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Independent Bent : Rough and Ready Still Celebrates Its 1850 Secession

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s said that in 1850 this Mother Lode town declared itself the Great Republic of Rough and Ready--or so the story goes.

The nation lasted just 12 weeks, but the town with the long and colorful name has been celebrating ever since.

This year, as usual, Rough and Ready is marking its flirtation with independence with Secession Days, a two-month festival ending the last Sunday of this month. And, as usual, the town’s historian, Constance Bear, 65, a reporter for a weekly newspaper, is asking for help in verifying the early history.

“For years I have searched libraries, written letters to the Library of Congress and the U.S. Archives trying to get information about the Great Republic, to no avail,” Bear laments.

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“We have no documentation . . . no newspaper accounts, no letters from those who were here describing what went on.”

But tradition has it that the Gold Rush camp declared itself independent from California and the United States in reaction to a mining tax that incensed local citizens.

At a mass protest meeting reportedly held April 7, 1850, Col. E.F. Brundage supposedly delivered a manifesto creating a new nation. The republic enacted its own laws, elected its own officers, including Brundage as president.

But the 3,000 miners and others who lived here soon tired of being an independent republic and after 12 weeks threw in the towel. They rejoined the union on the Fourth of July.

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These sparse details of the Great Republic are duly recorded on an historical plaque in the center of town and in brochures about the community’s history.

Bear said she has a hard time believing that more of a record doesn’t exist about something as momentous as the declaration of a new nation, yet the few references to the event are passing mentions in local history books, the earliest-known published in 1862.

A “History of Nevada County” published in 1880, for instance, reports that “It was during the uncertainty of the 1850s . . . that Col. E.F. Brundage conceived the idea of a separate and independent government. He issued a high-sounding manifesto and called a mass meeting. The whole affair was severely ridiculed and soon The State of Rough and Ready vanished like the mist.”

Historian Bear muses that “surely if it happened, there must be descendants of miners who were here who wrote letters to relatives back East that are tucked away in attics somewhere. My hope is that someday, someone finds something written at the time it happened about the existence of the Great Republic of Rough and Ready.”

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Recorded details or not, for this sleepy little hamlet, population 4,000, some 60 miles northeast of Sacramento, Secession Days are the biggest celebration each year. Something special happens each weekend.

Earlier in the celebration, retired cowboy and stagecoach maker Jim West, 75, endowed with a great flowing white beard, led a caravan of nine covered wagons and 40 horses three nights and four days along the old Immigrant Trail from Rough and Ready 30 miles to Wheatland. The group camped out all along the way.

One weekend there was a parade of old cars and on another, a children’s parade. There has been a chili cook-off, a peddler’s fair and several other events.

The Secession Days weekends culminate in the staging of a festival highlighted by the traditional outdoor performance of the play “The Saga of the Great Republic of Rough and Ready.”

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The town came by its unusual name in 1849 when Capt. A.A. Townsend and a party of 25 gold miners who came West from Wisconsin founded the place. Townsend served in the Army under Zachary (Rough and Ready) Taylor, America’s 12th President, and named the town after his hero.

Today, Rough and Ready retains many vestiges of its past, from William Fippin’s 1850s blacksmith’s shop to the 1854 frame Grange Hall and the quaint clapboard Rough and Ready School that served five generations of the town’s children until it closed in 1953.


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