Why Did They Call It Hangtown? – Part 6

Still continuing with stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, we now look at the version provided by the well-respected Theodore H. Hittell in his “History of California,” Volume I, printed in San Francisco in 1885. Like most later histories it draws on earlier publications for information.

“The names adopted by the miners for their camps and mining locations were usually taken from the names of the first settlers or from the names of the places from which they came or were of those slang names, already mentioned, which seem to have been chosen on the part of the unbridled adventurers as a sort of protest against the restraints of respectability. In some cases, however, the name of a place was taken from some circumstance connected with it foundation or growth; and unfrequently a name, and sometimes a change of name, of itself indicated more or less of the history of the settlement.

“After Coloma and Mormon Island, one of the next most important and earliest settled mining localities was a spot on the ridge south of the South Fork of the American river and about eight miles in a straight line southeast of Coloma. It was located on or near the head of a branch of Weber’s creek and appears to have been discovered as a rich field for mining operations comparatively early in 1848 by William Daylor, one of Sutter’s associates. It, or the creek on which it was situated, though substantially dry in the summer, was noted, even as early as the time of Governor Mason’s visit, for its great richness; and it very soon became a populous camp, generally know, on account of its distance from the river or constant water, by the name Dry Diggings. Much gold was taken out of the locality even in 1848. One night, about the middle of January, 1849, a Mexican gambler of the place, named Lopez, who had in his possession a large amount of money, was attacked in his own room by five men, overpowered and robbed. While the robbery was going on and before it was entirely consummated, an alarm was raised and a number of the miners of the neighborhood rushed into the house and seized the robbers. It is not likely that what may be called the public opinion of the camp cared very much about Lopez or his losses; but it plainly recognized the fact that such an offense as had in this case been committed or attempted to be committed could not under any circumstances be suffered to pass without notice. The next day, accordingly, as there was practically no such thing as a court in the mining regions and hardly and such thing in the whole country as could be called a judicial tribunal, the miners organized into a sort of committee of vigilance, tried their prisoners, convicted them and sentenced each of the five to receive thirty-nine lashes. The next day, which proved to be Sunday, was fixed upon as the time of punishment; and as Sunday in the mines was by a general consensus set aside as a day of idleness and recreation, there was a very large concourse from all directions to witness the widely-talked-about flogging of the five robbers that was to take place at Dry Diggings.

“An eye-witness of the scene relates that on his arrival at the place he found a large crowd collected around an oak tree, to which was lashed a man with a bared back, upon which though already cut and into bleeding stripes another man was applying with all his might a long rawhide whip. A guard of a dozen men, with loaded rifles pointed at the prisoner, stood ready to fire in case of an attempt being made to escape. After all had been duly flogged for their attempt to rob Lopez, fresh charges of robbery and attempted murder, committed the previous autumn on the Stanislaus river, were made against three of the men, two being Frenchmen and the third a Chileno. The prisoners, so accused, on account of the severity of their punishment, were unable to stand and had to be removed to a place where they could lie stretched out; but this did not prevent their further trial from going forward; and it was conducted by the assembled crowd, consisting of some two hundred men, in their absence. The charges appear to have been substantiated, though they amounted to nothing more than attempted robbery and murder. But it seemed plain that the accused were bad men, whose presence was a continual menace to the community; and there was a general sentiment in the crowd that law or no law, as there was apparently no other protection against them, they ought to be got rid of. At the close of the trial, therefore, which lasted only about a half hour and resulted in a unanimous verdict that they were guilty, when it came to the question as to the punishment to be inflicted, one of the crowd moved to hang them; and upon the proposition being put to vote it met with almost universal approbation.

“Upon this E. Gould Buffum, the eye-witness referred to, who had previously been a lieutenant in Stevenson’s regiment of New York volunteers and was afterwards editor of the Alta California newspaper, mounted a stump and with all the force and vigor of which he was capable and in the name, as he says, of God, humanity and law, protested against such an extreme measure. But the crowd, having made up its mind as to what was necessary and some being excited by strong drink, not only refused to listen to any criticism on their actions but even threatened to include the bold orator in the execution if he did not immediately desist from arraigning their conduct. It was very apparent that there was no use, under the circumstances, in attempting to say anything; and the speaker, coming down from his improvised tribune, prepared to witness the tragedy that he found himself powerless to prevent. Only thirty minutes’ notice of the condemnation and sentence was given to the prisoners. They were then brought forward, bleeding from their flogging; placed upon a wagon, and held up while the ends of three ropes, which had been thrown over the limb of a tree, were fastened around their necks. No time or opportunity was given for explanation. They tried to speak; but as none of them spoke English, the words they employed were understood by very few. They called for an interpreter; but in vain. Amid their own cries and the yells of the more brutal portion of the mob, their arms were pinioned; a black handkerchief was bound about the eyes of each; a signal was given; the wagon was drawn from under them, and they were launched into eternity. Graves had in the meanwhile had been dug; and the bodies, when life was entirely extinct, were cut down and buried – and affairs at the camp resumed their ordinary course. But from that time forward, and until it became exclusively known as Placerville, the place, on account of the circumstances just related, went by the significant though by no means elegant name of ‘Hangtown.’”


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