Much, but certainly not all, of the history of Alva (sometimes spelled Alvah) Hamilton, a pioneer of Buck Meadows and Chinese Camp, is shrouded in mystery. His arrival in California is documented in the Google eBook “The Argonauts of California: Being the Reminiscences of Scenes and Incidents that Occurred in California in Early Mining Days.” It states “Alvah Hamilton a Passenger of [the] Steamer Falcon departed New York 8 Mar 1849.”
One can speculate that this is the same 32 year old Alvah Hamilton, born in Watuberough (a corruption of the word Waterborough,) Maine who was issued a passport on March 5, 1849. The passport application gave Alvah’s height as 5 feet 9 ½ inches and his physical description as blue eyes, a Grecian nose, a medium mouth and sound chin. Light hair, light complexion and a long face.
By study of the book "The Hamiltons of Waterborough, Their Ancestors and Descendants" by Samuel King Hamilton, one can construe that Alva was a descendant of one of the five Hamilton brothers that constitute the “Hamiltons of Waterborough.”
An article entitled “The Emigration to California” published in the March 9, 1849, issue of the New York Herald lists the name Alvah Hamilton among passengers headed for the Isthmus of Panama aboard the Steamship Falcon.
At the time, there was only one way to cross the 50-mile isthmus from the Caribbean to the Pacific side. It was in boats on the Chagres River, then by mule or on foot to Panama City over the old Spanish treasure trail.
This trip could take days or even weeks, and along the way, travelers encountered bugs, heat and torrential rain, yellow fever, malaria, larcenous boatmen, and violent bandits, who robbed and murdered many a Gold Rush hopeful. It could also take weeks for a steamship to show up in Panama City to take the miners and other entrepreneurs up to San Francisco.
What is known about Alva’s life after his arrival in California is a bit easier to document. The obituary of his daughter Nora (Hamilton) Blackwell states that he “came to California in the midst of the Gold Rush in 1849. He worked as a miner for several years at Columbia and established what is known as Chinese Camp.”
The 1852 California State Census finds Alva listed as a merchant living in Tuolumne County and the 1860 Federal Census lists him as an unmarried farmer living in Buena Vista, Stanislaus County. Buena Vista is at the intersection of the road leading to Knight’s Ferry and Highway 108/120. It should be noted that until 1854, Tuolumne County included all of Stanislaus County.
It was shortly thereafter that Alva married. His wife is reputed to have been Johanna Grayson of Grayson’s Hotel in Knights Ferry, but there is reason to believe that Johanna’s maiden name was not Grayson but Foley.
Census records indicate that Johanna was born in England about 1832 whereas Daniel Grayson of the Grayson Hotel was born about 1832 in Alabama and raised in Yell County Arkansas before arriving in California about 1860. The possibility that Johanna’s maiden name might have been Foley is suggested by an abstract from the May 24, 1861 issue of the Sacramento Daily Union that reads [Married] “At Chinese Camp, El Dorado county, May 14th, Alvah Hamilton to Johanna Foley.”
In any case, the Hamiltons had three children before establishing a way station at Tamarack Flat in 1870; Nora “a pioneer of Oakdale” born in June of 1863, George in November of 1865 and Eva in March of 1870. It was there that Alva and his wife Johanna maintained a rough sort of mountain hospice called Tamarack House where meals were served to saddle tourists and pack train handlers making their way to or from Yosemite Valley via the Coulterville Trail.
A fire destroyed the facility and Alva moved his family down the mountain to the beautiful meadow now known as Buck Meadows. There is some indication that the Hamiltons may have lived at the meadow prior to 1870. The obituary of his son George Hamilton states that he was born at Hamilton Station and the book “A Tourists Guide to the Yo-semite” by J. M. Hutchings published in 1870 mentions the accommodations at Hamilton’s near the Big Gap (Buck Meadows).
Initially, Buck Meadows was known as Hamilton's Station. Alva Hamilton and Johanna built their farmhouse there and ran a hotel for travelers. It was a favorite stopping place for cattlemen herding cattle up country to pasture or back down again.
Hamilton’s remained open year around, although there was little business in the winter. They also farmed, raising their own beef and pork. They planted orchards of apples, peaches and Bartlett pears.
The success of the Hamilton’s wayside inns was due in great part to Johanna’s invaluable role as a hostess. Many references can be found about her “large, enveloping hospitality.”
Johanna was 63 when she died in 1907 and Alva 88 when he died in 1908. Both are buried in unmarked graves at the Divide Cemetery.
Notice of Alvah’s death can be found in “The Grizzly Bear” an “Official Organ of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West”. Vol. II, #6 April 1908 pg. 42: The Passing of the Pioneer - Alva Hamilton a pioneer of 1849 who settled in Tuolumne county at an early period died recently in Groveland.
The substance of this story is based on research done by Harold and Ann Wesley who at one time owned and operated Buck Meadows.