A student in my Memoir class recently asked for some tips before interviewing her parent for a family history. It’s a common dilemma: “Where do I start??”
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, of course. But here are the suggestions I sent her – I hope they help you, too!
(1) People: One easy place to begin is to ask the person to describe people who were important in their life. (Typically you’ll hear about a parent, a grandparent, or a teacher — someone your subject was especially fond of, or who influenced his/her life. Be sure to ask what that special person looked like, and what their personality was like. Is there a particular event your subject especially remembers that involved this special person in their life? One story here often triggers another!)
(2) Places: Ask about a place that was especially memorable when the person was growing up. (You might hear, for example, about their first house; a swimming hole; their grade school. Or you might prompt stories about a special vacation, a grandparent’s farm, or even a favorite ice cream parlor. Often it’s easiest to start talking about a happy spot — perhaps a treehouse where the local kids used to gather! Ask them to describe whatever they most remember about that place.)
(3) Historic Context: Our life stories don’t take place in a vacuum. Ask about the time period when your interviewee was growing up. What was going on in the world, and how did that affect their own life? (You might hear tales about the desperation of job-seekers during the Depression; the lack of sugar during World War II; air raid drills in school during the Cold War; or long gas lines during the ’70s. Find out what movies and movie stars were their favorites, and which songs were most popular. See if he/she has an old photo showing them wearing the latest fashion of the day!)
All of those topics make great places to start. But listen and go with the flow of the conversation. Sometimes even basic openers like “Where were you born? Who were your parents?” will trigger a flood of stories! So don’t cut that off if it happens.
Then just keep collecting: those little vignettes will eventually tie together into a whole life’s story!
Like more memoir-writing tips? Check out our fun 28-page LifeStory Workbook here.
One of our recent rambles was a visit to the historic site of Tragedy Spring. We began by heading west on Highway 88 heading west, then took the right-hand turnoff toward Tragedy Springs. (To follow the directions that follow, stop here and set your odometer.) Continue a bit farther along the Tragedy Spring loop road and when you reach odometer reading .3 mile watch for the plaque on your right, embedded in a rock wall at the bottom of a hill.
This picturesque plaque bears the names of the three scouts (Henderson Cox, Ezra Allen, Daniel Browett), murdered on June 27, 1848 as they camped nearby. Cox, Allen and Browett were part of the famous Mormon Battalion that blazed the original “Mormon Emigrant Trail” across the Sierra.
Although many folks think only about westward-bound gold-seekers, the Mormon band of wagons was actually traveling from west to east, heading back to Salt Lake. They brought with them some bits of gold they had found while in California (some of the men were working at Sutter’s mill when gold was first spotted). But despite the lure of gold, these folks were simply eager to return home. They almost certainly had no idea that the trail they were hacking through the wilderness would carry vast numbers of westward-bound wagons during the Gold Rush in the coming months and years.
Look to the left of the plaque to find the stairs, and climb the trail. Here you’ll come to four different sites:
First is another plaque part-way up the trail, set into a rock. This memorial was erected by Sons of Utah Pioneers on September 2, 1967. Beside the stone monument stands a water fountain, where once you could quench your thirst from the mountain spring (but like the spigot at the bottom, unfortunately no longer operational).
Slightly farther ahead is a spring house protecting the spring that once fed the fountain. This natural spring is what gave the site its name, “Tragedy Spring.” Imagine the thousands of emigrants and their animals who were grateful for its waters!
Near the spring house is yet another plaque; this one replicates text carved into a large fir tree as a “gravestone” by the dead men’s companions: To the Memory of Daniel Browett, Ezrah H. Allen and Henderson Cox who was supposed to have been murdered and burned by Indians on the night of the 27th of June 1848.
The plaque was dedicated by Native Sons and Daughters of Amador County on August 30, 1931.
Finally, beneath a sheltering tree you’ll discover the actual rocked-covered grave of the three Mormon scouts who died here in 1849 while trying to blaze the trail for their companions, who were following with wagons.
A nearby wooden sign explains: “When members of the Mormon Battalion camped here, they noticed arrows and a newly-made mound. Upon opening it they found the mutilated bodies of their three friends. They reburied them building a [rock] cairn to protect the grave. They also found Allen’s gold pouch, filled with gold dust, and carried it to his widow in Iowa.”
Beside the sign you’ll also spot an astonishing tree. Its curved and distorted trunk likely was the result of a heavy snowfall while the tree was young.
As you head back downhill, keep your eye peeled for a picnic table tucked into a shady grove on your right — a great spot to stop for a break or to eat lunch.
To reach Highway 88 again, continue to follow the loop road (west). Turn right at the intersection to continue west — and we’ll pick up here in the next installment of this emigrant grave adventure!
The only thing harder than finishing your memoir is starting it. Or more accurately, finding a way to keep going to the finish line once you have started!
If you’ve tried — and failed — to make much progress writing your memoir, here’s a simple tip that can help: find yourself a partner.
Not an editor. Not a critic. Not a parent, and definitely not your spouse (at least if you hope to stay married!)
Find someone you can talk to; someone who supports the best in you. Find someone you can tell your stories to and rest assured they won’t wind up plastered all over Facebook.
Pick a story — any story. One experience in your life that’s still really fresh in your memory. Was there a turning point in your life? A “fork in the road”? Those are great places to start.
Or how about a time when something unexpected happened, or you tried something scary and new. Did you stretch yourself? Was your life on the line?
Then make a date. Yes, a “real” date. Put it in your date book. Plaster it on the calendar. Make a time to sit down together with your favorite friend and just talk.
Talking uses different “writing muscles” than sitting in front of a typewriter or computer. We’re less guarded; more open; words flow more freely. We talk all day every day, don’t we?
Talking with a friend is a great way to get a fresh handle on the stories you’ve been meaning to tell in that great memoir. Ask your friend to take notes for you, or jot them down yourself after she leaves. Or buy a digital recorder and just hit “Record” before you start.
Voila! You now have a set of notes (or perhaps even a complete recording) — the perfect launching pad for that next chapter in your exciting memoir.
Like more tips on memoir-writing? Check out our LifeStory Workbookhere!!
Some discoveries just beg for a movie to be made about them. There must be a story behind this mysterious key, wedged firmly in the trunk of a tree at the top of Highway 4. A hidden treasure that this key would unlock? A clue to a long-forgotten murder?
If you’d like to visit the mysterious key for yourself, here’s how to find it (once Highway 4 reopens in the spring!): Head west on Highway 4, past Kinney Reservoir and Kinney Lakes. Watch for the Ebbbett’s Pass gate and cattle guard; the elevation sign will let you know that you’ve reached 8,730 feet.
Continue 0.3 miles past the gate and cattle guard, and watch for a pullout on your left. The key is in one of the two large trees just as you pull off. (And it goes without saying, but please, please leave it there for the next explorer to find!)
Before you leave this peaceful spot in the forest, take a close look at the nearby trees. Here you can also find a very old axe blaze near the base of a tree. This may once have marked the route for the early wagon road, long before the paved highway came through.
On your return trip, take time to read a little bit of history about Ebbetts Pass on the historical sign just west of the cattle guard.
And one more not-to-miss site nearby: a brand new historic marker (just east of the cattle guard) identifying the site of the original toll-keeper’s station on the Big Tree Road! This is the spot where eager miners began their detour from the Big Tree Road to the new boomtown of Silver Mountain when the connecting roadway was completed in the summer of 1864.
Still visible today at the site where the toll station once sat are the old rock retaining walls and a few tell-tale bricks, likely once part of the toll-keeper’s hearth or chimney.
So fun, to visit the real toll-keeper’s location! And when you visit Silver Mountain City next, imagine the exhausted-but-happy travelers exiting the toll road at the other end in the 1860s, ready to begin their mining adventure!
Hope Valley received its name from members of the Mormon Battalion making their way back to Salt Lake, who “finally had hope” of reaching their destination once they got this spot. Here they would have found water and grass for their animals, and a place to rest briefly before forging the difficult path down the rocky canyon ahead (Woodfords Canyon).
Today there are still fascinating traces of history in Hope Valley — well worth seeking out next time you’re there!
The intersection of Highways 88 and 89 is known today as Pickett’s Junction, but it went by other names in the past. As early as 1854, a hotel owned by Haynes and Warner stood northwest of this spot to serve passing emigrants.
Around 1862 James Green settled slightly west of today’s junction, where the old road veered north. Green operated a dairy ranch, hotel and stage “station” here, and his house was used in 1864 as a reference point for establishing Alpine County’s original boundary line. Polling in the very first county election was held at Green’s Hotel for voters in the “Green’s Station Precinct.”
James Green somehow “went missing” about 1869, just after his third son was born, and his ranch was sold to 24-year-old Samuel Alphonse Nott, a dairyman from Ohio. Nott later became a state Assemblyman, and died in 1880 in Sacramento County.
Nott’s Place (as it was known) was sold about 1880 to Edward M. Pickett. Pickett, like his predecessors, operated a stage station here, and his name lives on in today’s place name, “Pickett’s Junction.” When Pickett died about 1899, his estate conveyed the property to Henry Bassman, a local rancher.
Two clear sections of the Old Emigrant Trail also can still be found in Hope Valley. The first is a bit hard to locate unless you know exactly where to look. From Pickett’s Junction, go west about 0.3 miles on Hwy 88 (past the intersection with 89) and watch for the Wildlife Area & Fishing Access parking lot on your right. Park in the Fishing Access parking lot, and follow the paved path as it loops around to the left. When you see the interpretive sign, you’ll know you are in the right spot.
You’ll easily spot the remains of an early paved road; the old Emigrant Trail ran roughly parallel to this. Look carefully, and you will find the Trail itself. In spots, you’ll notice trees growing in the old trail bed — that’s because seeds found it easy to take root in the disturbed soil.
A short drive west of the Fishing Access parking will take you to yet another pristine section of Trail– one especially worth exploring because it is often mentioned in emigrant diaries. Continue west on Hwy 88 about 0.9 miles from the Access parking lot and, after crossing a narrow bridge, look for a graveled pullout near a gate on your left (see photo above).
This is the area that the emigrants called “Fourth Crossing” — the fourth and last time their wagons had to cross the Carson River. The swale left by thousands of passing wagons is still clearly visible today across the meadow. Another great spot to stop and take a photo!
Hope Valley is always a grand spot for photography! Whether it’s the fall colors, snow-capped winter mountains, or spring and summer greenery, there’s always something beautiful to capture here with your lens!
For vegetarians, it can be a challenge to get enough protein on a keto diet. Sure, you can always add scoops of protein powder to your shakes — but far better if you can find ways to up your protein intake from real food.
If your vegetarian diet includes fish and eggs, try these tuna burgers! Super-simple, super-tasty, and a great way to boost your protein intake (without the carbs)!
Keto Tuna Burger:
One can of tuna, drained
3 Tb. almond flour
2-3 Tb. capers or olives, chopped
3 Tb. chopped onions
1 small dill pickle, chopped
1 Tb. sunflower seeds
1 small egg, beaten
Mix well and form into small patties. Cook in olive oil over medium-high heat until well browned; then flip and brown the other side.
Top with hot sauce (my favorite is Cholula) or grated cheese.
Next time you’re up for a fun hike, try the short loop trail at Curtz Lake. Just over a mile long, it’s currently well-maintained (thanks to a recent joint effort between BLM and the Alpine Trails Association). There are plenty of scenic backcountry views along the trail, and interpretive signs make for interesting reading. For a longer hike, you can also access Summit Lake from this same trail.
The lake itself is a natural (not man-made) lake, fed by snowmelt. Old-timers say it used to be a great place for duck hunting. There’s no fishing here, however, because there are no fish; in dry years the water dries up completely (not so good for aquatic life!)
Curtz Lake is said to be named after early Alpiner Peter Curtz. But exactly what Peter had to do with this lake remains a mystery!
Born in Canada about 1835, Peter Curtz came west in 1859 via the Panama route, and a few years later became one of the pioneering miners in (future) Alpine County. He evidently knew town founder Jacob Marklee, as both Marklee and Curtz were among the locators of two mining claims in 1863 near the new townsite of Markleeville.
By December that year, however, Curtz had moved on to Silver King, where he became a principal in a lumbering operation and sawmill. In later years he owned a sawmill at Boiler Flat, between Markleeville and Woodfords.
Curtz was a well-known early citizen, holding a variety of important public posts. He was a county supervisor; the County Coroner; District Attorney; and a Justice of the Peace; and he also sat on the local Board of Education.
But Curtz’s real love, it seems, was mining. In 1884 he worked enough rock at his arrastra on the Carson River to produce a bar of silver weighing more than 15 pounds. Over the years, he was said to have “made several fortunes” (suggesting he not only made but also lost them). As late as 1915, his Curtz Consolidated Mining Co. owned an astonishing 22 mining claims in the Monitor area, including the famous Morning Star — assets Curtz grandly asserted were worth $23 million. Curtz lived to be 88 years old, finally passing away after a car in which he was riding plummeted over the embankment beside the river, not far from his mill. (As an aside, there’s a ghost story that just might be related to this spot!)
As for exactly how Curtz Lake got its name, the record remains unclear. The Lake isn’t close to Curtz’s early mining activities, and it doesn’t appear that Curtz ever lived nearby. There’s plenty of timber in the vicinity, however, and one old-time local has speculated that Curtz might once have had a timber claim here.
For now at least, that’s pure speculation. But given Curtz’s interest in lumber and sawmills, it’s as good a guess as we’ve been able to come up with. If anyone out there has more information that would help to solve this naming mystery, we’d love to hear!
Directions: Located between Woodfords and Markleeville, the trailhead is not far off Hwy 89. Take Airport Road heading east 1.1 miles, then look to your left for the entrance road.
Map: Like to see an aerial map showing both Curtz Lake and the trail? Here’s a great one, from a blog by Tim Messick: http://tinyurl.com/y9bwkdh9
Ready for an off-the-beaten-path adventure in Gold Country?
Okay, so you’ve done Highway 49, walked the streets of Coloma, and seen Sutter’s Mill. Ready for a little different adventure in Gold Country? Here’s a recent discovery drive we took (with so much crammed in, we’ll finish it in Part 2!)
Ever heard of Michigan Bar? Placer gold was discovered here at a bend in the Cosumnes river in 1848 by two men from . . . well, of course . . . Michigan. And they weren’t alone; Nisenan Indians were already here, in a nearby settlement they called Palamul.
With the discovery of gold, of course, life was no longer nearly as quiet. During the 1850s and ’60s Michigan Bar became a thriving town, with a population of between 1,500 and 2,000 souls. There was a school, a post office, blacksmith shop, hotel, and that all-important amenity: a Wells Fargo office.
Some 1.5 million ounces of gold were said to be taken from the local gravels and gold-bearing cobble. But the real winner was a gent named Samuel Putnam with the foresight to build a bridge in 1863 across the river at Michigan Bar. And not just any bridge; a tollbridge. Samuel “carried away more gold than any miner,” as the local historians say.
* * * * * * *
So just where is Michigan Bar? From Jackson, head north on Highway 49. You’ll pass through Drytown (so tiny now, don’t blink! But once the home of 10,000 people), and continue on toward Plymouth. At the T-intersection with Highway 16, turn left (west), towards Sacramento.
About 12 miles farther in the rolling hillside you’ll come to Michigan Bar — today as remote and isolated a spot as you can find in California. Stop and take the time to read the plaque explaining the tale of this “undiscovered” historic gold discovery site. Then try to imagine what the place looked like in the 1850 -1860s when as many as 2,000 people lived here, and it was the largest town in Cosumnes Township!
Worth a short detour: Follow this country lane back from the main highway to see the marks that early hydraulic nozzles wrought on the landscape (those miners weren’t going to give up after early placer diggings gave out!) According to the plaque, the Prairie Ditch (completed in 1858) is still visible nearby, and once brought the water for hydraulic mining.
Leave Michigan Bar and continue west on the highway another 6.8 miles to reach an oasis of magical fresh produce at Sloughhouse. Along the way you’ll pass a stoplight at Rancho Murrietta and then cross the Cosumnes River. Consider a brief stop there to snap a picture of the photogenic old metal bridge on your right! Another three stoplights will bring you to Davis Ranch’s wonderful roadside stand.
Amid the fantastic assortment of fresh local produce, dried fruits, nuts, and local honey, don’t miss the books tucked away on a lower shelf toward the back — local author Elizabeth Pinkerton has captured the area’s history in two fascinating volumes called “History Happened Here” — well worth taking home to enjoy later.
And don’t miss the “corn experience” during corn season. Freshly-picked ears are dumped from a loader down a wooden chute, where workers remove the outer husks and bag it for you. If you’ve ever eaten FRESHLY-picked corn, you know why this alone is worth the drive!
But fascinating as it is, the Davis Ranch produce stand isn’t the original Sloughhouse. To visit that site, venture on a mile or so farther west to what is now the Meadowlands restaurant, at the corner of Meiss Road (on your left). A hotel/stage stop was built here in 1850. After the first structure burned in 1890 it was promptly rebuilt, and this intriguing site is now a California State Historic Landmark.
Turn around here at the parking lot to begin the rest of your journey. As you head back east, look carefully to your right just after you leave Meadowlands to catch a glimpse of the early Sloughhouse Pioneer Cemetery. This land, part of a Mexican land grant to settler Jared Sheldon in 1842, is said to be the oldest pioneer cemetery in Northern California. Both Jared and his wife Catherine were eventually buried here.
The first two known burials were a young woman named Catherine Austin (who died of causes unknown in 1851), and a local gent named William Daylor, who died of cholera just a few days after Catherine. Daylor had gone for Sutter’s Fort 18 miles away to get supplies, and while there, kindly tended to a dying man; by the time he got home, Daylor himself was feeling unwell. He died less than 24 hours after assisting his unfortunate fellow man.
Even before these two burials in 1851, the spot was said to be a sacred site for the Miwok Indians, who cremated their dead here.
On your return trip, slow down as you pass the Rancho Murrietta Country Club (on your left), and look for the turnoff to Ione Road on your right. For “Part 2” of this trip — the fascinating detour to Ione — watch for our next post!
Happy History Hunting!! Please keep us posted about what you discover!
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Alas, poor Jacob Marklee! His name lives on in his namesake town of “Markleeville.” But aside from that one honor, this first pioneer has largely been forgotten.
We know Marklee was a Canadian, born about 1821. And we know he had a fine eye for real estate, picking out the beautiful 160-acre parcel (which now includes his townsite) on September 12, 1861. Just a year and a half later, however, Marklee lay dead in front of his cabin from a pistol ball — the victim, in part, of his own hot temper, buckling on a pistol during a dispute with erstwhile partner Henry Tuttle. (Tuttle was later acquitted.)
But what happened to Marklee’s body? Where was he buried? When Jacob breathed his last on May 14, 1863, the town was still in its embryonic stages. There likely was no cemetery before this sudden need arose.
We’ll probably never know for certain where Marklee is buried. But two important clues have surfaced in a newspaper report from just three months later — so soon afterwards that the writer describes Marklee’s remains as lying “under a still freshly heaped mound of earth.”
Clue Number One: After noting a “fine stream” running through the townsite, the writer reports Marklee’s grave is “overlooking it” (the stream).
And Clue Number Two: Marklee’s burial site is also described as being “on a little eminence” above town.
Every time we visit the Markleeville Cemetery, I am drawn to the isolated point of land that overlooks the town. Two towering pines grace its edges, and the creek flows peacefully below. Could this be the spot where Jacob Marklee was buried?
It certainly fits the description. And on a recent visit to the cemetery, we discovered what appears to be the outline of a grave: rocks laid in a roughly rectangular pattern, with a depression in the middle. The view is serene. And it’s exactly where Marklee should be buried: on a little eminence (high point), overlooking the town that he founded.
We hope you’ll pay a visit to this quiet and peaceful cemetery soon, and decide for yourself!
Like to read more of the history of Markleeville’s very own “Unsung Founder,” Jacob Marklee? Additional details of Jacob’s story can be found here: http://wp.me/p8oQ7A-Z
The old wooden headstones that once graced Markleeville Cemetery have long since turned to dust. Time, neglect and a bit of vandalism have wreaked havoc here; sadly, most of those who rest in this historic cemetery now lie in unmarked graves.
But this week, at least one of the cemetery’s mysteries was solved! Thanks to a devoted great-grandson and his 96-year-old mother, the final resting place of Alpine pioneer Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig finally bears a gravestone. It’s been a long time coming; this November will mark 135 years from Koenig’s death.
Born in Prussia about 1840, Friedrich Wilhelm Koenig (or William F. as he was also known) was one of the earliest settlers in soon-to-be Alpine, arriving with his wife, Lena, in 1862. Koenig and a partner opened a store in 1864 at the corner of Main and Montgomery Streets in Markleeville — property they purchased from the estate of Jacob Marklee himself. Evidently a cautious businessman, Koenig’s ads warned sternly against asking for credit: “None need come for goods without the cash.” Even so, by 1866 Koenig himself was out of funds and filing for bankruptcy.
Koenig switched professions from storekeeper to butcher, and in 1873 listed his occupation as “shoemaker.” These apparently were more profitable undertakings; in 1873, Koenig was able to purchase the former Bagley Ranch and moved his family to Silver King Valley. There he not only ran cattle and operated a hotel but also began hauling freight over the mountain to Bridgeport and Bodie, via Rodriguez Pass.
Koenig and Lena had a total of five children, but sadly Lena died in childbirth sometime between 1872 and 1879. William soon remarried — to a widow named Anna Heppe who was working as a dressmaker in San Francisco, with two children of her own. Together, William and Anna would have two additional children.
But wedded bliss was not to be William’s fate. On November 6, 1882, he was killed in a freighting accident on his way home from Bridgeport. His wagon was found overturned, and his body was discovered beside the road, with his neck broken. His second wife, Anna, was again a grieving widow — and a pregnant one, at that. William and Anna’s last child together, George, was born in December, just a few weeks after his father’s death.
If William Koenig ever had a headstone, it disappeared for decades. But his 96-year-old granddaughter could recall visiting his grave, and luckily was able to describe the spot precisely to her son. A team of grave-detection dogs also visited the cemetery. The granddaughter’s site description exactly matched one “unknown” grave the dog team had found.
On August 18, 2017, Koenig’s great-grandson laid a headstone to honor him. One mystery grave: solved!
But several additional mysteries about Koenig still remain. Was his death truly just a tragic accident? Koenig was an experienced teamster, and there were whispers that perhaps foul play had been involved. A coroner’s inquest was convened, which concluded the death was accidental. To this day, however, the family has its suspicions. Koenig apparently had been in an altercation with a suitor sweet on Koenig’s oldest daughter. And according to a story handed down from generation to generation, the team’s outside lead horse had been shot.
And one more mystery: Where is Lena, Koenig’s first wife? It’s possible she was buried in Silver King, near the ranch. But at least one family member believes she, too, is interred in Markleeville Cemetery, next to William.
And if you look closely, there is, indeed, a second silver marker on an “unknown” grave not far away from William’s.
Watch for our next blog — we may just have found the spot where Jacob Marklee himself is buried!