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.’”


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