Criminal Annals, Part 57 – “Murderer’s Bar”

Continuing through the Seventh-Fifth Anniversary Souvenir Review Edition of the “Mountain Democrat,” published on January 6, 1928, we find more crimes under the title, “Operations of Vigilantes” and in other areas of this historical newspaper, including this famous one about a problem between miners and local Indians along the Middle Fork of the American River.

To set the stage for the story, one should first take a look at the history of the mining area where this problem occurred.
Among the names given to the mining camps of early California, none is more accurately descriptive than the one given a camp on the Middle Fork of the American River – a camp named “Murderer’s Bar.” Although it sometimes shows up on maps at different locations, we do know it was on the Middle Fork of the American River, some three or four miles up river from its convergence with the North Fork, and a couple of miles downstream from Spanish Flat and Spanish Dry Diggings. We also know how it came to get this name.

The Middle Fork of the American River, El Dorado County’s northern boundary, was one of the richest mining regions in California and it was estimated that at least ten thousand men were working there by the fall of 1849. During that time this army of miners extracted some 10 million dollars in gold nuggets and dust from its gravel. Unfortunately, among the many hard working miners that came here, were a few who were less than honorable.

“Murderer’s Bar Massacre

“Troubles with the Indians in the early days were few and comparatively unimportant, and outbreaks in each instance, were the result of aggressions and impositions by white miners, or induced by the intrigue or organized criminal bands of whites for ulterior motives. The so-called Murderer’s Bar Massacre, in itself has all of these features, beside marking a climax in the fortunes of James W. Marshall, which gives the incident historical prominence. The account given by Charles Upton [a famous, local history writer], in his life of Marshall, is the most complete summary and is quoted:

“A number of friendly Sutter Indians and several white men had been engaged by Marshall to make necessary repairs on the saw mill. These Indians were peaceable and industrious, and Marshall, through constant fair dealing, had obtained considerable influence over time and their tribe.

“A part of seven men, lately arrived from Oregon, went out on a prospecting trip up the North Fork of the American river, and at a point above the Middle Fork and North Fork they came upon a large rancheria, and finding a number of Indian women there, attempted improper familiarity with them. The squaws gave an alarm and their cries brought some bucks hurrying to the scene. The Indians attempting to prevent an outrage, the white men drew their revolvers and deliberately shot down three of the bucks. They then rode to Murderer’s Bar, on the Middle Fork, three or four miles above the junction [with the North Fork]. From here two of the men started out to prospect, leaving their companions in camp. After a day or two, the prospectors returned to find that their partners had moved. Following their trail the prospectors found on reaching the new camp, that the entire party had been killed by Indians.

“The two survivors immediately went to Coloma, told their story and began to raise a posse, with which to wreck vengeance on the Indians for their acts of reprisal.

“Several members of the notorious gang of ‘Mountain Hounds,’ were in Coloma at the time, who saw their opportunity of revenging themselves on the friendly Indians, one of whom they suspected of having shadowed their band, and revealed their discoveries to Marshall. Accordingly the outlaws joined the citizens, and persuaded many of them to indulge in a social drink, before starting in pursuit of the murderers. As soon as a majority of the men were sufficiently intoxicated to be influenced easily, it was suggested that they seize the Indians at the mill and punish them. In a few minutes the mill was surrounded by a mob of drunken men, all fully armed and threatening vengeance on the Indians.. Before this some of the ‘Hounds’ had notified several the Sutter Indian tribe, that Marshall desired to see them at the mill, and an unusually large number of them had gathered there at the time of the attack.

“Marshall, who was present, did his best to avert the outrage, but the drunken horde were deaf to all appeals to judgement and humanity. The leaders stated that they simply wanted to make prisoners of the Indians, but after the Indians were secured the men began drinking again, and under the combined influence of bad whiskey and worse human passions, they were worked into a frenzy and commenced an indiscriminate slaughter of the helpless captives.

“Marshall did his best to save the lives of his men. Finding argument of no avail, he called upon the few available white men to assist him in defense of the mill. His friends knew that defense would be futile, in the face of such odds, and they urged him to save himself, as his bold denunciation of the brutal and cowardly assailants had already drawn threat on his own life. He would have persisted in this heroic defense had not his friends provided him with a horse and forced him to leave the settlement without delay.

“Eight harmless Indians were murdered on this occasion, who belonged to a different tribe from those who did the killing at Murderer’s Bar, and the fact was proved conclusively that they were not at the scene of that crime, when it was perpetrated.



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