Stooping down for a drink of water, the hunter’s eye was transfixed by a shimmering object
resting among the gravels of a shallow stream. Plunging his hand into the chilly waters, he
grasped the gold nugget and hastened back to camp to tell his fellow adventurers their search was
over. It was September of 1849.
The party had left Shellsburg, Wisconsin, in the spring of 1849, fired up by the news of
Marshall’s discovery and anxious to make their fortune. Led by Captain A. A. Townsend, who had
served under General Zachary “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor during the Mexican War, the party
crossed the plains in a dozen covered wagons, calling themselves the Rough and Ready Mining
Company in honor of the general. The camp they established acquired the same name.
The diggings in and around Rough and Ready proved to be quite rich; one report cites a miner
discovering a gold nugget weighing eighteen pounds. Townsend and his brothers took out over
$40,000 in only a few months and knew they could make a fortune if they had more men to work for
them. To this end the captain returned to Wisconsin and offered to pay the expenses of any man
who would accompany him to California. In return, the men would work under his direction for one
year, sharing fifty-fifty with Townsend any gold they found.
Forty men agreed to these terms and hit the trail for California. But the camp had grown
while Townsend was away, and when they reached the diggings in the fall of 1850, they found
nearly every foot of ground for miles around staked out. They even had trouble finding a place to
pitch their tents, as many hundreds of men were working the ravines and flats of the region.
While he was gone, Townsend missed a history-making event, for on April 7 of 1850, Rough and
Ready became the first town to secede from the United States. The citizens were apparently fed up
with the government after a mining tax was imposed on all claims, and at the lack of law and
order in the area which local authorities would do nothing about. Legend has it a town meeting
was called to discuss the problems and the resulting solution was to secede from the United
States and form the Great Republic of Rough and Ready, answerable to no sovereignty but
themselves. Accordingly, a constitution was drafted, a president elected, and a cabinet formed.
The miners chose E. F. Brundage as their president and his first act was to appoint a Secretary
of State and a Republic Marshall.
The Republic lasted approximately three months. As the Fourth of July approached, the
neighboring towns commenced preparing grand celebrations, which would include speeches, parades,
and other festivities. The citizens of Rough and Ready felt left out, and before long, patriotism
replaced their displeasure with the government. Besides, they wanted to celebrate. At the last
minute a mass meeting was called and the Independent Republic of Rough and Ready was dissolved.
Plans were immediately begun for their own Fourth of July event.
The town suffered its first disastrous fire on June 28 of 1850, from which it quickly
rebounded as the miners and merchants alike would not be forced from the prosperous diggings. The
town grew and soon came to be one of the most important in the district, even aspiring to become
the county seat of the newly created Nevada County in 1851. The camp had settled down somewhat, a
law and order committee had been elected, a Christian Association was holding services, and the
Odd Fellows and Masons had established themselves. More than three hundred frame buildings were
now located in Rough and Ready.
The 1850’s were good years for the town, during which time it was the center of activity in
the region. But as the gold slowly gave out in the creeks and on the flats, and after the fires
of 1856 and 1859 nearly obliterated the town, leaving only twenty-four houses, the town declined
almost as quickly as it had developed. But not everyone left town when the gold and buildings
disappeared. Many people remained and the post office, which was established on July 25 of 1851,
still serves the town and surrounding country.