Happy Camp Wasn't Always Such a 'Happy' Town

3 min
Evans General Store, Happy Camp, CA Circa 1900. (Yreka Preservation, Member Collection)

A lot of us Californians like to hit the open road, explore miles of highway and venture off onto some back roads. Sometimes, we come across towns with some pretty bizarre and surprising names. For this installment in our series “A Place Called What?!” we head to Happy Camp in Siskiyou County. Know an unusual place name in California? Tell us about it in the comments below, or send a note to calreport@kqed.org.

Claudia East says Happy Camp wasn't always so happy. In fact, in the early 1850s, the town was known as Murderer's Bar.

East, who lives about two hours away from Happy Camp, says there were gold miners in the area who mined through very harsh winters. Then, newcomers came and, according to East, "they didn't know what the winters were going to be like."

A photo of Happy Camp from 1941 (during the height of the State of Jefferson Movement). (Courtesy of the Jarvie Eastman Collection, UC Davis)

Tension and conflict between the resident gold miners and the newcomers quickly grew.

"Supplies were fought over," East says, "as well as perhaps the gold digging areas. There must have been some death."

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That's how this wild, wild west town got to be named Murderer's Bar. But only a few years later, East says, things at Murderer's Bar began to change for the better.

"People were very happy they didn't get murdered," East says. "Local stories also say that it was called Happy Camp because someone said it was a very happy place to be because they found gold."

Birds Eye View of Happy Camp, 2014. (Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Claudia East)

Now, East says, Happy Camp is very a small town with about 1,200 residents.

"It is not for people who are looking for great luxury," East says, "but people who live there don't want to leave."