Some Californians are Elks, others are Moose, and some even are Lions. But the most colorful of them all are the Clampers, members of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus (ECV), a fraternal organization founded back in the gold rush days. It all began as a spoof on other lodges and secret societies, and its early history is a little difficult to reconstruct. The early meetings of E Clampus Vitus in the California gold fields were devoted so completely to drinking and carousing that none of the Clampers was ever in any condition to keep minutes, let alone remember what had happened the next day!
The Clampers held that "All members were officers" and "All officers were of equal indignity," but some, such as the Clampatriarch and the Noble Grand Humbug, were more equal than others. The official purpose of the Order was to take care of the widows and orphans... especially the widows!
By tradition, a person could join E Clampus Vitus by invitation only and then was expected to endure an elaborate, humorous and sometimes grueling initiation ceremony. Membership in E Clampus Vitus declined in the late 1800s, but experienced a revival in the 1930s and is still going strong today. Modern-day Clampers typically dress up in garb reminiscent of the gold-rush -- usually a red miner’s shirt, and black hat -- and they still hold their unique initiation ceremonies, but now specialize in putting up commemorative plaques of historical and hysterical interest. Along with serious sites that need more reverent commemoration, Clampers have been known to plaque places like saloons, bawdy houses, and other locations that have been "overlooked" by more serious historical societies. Pull to the side of the road in California to read a monument and as often as not you will discover that Clampers had something to do with its erection.
Lots of folks don’t know what to make of the Clampers today, but we think Carl Wheat, one of the three founders of the revived Order back in the thirties, put it well when he described E Clampus Vitus as "the comic strip on the page of California History."
As the new millennium begins, there are thousands of Clampers in forty-two chapters in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. There are even two new Outposts of our august organization in Oregon and Washington. Since the early nineteen-thirties, well over two thousand historical sites have been "plaqued" with historical markers by ECV.
Hopefully, you will survive the rigors of the initiation, and become a Member of the Peter LeBeck Chapter #1866 of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus.
The following is a brief history of E CLAMPUS VITUS by Carl Wheat, one of the three fathers of modern E Clampus Vitus. This is part of Wheat's article in the Pacific Historical Review, Vol.XVIII (1949) pages 67-69.
In the interstices of his law practice, Carl I. Wheat found time to contribute extensively on such topics as the maps of Jedediah Smith, the Maps of the Gold Rush, the Death Valley 49ers, Theodore Judah and the Pacific Railway, and monumentally on the Maps of the Trans-Mississippian West. Here he discusses an institution in which his interest is strong and proprietary.
A Brief History of E Clampus Vitus
by Carl Irving Wheat, XNGH
It was early in the "Fifties" that "The Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus" first appeared on the California Scene. The time was one of vast upheaval, human, as well as physical. And after a hard day in the dirt and muck of some Sierra Diggin's, where else but in the Clampers "Hall of Comparative Ovations" could a man rediscover those values that seemed otherwise so lacking in the hard life of the California canyons? E CLAMPUS VITUS spread like wildfire through the mountains. Few indeed were the camps where the order's great horn "THE HEWGAG" did on occasion hoarsely bray. Surely, the succinct Constitution of the Order displayed its Roisterous Spirit as could nothing else.
"ARTICLE ONE", read the unorthodox document: "ALL MEMBERS ARE OFFICERS"
"ARTICLE TWO", it eloquently continued: "ALL OFFICERS ARE OF EQUAL INDIGNITY"
That was all. But it was enough. When the Hewgag blew, the Brethren gathered from far and near. It was a signal that a sucker had appeared in camp -some "POOR BLIND CANDIDATE" ripe for a new experience. For the only ritual of this significant organization of the Gold Rush Days was that of initiation, and the only stated meeting was before or after the full moon when such a one should come upon the scene, ready for their immolation on the altar of merriment.
On those Gala Occasions when, in the vociferous spirit of the Mid-nineteenth Century Yankee, a Parade was to be staged: along the Mining Camp's lone street, it was usually the Clampers who stole the show, marching behind a stalwart soul: carrying a pole that bore a hoop skirt with the strange device: "THIS IS THE BANNER WE FIGHT UNDER". Nor was it only in connection with such celebrations that the Clampers shone. For were they not Brethren? Ready at merest hint of their mysterious Sign of Distress to come to one another's assistance and did not their well-known sign of recognition-The Sign of the Well Jackass - betoken a vitality that even the drab life of the Diggin's could not destroy?
"All for one and one for all" could, indeed, have been the motto of this lusty order. As a matter of fact, however, the Order's hortatory watchword was: "FOR THE BENEFIT OF WIDDOWS AND ORPHANS; BUT MORE ESPECIALLY OF WIDOWS!" and when a Brother, worn by toil and broken in the search for gold, could no longer carry on, the Brethren, one and all, would come to his assistance. It is said that Fifteen Dollars a month would keep a Miner in Bacon and Flour, Beans and Saleratus, and that in those better days E CAMPUS VITUS had but two rules to guide its members in their Eleemosynary Roles:
(1) A Man shall come in person to the Hall of Comparative Ovations for this helpful dole; and (2) Payments shall commence two years after death.
When, in the late Twenties of this softer Century, a Band of latter-day Enthusiasts sought once more to capture the Spirit of the Order's elder days, it was found that little in the way of written data could be found to describe and explain those small and intimate details of the past, that at such times bear so great a significance. It was late lamented EZRA DANE who suggested the answer. During those Early Days, said he, "no Clamper in attendance at a stated meeting was ever in any condition to take minutes of the ceremonies." And, he would add, "After the meeting had concluded no one could be found who could remember what had happened."
The Grand Lodge of the Order convened at Mokelumne Hill, but from the far north of Downieville and Sierra City to the Southernmost Chapters, E CLAMPUS VITUS flourished. Let no benighted individual place a period after that fateful "E" (As was done- ignominiously -in a recently celebrated catalogue of California) , and let no man of whatever Race, Color or Previous Condition succumb to the heretical placing of an "S" after the "P" of CLAMPUS.
The revival of the Order began at Yerba at Buena early in the "Thirties," and by a happy circumstance there came to the group a voice from the past in the person of ADAM LEE MOORE , last Noble Grand Humbug of the Order in that earlier Dispensation. Before he passed from the scene a few years ago at the ripe old age of Ninety and Nine, he, THE CLAMPATRIARCH OF THE REVIVAL brought to these younger and later Clampers not only a Charter of Apostolic Succession, but also a youthful spirit that pervaded many a pilgrimage to the Diggin's with mirth and lusty human wisdom.
Soon another Chapter was erected in the Queen of the Cow Counties, far to the South and others later were convened at Camptonville, Nevada City, Auburn, Hangtown, Columbia, Murphy's Camp, Skunk's Misery, and other memorable spots. The New Dispensation carries on, often incredulous of the tales it hears of the Clampers of old.
In The Enigmatical Book of Vitus the story of the resuscitation of the Order has been told and the Spirit of CREDO QUIA ABSURDUM has been outlined in THE CURIOUS BOOK OF CLAMPUS. Later , THE ESOTERIC BOOK OF E and YE PREPOSTEROUS BOOKE OF BRASSE carried the tale farther. The Literature of the Revival grows apace. Once each year the Brethren gather at Yerba Buena on a night nigh unto the 24th of January, when their lamented one-time Clampatriarch, JAMES W. MARSHALL turns over in his grave three times in their favor. Once, also in each year, Before or After the Full Moon, they devote themselves to a pilgrimage to some spot hallowed by the Picks and Pans revivifying osmosis the Spirit of the Elder Days. E CLAMPUS VITUS was a force of no little significance in those earlier decades. It represented release from toil, respite from sweat - a chance to laugh with and at ones fellows.
And so, when the Sonorous Echoes of the Hewgag resounded through the Sierra silences, few there were who did not drop their Picks and hasten themselves to the Great Hall , where amid Comparative Ovations and mighty mirth "POOR BLIND CANDIDATES" were brought out and instructed in the Mysteries of the Order . To the Query "WHAT SAY THE BREATHEREN? " the assembled Clampers would shout as one- "SATISFACTORY" and the Grand Noble Recorder would reply, with august dignity, "AND SO RECORDED." What is the significance of the Mystic Worlds, which designate the Order? What can "E" or CLAMPUS or even VITUS mean in this connection? That is a secret the answer to which reposes only in the Astral Memories of Clampers long since gone to their reward. It is, in fact, the Only True Secret still recorded and remembered by their Order, for no member now in good standing knows the answer.