A group of French sailors jumped ship in San Francisco Bay,
commandeered a small whaleboat, and set sail for the gold mines. Upon
reaching a promising location on the Tuolumne River, they commenced
mining and were rewarded for their desertion by discovering rich
placers. The sailors sent word to friends and relatives and their small
camp grew into quite a sizable settlement, known throughout the region
as French Bar or French Camp. The year was 1849.
After the disastrous floods of 1851/52 wiped out the diggings, the
water-logged citizens gathered what belongings they could find and
headed for higher ground. Choosing a spot about one mile upstream on the
south side of the river, and above the flood plain, the business of
mining was soon resumed. This new site was said to be located on
property belonging to Elam Dye, who was operating a sawmill in the area
The name of the camp was changed to La Grange on December 2 of 1854,
when the post office was established, with Dr. Louis M. Booth as the
first postmaster. Meaning “the barn” in French, the origin of this name
is unclear. Maybe an inhabitant of the camp was from La Grange, Georgia.
Perhaps it was taken from a well-known singer of the late 1840’s and
early 1850’s, Anna Caroline de La Grange, Countess of Stankowitch.
Perchance a calculating fan of the famous French mathematician, Joseph
Louis Lagrange, made his feelings known. Quite possibly, the post
office’s location in an old adobe barn had something to do with it.
By 1856, La Grange had become the center of trade for a wide area.
The town’s population numbered in the thousands, a substantial portion
of whom made up the camp’s Chinatown, where “Feuds were numerous,
shooting scrapes were not infrequent and gambling and fan tan the daily
practice.” The Miners and Business Men’s Directory listed 215 merchants,
miners, artisans, hotel keepers, attorneys and physicians located in
town. There were also syrup makers, two brewers, three butchers, a
barber, gunsmith, blacksmith, billiard saloon, traders, painters,
numerous restaurants, and D. H. Woods, the Daguerrean.
Three stage lines served the busy settlement, offering daily service
to such spots as Stockton, Knights Ferry, Mariposa, Montezuma, Chinese
Camp, Jamestown, Sonora, and Columbia. The town’s fraternal
organizations included a Masonic Lodge which was organized in May of
1856, and the Odd Fellows, who formed Lafayette Lodge No. 65 on June 14
of 1857, the first in the county. The rich bottom lands along the river
developed into fine agricultural producers and a flour mill was erected
by John Talbot & Co.
La Grange had become an important city, and in January of 1856, it
became the county seat of Stanislaus County, which it remained until
1862 when the seat was voted away to Knights Ferry. By this time the
easily obtained placer gold had been mined out, and many of the
prominent lawyers, merchants and businessmen followed the county seat to
Knights Ferry. Mining activity continued well into the 1870’s; however,
thanks to some $5 million being spent on the construction of ditches to
carry water to nearby hydraulic diggings.
hile many of the mining camps of the Gold Country were extinguished
by fire, La Grange’s fiend was fire’s foe: Water. Lots of water. Flood.
The first freshet coming in the winter of 1851/52, leading to the town
being moved to higher ground. In 1856, high waters washed away John
Talbot’s flour mill, also doing damage to the farm lands near the river.
In the winter of 1861/62, the water rose again. Many Chinese reworking
the placers along the river were drowned as the flood swept away
everything in its path. Houses were destroyed, crops ruined. Louis
Booth, his boy, and their dog spent two nights in a tree as the river
raged past below. They were later rescued by a pioneer La Granger, Peter
Ducot, seconds before the tree gave way.
The distinction of being the first person legally hanged in
Stanislaus County belongs to William Gregory, a miner who stabbed his
friend Robert Hall to death in July of 1855. The two men were arguing
over a bet that had been called off the night before, which Hall did not
believe Gregory would have paid had he lost. Tempers flared, a knife
flashed, and a man died. This capacity for violence remained with La
Grange for many years. As late as 1912, sheepman Robert L. Bright wore
his guns to town, fearful of what the cattlemen might do were he
La Grange sits on the side of a low hill, overlooking the Tuolumne
River and the valley below. Millions of rocks have been moved here since
the town’s beginning, literally no stone left unturned in the manic
quest for gold. This mining heritage is evidenced today by extensive
tailing piles still visible on the banks of the Tuolumne River and by
the several historic Gold Rush buildings that remain in town.
La Grange is located twenty-one miles out of Coulterville via Hwy
Visit La Grange's Historic Sites