality La Grange or as some believe Jacksonville. This work was later expanded into a much longer piece titled "The Story of M'liss."
It's also believed that La Grange contributed to "Cressey," "The Tale of Three Truants," "How I Went to the Mines," and "The Four Guardians of La Grange."
In the short story, M'liss, Melissa Smith was a young girl at camp, a social outcast, who comes to the schoolmaster and request that he tutor her. Harte may have fabricated the character based on the people of La Grange.
Harte opens the story: "Just where the Sierra Nevada begins to subside in gentle undulations, and the rivers grow less rapid and yellow, on the side of a great red mountain stands Smith's Pocket. Seen from the red road at sunset, in the red light and the red dust, its white houses look like the outcroppings of quartz on the mountain side."
In the short story, "Four Guardians of La Grange," four townsmen take up the dilemma of contacting the daughter of a deceased miner. They decide they have no heart for telling the daughter the truth. They send her letters written and left hands, informing the daughter that an injury is the cause of handwriting differences. Their lives become larger than life until the daughter visits her parents and rides in on the stage. The story has a little reflection of La Grange but the main portion takes place while in the local billiard bar room. It is unlikely that the entire storyline ever actually happened as it is far-fetched and detailed but an experience might have been overheard by Harte's ears while drinking in the bar and later fashioned into the short story.
Stories based on truth
Bret Harte said of his works: "My stories are true, not only in phenomena but in character. I do not pretend to say that many of my characters existed exactly as they are described, but I believe there is not one of them that did not have a real human being as a suggesting and a starting point. Some of them, indeed had several..."
It appears that the school teacher in "M'liss" was really Harte and he expressed contempt for the people of La Grange. A product of the refined East Coast, Harte was a fashion plate that stood out from the locals. He said the "greater portion of the population to whom the Sabbath, with a change of linen, brought merely the necessity of cleanliness without the luxury of adornment."
Leaves La Grange on foot
Harte wrote that when prominent families left town, the school closed and he was out of a job in May. Biographer Stewart believes that was in 1855. Harte wrote later that he abandoned "a peaceful vocation for one of greed and adventure." He also stated that "my initiation into the vocation of gold digging was partly compulsory."
With only two buckets in his pocket after buying a $5 pistol, he spent two days walking in red dirt in patent leather shoes toward the Sonora area, perhaps along what is now La Grange Road or Jacksonville Road into Jamestown or the road to Chinese Camp. His duded-up appearance must have been cause for attention. His gun wouldn't stay put for he wrote that his revolver "would not swing properly in its holster from my hip, but worked around until it hung down in front like a Highlander's dirk, gave me considerable mortification."
Dabbled in mining
Harte noted that at sunset on the second day he came to an "unfathomable abyss" which was undoubtedly the Stanislaus River canyon. He spotted a mining camp on the other side and settled down. Stewart suggests that this was Robinson's Ferry, which is now buried by Melones on Highway 49 south of Carson Hill and Angel's Camp.
There Harte dabbled in prospecting as a "greenhorn." He spent time in Tuttletown and Jackass Hill with brothers James and William Gillis in the same cabin Mark Twain would later visit. If Jim Gillis is correct, a man named Harte and walking in latent leather shoes which were killing his feet stopped by the cabin in December 1855.
Harte's stories, "Plain Language from Truthful James" or "The Heathen Chinee" took place there and based on Gillis, who was a pocket minor. "The Luck of Roaring Camp" is also believed to be inspired by experiences in the Angels Camp area.
Harte never found any gold larger than a $12 nugget and left for Oakland broke and without money for stage fare. Harte was back in Oakland in 1856, living at Clay and Fifth streets now in the shadow of the Nimitz Freeway. He found work tutoring a family with four boys near Mt. Diablo.
Harte found a position as a messenger for Wells Fargo Company. As a messenger, Harte rode beside the stagecoach driver to deliver messages in person. His fears of being gunned down in the event of stage robbery was evident as he told a reporter in his later years: "Stage robbers were plentiful. My predecessor had been shot through the arm and my successor was killed. "
Harte didn't go headlong into writing until he returned to San Francisco and 1857 to become a typesetter for the Golden Era newspaper. His first version of M'liss appeared in print that year, creating an interest in his works.
In 1857, Harte travel to Union (now Arcata) near Humboldt Bay where he worked as a press man for the Northern Californian before going to San Francisco and worked as a typesetter for the Golden Era magazine. It was there that M'liss was published.
After marrying Anna Griswold in 1862, Harte became the secretary of the California Mint.
From 1868 to the early part of 1871 he served as editor of the Overland Monthly, a San Francisco publication.
Harte met Mark Twain in 1864. Harte was immediately impressed with the sarcastic young reporter fresh from Virginia City who supported black curly hair, black bushy eyebrows and "an eye so eagle like that a second lid would not have surprised me. "It is said by Harte that he prompted Twain to write out a story that caught his fancy The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." The story was written and brought twain fame on the lecturing circuit. It is said that Harte's M'liss' influenced Twain directly in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stories.