Criminal Annals, Part 71 – Horse Thieves

Continuing with the early copies of Sacramento’s first daily newspaper, “The Daily Union,” in the May 27, 1851 edition we find a story regarding the transporting of accused horse thieves in El Dorado County, which is then followed by another story regarding more problems with the native population.

“EL DORADO COUNTY HORSE THIEVES. – The men having in custody the culprits who were arrested in this city on Monday morning, for stealing horses above Placerville, were stopped at ‘Brown’s,’ 35 miles above this city [possibly the Brown’s Ravine area, but there are a number of places by this name], by a crowd of persons, who demanded a summary trial of the prisoners at that place. They refused to allow the escort and culprits to proceed to the point where the theft had been committed. The prisoner who had turned ‘State’s evidence,’ insisted that one of the four who were in custody, was but partially implicated in the transaction, and it is thought his life would be saved. The others, our informant thinks, will undoubtedly be hung.”


“ANOTHER FIGHT WITH THE INDIANS – TROOPS RETREATING. – We are indebted to our correspondent at Placerville and also to Hunter & Co.’s express, which left Placerville yesterday, for the following interesting intelligence from the Indian encampment. There is no doubt that Major Rodgers [most likely El Dorado County Deputy Sheriff Rogers] will be successful in raising any number of men requisite to exterminate the Indians, but there is a great scarcity of ammunition throughout the entire upper country, and orders must be sent here for more, before any decisive victory can be achieved:


“Messrs. Editors: The Indian troubles in this vicinity are assuming rather a serious character. In every rencountre [rencounter] the natives have shown themselves brave, warlike and well prepared. I learn from a gentleman just returned from headquarters, that the Indians occupy and admirable position, and that their fire-arms of which they seem to have plenty, are clean, bright, and in good order. One or two whites have been seen among them, and yesterday music was heard in their camp.

“On Wednesday morning last, Major Graham crossed the South Fork some 10 miles above the Indian camp, with the intention to engage them in the rear, while Capt. Tracy should cross the river in front of their camp, and thus place them between two fires. On Thursday Capt. Tracy marched to the river which he reached about noon, but the river was so high that he could not cross without constructing a bridge; and the remainder of the day was spent in felling trees and constructing a bridge. On the same day Major Graham had a skirmish in which several Indians were killed, but without any loss on his side. On Friday I learned that Capt. Tracy was preparing to cross the river when word came from Major Graham to postpone the attack until the next morning. On Saturday morning the 24th inst., Capt. Tracy again marched with the intention to cross the river and engage the Indians. About noon on the same day, Maj. Graham appeared, on his return to the camp, his men being much fatigued and worn down after their severe march over the mountains. But, just as they were coming into camp, word was received from Capt. Tracy that he had crossed the river and was having a severe brush with the Indians, and was considerably cut up. Maj. Graham immediately marched to his relief with all his men who were able to go. I understand that our troops were compelled to retreat with the loss of one man killed and several wounded: one so severely that he is not expected to recover. I did not learn the number of the enemy, nor the extent of their loss. We are hourly expecting to receive full particulars of the affair.

“Maj. Rogers passed through this place this morning, on his way to Georgetown to raise more troops, as the number now in the field is not thought sufficient to carry on the war successfully.
“There is great scarcity of arms and ammunition. There would be no difficulty in raising men, but we cannot supply them with arms.”

Note: The question always arises as to where these “armies” came from: were they real military or civilian militias?
According to the California State Military Museum, in April 1850, the California Legislature enacted two laws: An Act concerning Volunteer or Independent Companies, and An Act concerning the organization of the Militia.

The Volunteer Act provided that citizens of any one county could: organize into a volunteer or independent company; arm and equip themselves in the same manner as the army of the United States; prepare muster rolls (attendance records) twice a year; and render prompt assistance and full obedience when summoned or commanded under the law.

The lengthy Militia Act established in great detail the organization, ranks, rules, duties and commutation fees (fees in lieu of service) that governed state military service. All “free, white, able-bodied male citizens, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years, residing in [the] State” were subject to state-mandated military duty. Important provisions relating to the delegation of authority to command and call out troops provided that:

The Governor was the commander in chief of all the forces in the state;

The Legislature elected four Major Generals, eight Brigadier Generals, one Adjutant General and Quarter Master General (with Brigadier General rank);

The Governor commissioned all of the officers under the Act, who then took the oath of office prescribed by the California Constitution;

The State Treasurer initially was the ex officio Pay Master; and

Upon the Governor’s orders, the Sheriffs of each county were responsible to call the enrolled militia.

In 1850 Governor Burnett ordered out the militia twice, the second time being in October of 1850 when he ordered the sheriff of El Dorado County to muster 200 men. The commanders were instructed to “proceed to punish the Indians engaged in the late attacks in the vicinity of Ringgold, and along the emigrant trail leading from Salt Lake to California.”

Governor Burnett explained calling out the militia as follows: “In these cases the [Indian] attacks were far more formidable, and made at point where the two great emigrant trails enter the State…occurred at a period when the emigrants were arriving across the plains with their jaded and broken down animals, and them destitute of provisions. Under these circumstances, I deemed it due to humanity, and to our brethren arriving among us in a condition so helpless, to afford them all the protection within the power of the State…

“Had it been once known to our fellow citizens east of the Rocky Mountains, that the Indians were most hostile and formidable on the latter and more difficult portion of the route…and that the State of California would render no assistance to parties so destitute, the emigration of families to the State across the plains would have been greatly interrupted and retarded.”



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