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But they provided more than gold rush chuckles.

Like thousands of others in the early years of the California Gold Rush, John Studebaker tried his hand at panning in the Sierra Nevada. Finding little success, he fell back on his trade as a blacksmith. But Placerville, where he’d settled, already had a smithy. The young man then found his niche, turning out wheelbarrows for miners working the diggings. He was determined to earn enough money to join his brothers in the family wagon shop back in Indiana, so he put away most of his money, investing it with Adams & Company, a subsidiary of the Adams Express Co.

One day John was told his savings had disappeared into thin air due to a financial collapse. John smelled a rat. Legend has it John lied in wait outside the bank, and when he saw men skulking out the rear door with the loot, he pulled his gun and demanded, “Turn over my money.” The men immediately obliged, returning his $3,000. John was 25 in 1858 when he left Placerville with his nest egg to go work with his brothers in South Bend, Ind. The Studebakers would produce some 750,000 wagons before successfully making the transition in the early 20th century to gasoline-powered cars. John would always be remembered as the “wheelbarrow” brother and for another distinction: He was a Clamper.

“Clampers” were members of E Clampus Vitus, an offbeat fraternal organization that came to life in early California. Exactly why John Studebaker joined the group is unknown, but it did attract more men of humble origins than did the two major, more established fraternal organizations—the Masonic Lodge and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The Freemasons, who trace their origins to the guilds of stonemasons in the Middle Ages, elect “worshipful masters,” follow strict tenets (e.g., “Faith must be the center of our lives”) and guard their rites and symbols with dogged resolution. The Odd Fellows, whose roots also extend back to the time of the guilds, believe in a supreme creator, follow “grand masters” and have a mandate “to improve and elevate the character of mankind.” Most men of influence on the West Coast in the 1850s belonged to one or both of these strict and complex organizations and wore their formal attire and badges with pride. With the Odd Fellows, decorative aprons and sashes were de rigueur, while the Masons leaned toward ceremonial ribbons and swords. The rough-andtumble miners in the camps had little use for such reserved fraternal organizations, not that the Masons or Odd Fellows wanted any part of those raucous fellows, either.

One Joe Zumwalt is credited with bringing the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus to California. Just how ancient is it? Well, that is highly debatable. While its creation myths extend back to Egypt in 4004 BC, the order was apparently started in 1845 by Ephraim Bee of Lewisport, Va. (now West Union, W.Va.), who claimed he was authorized to do so by the emperor of China. Zumwalt and friends opened Mokelumne Hill Lodge Number 1001 in September 1851. While striking it rich was paramount to most miners, plenty of them also wanted to become Clampers. It wasn’t difficult to do. No formal dress, regulations or dues were required, while carousing, hard drinking and joking were part of the program. Among the prerequisites to membership was “one must be breathing.” Within a year, members numbered in the thousands.

The miners’ new male-only order was meant to be a burlesque of Freemasons’ and Odd Fellows’ rituals. The Clampers were pranksters who embraced the ridiculous and absurd, wearing red long johns and tin can badges as part of the organization’s trademark garb. They adopted the motto Credo Quia Absurdium (“I believe because it is absurd”), used such frivolous titles as “noble grand humbug” and held their meetings (or “comparative ovations”) in mining camp saloons, hotels and dance halls.

When a new member, addressed as a “poor blind candidate,” was ushered into the brotherhood, he would be taken blindfolded to a meeting room. After suffering the madcap antics of the inebriated miners, the soon-to-be Clamper was hoisted toward the ceiling by means of a saddle secured by a block and tackle. If those were not available, he might be “trampolined” into the air by means of a blanket, held tight at the corners. All the while, drink flowed freely. Many initiation rites were supposed to be kept secret. Clampers accomplished this by drinking until one’s memory was clouded and never writing anything down—though in candor, the line between Clampers’ truth and fiction has always been blurry.

While E Clampus Vitus (often referred to by its initials ECV) was good for a few laughs, there were real benefits to being a Clamper. For one thing, Clampers conducted business with other Clampers. Drummers traveling from camp to camp soon found out that to survive financially, they would need to wheedle a membership invitation from a Clamper. Clampers also transferred their political clout into votes for brethren running for office. By the 1860s, Clampers filled many official seats, such as those of mayor, assemblyman and senator. ECV also had a charitable side, assisting sick or injured miners, as well as the widows and children of deceased miners.

New York transplant William “Big Bill” Morris Stewart was one of the strongest proponents of the organization. He started out in Nevada City, Calif., as a miner in 1850, but like John Studebaker, he didn’t find riches in the mines. In 1860, after settling in Virginia City (in what would soon become Nevada Territory), Stewart founded an E Clampus Vitus chapter. He worked feverishly to make Nevada a state, which became a done deal on October 31, 1864. His fellow Clampers rewarded Stewart by propelling him into office as Nevada’s first U.S. senator. He was hardly the only Clamper to rise above the daily drinking, working, carousing and more drinking to make something of himself.

In 1853 West Point graduate George Horatio Derby was a lieutenant in the Topographical Corps. Stationed at a small outpost in San Diego, he grew bored with his mapping and surveying life. He turned to writing witty articles for local newspapers, often making fun of the doings of high society, under such pen names as John Phoenix and John P. Squibob. His humorous write-up of one dead man’s lot went like this: “One of our Fort Yuma men died and, unfortunately, went to hell. He wasn’t there one day before he telegraphed for his blanket.” With his well-developed sense of humor, Derby (profiled in the April 2002 Wild West) was a born Clamper. Today, an E Clampus Vitus chapter in California bears the name Squibob in his honor.

Another humorous, satirically inclined Western newspaperman who became a Clamper is far better known today. No less a wordsmith than Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) spent time with the miners at the Jackass Hills diggings near Angels Camp, Calif. It was there, one cold day in January 1865, that Twain heard a miner recount a tale about a frogjumping contest. This was great fodder for the Missouri-born writer, and soon thereafter he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

You didn’t need a keen sense of humor to become a memorable member of E Clampus Vitus. Clamper John “Snowshoe” Thompson (1827–1876) is more closely associated with bravery and service. For 20 years, the native Norwegian delivered the mail over the Sierra Nevada between Placerville and communities in Nevada using primitive 10-foot skis (not snowshoes). The stalwart skier came to the aid of several travelers, including one man suffering from frostbite in a blizzard.

John Hume, a California state assemblyman and brother of famous Wells Fargo detective Jim Hume, was also a Clamper. Other possible Clampers include San Francisco eccentric Joshua Abraham Norton, who in 1859 insisted he was “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico”; Ulysses S. Grant, who was stationed in the early 1850s at California’s Benicia Arsenal; and New York newspaperman Horace Greeley, who advised young men to go West after doing so himself in 1859. There is little evidence to support many such claims, but at least Norton, Grant and Greeley seem more probable than Julius Caesar, Sir Francis Drake and George Washington.

By the 1880s, many California Gold Rush boomtowns had become ghost towns, and E Clampus Vitus was declining. By 1910 the group had dwindled to a single chapter, in Marysville, Calif. The organization’s death seemed certain until some San Francisco historians founded a new chapter, Capitulus Redivivus E. Clampus Vitus (“Revived Capital for E. Clampus Vitus”) in 1931. New chapters followed elsewhere, and today 41 chapters exist in California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and Utah. Most of the Clampers are historically engaged, installing countless plaques to commemorate both significant events and peculiar ephemera. One chapter that honors Billy Holcomb for his discovery of the largest goldfield in the Sierra Nevada has placed more than 100 such bronze markers. That seems a rather serious accomplishment for an organization that isn’t sure whether it is a “historical drinking society” or a “drinking historical society.”


Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here