The true origins of the Ancient and Honorable Order of E Clampus Vitus, now in the 6,007th year of existence, are shrouded in the mists of time, but many trace its modern revival to innkeeper Ephraim Bee of Virginia.
Shortly after America opened diplomatic relations with China in 1844, Bee received the mysterious rituals of E Clampus Vitus through the good offices of the Emperor of China.
Bee was a notorious yarn-spinner and practical joker, but today thousands revere him as the chief perpetrator of modern Clamperdom.
The movement spread like gossip. Chapters sprang up in Pennsylvania, Missouri and the gold mines of northern Georgia, site of America's first gold rush.
Joel Henry Zumwalt apparently established California's first successful Clamper chapter at Mokelumne Hill in 1851.
Soon every gold camp from Yreka to Skunk's Misery to Hell's Delight had its own Clamper confabulation.
Upon entering the order, members swore to carry out the noble mission of the brotherhood: to take care of widows and orphans--especially the widows.
Chapter governments reflected a perfect version of frontier democracy. All members were officers and all officers were of equal indignity. There were and are, however, Noble Grand Humbugs and Grand Imperturbable Hangmen.
Skeptics ignorant of the movement's ancient roots claim it was a spoof of fraternal brotherhoods like the Masons and Odd Fellows, which refused to admit the profligate reprobates who flocked to endure the harrowing initiation rituals of the Clampers.
These were said to involve an ancient device, the Hewgag, a wheelbarrow and staffs. Such matters are secret, but not sacred.
Clamperdom spread to Honolulu and the Comstock, but as mining faded in California, so did the Clampers.
By the 1920s only a few veterans of the gold rush recalled the order's traditions.
In 1930, historian Carl Irving Wheat decided to find any surviving Clampers. Wheat, author (with Utah native Dale Morgan) of the classic five-volume Mapping the Transmississippi West, tracked down Adam Lee Moore, the last Noble Grand Humbug of the old Balaam Lodge.
Moore had a steel-trap memory and recalled all the words of the initiation rite inflicted upon Poor Blind Candidates seeking to become Clampers.
Moore supplied the "Apostolic succession from the Clampatriarchs of old" to the 20th century.
My late friend, Al Shumate, the dean of Clamper historians, pointed out the basic contradiction in modern Clamperism: "It is claimed ECV is a historical drinking society; others claim it to be a drinking historical society. The debate continues; it has never been solved."
Nor will it be soon.
There are at least 40 active chapters of ECV, mostly in California. (There is one in Helper, Utah, the Matt Warner Chapter.) E Clampus Vitus is the largest historical organization in California and Nevada dedicated to preserving Western history.
Makes one wonder why Great Salt Lake City doesn't have a Porter Rockwell ECV Chapter.
By 1936, Shumate wrote, "The Clampers could boast of many of the era's most respected historians, bibliographers, historical society presidents, journal editors, printers, and collectors from throughout California."
Prominent among them was Prof. Herbert Bolton, who tutored a generation of Utah historians.
Bolton often regaled his students with tales that Francis Drake had left "a plate of brasse, fast nailed to a great and firme post" somewhere on the California coast in 1579 that took possession of "New Albion" for Queen Elizabeth.
"Someday," Bolton said, "Someone may well find the plate of brass."
And thereby hangs a tale.