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our ancient and honerable order...

E. Clampus Vitus History



Judge Frazier

Vice Noble Grand Humbug, Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881


Material for this guide has been gathered from various sources including liberally plagiarizing, stealing, absconding, purloining, pilfering, looting and misappropriating the work of others. Be that as it may, I believe it is reasonably accurate. It is unsolicited, unofficial, unsanctioned, unblessed and unapproved. And, like other perfectly good stories, it is subject to spoilage by an eye witness.


Credo Quia Absurdum


What is E CLAMPUS VITUS anyway? And who, or what, are these men dressed in red shirts adorned with impressive looking badges, pins and other strange items? Many things, really, but perhaps some history would be helpful in order to better understand the organization and its members who are known as CLAMPERS.


Back in the Gold Rush Days of the mid-nineteenth century literally thousands of mining camps and towns sprang up throughout the Sierra Nevada mountains and in neighboring territories that now comprise the western states. A new town would appear almost overnight at the mere rumor of a fresh strike. But as the gold or silver petered out the mines closed, claims were abandoned and most of the people moved on. What had been a thriving town was soon reduced to empty buildings and a few hardy souls struggling for existence. Today many tiny hamlets no bigger than a small dot on a seldom traveled back road map once boasted an area population of fifteen or twenty thousand at its peak. Stripping away the fictional glamour, one finds a picture that stands in stark contrast to the romantic Hollywood image. The miner’s life, whether working his own claim or in a larger operation, was rugged, dangerous, often short and, for many, a nomadic existence that took them from one area to another in search of riches. For all but a few their arduous labor produced scant reward. Entertainment was whatever they could make of whatever was at hand and a good prank or practical joke brought much needed relief from the serious business of just getting through the day. Not infrequently, their revelry consisted of exchanging gold dust for a raucous night at one of the many saloons or gambling halls and, whenever possible, at some unsuspecting person’s expense.


By 1850 two fraternal organizations, the Masonic Lodge and the Odd Fellows (IOOF), were well established in California and virtually all men of influence were members of either or both of these orders. Both groups were viewed as very strict in nature with impressive badges of office and formal attire. In short, they provided little humor and certainly no relief from the arduous task of just staying alive. In 1851 a group of men at Mokelumne Hill, California, felt another fraternal organization, one much less serious of nature, was needed and The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, with an avowed dedication to the protection of “Widows and Orphans”, came to life in the west. Originally, the order was a spoof or mockery of the well known fraternal orders. But it also recognized a certain absurdity that was so much a part of their lives and, indeed, had become something that was cherished whether viewed as an escape or just another thing that had to be endured. One can only imagine the difficulty in maintaining a serious expression as these Clampers carried on their satire by addressed each other with lofty sounding titles of “Noble Grand Humbug”, “Clamps Vitrix”, “Roisterous Iscutis”, “Royal Gyascutis”, “Grand Imperturbable Hangman”. To further their mockery the members bedecked themselves with badges and self created awards fashioned from tin can lids. The latter became known as “wearing the tin”. Rather than having a strict officialdom, all members were declared officers with none ranking higher than his fellow Clampers. Initiates, known as Poor Blind Candidates or PBCs, were subjected to a withering blast of humiliation and relieved of as much gold dust as possible which was promptly used to sustain the gathering at the saloon. The PBC was instantly transformed into a full fledged Clamper. Although there are no formal uniforms, Clampers today maintain a tradition of wearing red shirts at their functions as a remembrance of the red union suits of old. And most will be seen wearing a vest of some sort that is adorned with a multitude badges, pins and patches. There were no dues then and none are collected today. E Clampus Vitus is now and has been since its inception a “men only” organization.


Just how E Clampus Vitus came to be is a matter of some conjecture and sometimes subject to a variety of versions and interpretations well suited to the occasion at hand. Legend tells of its creation in 4004B.C. but most of the supporting historical records and tablet archives were destroyed in a cataclysmic event many centuries ago when a huge comet passed near the Earth and wrecked havoc on our planet before being trapped in our solar system. That catastrophic celestial passing was described by the late Immanuel Velikovsky in his book “Worlds in Collision” with the comet identified as what we now know to be the planet Venus. The surviving records are thought to have been lost in the fire that destroyed the Great Libraries of Alexandria, Egypt in the third century B.C. What is know is that in 1845 a tavern, hotel and stable owner in Lewisport, West Virginia, named Ephriam Bee received a commission authorizing him to extend the work and influence of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus from the Emperor of China. The commission was handed to Mr. Bee by a Mr. Caleb Cushing who had returned from China in 1844 while serving the government in establishing diplomatic and trade relations in the far east. E Clampus Vitus, or ECV as it is also known, succeeded and flourished where other orders failed for it was Bee’s belief that any man of upstanding character who was of age could join, unencumbered by the restrictions of other fraternal organizations. ECV was brought to California by Mr. Joe Zumwalt in 1849, although the exact route is subject to debate. One account has Zumwalt leaving Illinois in March of 1849 and arriving in Sacramento in late October of the same year. Others believe he left Missouri with a Clamper companion named W.C.Wright and first settled in Hangtown (later renamed Placerville) before moving on to what is now properly known as Mokelumne Hill in 1850. Typical migration routes to the gold fields could have made either or both versions correct. Regardless of which path Zumwalt took, Mokelumne Lodge Number 1001 first opened its doors in September, 1851. In later years an argument arose claiming Clamper activity in both Sierra City and Downieville before the generally accepted beginnings in Mokelumne. No doubt that debate will never be settled to everyone’s satisfaction.


Clamper membership grew like wildfire and chapters sprang up nearly everywhere there was mining activity. Before long it was the largest organization in the Gold Rush country and had spread to the nearby territories. As noted in Back Roads of California (Sunset, Lane Publishing), nearly every man was a Clamper and those who weren’t found themselves on the outside of business and social life. Itinerant salesmen, known as Drummers or Hawkers, soon learned that Clampers only did business with other Clampers. It was, after all, a fun loving group that provided diversion and camaraderie in what was more often than not a hazardous life.


One should never overlook the fact that the Clampers were in fact a highly respected and honored organization. In spite of  their well deserved reputation as hard drinking pranksters, there was a benevolent serious side to their activity. Caring for the “Widows and Orphans” of miners was more than a mere slogan. Indeed, E Clampus Vitus was by far the largest charitable organization of the time and certainly the only one assisting the families of killed or injured miners. Mining accidents and injuries were common. A man killed or injured and unable to work left an almost instantly destitute family. In many cases gifts of money or food mysteriously appeared but the donor was always anonymous. In other instances the widow, or “widder” as they were known, discovered some unnamed person had made the mortgage or rent payments and saved her and the children from homelessness in a hostile land. Clamper charity was unique in that, with few exceptions, it was always done anonymously, quietly and without fanfare although there was rarely any question as to the benefactor’s true identity.


The heyday of western mining and the wild life that accompanied it lasted actually less than thirty years before starting to decline. Thriving communities saw their population dwindle from the thousands to the hundreds or less and many were abandon altogether. The decrepit ruins of these ghost town stand today as a stark reminder of an age gone by. With the decline of mining activity the popularity of E Clampus Vitus also faded until in 1910 there was only one chapter, in Marysville, California, still functioning. By 1930 the order was all but extinct and had become just another useless relic of the past confined to history.


Not long after the order was declared dead and buried, a group of California historians lead by Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane and Leon O. Whitsell became interested in the many references to Clamper activity found in old newspaper articles and letters. They also shared a belief that a significant part of California and U.S. history was being lost in the frantic pace of the twentieth century. Resuscitating the Order of E Clampus Vitus seemed a proper vehicle to commemorate and preserve that history. Through their efforts and assisted by Mr. Adam Lee Moore, the last known survivor of the old Clamper days, the order was revived with the incorporation of a chapter in San Francisco known as Yerba Buena Number 1. The chapter was christened “Capitulus Redivivus E Clampus Vitus”, or Revived Capital of E Clampus Vitus, in 1931 and the modern era of Clamperdom had begun. Yerba Buena was followed in 1934 by Platrix Chapter 2 in Los Angeles. Then came Lord Sholto Douglas Chapter 3 and Quivira Chapter 4. Sometime after 1936 it was determined that numbering chapters in consecutive order constituted a flagrant violation of the spirit of absurdity that was such an important aspect of the original Clamper activity. From that time on new chapters took whatever name and number seemed fitting. The mining camp originally named Pair-O-Dice had been incorporated and changed its official name to Paradise and is the home of aptly named Pair-O-Dice Chapter 7-11. Arroyo Grande, located midway between San Francisco (Chapter 1) and Los Angeles (Chapter 2) is home to De La Guerra y Pacheco Chapter 1.5 while we in Elko belong to Lucinda Jane Saunders Chapter 1881. In all there are now over forty chapters in California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, Oregon and Colorado. And one must not forget the offshore Floating Wang Chapter or the Cyber-Wang Chapter 68040/48.1 located in cyberspace.


Modern day E Clampus Vitus combines a dedication to preserving western and mining history with a never ending quest for fun. And, lest we be untrue to our heritage, a liberal dash of the absurd is added for good measure. In both California and Nevada the Clampers are the largest historical organization. We have erected many hundred historical markers and plaques to commemorate sites, people and events that played a role in our western heritage but might otherwise be lost or forgotten. Many of these plaques are recorded in state and national registries. Before a plaque is erected the subject is clearly identified, documented and researched. The research work alone, often taking a year or more to complete, involves many people spending long hours digging through libraries, official records, newspaper files and interviewing people. The work is, of course, voluntary. A single large cast bronze plaque, typical of that used, frequently cost a thousand dollars or more to erect.


Following such a dedication, or Plaquing as it is called, there is a traditional party still called a doin’s. As one writer noted, these party gatherings of red shirted pranksters wearing vests covered with pins, medals, ribbons and badges lead to the organization’s reputation as either a “Historical Drinking Society” or a “Drinking Historical Society”. While there is no denial that distilled and fermented beverages freely flow, the group is officially and vehemently opposed to public intoxication and require that those who partake have a “Brother of sobriety holding the reins”.


Becoming a Clamper is not an easy task. Certainly a man may express a desire but he must be invited.


Clearly, the prospect must have a genuine interest in western history. Other requirements have been listed as a good sense of humor, a relatively thick skin, a cast iron stomach, an open mind, a flare for the ridiculous, and an appreciation of absurdity. If the invitation is accepted, the candidate is presented by his sponsor at a doin’s and must survive a time honored ritual at the hands of the Grand Imperturbable Hangman. It is also important to know that an invitation is only given once. If refused it is never tendered again. But who, we ask, would refuse such an honor? After all, among our members are college professors, truckers, U.S. Presidents, clerics, sheriffs, mechanics, miners, judges, laborers, pilots, bartenders, senators, carpenters, lawyers, plumbers, entrepreneurs, authors and just about anything else you could think of. Each treated the same or, as we say, “with equal indignity”. In the words of a noted Brother, “Clampers are not made, they are born. Like gold, they just have to be discovered.”


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