This begins a series of Mariposa history presented in perhaps a different way than one might find in a formal history text. 

My interest has been stimulated by the photography left behind that gave us a true picture of what existed and what occurred during the life of our treasured home.  The newspapers of California from the beginning have been a  chronicle of the day to day or week to week events and activities.  it must always be understood, however, from first days of our state, media reporting is often based on the bias of the publishers. Take for example the reporting of the two major television networks (Fox  and CNN).  You have to view both to receive something resembling the truth.  Even then the truth is subject to the interpretation of the viewer, reader or listener.  History then becomes refined by time and experience..

I prefer, for historical purposes, to base my understanding on the visual evidence presented by thousands of photographers over the years and then seek confirmation in the written evidence, whether it be from court records or the written page.  Being both a pharmacist and photographer has lead me to try to be as accurate as I can in my interpretation of the evidence of history.  Pharmacists are trained to not make mistakes because they can be fatal.  Photographers also have the responsibility to capture accurately the scene presented with out modification.  In this era of Photoshop, it is quite easy to make changes to the photograph in many ways.  Thus, just as in journalism, one relies on the integrity of the journalist writer. 

In photography modifications of the final product has always been done. For example, Gustav Fagersteen, 19th century Yosemite Portrait photographer, almost always posed his subjects in front of Yosemite Falls, and since he was working with glass plate negatives, regardless of the time of year he took the picture, Yosemite Falls was always full and evident. There are two principals in photography in regard to enhancement. One is to use the light that is presented and by the use of filters to rebalance the effects of that light to present a more pleasant and artistic product.  This is really using the principles of physics of light matching with the properties of silver halides.  That is how Ansel Adams got his dramatic dark skies to present a more pleasing final print with almost infinite detail.  Yet, his and many photographers use these techniques to not change the basic subject, only enhance it.  Digital photography is similar.  So off we go.

Carleton E. WatkinsI start with Carlton E. Watkins because no where else in the world did an artist record the world as he saw it at a specific time, in such a way as to give more and more information to us concerned about, not only the development of photography as an art form, but the development of a place and activity.  The discovery of gold in California coincided with the invention of photography in Europe. And more importantly to us, the development of reproducible photography.  The early years of photography were based on one print from one exposure, much like Polaroid.  But in those days it was called tintype or daguerreotype or collotype, all being processed on various receiver material which occurred in the camera or dark tent producing one product not immediately reproducible. These processes depended on the light modifying characteristics of silver salts which would reproduce an image the magnitude of which, or darkness, was dependent on the volume of light that fell on a specific point. 

In the development of photography it soon became understood that silver salts suspended in egg albumin or gun cotton, could be spread on a plate of glass.  The negative image presented was the result of light coming through the glass plate rather than a positive image created by reflected light off a tintype or daguerreotype.  Thus while Watkins’ first craft was as a daguerreotype portrait photographer in San Francisco and San Jose, he soon was to learn the glass plate negative process, probably from a colleague, Charles L. Weed, working in the same studio.  It was Weed who first photographed in Yosemite and perhaps Mariposa.  But his production never reached either the output or the artistic quality of Watkins.

Mariposa County was formed by the legislature in 1849, awaiting the acceptance of California as a state.  It was the largest county in the new state,  covering almost 1/5 of the territory.  The new county comprised most of the San Joaquin Valley even to the boundary with the Utah-Nevada Territory, the Coast Range to the west, the top of the Tehachapi Mountains to the south and Stanislaus County to the north.  Little activity south of Mariposa was of interest to the legislature because Mariposa was essentially the southern terminius of the Mother Lode.  The most influential private land holdings in the state was the Fremont Grant, Las Mariposas.  It was the only privately claimed land during the Gold Rush, although American Title to the land did not accrue to Fremont until 1856.  Why the first county seat was located in Agua Fria is probably because, while it was inside the claimed Grant property, it was not the new town of Mariposa and under the influence of the development and banking firm of Palmer Cook and Company.  Agua Fria was also, at that time, most active in placer mining and if a vote was to be taken, which was required of establishment of a county seat, it would have a greater population and thus more votes.  By 1851 activity in the Agua Fria area was waning and flood and/or fire convinced the citizens that it was time to move the county seat.  By that time the town of Mariposa had grown considerably with most of the activity requiring government taking place there.

I will cover more of the interim history in future editions of the Sierra Sun Times, but for the story of Watkins I now move to 1860.  By this time Fremont had acquired a partner, Treanor Park of Vermont.  He had become a partner because he came with capital to relieve some of the debt Fremont had built up in San Francisco.  Fremont and Park had a problem.  They needed further investment so the answer was either a sale or new investors.  The sale of the Grant seemed more possible because Fremont had run out of friends fairly early.  So to create a sale or investment portfolio, Park hired the San Francisco photographer Carlton E Watkins to photograph the assets of the Grant. This resulted in approximately 52 scenes of mines, towns and activities on the Grant.  Watkins did not photograph in detail but like the familiar Mariposa picture, treated the subjects as landscape.   He photographed Mariposa, Mt. Bullion, Bear Valley and Benton Mills.
(Bagby). He gave detail  of the Mariposa, Princeton, Josephine, and Pine Tree mines and the landscapes surrounding these properties.  I have showed a number of these pictures at the History Center, in books and at the Arts Council, but they are difficult for viewers to place and understand unless I am present to interpret.  None the less they are the finest, most complete photographic inventory of a section of the Mother Lode ever done. This is perhaps because the 44,386 Acre Grant was well developed by 1860 and there was  motivation on the part of Fremont and Park to have Watkins do such a complete inventory.

(Next-Watkins in Yosemite and his importance in establishment as a
State Park)

Carleton E. Watkins photograph of Mariposa, California in 1860 (not 1854 as marked on the photograph.)
Watkins Photograph of Mariposa, California 1860

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© 2013 Leroy Radanovich's Mariposa Life