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.’”


The Hangtown Fry


Like with many other events that occurred during the early days of California, there are different stories relating to the origin of Hangtown Fry, the now world- famous mixture of eggs, oysters, and bacon that originated in Placerville, which was then known as “Hangtown.”

Among them have been several tales of “last meal” before hanging and one of a mistake made by a tired miner trying to cook dinner in the dark. However, the version most widely accepted and credited with its origin is generally as follows:

In 1849, just a short time after Old Dry Diggins had been renamed Hangtown in honor of the recent hanging of three desperadoes from the large oak tree on Main Street, a prospector rushed into the saloon of the El Dorado Hotel announcing that right there in town , along the banks of Hangtown Creek, he had “struck it rich” and had every reason to celebrate.

Untying his leather poke from his belt, he tossed it on the bar where it landed heavily, spilling its shining contents of gold dust and nuggets. Turning to the bartender he loudly demanded, “I want you to cook me up the finest and most expensive meal in the house. I’m a rich man and I’m going to celebrate my good luck.”

The Bartender called to the cook and relayed the prospector’s order.

The cook stopped what he was doing and came out of the kitchen. Looking the prospector in the eye he said, “The most expensive things on the menu are eggs, bacon and oysters. The eggs have to be carefully packed to travel the rough road from over the coast; the bacon comes by ship round the horn from back east; and the fresh oysters we have to bring up each day on ice from the cold waters of San Francisco Bay. Take your choice. I can cook you anything you want, but it will cost you more than just a pinch of that gold dust you have there.”

“Scramble me up a whole mess of eggs and oysters, throw in some bacon and serve ‘em up,” said the prospector.

“I’m starving. I’ve lived on nothing much more than canned beans since I got to California, and at last I can afford a real meal.”

The cook did just that, cooking up a whole mess of eggs, bacon and oysters for the hungry prospector. Out of that prospector’s wish, and with a little artistry from the long forgotten cook, the original Hangtown Fry was created.

Over the years since, Hangtown Fry has continued to have been served at many of the local restaurants in Placerville. One of the more famous places was the Blue Bell Café, just a few doors east of the Cary House, which proudly advertised and served the basic recipe from the late 1930s into the 1970s when the restaurant was sold.

Hangtown Fry, although sometimes amended with onions, bell peppers and a minor assortment of various spices and herbs, has remained the same basic dish that was born in Gold Rush nearly a century and a half ago. It appears on hundreds of menus in restaurants along the Pacific Coast from Southern California to Canada.

It is also listed prominently on the menu of the exclusive membership-only Breakfast Club at Club 21 in downtown New York City and, for a while, was featured on the first-class menu of at least one major American airline.

No dish epitomizes California and its Gold Rush more than Hangtown Fry. It was created at a location central to the Gold Rush at the same time the great state was being born. And, like the miners who worked the river banks and hillsides, and the population that followed, it is a unique blend of many things, both those produced locally and those that have arrived from elsewhere.

Hangtown Fry fully represents the spirit of the Gold Rush and those who helped make California what it is today.

It is the Official Dish of the County of El Dorado and of the City of Placerville, by proclamation of the Board of Supervisors and the City Council.


Blue Bell Café Hangtown Fry

1 egg, beaten with 1 tbsp. milk
breading mixture of cracker crumbs and bread crumbs
3 oysters medium sized oysters
2 slices bacon
2 eggs

Dip the oysters in egg-wash and then breading. Pan-fry until three-fourths cooked. While doing this, fry the bacon in another skillet until just before it becomes crisp. Beat the eggs lightly. Place the bacon like railroad tracks off-center in a frying pan, pour a bit of the egg over the bacon. Place the oysters on bacon and pour the remaining eggs over. Cook and then fold the omelets over the oysters. Place a lid over it and cook until the steam blends together all the flavors. Makes 1 serving.

Cary House Hotel Hangtown Fry

12 medium-sized shucked oysters
2 tbsp. butter or margarine
6 eggs
1/3 c milk
1/4 tsp. salt

3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
½ tsp. salt
Dash pepper
1 beaten egg

Pat oysters dry with paper towel. Combine flour, salt and the pepper, dip oysters into beaten egg and then the flour mixture.

Melt the butter or margarine in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Cook oysters in butter till edges curl, about 2 minutes on each side.

Beat the 6 eggs with the milk and salt. Pour into skillet with oysters. As egg mixture begins to set on bottom and sides, left and fold over. Continue cooking and folding for 4 to 5 minutes or till eggs is cooked throughout. Remove from heat. Makes 3 or 4 servings.

The New Haven

French fries. I love them. Some people are chocolate and sweets people. I love French fries. That and caviar.

— Cameron Diaz



My friend Russ Salazar and I had planned on giving the New Haven, the restaurant at 6396 Pony Express Trail in Pollock Pines, a try last week, but he got sick (no, not from food). I was about to move it to another day when a young lady I know who had some errands in that area offered to join me for lunch. Let me see, Russ is an old geezer like me and she is much younger and way more attractive. I didn’t have to think about that too long.

Jim O’Keefe, owner and chef at J and J’s took over the Haven last year, renovated it and renamed it the New Haven. It looks very nice, is very clean and, if that Friday was any indication, is very popular.

I asked O’Keefe what it was I really liked when I reviewed J and J’s a couple of years ago and he immediately said “The Philly Cheesesteak.” He then recommended the lobster roll, which was the lunch special that day, but I am not that wild about lobster and when I eat it prefer to eat it at the shore in Maine when it is only a few hours out of the ocean. He also said that if I like fish and chips, his are the best (well, Jim, I will be back just for the fish and chips).

I ordered the Philly and my lunch partner ordered the the Prospector, which usually comes with beef, shrimp, cheese and secret sauce on whole wheat. “It was originally made with ham and I liked it that way,” she said, ordering it with ham.

The sandwiches came with a side, she ordered fries and I onion rings.
Now, I have to stop here and talk just about the fries and onion rings, even though the two sandwiches were excellent (I took half of mine home for dinner and it was still great reheated).

O’Keefe uses an outstanding beer batter on his onion rings and secret seasoning on the fries. The onion rings, which were made with whole pieces of onion were the best I have eaten in a long time and the fries, well they were still crispy and delicious even when no longer hot. I usually eat the fries first to get them while they are hot, but I didn’t have to there.

The New Haven specializes in great sandwiches, steaks, pasta and especially seafood, serving both lunch and dinner six days a week (closed on Monday). Looking over the lunch and dinner menu, both of which are being updated, I found a lot of things I would really like to try.

The hours at the New Haven are from 11:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, until 9 p.m. on Friday and Saturday and from noon until 8 p.m. on Sunday. They have both indoor and patio seating. For more information call 530-644-3448.

“We are going to reopen J and J’s as a sports bar,” said O’Keefe (who’s chef’s jacket is way too clean). “It is going to specialize in sandwiches and pizza to take and bake at home, but no dinner.

“The people in Pollock Pines like our pizza, especially in the winter. If they buy one already baked, it is cold by the time they have gotten home and lit a fire in the stove to warm up the house. With ours, they can light the fire while it is baking and eat it hot, like it should be.”