By Cory Peterman
Those familiar with classic literature may very well know the French writer Alexandre Dumas – but why would I be bringing up his name in an article about Sierra County? Recently, I was put into contact with historian Douglas Wilkie of Australia, who has written a book, which can be found online, entitled The Journal of Madame Callegari. Wilkie states “Early in 1855, a thirty-six-year-old French woman approached Alexandre Dumas in Paris, and asked him to edit, and publish, her account of ten years spent traveling in Australia, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, California and Mexico. Dumas agreed to her request… However, she insisted that, in publishing her story, her true identity should not be revealed.” Through extensive research, Wilkie has figured that the true identity of the subject in Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, published in 1856, was a woman named Marie Callegari, who once lived at a place called Twist’s Flat, which was located on what is now the North Yuba River in Sierra County. The events that took place at Twist’s Flat are partly fictionalized in Dumas’s story.
So this begs the question – where exactly was Twist’s Flat? Unfortunately, its exact location is hard to pinpoint, as there is no mention of the locale in any local history books other than Major William Downie’s Hunting for Gold, published in 1893. Twist’s Flat also shows up on two maps dating from 1853 drawn by John B. Trask, being shown along the south side of what is now the North Yuba River somewhere between Breyfogle Flat (where the Lure Resort is now located) and the Sierra Buttes.
In his book, Downie mentions a mining partner “went up to Twist’s Flat, as it is now called, and in prospecting struck a very rich patch opposite Negro Point.” In a letter to The Sierra Citizen newspaper of July 22, 1854, Downie writes that his party “prospected up and down the river for three or four miles, and in some places could find as much as a dollar to the pan, particularly at Negro Bar, a short distance below Twist’s Flat.” Downie must be referring to Negro Flat, less than a half mile east of Ladies Canyon (One of Trask’s maps also shows Twist’s Flat located a short distance east of an unmarked, deep canyon).
Drownings seemed to be commonplace at Twist’s Flat. In April 1852, several newspapers reported a man named James Stewart drowned there. The Sierra Citizen newspaper of June 10, 1854 reported “J. H. McCadden, formerly of Baltimore, Md., was drowned on the 6th inst., at Twist’s Flat on the South Fork… On the same day, a Chinaman named Rye, in attempting to cross a foot-log, a short distance below Twist’s Flat, fell into the river and was drowned.” I should note that what is now the North Yuba River was known as the “South Fork” historically.
Sacramento’s Daily Alta newspaper reported the July 4, 1852 marriage of “Charles Morale, of National Hotel, Twist’s Flat, to Miss Helen Lawton, of Downieville.” Later that year, the newspaper would relate the killing of Charles Douglass, an Englishman, by Peter Callegari, the husband of Marie Callegari, the subject of Alexandre Dumas’s book. The couple lived at Twist’s Flat, where they would operate a boarding house, from April to October 1852. The Journal of Madame Giovanni places Twist’s Flat on a plateau near the Yuba about 15 miles north of Downieville and 12 miles south of Butte township (later Sierra City). Mathematically, this places Twist’s Flat just over halfway from Downieville to Sierra City, though these distances don’t match the true 12-mile distance between the two towns. Of note, Negro Flat is exactly eight miles from Downieville.
The Daily Alta newspaper of October 20, 1852 describes the killing of Douglass by Callegari, stating they “had been connected together in several mining claims, were on the most intimate terms, until some words arose between them about their claims on Friday afternoon, which resulted in Douglass knocking Callegari down. They were separated, and the affair rested until some time after, when they again came together, and were separated without much damage to either. Callegari was then called into the back part of the house to attend to his business, and during his absence, Douglass applied several insulting epithets to Mrs C., and rushed towards her but did not reach her, having been stopped. At the same instant Callegari rushed from the back room, with a knife in his hand, chased Douglass just outside of the door and there stabbed him in the lower part of the abdomen. Callegari was afterwards examined and acquitted. Douglass was a victim to intemperance. Considerable feeling at one time was manifested among the miners about Twist’s Flat, for and against the prisoner, but it has now entirely subsided.” This event is fictionalized in Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, accompanied by an illustration.
From my research, and knowledge of the flats between Downieville and Sierra City, I feel it is safe to assume Twist’s Flat was located on the south side of the North Yuba, a short distance east of Ladies Canyon, probably between Negro Flat and Charcoal Flat. Who knew Twist’s Flat would be immortalized in a book by Alexandre Dumas?