History of The Clampers – Part 2

The non-Clamper’s Guide to Clamperdom

Material for this guide has been gathered from various sources including liberally plagiarizing, stealing, absconding, purloining, pilfering, looting and misappropriating the work of others. Be that as it may, I believe it is reasonably accurate. It is unsolicited, unofficial, unsanctioned, unblessed and unapproved. And, like other perfectly good stories, it is subject to spoilage by an eye witness.


Credo Quia Absurdum – Part 2

Just how E Clampus Vitus came to be is a matter of some conjecture and sometimes subject to a variety of versions and interpretations well suited to the occasion at hand. Legend tells of its creation in 4004B.C. but most of the supporting historical records and tablet archives were destroyed in a cataclysmic event many centuries ago when a huge comet passed near the Earth and wrecked havoc on our planet before being trapped in our solar system.

That catastrophic celestial passing was described by the late Immanuel Velikovsky in his book “Worlds in Collision” with the comet identified as what we now know to be the planet Venus. The surviving records are thought to have been lost in the fire that destroyed the Great Libraries of Alexandria, Egypt in the third century B.C.

What we know is that in 1845 a tavern, hotel and stable owner in Lewisport, West Virginia, named Ephriam Bee received a commission authorizing him to extend the work and influence of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus from the Emperor of China. The commission was handed to Mr. Bee by a Mr. Caleb Cushing who had returned from China in 1844 while serving the government in establishing diplomatic and trade relations in the far east.

E Clampus Vitus, or ECV as it is also known, succeeded and flourished where other orders failed for it was Bee’s belief that any man of upstanding character who was of age could join, unencumbered by the restrictions of other fraternal organizations. ECV was brought to California by Mr. Joe Zumwalt in 1849, although the exact route is subject to debate.

One account has Zumwalt leaving Illinois in March of 1849 and arriving in Sacramento in late October of the same year. Others believe he left Missouri with a Clamper companion named W.C.Wright and first settled in Hangtown (later renamed Placerville) before moving on to what is now properly known as Mokelumne Hill in 1850. Typical migration routes to the gold fields could have made either or both versions correct.

Regardless of which path Zumwalt took, Mokelumne Lodge Number 1001 first opened its doors in September, 1851. In later years an argument arose claiming Clamper activity in both Sierra City and Downieville before the generally accepted beginnings in Mokelumne. No doubt that debate will never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.

Clamper membership grew like wildfire and chapters sprang up nearly everywhere there was mining activity. Before long it was the largest organization in the Gold Rush country and had spread to the nearby territories. As noted in Back Roads of California (Sunset, Lane Publishing), nearly every man was a Clamper and those who weren’t found themselves on the outside of business and social life. Itinerant salesmen, known as Drummers or Hawkers, soon learned that Clampers only did business with other Clampers. It was, after all, a fun loving group that provided diversion and camaraderie in what was more often than not a hazardous life.

One should never overlook the fact that the Clampers were in fact a highly respected and honored organization. In spite of their well deserved reputation as hard drinking pranksters, there was a benevolent serious side to their activity. Caring for the “Widows and Orphans” of miners was more than a mere slogan. Indeed, E Clampus Vitus was by far the largest charitable organization of the time and certainly the only one assisting the families of killed or injured miners.

Mining accidents and injuries were common. A man killed or injured and unable to work left an almost instantly destitute family. In many cases gifts of money or food mysteriously appeared but the donor was always anonymous. In other instances the widow, or “widder” as they were known, discovered some unnamed person had made the mortgage or rent payments and saved her and the children from homelessness in a hostile land. Clamper charity was unique in that, with few exceptions, it was always done anonymously, quietly and without fanfare although there was rarely any question as to the benefactor’s true identity.

The heyday of western mining and the wild life that accompanied it lasted actually less than thirty years before starting to decline. Thriving communities saw their population dwindle from the thousands to the hundreds or less and many were abandoned altogether. The decrepit ruins of these ghost towns stand today as a stark reminder of an age gone by.

With the decline of mining activity the popularity of E Clampus Vitus also faded. By 1910 there was only one chapter in Marysville, California still functioning. By 1930 the order was all but extinct and had become just another useless relic of the past confined to history. 

To be continued next week…..

Thanks to: Judge Frazier, The Vice Noble Grand Humbug

Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881

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