Algernon: The Official Seal of El Dorado County

A few years ago it was discovered that the County of El Dorado had been mistakenly using the Official Seal of the Superior Court as its own. After much consternation, it was decided to adopt a new seal, a modification of one previously created by a local artist for a book on the county.

One evening I thought about the issue, and, with the kind assistance of several glasses of local wine, I came up with a fable, which I submitted to the local newspaper under my pen name, Norm DePlume.

I made sure that they knew it was a fable and that they would not use my real name, however, after passing through several hands, it ended up being published as a true story, and with my real name.

Needless to say, a number of local historians called, first to ask where in the records the story had been found and, secondly, if it was true. All in all, it was a fun week or two.

Algernon: the Official Seal of El Dorado County

Recently there has been much discussion about the Official Seal of El Dorado County and its origin. After hours of research I have uncovered the truth about this seal and its history.

In the spring of 1850, a few months after the County of El Dorado had been created by an act of the State Legislature, an old sailor appeared in the gold rush mining town of Hangtown, driving a large, high-sided wagon which was covered with a kind of tent made from a piece of sailcloth. The wagon appeared to be fully loaded with something very heavy and seeped water from a few uncaulked spaces between the sideboards.

He parked the wagon near the El Dorado Hotel and, getting down from his seat, pulled out a large piece of cloth which he hung from the side of the wagon. On the cloth was painted in large crude letters: “Sea Monster, a pinch of gold for a look.”

The local citizens, starving for entertainment of any kind because no travelling shows came to their town during the winter, were excited with the opportunity to view a “Sea Monster” and immediately gathered around the wagon. Most of them had come to California by sea, around the Horn, and had seen many creatures, but never a real “Sea Monster.”

The sailor told the crowd that the “monster” was afraid of the light and that when the sun had gone down, he would show it to them, as the sign said, “for a pinch of gold” each.

After the sun had set, most everyone in the town lined up to pay their pinch of gold and they pushed and shoved each other to get in the best place to view the “Sea Monster.”

The old sailor, now complete in a fancy dress uniform that was covered with ribbons and medals and sporting fancy, golden epaulets and a hat reminiscent of one worn by English admiral, stood on the seat of the wagon and began a seemingly endless story about how he had singlehandedly captured the “Sea Monster” far away in the North China Sea.

While expounding on his personal valor, he slowly untied and removed the sailcloth from the wagon and, with a final flourish, swooped it to the ground. For a few moments nothing happened, but then, a dark, grotesque shape, dripping wet, pulled itself up out of the body of the wagon and up onto its edge.

Immediately, many in the crowd turned and ran, knocking down anyone in their path and not even taking the time for a second look over their shoulder. Some just stood still and covered their eyes in fear, while others stared at the “Sea Monster”, amazed with what they thought they were seeing in the now very dim light.

Whatever was in the wagon was frightening, appearing to have a large spine-like horn protruding from its forehead and a row of smaller spines running down its back. It pushed itself up on what looked like large fins or flippers and stared back at the frightened crowd, surveying the scene, side to side.

Some of the more brave in the crowd pushed their way forward to get a better look, but they soon retreated when the old sailor, in a loud voice, warned them that the “Sea Monster” would not only bite, but that its spines were poisonous, a fact which two people as his last stop had sadly found out.

But, one young boy, with youthful curiosity, approached the backside of the wagon, away from the old sailor. Putting his feet on the spokes of the wagon’s wheel, he grabbed the top edge of the wagon and slowly pulled himself up until he could see the back of the “monster”. His youthful eyes were better than most of those in the crowd and even though it was dark, he could make out that the spines on the “monster” were not a part of the animal at all, but attached to it with leather straps.

He immediately yelled out, “Its not a real monster at all, it looks more like a wet dog with some spines fastened to it.”

Hearing the words of the young boy, and in spite of the sailor’s loudly intensifying warnings of danger, several in the crowd approached the “monster.” One man ran over to a burning campfire and, grabbing a flaming stick, ran back and held it up beside the “monster”, to see it better.

“Why it’s just a seal, like the ones that crowd on the rocks all up and down the coast of California”, said one man, “and the boy is right, the spines are attached with leather straps, dyed to match the color of the animal’s fur.”

The crowd, including those who were still some distance away, started to laugh and soon the whole group was roaring at the trick that the old sailor had tried to pull on them. The old sailor, sensing that the crowd might now turn on him, pulled himself up onto one of the horses that had brought the wagon to town and took off at a fast gallop downhill towards Sacramento.

“Good riddance”, yelled one man as he left, “And don’t come back you cheater”, shouted another as the old sailor continued to ride as fast as he could, putting as much space between himself and the town as possible.

One man grabbed the young boy who had first spotted the fake spines the sailor had attached to the seal, and set him up on the side of the wagon. “This boy is smarter than the rest of us and deserves a cheer”, he said. The crowd responded with several loud cheers for the boy, loud enough that they probably woke sleepy miners several miles away in other mining camps.

“But, but”, said the young boy, “but what will we do with this seal? And, what if it isn’t friendly?” With this comment, several of the crowd jumped back from the wagon a safe distance, but the seal, probably just as frightened itself, swam over and putting its head on the young boy’s leg, let out a small bark.

The young boy slowly moved his hand down and unfastened the leather straps that held the large spine to the seal’s head. As the fake spine fell into the water, the seal barked again and nuzzled against the young boy’s arm.

“It’s a friendly seal”, the young boy yelled out as he reached in and unfastened the other straps, completely freeing the seal from its costume. “But, what are we going to do with it?”, the boy continued.

The crowd though for a while and pondered their problem. “Let’s see”, said one old miner, “we could take him back to the ocean and let him loose, but it appears that he has been injured and doesn’t swim well. Maybe that is why the sailor was able to catch him. If we let him loose, he will probably not live! On the other hand, we could keep him, but only if we are willing to build him a nice home and bring him fresh fish and clean ocean water on a regular basis.”

There was a lot of mumbling among the crowd and then someone yelled, “I’ll help pay someone to build what is needed and, even take my wagon to the ocean to get fish and water.” Others agreed and soon the seal had been adopted by the town.

“What are we going to name him?”, asked one of the crowd. “Well”, said one of the older miners, “why don’t we let our young hero come up with a name?”

“Algernon”, yelled the young boy, “Algernon was the name of a cat I had in New York just before we set sail for California, and I really liked that cat.” The crowd roared its agreement and the old miner stepped to the wagon, placed his hand on the seal’s head and said, “Algernon, you are now the Official Seal of the new County of El Dorado.” The crowd cheered even more and Algernon loudly barked along with them and even appeared to nod in agreement.

The miners made Algernon a new, and much larger, tank to live in and regularly brought him fresh fish and water from the ocean. Even the town doctor gave him yearly check-ups to make sure he was healthy. And, nearly every day the young boy, who was rapidly becoming a strong young man, visited him and scratched his head, something Algernon seemed to like a lot.

For the next ten years Algernon attended all official functions, dinners and grand openings. He was even on the platform at the side of California Governor John Bigler in 1854 when he announced to the miners that the town that they had known as Hangtown was now officially the City of Placerville.

One day, the doctor came to the young man and told him that Algernon did not seem to be as strong as he once had been and that his age seemed to be catching up with him.

The young man began to spend more and more time with Algernon, feeding him his favorite fish and stroking his head. But soon, and in spite of everything everyone tried to do for him, Algernon died.

Algernon, the Official Seal of the County of El Dorado was put to rest with full honors, following a ceremony that all government officials and nearly everyone else in the county attended.

Where is he buried? No one seems to remember.

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