Mark Selverston: Malakoff Diggins celebrates its little known French heritage
Many readers of The Union might be surprised to learn that Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park is named for the Malakoff Tower, which, during the Gold Rush, defended the Russian naval port of Sebastopol during the Crimean War.
The French military took the tower on Sept. 8, 1855, after a long and costly siege by British and French allied forces. The battle for Sebastopol ended the next day. French nationals around the world celebrated this victory, including in the little Gold Rush town then called Humbug City, now North Bloomfield. We will celebrate this victory at North Bloomfield again on Sept. 14, some 164 years later, with the third Malakoff’s French Connection Festival.
France was in upheaval during the Gold Rush. Revolution, economic collapse, and years of drought left people desperate. Tales of gold led many French nationals to California. They came in large numbers, some 30,000 by 1852 according to the French Consulate greeting them in San Francisco, with around 10,000 making their way to the Northern Mines.
French immigrants to the San Juan Ridge played a central role in the settlement and gold mining industry of today’s park. They were the first to claim lakes high in the mountains and engineer ways to bring water down to where it was needed, they opened many of the first businesses, including a canvas-sided hotel, and they persistently developed the gold deposits that other less-industrious miners labeled humbug. They plotted and systematically consolidated claims surrounding the Malakoff Mine into the famous North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company, which was commonly called the French Company for years.
These dreamers developed the largest hydraulic gold mine of the day, and, according to reporters from Nevada City, French was heard throughout the booming town of North Bloomfield.
How soon people forget. None of this immigrant story was known, let alone being told, a few years ago. A few people noticed the large French population in the region, but the magnitude of Malakoff’s French connection had been forgotten. California State Parks should get credit for looking deeper into this heritage and installing two interpretive panels that tell some of the stories to visitors. It is so important we recognize the cultural diversity that settled California and contributed to the nation’s progress. It’s also important to reconnect the modern French community with those struggles and commitment of their ancestors.
A French-themed festival seemed to be an appropriate way to unveil the new panels and celebrate the Park’s heritage. The Friends of North Bloomfield and Malakoff Diggins sponsors the event, held in September on the anniversary of the fall of the Malakoff Tower. The first one held in 2017 was so successful that it was reprised in 2018, and now the third looks to be even better.
The usually sleepy ghost town becomes vibrant with live music by Beaucoup Chapeaux, plenty of delicious food, and games for all, including the popular French sport of Pétanque. Wine from Lucchesi Vineyards & Winery and beer from Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. served in the Kings Saloon quenches everyone’s thirst. Educational hikes, tours and speakers highlight French history. A recreated frontier French school will entertain the crowd, and the doors of historic buildings will open. Raffle prizes have included a week’s lodging in the French Riviera donated by French scholar Dr. Chalmers, a hike up the Sutter Buttes and wine tasting at Cordi Winery, and a gold pendant contributed by Utopian Stone, plus beautiful gift baskets filled with locally sourced and handcrafted items.
Many volunteers and local businesses make these events happen, including the local chapter of E. Clampus Vitus, SPD, Golder Environmental, and Ridge Rock Quarry.
County Supervisors and representatives of State Parks have welcomed the French Consulate General of San Francisco, the Honorary French Consulate of Sacramento, and other scholars and members of the French community from throughout Northern California. Nevada County charmed France’s diplomats who pledged not only to return, but to help bring attention to this overlooked history.
This year the French Consulate is helping promote the festival and will be attending for the third year. The saga of those French pioneers will no longer be forgotten. Professor of French language and history at CSU Sacramento, Dr. Elstob, has added their exploits to his class curriculum and a French Language and Culture program based in Sacramento will set up a frontier French classroom. As past and present become cemented into the fabric of Malakoff Diggins, the Park will continue to be a place where history and diversity can be appreciated in fun and novel ways.
The resulting report is available on the Friends of North Bloomfield and Malakoff’s Diggings webpage at http://malakoffdigginsstatepark.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/French_Malakoff_Research_sm-1.pdf.
Mark Selverston lives in Nevada City and will be the emcee for the Sept. 14 event. He is an archaeologist with Sonoma State University and the researcher responsible for compiling the information used to create the new interpretive signs. For more information, visit http://malakoffdigginsstatepark.org and https://www.eventbrite.com/e/malakoffs-french-connection-festival-tickets-64815765700.
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