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Gold Rush Circus

By 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.

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A broadside (poster) promoting Rowe’s Circus.
California's 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.

One such 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.

Click To Enlarge San Francisco as it
looked in 1849
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.

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.

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Typical equestrian feat performed for the miners at Rowe & Co.'s Pioneer Circus in 1857.
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.

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 5th.

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 town’s 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.

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Joseph A. Rowe
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 Brannan’s 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.

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 town’s 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. Todd’s 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.

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Placerville keepsakes from a gold rush miner’s family. This item will be featured in an upcoming auction.
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.

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 way.

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 word.

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 Columbia.

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.


1. Erwin G. Gudde, California Gold Camps, University of Berkley Press, 1975
2. Albert Dressler, California's Pioneer Circus, H. S. Crocker Co.,Inc., 1926
3. John Culhane, The American Circus, Henry Holt & Company, 1990.

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