I grew up in the Sierra Foothills town of Placerville. It was fantastic place to be a kid – lots to see and lots to do. With the Coloma Gold Discovery Site just a few miles out of town, it was also a perfect introduction to Gold Rush history. Little did I know then that the history was liberally seasoned with the absurd. I speak, of course, of the fraternity of E. Clampus Vitus, or as they are more commonly known as the Clampers.
Obscure as the three letters ECV sometimes seen on a car bumper or back window of a pickup, you can go most of a lifetime and never know what a Clamper is or, more importantly, why they matter. And they mattered a great deal.
Seen as the antidote to the stuffy and strict Masons, Odd Fellows and Elks, they prided themselves in allowing any man who had come of age to join. Thriving in the rowdy and rough gold camps from Downieville to Oakhurst, the brotherhood hosted parties, made fun of themselves and others. But, they were also known for great deeds of support for their members, providing food and funds for those in need and comradeship for those in isolated areas. They were the gathering of the unwashed mining masses – far from home and far from family.
Hard drinking, irreverent and steadfast brotherhood could all be used to describe this anti fraternal society.
Looking back at history their members read like a ‘who’s who’ of California history – Mark Twain, John Studebaker, John Hume and Gene Autry.
Today they can be described as “an historical society as well as a mirth making club.”
It is the support of the history of the Gold Rush that most come in contact with ECV as the footnote on a sign describing a long past site of significance. In Clamper tradition, they put their shoulder to it and do so with flare. The sites most often sporting a historical maker erected by the fraternity are those overlooked by other more ‘stuffy’ societies. They put signs up at the location of taverns, breweries and brothels. The very sites the miners themselves would have appreciated in the day.
So next time you are touring the places of the California Gold Rush that rim our Valley, look for the signs and take a minute to appreciate the history and the ongoing work of this absurd fraternity that prides itself in taking very little seriously – except a good time, comradeship and probably a good drink.