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Madera finally tamed Captain Mace

Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society Captain Russel Perry Mace is seen here circa 1885 with the student body of Madera’s first school — Eastside. Mace was the president of the school board.


An adventurer who rode with Kit Carson, scouted the West in search of buffalo, and mined for gold on the banks of the San Joaquin River was finally tamed by the prospects offered in the new, little lumber town of Madera.

Captain Russel Perry Mace had come to California in 1849 during the gold rush and became a legend in the San Joaquin Valley. He made his mark in Madera, the town he helped to make, but his story began in Boston where he was born in 1820.

The son of a financially strapped manufacturer of carpenter’s tools, Mace was adopted by an uncle and spent his boyhood days on a farm in Putney, Vermont.

Being disinterested in school and country life and anticipating the delights of the sea, Mace signed on as a cabin boy aboard a steamer bound for New Orleans. One trip, however, was sufficient, and at the first port he left ship to enter the employ of a French trader who conducted business with the Comanche Indians.

Soon young Mace found himself in Independence, Missouri, aboard a wagon train heading for Bent’s Fort on the Arkansas River. The train was loaded with blankets, shotguns, blue and red cloth, and a stock of general goods to be traded with the Indians for beaver skins and hides.

This experience led to employment with the American Fur Company and a two-year association with Kit Carson, noted scout of the West. Together they hunted buffalo to feed the 400 men then employed by the company.

In 1844, at the age of 23, Mace returned to New Orleans and obtained employment as a clerk with a wine distribution company. At the opening of the Mexican-American War, he was among the first to volunteer and was severely wounded during his first three-month enlistment.

While on convalescent leave, he heard of the plans to raise another contingent of troops from Louisiana for service in the war. Mace recruited the first company of this regiment and became its captain. He carried this title, “Captain,” for the rest of his life.

Upon the death of his first lieutenant from yellow fever in Tampico, Mace married the young officer’s widow, and when gold was discovered the next year in California, the captain, his wife Elizabeth, and her 7-year-old son Charles, set out for the land of Ophir. Captain Mace and his family arrived in San Francisco via Panama in August 1849. From there, they traveled to the Yuba River, where he became engaged in mining.

He followed this endeavor for the next decade or so and wound up trying his luck on the banks of the San Joaquin River near the town of Millerton. His diary for that period reflects a rather tedious life in the California gold fields. “July 4, 1860,” “I washed 34 buckets dirt in the forenoon and made .62 ½ cents. In the afternoon went to Urquhart’s and got a sack of flour and 12 lbs. of pork & $1.00 worth of soap, paid him for the same, $8.00. James McCardle came this afternoon with beef, 16 lbs.” “Dec. 11, 1860,” “It rained hard last night. I sent Ashman $48.00 by Jas. McCardle. Dividend $49.00. Reserved one dollar myself.”

In 1864, Elizabeth Mace died, and in 1866, Captain Mace married Mrs. Jennie Cunningham Gilmore and moved to what is now O’Neals. Six years later the Central Pacific Railroad pushed as far south as the San Joaquin River, and the economic center of gravity shifted to the Valley floor. This development was not lost on Mace.

In 1874, two years before Madera was founded, Captain Mace and the second Mrs. Mace left the foothills and opened a hotel at Borden on the Southern Pacific line.

In 1876, he purchased the first town lot in Madera and abandoned Borden to build a little two-story hotel in the new lumber town. Mace’s primary interest turned to the lucrative tourist trade, which the Yosemite travel would yield.

The captain was an avid horseman and could be seen riding about town in formal attire, complete with top hat and gold-handled cane. He weighed over 350 pounds and had a special saddle made for him in Visalia.

Captain Mace was a member of the Masonic Lodge as well as the California Pioneers and Veterans of the Mexican War. He served three terms in the State Legislature. He was the president of Madera’s first school board and helped build its first educational facility, Eastside School.

From the founding of Madera in 1876, to his death from heart failure on April 24, 1894, Captain Mace was the acknowledged major-domo of the tiny community. From the parlor in the Mace Hotel on the corner of E Street and Yosemite Avenue, he hosted every dignitary who visited Madera, including Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, President Rutherford B. Hayes, and famed frontiersman, John C. Fremont.

With his passing, Madera mourned as never before. A parade of buggies and carriages followed Madera’s first mortician, R.C. Jay, to Arbor Vitae Cemetery for the Captain’s burial.

Although Mace left a wife and four children, there were no grandchildren, and today he has no living descendants. However, his memory had been kept alive by those who remember the stories their grandparents told about the gargantuan figure who held forth from his rocking chair on the sidewalk at the side of Mace’s Yosemite Hotel.

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