When I was old enough to appreciate a good family story, my mother told me that Dad’s great-uncle Jasper—she drew out his name in an exaggerated, spooky Jaaaasss-sper—had been murdered at his gold mine in the Sierra Nevadas. Either that, she said, or he was bitten by a rattlesnake. She wasn’t sure which story was true. Every family needs an unsolved murder or grisly death to snare relatives into genealogical research. Some years later I took the bait.
I had to face the rumors about Jasper’s death when I began writing about the Parretts for my family history, The Parrett Migration. Jasper was a brother of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Parrett, one of the subjects of my story.
With minimal research, it was easy to put Mom’s titillating tale to rest. Jasper hadn’t been murdered after all, but the circumstances of his death still surprised and puzzled those who had known him for years. Jasper was a hermit, which explains to some extent why his life is tinged with mystery and intrigue.
He was also something of a romantic frontier hero, a Civil War veteran who headed west with the rest of the crowd hoping to make a fortune in mining. It turned out, in the late 1870s, he entered the first of what would become fourteen claims in the Sierra Nevadas. Jasper was in his mid-thirties, a bachelor. His family back home in Iowa heard he had made good. Real good.
Some might say that Jasper Parrett lived the American dream as it was envisioned during the country’s frontier period. He was born in March 1844 in Fayette County, Ohio, the second of five children—all sons—born to David and Barbra Parrett. The family headed west mid-century when Jasper was only six, trekking across the plains of Indiana and Illinois and finally putting down stakes in Jefferson County, Iowa. The Parretts eventually bought several tracts of land—400 acres in all—and lived fairly prosperously by the standards of the day, Jasper and his brothers contributing their labor to the family enterprise from an early age.
Jasper joined the 19th Iowa Infantry (Company D) after the Civil War broke out and fought for the Union Army in Missouri, Arkansas, Alabama, and Louisiana. He was 18 when he enlisted and 21 when he returned home. More than a decade passed before extant records mention him again. I suspect during those intervening years, Jasper labored on the farm. His older brother Joseph had returned early from the war severely disabled from intestinal problems that would prove a lifelong affliction. Jasper’s strength and maturity must have been sorely needed on the family farm. A pension application filed later in life states Jasper stood 5 foot 8 in adulthood and had dark hair, eyes, and skin.
Jasper migrated to California in 1877, stayed for a short time, returned to Iowa, and then settled in California for good in 1879. The claims that became known as the Parrett Mine were situated in Mill Creek Canyon, a mile and a half from Lundy Lake. Several articles about the mine chronicle Jasper’s activities and give an account of his financial success. One article published in the Los Angeles Herald on November 11, 1909, reports the sale of the mine to a J. McCormick, president and manager of the Broken Hills Mining Company of Nevada, for $90,000. The mine purportedly had ten large veins carrying “milling ore and high-grade” that Jasper could sell for $700 a ton. The article continues with a glowing description of Jasper’s accomplishments:
Here is a man and a scene worthy of a place in the romantic history of California—a man who has “out-Crusoed” Robinson Crusoe, and who has during a lonely, companionless vigil of thirty years wrought a work of astonish and intensely interesting phases.
On the northern slope of one of the most precipitous mountains in this region, he, years ago, located a group of six claims which are known throughout the country as the Parrett mines. Single-handed, he build his commodious cabin in the gulch at the bottom of the hill, and then proceeded to develop the claims he had located…. The veins proved rich in gold, some of them averaging $30 per ton and others close to $100. Parrett quarried out tons upon tons of the ore from big surface cuts, and then, still unaided by anyone, constructed an arastra by the side of his cabin, built a long flume for water power for the immense over-shot water wheel with which the arastra was run. Some of the timbers he has used in the construction of his mill would put to rout half a dozen men of the ordinary type, but with pulleys and handspike he wrestled them into position and was under obligations or thanks to no one…. By these crude methods the hermit has extracted many thousands of dollars, one shipment of bullion having brought him $47,000.
Jasper’s nephew Hillis joined him at some point, though it’s unclear whether an ongoing working partnership developed between the two men. Most articles reiterate that Jasper worked his mine alone. His obituary, for example, states that “Mr. Parrett was never married and for more than thirty years had lived the life of a hermit without even a dog for a companion. He rarely ever left his claim, except when called for jury work or service on election boards.” Other sources mention that Hillis inherited at least part of the mine following his uncle’s death. My parents and grandparents visited Hillis at the Parrett Mine on numerous occasions in the 1950s and ’60s, and my parents even spent their honeymoon there. They’ve described the isolated nature of the area and the steepness of the cliffs and trails leading up to the mine. My brother and I inherited artifacts from Jasper’s mine—two oil lamps and a pistol—items passed from Hillis to our grandparents, to our parents, to us.
Jasper’s obituary, published in the Bridgeport Chronicle-Union, puts to rest family rumors about murder or rattlesnake bites. A woman named Pearl Mattly purportedly found Jasper’s body on the floor of his cabin two days after his death. According to the obituary, “The cause of death is unknown but it is supposed to have been heart disease, as the old gentleman [age 69!] frequently complained of heart trouble. His funeral took place at Mono Lake, the service “being one of the largest ever held in that section.” I wish I had known this larger-than-life, reclusive ancestor of mine…and maybe even inherited some of his gold!