Why Did They Call It Hangtown? – Part 2

Hangtown about 1850 (courtesy of Steve Crandell, Placerville, CA)

In Part 1 we looked at one version of the story that described the event that gave Placerville, then known as “Old Dry Diggins,” the name “Hangtown.” In Part 2 we continue with two other versions of the story from Paolo Sioli’s “History of El Dorado County, California,” which he wrote and published in 1883.

Part 1 presented the ‘true version,’ according to Judge Grimshaw of Daylor’s ranch in Sacramento County. This time we will look at the story as told by Mr. E. N. Strout, a local resident and an unattributed story of the hangings, which strangely enough seems to be the one most accepted. Following those will be an introduction of Edward Gould Buffum, who wrote a book on the incident and is attributed with an 1849 story in the San Francisco “Alta California” newspaper.

“Mr. E. N. Strout, for long years a citizen of El Dorado county, says: ‘In 1848, and the early part of 1849, Placerville and surroundings were known as ‘Old Dry Diggings.’ At that time there were organized bands of desperadoes, with signs, passwords and grips, and with chiefs and lieutenants, who lay in wait in and around the mining camps, ready for plunder and murder, either for gain or revenge. Murders and robberies were frequent along the branches of the South and Middle Forks of the American river, and finally found their way to the mining camp on the north branch of Weber creek – Old Dry Diggings, now Placerville. A Frenchman who kept a trading post in Log Cabin ravine – now Bedford avenue–was known to have considerable gold dust, and he was selected by the ‘Owls’ – the name of the organization – as their victim to be robbed. Four of this band, composed of one American, one Mexican and two Frenchmen, made a descent on the post and robbed the merchant of his gold dust and such other valuables as they wanted, while the owner was powerless to resist ; but the robbers were marked men from that moment. The Frenchman gave the alarm and the vigilantes started in pursuit of the robbers, who were captured, brought to trial, condemned and executed, except one of the Frenchmen, who escaped after sentence had been pronounced. The execution took place under a white oak tree of gigantic size that stood on the south bank of Hangtown creek, now the northwest corner of Main and Coloma streets, on February 12th, 1849. George G. Blanchard’s brick building covers the stump of the tree. W. T. Sayward, Esq., of San Francisco, who was Deputy Prefect for the Old Dry Diggings at the time, declared that murder was clearly proven against the culprits, as well as robbery. Their bodies were buried on the north side of the creek. The Mountain Democrat’s office was subsequently erected over their graves, and said paper published there for more than twenty years.”

“The third version – the soubriquet of ‘Hangtown,’ by which Placerville was at one time only known, and which is now not unfrequently applied – had its origin in the hanging by a mob, in 1849, of two Frenchmen and a Spaniard, to an oak tree at the northwest corner of Main and Coloma streets. The victims had been arrested for highway robbery on the Georgetown road. While being tried by a jury of citizens for this offense, and while it was doubtful what penalty would be inflicted on them, an officer from one of the lower counties arrived, in search of the perpetrators of a horrible murder in his section, and at once recognized two of them as the murders for whom he sought. This at once settled their fate. Death was decreed and the sentence carried out immediately at the place and in the manner mentioned.”

The next version of the story is from Edward Gould Buffum, as reported in his book, “Six months in the gold mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9.” First we will look at Mr. Buffum’s background and then, in Part 3, his version of the story.

Having worked for the “New York Herald” in New York,  Buffum became a Lieutenant with Stevenson’s New York Volunteers, an interesting group of soldiers that were recruited in New York in 1846 and arrived in California 1847 to fight in the War with Mexico.

Although the war was effectively over when they arrived, they had also agreed to be discharged in California, thereby increasing the American presence in what was then a part of Mexico.

Upon discharge, many ex-members of Stevenson’s Regiment joined the California militia thereby providing a source of trained personnel for the soon-to-be admitted State’s military force.

Some of the more prominent members were: Captain Henry M. Naglee who became the first Commander of the First California Guard, Light Artillery; Lieutenant Theron R. Perlee who became the first Adjutant General of California; Captain William G. Marcy who became Secretary of the State Constitutional Convention in Monterey in 1849; Lieutenant Thomas E. Ketchum who became Captain, Third Regiment, California Volunteers during the Civil War and later served as a Brigadier General in the California National Guard; Lieutenant Palmer B. Hewlett who became a Brigadier General in the California National Guard; Major General Thomas Jefferson Green who was the first of four Major Generals elected by the California State Legislature at San Jose on April 11, 1850 and Captain Joseph Folsom, the regiment’s quartermaster, who became a prominent California citizen and is memorialized by the City of Folsom.

A short time after being discharged, Buffum headed to the mines, establishing himself as a miner at Weberville, on Weber Creek between Placerville and Diamond Springs. He also had a second job working for the “Alta California” as a reporter, often signing his stories simply E. G. B.

After leaving California for New York, in 1850 he published his book “Six Months in the Gold Mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9,” from which we will take his story of the hanging.

In 1853 he returned to California and served as editor for the “Alta.” In 1854 he was elected by the citizens of San Francisco to serve in the California Assembly during the Sixth and Seventh sessions (1855-56).  In 1857 he left for Paris, were he continued to write for both the “Alta” and “New York Herald,” until his untimely death at his own hand in 1867.

Hubert Howe Bancroft, the eminent California historian, called Buffum “A man of good character and abilities” and “One of the most important contributors to the history of California”


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