Shirttail Canyon got its name from suprise encounter

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Editor
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Thanks to two gentlemen, identified only as Thompson and West in their 1882 book titled “A History of Placer County,” for preserving many stories of the early days of this territory. From their recordings of pioneer remembrances come the tales of how many places got their – sometimes very odd – names. The recent July 11, 2012 Robbers fire actually started in Shirttail Canyon, some 6.5 air line miles south of Robbers Ravine. (Note: prior to the Wright brothers the term “air line” referred to the straight distance between two points on a map; now we think of commercial jet transportation companies.) Today Yankee Jims Road bridge crosses the North Fork of the American River. Picture this in your mind: no bridge nor road and a few gold-hungry souls in the very steep canyon. Here is the Thompson and West story as written in the 1880s; it’s too precious to change: “A short distance above the historic spot once known as Barnes’ Bar on the North Fork of the American River, a stream flows into the river from the southward, known as Devil’s Cañon. Going up this, perhaps three miles, a branch joins it upon the left hand side, and Shirt-tail Cañon presents itself, to the beholder. Like all streams of its magnitude, its bed is a deep gorge, narrow and rocky, from 1,000 to 1,500 feet below the crests of the surrounding ‘divides.’ It became an important auxiliary to the gold-producing fields at an early period in the history of the State, and has poured forth from its rough bosom a large quota of treasure to swell the volume of that precious commodity by which commerce regulates the standard of values. “The unique name it bears was bestowed in the following manner: Early in the summer of 1849 two men, one named Tuttle, formerly from the State of Connecticut, and the other Van Zandt, from Oregon, were prospecting upon Brushy Cañon and in that locality, and at the time supposed there was no one nearer to them than the people who were at work along the river bars. From Brushy they emerged into the valley of the larger stream into which it emptied. It was sultry and hot, and no sound but their own suppressed voices broke the silence of the gorge. A bend in the creek a short distance below them obstructed the view, and they walked down the stream to overcome it. “Abruptly turning the point, they were astonished to see before them, but a little way off, a solitary individual – whether white or [native] they could not at first determine – engaged in primitive mining operations, with crevicing spoon, and sheath-knife and pan. The apparition was perfectly nude, with the exception of a shirt, and that was not overly lengthy. The lone miner was in the edge of the water, and, happening to look up, saw the two men who had intruded upon his domain at about the same time that they discovered him. Had this not been so, Tuttle and Van Zandt, as they declared afterward, would have stepped back, made some noise, and given the man a chance to don his overalls. As it was, the eyes of both parties met, and an involuntary ‘hello!’ came from all three mouths. ‘What in the devil’s name do you call this place?’ queried one of the intruders of the sans culottes, who proved to be an American. He glanced at his bare legs, and from them to his questioners, took in at a moment the ludicrous appearance he made, and laughingly answered, ‘Don’t know any name for it yet, but we might as well call it Shirt-tail as anything else,’ and under that euphonious nomenclature has it since been known, and must thus go down to posterity. It is to be regretted that no record can be found of the name of the man in the shirt.”