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Sammann's not Simon's

By Joseph R. Jehl, Jr.

The southeastern corner of Mono Lake is one of extreme beauty and ecological richness. It attractiveness stems from a park of tufa towers bordered by an extensive freshwater marsh, which provides one of the very few places where marsh-dwelling species such as Sora, Song Sparrow, Wilson’s Phalarope, and Long-billed Marsh-Wren can breed and find refuge in the otherwise barren landscape. It is one of the two major nesting areas for the Gadwall-- the only duck that breeds regularly at Mono Lake-- and in late summer and fall the waters just offshore become a major concentration point for thousands of Wilson’s and Red-necked phalaropes and tens of thousands of Eared Grebes.

This area has long been mapped and known locally as Simon’s Spring, but neither that designation or its origin is listed in the authoritative California Place Names (1960). Actually, “Simon’s” is a mistranscription of the surname of Louis Sammann, a controversial but important character in the early history of Mono County.

State records show that Sammann was born in Hanover, Germany, around 1831-1833. In the Great Register of Mono County (years, 1872 through 1880, 1882, and 1884) his age is given as 36 in 1867 (ergo 1831) and 49 in 1882 (= 1833). He was naturalized in Stanislaus, Co., in 1860, but arrived much earlier. According to La Braque (1984:60), “in 1851 he came into Yosemite as a hunter. He arrived in Dogtown [the first local gold mining location, about 25 km north of the town of Lee Vining] in 1856, and mined there with Cord Norst and Leroy Vining. Later, he mined at Monoville, moving on to the Bodie mines about 1860,” and remaining there at least in to 1861 (Wedertz, 1969:126-127).

He apparently did fairly well, but the work was difficult and by 1862 had returned to the Mono Basin. That date can be inferred from the writings of Mark Twain, who visited Mono Lake in August. In Roughing It, Twain hyperbolically (as usual) describes rowing to the islands in “a large boat” hired “from a lonely ranchman who lived some ten miles further on [from a large stream]. Williams (1987) inferred that this was Mill Creek, but if Twain is accurate, it must have been Rush Creek, which is about 10 miles from Sammann’s eventual habitation (see below).

Sammann surfaces with certainty a year later. We know that from William H. Brewer, chief scientist of the Geological Survey of California under the direction of Josiah Dwight Whitney, and the first scientifically trained person to visit the area. Brewer and his party passed through Yosemite and entered the Mono Basin via Bloody Canyon on July 7, 1863. In his field notes, later published as Up and down California in 1860-1864 (Farquhar 1966), Brewer described Mono Lake as “the most remarkable lake I have ever seen,” and was probably the first to liken it to the Dead Sea. On 10-11 July, he and a companion boated to the islands in the company of an “old mountaineer,” who earlier in the season had been the business of harvesting gull eggs for the mining towns. Although not specifically identified in Up and Down California...., the guide was Sammann, as made clear in Farquhar’s original transcription of Brewer’s journals, in the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley:

July 10. “Observed barometer and botanized until 3 P. M. Then, with an [old?] mountaineer, Louis Sammann sailed to the islands in the lake....[Camped ?] by a patch of tule and slept in the soft grass...”

Why Sammann is not acknowledged in the published account, is a puzzle. Interestingly, Brewer, then 35, was Sammann’s elder by several years, so his designation of Sammann as “old” (if that is the correct transcription of his sometimes illegible penmanship), is perhaps an allusion to experience and local knowledge, rather than to longevity.

Two decades later, Israel C. Russell conducted further geological exploration in the Mono Basin, culminating in his classic (1889) Quaternary History of the Mono Valley, California. Russell visited in 1881(spring) ,1882 (fall) and 1883 (summer), and encountered Sammann (which Russell spelled as Sammonn), whom he described as residing in a “rude cabin” near the eastern shore. Early editions of the Register gave Sammann’s address as Mono, CA. (evidently the vicinity of “Mono Mills,” where the Register of 1884 placed him), and gave his occupation as butcher. In those days, Mono Mills, lying on the south side of the lake and east of the Mono Craters, was the center of a major lumbering industry that provided wood for the smelters of Bodie (Billeb 1968, Mining Camp Days). At some point, Russell was able to visit the islands in Mono Lake. He never says how he got there, but Sammann is the only local resident mentioned in the text, so perhaps he was still available as a ferryman.

The final chapter is unhappy. Sammann in his latter years was regarded as a bad man, distrusted by whites, and hated by Paiutes because of his reputation as an Indian killer (LaBrauqe 1984:60). Sometime prior to 1891, he was killed by Jake Gilbert, a local Indian, in a dispute over money and buried on his ranch. Evidently the shooting was understandable because Gilbert received only a 10-year sentence and then returned to the Basin (for details see LaBraque, 1984, and Cain date ).

So ends the little I have been able to learn about Louis Sammann. Others may wish to search local archives for official records of the trial and the actual date of death. An investigation of historical maps will reveal when the springs were first noted and named. Whether Sammann discovered them is of little importance. What seems more important is that he was an important (albeit notorious) member of the community and the first local resident to assist scientists in gathering what has become an extensive body of knowledge about Mono Lake. His contributions ought at least be recognized by a correct transcription of his surname on forthcoming maps.

I thank Alison Chubb for help in tracing the historical record at the Bancroft Library and Larry Ford for local insights, and comments.



Billeb, E. W. 1968. Mining Camp Days. Nevada Publications, Las Vegas, NV

Cain, E. M. DATE The story of early Mono County

Farquhar, Francis P. 1966. Up and down California in 1860-1864. University of California Press, Berkeley.

LaBraque, Lily Matthieu. 1984. Man from Mono. Nevada Academic Press, Reno.

Russell, I. C. 1889.Quarternary history of Mono Valley, California. Eighth Ann. Report of the U. S. Geological Survey 1889, pp. 267-394. Reprinted by Artemisia Press, Lee Vining Ca., 1984.

Wedertz, F. S. 1969. Bodie 1859-1900. Chalfant Press, Bishop, Ca

Williams, G., III. Mark Twain: His adventures at Aurora and Mono Lake. Tree By

The River Publishing, Dayton, NV.

An historical photo (no 2143, taken19 June 1916) in the archives of the University of California Museum of Zoology, is captioned “Salmon Ranch and Mono Lake.” This came to me from Larry Ford.

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