Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff
Authors prelude; During the winter months of rain and snow this
writer / treasure hunter spends hours digging through old books
and ephemera looking for possible treasure hunting sites. Quite
often an unknown part of history is brought to light and a new
understanding of our countries growth is seen. Sometimes a two-fold
purpose is reached as is the case in the article to follow titled
"Gold Rush Circus." I not only found an interesting
and relatively unknown segment of California's history but found
a slew of new treasure sites to metal detect. Being that the sites
are in gold country this author will be able to enjoy the best
of all worlds, treasure hunting and prospecting while on vacation
in the coming months.
discovery of gold in the mother lode country in 1848 brought fortune
seekers from every part of the world. Eastern newspapers exploited
the news and spread it across land and sea to rich and poor alike
to create a mass migration of souls, eventually called the '49'ers,
to this now golden land.
A broadside (poster) promoting
fortune seeker Californians know little about was Joseph A. Rowe.
This enterprising man brought something to Californians they had
never seen the likes of before, the circus. Rowe was the founder
and star of Rowe and Companies Pioneer Circus. This circus, which
was California first, made its debut on October 29, 1849 in the
city of San Francisco.
Joseph A. Rowe was born in North Carolina in 1819 to a well to do
family but was left orphaned by the age of eight. His guardians
cared little for his welfare and education leaving him to get into
more mischief then the normal antics of a boy his age. His favorite
pastimes to the annoyance of passersby was standing on his hands
against the side of the livery sable and riding the horses to water
while he stood on their backs. They said he'd never amount to anything.
In 1829 a circus
came to nearby Kingston and young Rowe, fed up with the bad treatment
by his guardians sought to be apprenticed to the troupe. He was
hired as a circus rider and during the next four years he learned
the trade. Before long Rowe was known as one of the most daring
riders on the circuit. He traveled to New York, Cuba, and Venezuela.
During this time he met and joined up with other performers of the
finest qualities starting his own troupe. He traveled extensively
throughout South America to the delight of all who saw his circus.
San Francisco as it
looked in 1849
Rowe was in Lima when the news of the gold rush reached him from
the eastern newspapers. Although he was forty years old at the time
he still had the desire to strike it rich. So, in spite of the long
and arduous journey ahead of him he boarded a British mail steamer
and headed north to Panama meeting there a tide of souls on their
way to California from the east coast and Europe. He was laid up
in Panama from May to August amidst the misfortunes and disease
of the populations of the world funneling through this tiny country
on their way to California. Finally he was able to board the bark
Tasso and on the 12th of October 1849 after a long sea voyage, he
sailed into the narrows, now know as the Golden Gate.
On Monday October
29, 1849 Rowes Olympic Circus, as it was fist called, played its
acts to a full house of over 1500 people. The amphitheater was on
the east side of Kearney St. between California and Sacramento Streets.
Rowe charged the shocking price of $3.00 per single seat and $5.00
for a private box. Typical circus admission prices of the time were
fifty cents for adults and half price for children and servants.
Despite high fares the performances were a raving success. The Alta
California Newspaper reported that the circus would relieve the
tedium of many a long winter night and so it must have for many
a night the troupe played to a full house.
Typical equestrian feat performed
for the miners at Rowe & Co.'s Pioneer Circus in 1857.
During the coming years Rowe and his circus traveled to Honolulu
and Australia all to the delight of his audiences.
By 1857 things in the gold fields of California had changedquite
drastically. In the early days of the rush, miners learned the basics
of the trade and using a pan, rocker, pick and shovel; they could
readily earn a living. By now though things were getting tougher
and it was harder to scratch out an existence. Miners graduated
to sluices hundreds of feet long, dynamite, drills, and on its way
was hydraulic mining. The boomtowns of these days were starting
to fade but although the times were tough spirits were good. The
bars, which served as the social centers in many communities, were
busy, and other then gambling and an occasional dance the town entertainment
was quite limited.
In 1857 Rowe decided it was time to bring his great Pioneer Circus
to the mines. He had no idea of the hardships he would have to encounter
in the mountains. On April 1st they headed out exhibiting in Sacramento
for 4 days with much success. The next stop was Folsom on April
As they headed farther into the interior not only did things get
rougher but also they became more of an attraction. Picture a mining
town going through it's everyday paces when the circus's advance
man usually a clown or jester rides into town jumps off his horse
in a most unusual way and begins pounding on his drum and blowing
a bugle. The towns people start to gather and the clown proceeds
to tell them of the wonder of the Pioneer Circus. Often in trade
for free tickets the clown would ask storekeepers to post bills
in their windows announcing their arrival.
Soon the caravan
would arrive, sometimes stretched out for a mile in length. Eight
beautiful horses drew the main circus wagon built and ornamented
in Sacramento. The front board, which curved gracefully over the
wheelhouses, was painted with a realistic representation of Sutters
Fort as it was in 1848. It even depicted Brannans Store on
one corner. The rear board, which made a similar curve, depicted
the coat of arms of the state. The circus would parade through the
town with all its pageantry giving just enough hints of the delight
to come. The elaborate chariots, prancing horses decked out in finery,
and a juggler tossing four or five oranges into the air was all
quite out of place in this wild western landscape.
Joseph A. Rowe
By this time the miners had set down their shovels and picks, leaving
the canyons and streams, not wanting to miss the entertainment.
It had been a long winter. Some spots still had 4 feet of snow on
the ground. The Pioneer Circus vowed that the towns people
and miners would not be disappointed.
The main acts of the day were the equestrian events. During this
time in our countries growth nearly every man alive rode a horse
and many at one time or another had harnessed a team to a wagon
and drove them to town. A skilled rider and a well-trained horse
were judged with a critical eye. In fact the sports heroes of the
day were bareback riders. They were idolized quite like the Olympic
medallists of today's Olympic Games.
The riders and horses went through hours of rigorous training some
of which is not what you would expect. While the horses went through
their paces the grooms would carelessly kick cans about the ring,
fire guns, and even tie five-gallon cans to the horse's tail! This
was all done in training to teach the horse not to sway from its
paces for anyone but its trainer. Timing was everything in the ring.
An acrobatic rider doing a back somersault would not like it much
if he came down from his leap only to find the horse spooked by
a child with a firecracker and not be in his appointed spot.
At show time the audience was treated to all the spectacle and finery
the troupe could provide. The human eye loves to dwell on pleasing
things and perhaps the most pleasing site of all was Miss Mary Ann
Whittaker, the first female equestrian artist in America. She was
ranked among the best in danuese (ballet) and pantomime. She would
ride out into the sawdust-covered ring standing on her milk white
horse in pink tights and ruffles with stars and spangles that glittered
like the golden flakes in a miner's pan. Then to the amazement of
the crowd as she neared a ribbon held in her path 12 feet high by
two colorful clowns, she would leap up off the horse and over the
ribbon and then land gracefully onto the horses back all while it
was speeding around the circus ring. The applause was thunderous
and it continued through the evening. Other riders rode in pyramids
on two horses with three riders stacked neatly on top of one another
while still others did forward and backward flips through rings
of fire. An Indian rubber man displayed his ability to tie himself
in knots and to cram himself into small places. The giant, named
Guilliot handled 32 and 48 pound canon balls as easily as a boy
would handle peanuts.
All eyes were drawn into the magic circle. Long winter hardships
were forgotten and the circus had done its job and lived up to its
promise. The next morning the troupe would pack up its gear and
load the wagons to head on down the road off its next destination.
This act continued on the same through all the towns it would encounter.
Many of the stopping points for the shows are now a 'who's who'
in only the best of ghost town books. On April 6th they played in
Eldorado and pulled in $397.00. The next night was Diamond Springs
where they pulled in $375.00. Then the Pioneer Circus spent the
next two nights in Placerville doing $715.00 and $331.00 respectively.
On April 10th they did their show in Coloma, the home of James Marshall
discoverer of gold in the north. On the 11th they performed at Kelsey
just north of Placerville. Kelsey was later the home of Marshall
where he worked as a blacksmith and miner. His blacksmith shop in
Kelsey is Historical Landmark 319. Next stop, Greenfield Valley,
which appears as Green Valley on USGS Placerville 1931 Quadrangle
map. After spending the 13th in Georgetown doing a whopping $697.00
the wagons rolled out to Baileys on the 14th, Rattlesnake on the
15th, Gold Hill on the 16th, Auburn on the 17th, and Todd's Valley
on the 18th. Todds Valley was named after Dr. F. Walton Todd
who was a cousin of Abraham Lincoln's wife Mary. The Todd Valley
Mine along with the Peckham Hill Mine produced over 5 million dollars.
One of the better
nights of the tour was $852.00 at Michigan Bluffs. This small but
rich little town was destroyed by fire later the same year. Reports
have it that $100,000 in gold was shipped from there every month
until the mid 1860's. In 1864 a 226-ounce nugget was found near
Michigan Bluffs and was sold later for $4,000.
keepsakes from a gold rush miners family. This item
will be featured in an upcoming auction.
After Michigan Bluff things started going down hill for the Pioneer
Circus. The expenses were heavy being so high up in the mountains.
Hay and Barley for the horses were costly due to the high cost
of freight. Expenses began to run nearly $400.00 a day and the draw
from the performances started to drop under $300.
The rain didn't help any. Getting from place to place was hard enough.
The roads were so wretchedly constructed that the slightest bit
of rainfall created a river of mud to contend with. The heavy wagons
would sink up to their hubs in the mud and the caravan would have
to stop. Sometimes it took six teams of horse to pull the wagon
out only to have another get stuck soon afterward. Usually they
were able to cover only two or three miles in an hour. Many of the
stops were 10 to 15 miles apart and a rider would go ahead and make
the forks in the road with a rail so the caravan would go the right
Perhaps the worst occurrence would be after getting little or no
sleep, fighting their way through a drenching rainstorm, pulling
out and repairing wagons, and then hearing the word "lost."
This of course meant retracing steps and going through all the problems
again. Many performers wished they were dead after hearing that
Still the show went on and when it came time to perform for the
miners the gloom and doom of the trip and unpaid salaries were forgotten
and they performed their best. Rowe's Pioneer Circus played the
mountain camps and towns until August when due to expenses they
were forced to return to San Francisco. Before leaving they had
played Yankee Jim, Iowa Hill, Illinois Town, Dutch Flats, Red Dog,
Grass Valley, Rough and Ready, Nevada, Orleans Flat, Oroville, Horsetown,
Marysville, Monk Hill, Railroad Flat, West Point, Chinese cap and
Though The Pioneer Circus played a only brief part in our mining
history in the State of California it undoubtedly gave the folks
of the mining camps a brighter outlook on life for a time and broke
up the rigorous routines of the day leaving them with memories that
would last a lifetime.
Erwin G. Gudde, California Gold Camps, University of Berkley Press,
Dressler, California's Pioneer Circus, H. S. Crocker Co.,Inc.,
Culhane, The American Circus, Henry Holt & Company, 1990.