The word ‘knighthood’ usually conjures up scenes of men in armor on galloping steeds festooned in raiment bearing symbols of fealty, off to do battle or chivalrous deeds. They bring to mind bravery, honor, integrity, morality, decorum, graciousness, and decency, and are often revered. Hollywood characterizes them as loyal protectors and servants to Medieval nobility; however, the ‘knight’ existed before the Middle Ages and has long been associated with men on horseback. Ancient Rome’s knightly class, known as Ordo Equestris, was an order of mounted nobles. The word ‘knight’ as we use it today comes from the Old English term meaning boy or servant, derived from the German Knecht which referred to vassals, servants, and bondsmen. It was not until the 11th century that the term came to designate a man in service to kings and other leaders, and they were generally members of the upper nobility. Then during the Hundred Years’ War between England and France (1337 to 1453) the military concept of the knight emerged. During this time, knighthood was established as a social ranking in Europe. The true knights, upper noblemen, were designated milites nobiles while calvalrymen not of nobility were termed milites gregarii. The Knights Hospitallers and The Knights of the Holy Sepulcher were the first military orders of knighthood founded during the crusade of 1099. They were followed by the Knights Templars in 1118 and the Teutonic Knights in 1190. Most readers will recognize these orders as monastic orders that served as protectors to pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land. Over the course of the next century, the term ‘knighthood’ came to specifically represent men of social rank and those mounted men in armor acquired the title of ‘men-at-arms.’ The noble knights were expected to live up to a standard of chivalry, a standard of professional ethics and learn to perform a specific list of duties, including riding, jousting at tournaments, hunting, attending ‘round tables,’ and having the virtues of strength, hope, charity, loyalty, justice, be religiously devout, and practice moderation in all things. Medieval literature such as Parzival and The Song of Roland demonstrated these virtues. Courtesy literature, which addressed the perfect courtesies and behavior of those ‘at court,’ further illuminated the proper and expected characteristics of a knight. It is from this literature, journals, artwork of the Medieval period, and Hollywood that we have established our idea of what a knight should be. Is it no wonder then that many fraternal and benevolent organizations have adopted the term into their titles? From the frivolous to the gallant, and the violent to the charitable, knights have been a part of Amador since the Gold Rush.
The first reference to knights in Amador literature is a mention of the Knights of the Dark Lantern in several issues of the 1856 Weekly Ledger. Having never heard of this group, I scoured the Internet and historic newspapers for reference to them. Apparently, the title was originally associated with politics. One tells of Charlie Hammond, proprietor of the New York Ranch, whose home has “long been head-quarters for the Knights of the Dark Lantern.” This was followed by an article addressing the upcoming November 1856 presidential election, a contest between three candidates – Democrat James Buchanan, Republican John C. Fremont, and Millard Fillmore of the Know Nothing Party. This article urges the Democratic voters to turn out in numbers to squash the votes of the Republicans and undo the secrecy of the Knights of the Dark Lantern of the Know Nothing party. In another reference I found that during the latter part of the 19th century, the Knights of the Dark Lantern was name to a “facetious” student society at Union College in Schenectady, NY. During the Civil War, an article in the Irish-American News uses the title in reference to southerners and rebels. Which brings us to another group of knights – The Knights of the Golden Circle. The organization was founded by the self-proclaimed adventurer, George W.L. Bickley on July 4, 1854 in Kentucky. Truth be told, he was a doctor and editor that fled Cincinnati in the 1850s to escape his creditors. While traveling, Bickley promoted an ‘expedition’ to Mexico and with the founding of the Golden Circle proposed to establish a large force to colonize northern Mexico and the West Indies. Their goal later expanded to include portions of Central America, the Confederate States, and the Caribbean, to be used as slave states. During the Civil War their numbers grew in the southern states. Southern sympathizers in northern and western states were often accused of being members of the organization, which brings us to an incident in Volcano.
During the Civil War, Amador County had its share of southern sympathizers, if not openly then in secret, including newspaper publisher William Penry who overtly expressed his views on states’ rights vs. federal rights. In 1865 he and fellow newspaperman Lorick Hall were arrested as traitors and hauled off to prison for printing the sentiment that northerners and the abolishment of slavery was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln. It was well known during the war years that several ‘castles’ of the Knights of the Golden Circle were meeting secretly around the county. Amador County historian Jesse Mason wrote, “A hundred and twenty-eight men had monthly meetings in the hills west of the Blue Ridge, near where Stony Creek comes into Jackson Creek; though, it is said, that a few meetings were held near Buena Vista.” Opposing them in Amador were Union supporters, the Loyal League and the Home Guards. In Volcano, the Volcano Blues were the Union protectorates of the town. With the aid of “Old Abe,” the resident cannon, they managed to stave off an assault by the Golden Circle. As the story goes, southern sympathizers, who were members of the Golden Circle in Amador, got word of a Confederate victory and decided to celebrate. Arming themselves, they marched down Volcano’s main street in military formation. Pulling Old Abe from hiding, the Blues having no shot on hand, loaded the cannon with rocks. The sight of the cannon was enough to disperse the rebels but after conferring, they were of the opinion that the Abe was a fake and regrouped. The Blues fired the cannon, and although only rocks, and some say wet paper wads, emerged from the mouth of the iron gun, it was enough to convince the Knights that they had better turn tail and run, which they did. There are no other recorded incidents of attempted violence by the Knights of the Golden Circle in Amador although the name of the organization did change over time to the Sons of Liberty and the American Knights.
Another knightly organization, this one unique to Amador County alone, were the Knights of the Assyrian Cross. Established in Sutter Creek in November 1873 they announced their purpose as “charity and fun.” Known as a ‘burlesque’ society, they rivaled our modern day E. Clampus Vitus. Where they held their earliest meetings is unknown but by 1875 the lodge was located on Eureka Street. It was later moved to Main Street where Violich home now stands. At first glance, the costumery of this organization, resembling that of clowns, jesters, and Middle-Eastern sultans, would suggest they were of a frivolous nature but frolicsome would be the more appropriate term. The names chosen for their officers were likewise out of the ordinary - Grand Mogul, Great Grand Light of Ages, Grand Executioner, and Bearer of the Great Seal. According to Jesse Mason, they claimed to be “benevolent, literary, scientific, philosophic, and religious.” Their lighthearted nature was evident by the charitable fundraisers they held and their participation in 4th of July parades. In December 1876, they announced a grand masquerade ball by distributing “flaming black posters,” for an event to commemorate the momentous occasion of the 10,508th anniversary of the spotted unicorn. The Knights of the Assyrian Cross became very popular with the community and their membership swelled.
By the late 1880s they numbered over 100 members at the Sutter Creek lodge with another 50 in Jackson and nearly 50 in Ione. Known as “indefatigable,” they raised a great deal of money for charities with their many events. The Ione lodge fielded a baseball team that played against other local teams raising money through ticket sales.
The Knights of Pythias were yet another Amador benevolent men’s organization that dedicated themselves to raising money for the community and those in need. The organization was founded in 1864 in Washington, D.C. by Justus H. Rathbone. He was inspired by the Greek tale of Damon and Pythias and the ideals of friendship, loyalty, and honor that the story illustrates. The narrative tells that Pythias was accused of conspiring against the despotic Dionysius I of Syracuse. Pythias, knowing that he is to be executed, pleads with Dionysius that he be given time to settle his business and offers Damon to stand as a hostage until he returns. Damon agrees, should his friend not return as promised, he was to be executed instead. When Pythias does return, Dionysius is so moved by their friendship and trust, he allows both men to go free. The moral taken from the story was the foundation on which Rathbone established the benevolent organization. Amador Lodge No. 46 of the Knights of Pythias was instituted on December 1, 1877. In 1881 they erected their “castle hall” in Amador City on the southeast corner of South Alley (now Cross St.) and School Alley (now W. School Street). That building later served as the Amador City Hall and today is the Van Anda home. As with other benevolent organizations, the Pythians held galas to raise money for charity and participated in community events. In 1882 they co-sponsored the first Italian Picnic. Pythian Lodge No. 75 at Plymouth was established on July 22, 1882 but lasted only until November 1896 when they surrendered their charter. On January 20, 1883, Onward Lodge No. 80 was instituted in Ione. It was active until January 15, 1894 when they too surrendered their charter. Rathbone Lodge No. 166 was established in Jackson on February 1, 1889 followed by a new lodge in Ione, No. 84, on February 29, 1908. Again, the Ione Lodge could not sustain its membership and it was absorbed by the Jackson Lodge in March 1918. The Knights of Pythias were active in Amador County well into the 19th century. Today, the organization has over 2,000 lodges worldwide and their membership exceeds 75,000. The lodges in which they meet are known as Pythian Castles.
Last but not least, and worth an honorable mention here, are the Knights Templar and the Knights of Columbus. The Templars, of course, first being recognized as that Catholic military order, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon, who protected pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem and later amassed such a great deal of wealth they were a threat to the crowned heads of Europe. Today the Knights Templar are associated with the Masonic order. Amador County currently has on file incorporation papers for a Knights Templar Lodge. The Knights of Columbus, likewise a benevolent order established within the Catholic Church, serves the needs of the community through Amador County Council No. 1849 based at St. Katharine Drexel Parish Center. This fraternity, the world’s largest Catholic service organization, was founded by Michael McGiveny in Connecticut in 1882 and named for Christopher Columbus. The original purpose was as a mutual benefit society for immigrant Catholics to America. As the organization grew, they expanded their charity beyond those of the Catholic faith to all members of the community. They are also known for their work providing disaster relief and the support of troops during war time. Amador’s first chapter, established as the Mother Lode Council 1910, was deactivated in 1926. When it was reactivated in 1997 the new name and number were assigned. The Knights of Columbus participate in many community events throughout the year in Amador County. In just a few weeks, on July 13th, they will host their 5th annual Knight Riders Car Show at St. Katharine Drexel Parish Center. I urge all readers to attend. The entirety of the proceeds will go to support local charities.