Nov. 23, 2021

The Great Republic of Rough and Ready. Is Truth Always Stranger Than Fiction?

Ep: 005 In 1850, a California Gold Rush boom town, angered by tighting government controls from the new state, and a tax imposed on miners, wrote a formal declaration secceeding from the union and founded The Great Republic of California. The story has been reported numerous times on radio, television, newspaper, and magazine articles, and has even been portrayed on a TV series. But, how much of the story is true?

Historical researcher Maria Brower's Amazon page.

The Rough and Ready Chamber of Commerce Website

Real bad television. The 1958 Rough and Ready episode of Death Valley Days on YouTube.

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In this episode of History Briefs you'll hear me refer to Peter Hardeman as the first governor of California.  My apologies, his name was Peter Burnet. Hardeman was his middle name. As you'll hear, he wasn't a very nice fellow anyway, so he doesn't deserve to have his name right. Now, here's the show. 

[00:00:00] Brad Shreve: This is History Briefs, where you’ll hear bits of history you may know little or nothing about. All in 20 minutes or less. I’m Brad Shreve. 

[00:00:10] A friend and I got together recently after not seeing each other for over 40 years. 

[00:00:16] We had a grand time, but one thing I found especially amusing is she lives in a town called Rough & Ready.  

[00:00:25] Not only is the name amusing, but they have a To Hell And Back Lane, and a creek runs through the town with a name so racially offensive it was taken off the U.S. Geological Maps.  

[00:00:39] The history of the town is delicious. Or, at least as its told. If you’ve heard of Rough and Ready, I’m sure you know the unforgettable story. If you haven’t heard, you can do a Google search and you’ll find it site after site about its hilarious history. But is what [00:01:00] they say true? Maybe. Maybe not. How’s that response on a show about history.  

[00:01:05] Our story begins in California, where a Swiss immigrant, John Sutter, owned a sawmill. In January 1848, his foreman found flecks of gold in a ditch. The two agreed to keep their find a secret, but people being people, word got out and by the end of that year President James Polk confirmed the findings to Congress. All hell broke loose and by Spring of 1849 25,000 rushed to California to strike it rich, making it the largest migration in America in history. 

[00:01:38] According to the Rough and Ready Chamber of Commerce, one of the “49-ers”, as they are called, was a man named Captain C.A. Townsend, who traveled with a group of miners from Wisconsin and called themselves the Rough and Ready Mining Company. Townsend and gang mined gold in area creeks for several weeks  [00:02:00] 

[00:02:00] One day, while scooping up a drink of water, Townsend found gold. There was so much to be had Townsend rushed back to Wisconsin to recruit more men.  

[00:02:11] When I reached out to the Nevada County Historical Society, I was told Maria Brower is THE person I must speak with. Maria is a writer, local historical researcher, and founder of the Nevada County Genealogical Society. She talks about the founding of the town.  

[00:02:29] Maria Brower: The first Immigrants that came to the area that we now know is rough and ready. they came in the fall of 1849 and at this time when they were coming to the gold rush, they, banded together. And what they called company. And so they had support. so they weren't alone and they pulled their money. Usually bought equipment, brought things, you know, to California. And so right away, they found that this area was rich. [00:03:00] They were finding color. So, they decided to, build a cabin and, then. By the next year they decided to build something more permanent, something really large because it was exceedingly a good area. 

[00:03:13] Brad Shreve: While Townsend was gone, hundreds of men set up unorderly tents in the new boom town. One thing young men of that era found enticing about the west was freedom and lack of government controls. Rough and Ready became a rowdy, lawless town, but change came quickly.  

[00:03:32] In 1849 Peter Hardiman became the first governor of California. Although California entered the Union as a free state, Hardiman passed a law forcing native Americans to work as indentured servants to whites who took their land, and proposed having black people whipped if they refused to leave the state. 

[00:03:52] None of these things seem to bother the white settlers in the state all that much, but in 1850, [00:04:00] Hardiman took things too far. Now a state, government regulations were taking place and Hardiman signed a bill imposing a mining tax on all claims. Some say things were worsened when alcohol was prohibited. The men of Rough and Ready had enough. On April 7, 1850, a town meeting was called.  

[00:04:20] During the meeting, a man named Colonel E.F. Brundage gave a rousing hour-long speech and convinced the town to secede from the United States and form The Great Republic of Rough and Ready. The miners went right to work and voted Brundage as president.  

[00:04:38] As the president of the new republic, Brundage chose a secretary of state, a justice of the peace and they signed a constitution that wasn’t much different than that of the United States.  

[00:04:51] Here’s my favorite part. One of his first acts of the new president, was to pen The Brundage Manifesto. The Preamble began [00:05:00] with: 

[00:05:00] Whereas: When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a people to unite in a common cause for the protection and benefit of all; when, they are at the mercy of souless and mercenary speculators; when, it becomes necessary to adopt desperate means to combat desperate conditions, we deem it necessary to establish an independent republic. 

[00:05:24] The final passage of the Manifesto goes: 

[00:05:26] THEREFORE: We unite in a common cause, and thus be it RESOLVED: That appealing to the high heavens for the justice of Cause, and God’s will to perpetuity. We the people of the Township of ROUGH AND READY, within the aforementioned Sovereign Territory of California, and the United States of America, deem it necessary and prudential to withdraw from said territory and from the United States of America to form peacefully, if we can, forcibly, if we must, THE GREAT REPUBLIC OF ROUGH [00:06:00] AND READY. Adopted this seventh day of April, in the year of the Lord, 1850. 

[00:06:06] I can’t help but laugh each time I read the tiny new Republic’s warning to withdraw forcibly, if they must.  

[00:06:14] Despite the ballsy record of secession, the Great Republic of Rough and Ready only lasted three months. Not because the United States government took action against the nation, but because the men wanted to party. In their haste to thumb their nose at the U.S. they neglected to realize there would be repercussions. The fourth of July was coming up, and communities around them were planning celebrations. Although they left their former country, they aimed to join the festivities.  

[00:06:45] To prepare for the event, men were sent to the nearby towns of Grass Valley and Nebraska City to purchase alcohol. In both towns, they were turned away by saloons on account they couldn’t sell booze [00:07:00] to foreigners.  

[00:07:00] The dejected men went back and reported what occurred. A meeting was formed, and the New Republic was dissolved that day. Plans were set in motion to whoop it up on the fourth.  

[00:07:14] Many sources the report the final blow nearly 100 years later. In the 1940s, the Postal Service discovered the town never formerly rejoined the union. In 1948 a few forms were filled out; the town was readmitted to the United States, and their post office reopened.  

[00:07:32] Yeah, I had to dig into the archives for that one.  

[00:07:36] This is the account you’ll read on numerous websites, YouTube videos, local newspapers, national newspapers, plus television reports. The website for the Rough and Ready Chamber of Commerce recounts the story and links to a video record by an area Public Television station. For 18 years Death Valley Days, one of the most popular television anthology shows, ran [00:08:00] “true” accounts of the old west. A 1958 episode titled Rough and Ready told their version. Brundage was a prominent businessman who ran the town like a dictator.  

[00:08:11] I love this story. I find it one of the most interesting, and fun historical events I’ve heard. But is it true? Based on her research, Maria Brower says no. At most, it was silliness a bunch of drunks blathered about and is grossly overblown.  

[00:08:29] Maria Brower: I think it was kind of a farce. So, the man behind it, E. F. Brundage, he kind of was a blustery guy. He drank heavy, and remember there weren’t any women at this time, there wasn't much to do after they finished mining. So it was kind of, hard drinking, swapping stories thing. And so I'm just thinking that it was a spoof. 

[00:08:54] Brad Shreve: This breaks my heart. I so much want this to be true, but [00:09:00] she gives compelling proof, most of it based on a lack of it. Maria certainly knows the story, but she does give one piece of evidence some may find flawed. It’s regarding the miner’s tax.  

[00:09:14] Maria Brower: The whole premise of why they were going to succeed is incorrect. Because the way the story goes that it's printed in some books and articles is they were succeeding from the union because of the tax that was imposed on them, and the tax was not imposed on any American miners. It was a foreign miner’s tax. And everybody that lived there at that time would have understood that because they didn't have to pay the tax. 

[00:09:45] Brad Shreve: She’s right about the tax. The bill I mentioned signed in 1850 by Governor Hardiman is known as The Foreign Miner’s Tax of 1850 and imposed a $20/month tax on foreign miners. Adjusted for inflation it’s the [00:10:00] equivalent of over $600 today. It was a cruel tax because of who it targeted. It wasn’t imposed on all foreign miners but was enacted because of the public’s hostility towards Mexicans and Chinese miners. However, when it was signed, a great misunderstanding caused a stir throughout California. Despite its target, it was poorly written and did not exclude both Irish and German settlers.  

[00:10:25] It was quickly rewritten to fix the error, but many miners were disgruntled unnecessarily. So, it’s possible the men in Rough and Ready were confused. How likely that is? I don’t know, but I’ll toss a bone for those who stand by the story, but that’s about it.  

[00:10:44] One of Maria Brower’s most compelling arguments is the lack of a recording of the events. Anyone who has been in isolated situations, such as in the military, or even a miner in the hills of California, knows [00:11:00] of the thirst for news. People want to feel less isolated by staying in touch with happenings both near and far. Knowing this, newspapers during the era were always on the lookout for something to report. If necessary, they made things up.  

[00:11:16] There’s no evidence of any news source reporting on The Great Republic. I heard of only report about Rough and Ready during that time and took a look for myself. The Sacramento Transcript did a write up about Rough and Ready 5 days after the so-called secession and makes no mention of it. What they reported was no laughing matter. The news was Indian’s were troubling the whites in Rough and Ready by stealing cattle and mules. The latest was rumors had been heard the thieves had been caught and 25 Indians were killed. Another area paper, The Placer Times, reported the same story, also with no mention [00:12:00] of the secession. It seems odd neither paper, nor any of the others in the area, wouldn’t find news of The Great Republic interesting enough to print. 

[00:12:10] Maria Brower did find a write up in a book about the event. It was printed 17 years later and barely makes any mention of it.  

[00:12:21] Maria Brower: Going back historically, we only have one reference in a book that was published in 1867. It was a directory. Gives us the history of the towns and what the man who was writing the history of the area says is, I'm not going to go into the fiasco of Brundage and his succession. 

[00:12:42] And that's about as much as the facts that we have, that there was something he did suggest we succeed from the union and. It kind of went wild from there.  

[00:12:55] Brad Shreve: So, there may not be any mention of the story in the [00:13:00] news, but what about the Brundage Manifesto sent to the United States government. A serious event that goes so far as to threaten the nation must be archived.  

[00:13:11] Maria Brower: They never sent a letter to DC. They never notified any government at any level that they were going to do that. 

[00:13:20] Brad Shreve: That seems odd to have gone to the trouble of writing such an impressive document and didn’t get around to mailing it. I wonder why? 

[00:13:30] Maria Brower: There was never a manifesto. 

[00:13:32] Brad Shreve: No, Maria, no. That’s the best part. How can you say that? 

[00:13:36] Maria Brower: We don't have anything of the manifesto here historically until the 1950s when a man moved here by the name of Andy Rogers. He interviewed different people, so he has some of the same information over and over again in this little book that he put out. And, like he said in the beginning of the forward that, you know, some of this may or may not be true because it goes back generations. So, the story came forward, but there was never a manifesto until he published this book. And Andy Rogers published the manifesto in his book. 

[00:14:16] Brad Shreve: This is all surprising to hear. I mean, according to Big Valley Days, Brundage was a successful prominent businessman.  

[00:14:24] Maria Brower: During his time and Rough and Ready, after it built up in a town, we have pictures where it shows a couple of streets, and it was real prosperous. There was a fire that started in Brundage's house, and it burned the whole town down. After that he left, and he did other things. He went over to Nevada, and he was involved in some mines there, but his name often got into the local newspapers, because at meetings he was stand up and shout things out and be very belligerent.  

[00:15:00] Brad Shreve: And lastly, the whole issue regarding the post office shutting down because they weren’t part of the United States? Well, the post office open and closed over the years as the town’s population waned. One of those times it closed was in 1942. It reopened in 1948, but not because Rough and Ready finally rejoined the union, but because the town petitioned the postal service to prove they had enough residents to justify their own office and were successful.  

[00:15:32] Your question may be “Why are you telling us all this Brad, when it’s not historically accurate. After talking with Maria Brower, I almost scrapped the idea of doing an episode on Rough and Read, but then realized while the story I thought was there – wasn’t, I found equally fascinating, a tale that grew, and grew, to the point where it becomes so true, in 1960, the state put a historical marker in the town recognizing the secession. 

[00:16:03] The town burned down more than once during its boomtown era, but when one consumed almost all the town in 1859, many chose to move on since most of the gold had run dry. 

[00:16:16] Today, 963 people call Rough and Ready home. A few of its original buildings, such as a blacksmith shop built in 1850, remain. You’re not likely to find much gold there, but you will find a cannabis co-packing and distribution company.  

[00:16:33] If you’re ever in the area on the first Sunday in June of any year, you can join in their annual Secession Day Celebration, which includes a pancake breakfast, music and crafts, and a chili cook-off sponsored by the volunteer fire department.  

[00:16:50] You broke my heart Maria Brower but thank you for shedding light on the Great Republic of Rough and Ready. 

[00:16:58] In the show notes, you’ll [00:17:00] find a link to Maria’s Amazon page where you can check out her books on Nevada County, as well as other links pertaining to the show.  

[00:17:10] If you enjoy History Briefs, get my newsletter. It will include additional information from episodes, and what’s coming up. You can subscribe on the website HISTORYBRIEFS.Com or click the link right there in the show notes.