Search This Blog

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mariposa - City of Butterflies

Mariposa is the county seat of Mariposa County, California. It is not a very big city, coming in with a population of only 2,173 on the 2010 census. At 1,949 feet in elevation, it lies in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Mariposa County includes much of Yosemite National Park. In spite of its small size, it has a big history.

Originally the home of the Southern Miwok Indians, the Mariposa area was said to have been named by a Spanish Priest under the direction of explorer, Gabriel Moraga, who was the leader of a 25-man troop that explored central California in 1806. When he and his expedition came upon a creek laced with thousands of yellow butterflies, they named the area “Mariposa,” which is the Spanish word for butterfly.

Street art along Highway 49 in Mariposa
The county lies at the southern end of the Mother Lode. Europeans were attracted to Mariposa by gold during the California Gold Rush. The original town site was founded as a mining camp on the banks of a seasonal stream known as Aqua Fria located about 6.0 miles (9.7 km) to the west of present-day Mariposa.
Agua Fria - Original Mariposa County Seat

After a flood during the winter of 1849/50, and fires, the town was moved to the location of today's Mariposa, although mainly due to better terrain and the presence of Mariposa creek, a large producer of placer gold. 

Juan B. Alvarado, Mexican governor of California (1836-1842) was awarded the Las Mariposas Grant,  a “floating” grant, meaning that it had no fixed boundaries. It was ten square leagues (approximately 44,400 acres) located generally on the Mariposa Creek between the San Joaquin, Chowchilla, and Merced rivers and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

In 1846 John C. Fremont gave $3,280 to Thomas O. Larkin, the U.S. Consul to the Territory of California, to buy the Santa Cruz Ranch in the San Jose area. Instead, Larkin purchased for Fremont the Las Mariposas Grant, considered a desolate land grant in the middle of Indian country. Before Fremont could rectify this mistake, word came from Coloma that gold had been discovered along the American River. Fremont immediately sent a group of Mexican miners, under the direction of Alex Godey, to the Grant area to determine if gold was also to be found there, as well. They soon traced a large vein – a mile long – which they called the “Mother Lode.”

Before Fremont could solidify his grant boundaries and substantiate it through the legal establishment of the day, thousands of miners arrived on the scene. Few miners acknowledged Fremont’s claim, and Fremont was tossed into a legal battle that would take until 1856 to settle, and 1859 to finalize. The Las Mariposas Grant finally began to take shape along this wide vein that stretched from Mariposa Creek to the Merced River.
Street art along Highway 49 in Mariposa
In book #1 of Mariposa county records, originally filed in Aqua Fria, on Page 2, there is a claim known as the Spencer quartz mine and adjacent millsite. This claim was just hundreds of feet from Fremonts grant line, and its owners were Lafayette H. Bunnell, and Champlain Spencer, who became rather wealthy from the placer gold in Whitlock and Sherlocks creek. They later erected a 40' waterwheel and steam mill, along with several arrastras.
Original California Counties in 1850
Mariposa was one of the original counties when the state of California was formed in 1850. It reached from almost Los Angeles to almost Lake Tahoe. Mono County and the region known as Big Meadows east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 is set was originally part of Mariposa County. The same is true of where I live in the San Joaquin Valley.
Mariposa in 1860
Throughout the early 1850s stores, hotels, saloons, and stables sprang up, while state and county governments began to take shape, as Mariposa grew and prospered. The Mariposa Mine produced $200,000 in gold between 1849 and 1859. In five short years, Mariposa evolved from a tent-mining camp to a city of several thousand people. In 1851 the "new" town of Mariposa became the county seat. By 1854, in addition to a newspaper, Mariposa had a grand courthouse which is still in operation. It is the oldest courthouse in continuous use west of the Rockies.

Mariposa County Courthouse
Mining remained the driving force in the community, but the tourist trade began to pick up with the opening of the Yosemite Valley to stage roads. Today, a good deal of the local economy is related to Yosemite National Park and to tourism.

The reason I chose to feature Mariposa this month is because of its special significance to me. It is where my husband and I spent our wedding night many years ago. Most years, we celebrate our anniversary by driving up to Mariposa and having dinner at the Miner’s Inn, a local motel and restaurant on Highway 49. Merry Christmas to all this coming Sunday. As for me, tonight I’ll be in Mariposa celebrating my wedding anniversary. 

Hubby with the old miner's mule at the Miner's Inn


Mariposa Museum & History Center: 

History of Mariposa:

Zina Abbott is the author of five novellas in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, Big Meadows Valentine, A Resurrected Heart, Her Independent Spirit, Haunted by Love  and Bridgeport Holiday Brides published by Prairie Rose Publications. 



  1. I always enjoy these articles you write about California history. John C. Fremont was quite the colorful character. He spent a good deal of time trekking around Colorado in his explorations.

    Happy Anniversary and Happy Holidays. ;-)

  2. Happy Anniversary, Zina!! Hope you and your hubby have a lovely dinner in Mariposa. :-)

  3. First, Happy Anniversary my friend, have a wonderful time.

    Second, I love this kind of history. Thank you so much for sharing it. Doris

  4. Who would have ever put butterflies and gold in the same article. I found this post so interesting. Love them butterflies.
    I'd like to also wish you a very happy anniversary. Mariposa sounds like an enchanting place to spend such a memorable occasion.