The Unsung Founder of Markleeville

Jacob Markley
Jacob Markley

Poor Jacob Markley. A century and a half after his death, the man who bestowed his name on the town of Markleeville remains mostly a mystery.

Still, a few details of his life remain: Markley was born March 6, 1821 in Dundas, Ontario, Canada and emigrated to Virginia in his youth. In the late 1840s the foot-loose Markley moved on to Taylors Falls, Minnesota, where he married Sarah Ambrosia DeAtley, daughter of a local carpenter.

Sometime about 1860 Markley left his wife and children behind while he ventured west to seek his fortune in California. There are tales that Markley and his brothers ran a slaughterhouse in Gold Country, supplying meat to the hungry settlers. Markley eventually made his way to the site of today’s Markleeville, just east of the Sierra crest. There, on September 12, 1861, he staked out his legacy:  a 160-acre claim embracing the future townsite of Markleeville.  And because the California state line was still murky, he recorded his land claim the following June on the wrong side of the line:  in Douglas County (now Nevada).

Markley settled in on his claim, building a fair-sized cabin on the site (16’ x 20’), and covered it entirely with shakes made from the local sugarpine. He also built a bridge over the river just below his cabin, charging toll to anyone wishing to cross.

Markley’s timing was spectacular. Within the year a tiny mining camp just up the trail at Silver Mountain began to boom. Suddenly Markley’s homestead was extremely valuable – as much for his toll road as for the land itself.  “Markleyville” soon became a “terminus of yee-haw navigation”:  the spot where the good wagon road ended and teams ferrying supplies to Silver Mountain City were forced to transfer their goods to pack trains.

Spotting yet another opportunity, Markley began selling homesites. He faced only one small problem: a man named Talcott Gould was claiming half-ownership of the land.

Markley had indeed sold Gould a half-interest in SOMETHING in November 1861. According to Markley, the scrap of paper he’d signed was a half-interest in the toll road. Gould however, noted that the handwritten deed was a half-interest in the “Merkly claim.” Profits from Markley’s land sales were half his, he claimed.

On May 14, 1863, Gould’s ally Henry Tuttle got into an altercation with Jacob Markley at his cabin. Tuttle strode off, only to return with Gould. And now the dispute became physical. Markley managed to throw Gould and Tuttle out of his cabin. But in a fateful split second of bad judgment, Markley then buckled on a pistol and followed, and the argument among the three men continued.  At some point in the quarrel Tuttle took a step back, drew his own revolver, and shot Markley dead.

A California Grand Jury indicted Tuttle for murder, and he was brought to trial in Amador County the following March. Witnesses testified, and the jury rendered its verdict:  NOT guilty.  That pesky gun Markley buckled on made it a clear case of self-defense.

Markley’s body was buried on what a news report called “on a little eminence” overlooking the nearby stream. Trail-blazer that he was, Markley probably became the first person buried in today’s Markleeville Cemetery.

Markleeville cemetery

The “Jacob Markley Players” re-enact the shooting of Jacob Markley every year in Markleeville. Hear “Jacob” himself describe the town of early Markleeville, and see his killer brought to justice (or not!  We won’t give away the ending.)  Contact the Alpine County Chamber of Commerce for details.

And for more about the history of Markleeville itself, see our book, “Historic Alpine: A Self-Guided Walking Tour of Markleeville.”

Walking Tour of Markleeville
Walking Tour of Markleeville

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