Why Did They Call It Hangtown? – Part 3

As a part of the look at the various stories about the famous hanging that changed the name of Placerville, then Old Dry Diggings, to Hangtown, Edward Gould Buffum’s first-person account is one of the most important.

In Chapter VI of his book, “Six months in the gold mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9,” Buffum graphically describes what he saw in Placerville that January day.

“We determined to settle down quietly for the rest of the winter in our log house, and take our chance among the dry diggings. It had by this time commenced snowing; and from the first until the fifteenth of January it continued falling heavily, so that by the middle of January it was about four feet deep on a level. All labour was of course suspended, and we lay by in our log house, and amused ourselves by playing cards, reading, washing our clothing, and speculating on the future results of gold-digging. By the middle of January the snow ceased, and the rain again commenced; and in a few days, the snow having been entirely washed off the surface, we anticipated being soon able to recommence operations.

“A scene occurred about this time that exhibits in a striking light, the summary manner in which ‘justice’ is dispensed in a community where there are no legal tribunals. We received a report on the afternoon of January 20th, that five men had been arrested at the dry diggings, and were under trial for a robbery. The circumstances were these: – A Mexican gambler, named Lopez, having in his possession a large amount of money, retired to his room at night, and was surprised about midnight by five men rushing into his apartment, one of whom applied a pistol to his head, while the others barred the door and proceeded to rifle his trunk. An alarm being given, some of the citizens rushed in, and arrested the whole party. Next day they were tried by a jury chosen from among the citizens, and sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes each, on the following morning. Never having witnessed a punishment inflicted by Lynch-law, I went over to the dry diggings on a clear Sunday morning, and on my arrival, found a large crowd collected around an oak tree, to which was lashed a man with a bared back, while another was applying a raw cowhide to his already gored flesh. A guard of a dozen men, with loaded rifles pointed at the prisoners, stood ready to fire in case of an attempt being made to escape. After the whole had been flogged, some fresh charges were preferred against three of the men–two Frenchmen, named Garcia and Bissi, and a Chileno, named Manuel. These were charged with a robbery and attempt to murder, on the Stanislaus River, during the previous fall. The unhappy men were removed to a neighbouring house, and being so weak from their punishment as to be unable to stand, were laid stretched upon the floor. As it was not possible for them to attend, they were tried in the open air, in their absence, by a crowd of some two hundred men, who had organized themselves into a jury, and appointed a ‘pro tempore’ judge. The charges against them were well substantiated, but amounted to nothing more than an attempt at robbery and murder; no overt act being even alleged. They were known to be bad men, however, and a general sentiment seemed to prevail in the crowd that they ought to be got rid of. At the close of the trial, which lasted some thirty minutes, the Judge put to vote the question whether they had been proved guilty. A universal affirmative was the response; and then the question, ‘What punishment shall be inflicted?’ was asked. A brutal-looking fellow in the crowd, cried out, ‘Hang them.’ The proposition was seconded, and met with almost universal approbation. I mounted a stump, and in the name of God, humanity, and law, protested against such a course of proceeding; but the crowd, by this time excited by frequent and deep potations of liquor from a neighbouring groggery, would listen to nothing contrary to their brutal desires, and even threatened to hang me if I did not immediately desist from any further remarks. Somewhat fearful that such might be my fate, and seeing the utter uselessness of further argument with them, I ceased, and prepared to witness the horrible tragedy. Thirty minutes only were allowed the unhappy victims to prepare themselves to enter on the scenes of eternity. Three ropes were procured, and attached to the limb of a tree. The prisoners were marched out, placed upon a wagon, and the ropes put round their necks. No time was given them for explanation. They vainly tried to speak, but none of them understanding English, they were obliged to employ their native tongues, which but few of those assembled understood. Vainly they called for an interpreter, for their cries were drowned by the yells of a now infuriated mob. A black handkerchief was bound around the eyes of each; their arms were pinioned, and at a given signal, without priest or prayer-book, the wagon was drawn from under them, and they were launched into eternity. Their graves were dug ready to receive them, and when life was entirely extinct, they were cut down and buried in their blankets. This was the first execution I ever witnessed.– God grant that it may be the last!”


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”


Why Did They Call It Hangtown? Part 1

Hangtown about 1850

During the early years of California, after the acquisition of the land by the United States and before and official state or local government was established, communities created their own laws.

Normally they were the laws that were used in the place they had left when they came to California. Thus, a group of folks from Missouri might use Missouri law to run their community. However, it really was the “Wild West” and without any local sheriff or a real court system, they often had to take the law into their own hands in order to stop crime.

For a short period of time during the early years of California’s Gold Rush, the town that is now the City of Placerville, went by the dubious, but often celebrated, name of Hangtown.

“Why?” you might ask. Well like all good stories, based in fact, there are a number of different stories about what occurred on a Sunday in late January of 1849 and gave the town that name.

Among the sources for these stories are the“History of El Dorado County, California,” written and published by Paolo Sioli in 1883 and reprinted by the Friends of the Library in 1998, in itself provides several versions of the story.

A second source is “Six months in the gold mines: from a journal of three years’ residence in Upper and Lower California. 1847-8-9,” written by Edward Gould Buffum and published in 1850. In it he gives his first-person account of what occurred.
Finally there is the “Alta California,” the major newspaper in San Francisco, which in its February 8 and February 15, 1849 editions chronicled the story. Interestingly enough, Edward Gould Buffum was their correspondent in the area.

In Chapter XXX of his book, appropriately entitled “Criminal Annals,” Sioli introduces us to the story.

“The record of crimes committed inside the borderlines of El Dorado county, commencing from the earliest times, has become quite a volume of history in itself. The enormous influx of adventurous men of different nationalities to this very spot of land, the New El Dorado, undoubtedly had brought a good many daring and desperate characters, who had come for gain, in the easiest and least troublesome manner, but for gain under all eventualities. There were others whose intention had been to make an honest living and they started in accordingly ; but the weakness of mind and body, together with the bad examples they frequently saw, let them astray, to make a fortune in an easier way than with pick and shovel. So we find as early as 1848 and 1849 already organized bands of desperadoes, with signs, passwords and grips, with chiefs and lieutenants, who would lay in wait in and around the mining camps. The people endeavoring to put a stop to those crimes were often enough compelled to take the law in their own hands, as may be seen out of the case which originated the sobriquet of ‘Hangtown’ for the village of Placerville.”

In an unchaptered part of his book entitled “Local History – Placerville,” Sioli gets to the specifics of that fateful day.

“Placerville (Hangtown, Ravine City) was incorporated in virtue of an act that for the proof of having passed State Senate as well as Assembly bears the signatures of Charles S. Fairfax, Speaker of Assembly ; Samuel Purdy, President of Senate, approved May 13, 1854, John Bigler Governor.

“Thus Placerville became a city, after having passed through nearly six years of most eventful experience, from the date of its first settlement ; some of these having been the reason to impose upon the young town the name of ‘Hangtown,’ under which it was going for several years, known by all miners of California up to this day, and not seldom used even now after about thirty years. We have got before us three different statements of the affair that caused the above name, as given by three most distinguished citizens and oldest pioneers, and we think it is the best to make space here for all three of them, on account of some varieties in the different statements that are corroborant and supplement one to another.

“Allow me to give you the true version,’ says Judge Grimshaw of Daylor’s ranch, Sacramento County: ‘In the Summer of 1848, three ranchers residing in what is now Sacramento County, William Daylor, Jared Sheldon and Perry McCoon, with a number of Indians in their employ, were mining in Weber creek at a point of about one hundred yards below the crossing of the road leading from Diamond Springs to Placerville. One morning the vaquero, who had charge of the cavalada (tame horses) informed his employers that he had discovered some new dry diggings; exhibiting at the same time some specimens of gold which he had picked up. One of the white men went to the place, indicated by the Indian, but found that the diggings were not sufficiently better than those on the creek to justify them in moving their camp. When prospectors came along they were referred to the new location, which up to January, 1849, went by the name of the ‘Old Dry Diggings.’

“One night during that month, three men were in a saloon, tent or hut at the Old Dry Diggings, engaged in a game of poker. In due time one of the party got ‘broke.’ The proprietor of the place was fast asleep. The one who had lost his money suggested to his companions that he had gold dust on hand, and proposed that he should be robbed. The proprietor was awoke, a pistol presented to his head, and told to disclose the whereabouts of his hidden treasure. This he did, the robbers divided the spoil, threatened the saloon keeper with certain death if he disclosed anything about the matter, and resumed their game. ‘The next day the saloon keeper mustered courage to tell some of his friends about the robbery, the affair became noised about ; the three men were arrested, tried by the miners sentenced to be flogged, and the judgment executed with the promptness which characterized that kind of criminal procedure. The criminals were then ordered to leave. In a few days two of the men, under the influence of whiskey went about the camp, intimating that the men who were engaged in the trial were ‘spotted’, that they would not live to flog another man, etc.

“A meeting was called, the two men were arrested and hung on the leaning oak tree in the hay yard below Elstner’s ElDorado Saloon, the same tree on which afterwards other malefactors expiated their crimes.

“For many years the camp went by the name of Hangtown, to distinguish it from other dry diggings. Daylor, Sheldon and McCoon remained on the creek until the fall of 1848, when they returned to their homes on the Sheldon and Daylor grant in Sacramento County.

“Capt. Charles M. Weber, of Weber’s embarcadero (or Tuleburg) later Stockton, established a camp and trading post on the same locality and gave the creek the name which is has borne to the present day.’”