Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ child though it’s a joyous time for children everywhere. The Beautiful Wife has a tradition of making “Santa Balls” for her grandchildren. A Santa Ball is a collection of small gifts hidden in layers of crepe paper and finished to look like Santa’s head, complete with beard and red cap. It’s the stocking of small gifts traditionally hung on the mantle turned into a treasure hunt.
This reminds of the greatest of treasure hunts—the California Gold Rush of 1849. Tens of thousands of men arduously journeyed to California’s “mother lode” seeking their treasure. The mother lode was a gold-bearing rock formation running near the 2000-foot elevation of the Sierra Nevada mountains, stretching 120 miles from El Dorado County in the north down to Mariposa County. This story begins on Canyon Creek, near Gold Run, Calif., and was first told by writer-historian Craig MacDonald in his art book, “Old West Christmas Tales with a Twist.”
Gold rushes are for young men but one 49er, William George Wilson, brought his wife, building a rough cabin by the claim they worked on Canyon Creek. A woman was such a rare sight for home-sick miners that some were known to go miles out of their way just to catch a glimpse of Mrs. Wilson doing her chores.
A day of work in the cold waters of the mother lode might yield a few flakes of gold but miners dreamed of finding a nugget, even one measured in pounds. As the Christmas of 1849 drew near, a rumor, surely an exaggeration, spread that the Wilsons had found a 12-pound nugget. Miners in the area started dropping by the Wilson cabin, hoping for a glimpse of the find. The cabin was closely guarded but the Wilsons let them in, a few at a time, to admire their good fortune. And as they left, the miners solemnly declared the discovery to be the best treasure ever.”
The story of the Wilson’s good fortune, saved in the memoir of fellow miner William Bennett, spread. Bennett recalled that miners came for three days, walking as far as 10 miles, to see the nugget. The find turned out to be a hoax. There was no lump of gold. Still, the miners continued to come, for the Wilsons had something better—a newborn baby. The baby brought good fortune, for Mr. Wilson made a Christmas Day discovery on his claim that yielded over $3,000, a great sum for the time. And a few miners, to show their respect for the newborn babe, came bearing a gift, a ring they had fashioned from their gold.
So, that’s the story of the first Nativity in the gold camps of Canyon Creek and the babe adored by lonely miners far from home. The BW and I wish you a meaningful Christmas, with the hope that children might also be the treasure of your lives. There’s meaning in that.
Skip fell in love with Laguna on a ‘50s surfing trip. He’s a student of Laguna history and the author of “Loving Laguna: A Local’s Guide to Laguna Beach.” Email: [email protected]