This and That

Happy Birthday California

31 star "California" flag.

31 star “California” flag.

The County of El Dorado played several important roles in the creation of the 31st State in the Union, California.

The most obvious one, of course, is the discovery of gold at Coloma, which started the great Gold Rush of 1849, and increased the population of California from a few thousand to around a quarter million in just a few short years.

That many ungoverned people on American soil, that was neither a territory or a state, was a problem to president Zachary Taylor, and later Millard Fillmore, both of whom favored statehood. But, that was not enough to generate congressional action granting California statehood or even the status of a territory, for that matter.It was the ongoing debate over free and slave states that was the major factor holding up the admission of California as either a territory or state.

It would take serious pressure from the residents of California to force any action by congress. The source of this needed pressure may have originated right on the streets of what is now Placerville, through first the pen and then the actions of a young news reporter.

In 1846 Edward Gould Buffum was a young man of twenty working as a correspondent for the “New York Herald.” He was the youngest son of a Quaker family in Rhode Island who were well known abolitionists and a major part of the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves reach Canada and freedom. When the Herald carried the announcement of the formation of the New York Battalion to serve in the war with Mexico, young Edward immediately joined the unit. He, like many others, was probably not there for the fight, but for the adventure since they would be taken to California and, if they wished, be paid and discharged there. When the New York Battalion arrived in California the war with Mexico was all but over and in the fall of 1848 now Lieutenant Buffum was discharged at Santa Barbara.

Still working for the Herald as a correspondent, albeit long distance, Buffum easily obtained similar employment with San Francisco’s biggest newspaper, the “Alta California.”

Mining and writing, he worked his way into the foothills of central California, stopping for some time in a town known as Weberville, which was located on Weber Creek, between Placerville (then Dry Diggings) and Diamond Springs.

According to his book, “Six Months in the Gold Mines,” but questioned by the Alta California, he was in the town of Dry Diggings on a Sunday morning in late January of 1849 when something unexpected happened. There he witnessed the first reported executions for murder in California, the hangings which gave the town its notorious name of Hangtown.

In his book he gives a lengthy account of the event and mentions that he “mounted a stump” and protested the proceedings, but, fearing for his own life, ceased voicing his objections.

It is obvious that the lack of an organized government which allowed these hangings to occur, seriously offended his very moral values since his correspondence to the two newspapers immediately took on a different tone.

In addition to his reports of the news from the mines, he now constantly pushed the need for civil law, local government and statehood for California. He also often voiced his disfavor with General Bennett Riley, the military governor of California, since he believed that a military governor had no constitutional power outside of wartime and, there being no war, civil law was non-existent.

Within just a couple of months after the hangings in “Hangtown,” Buffum and several others had organized a mass meeting of the citizens of San Francisco in favor of a convention for forming a state government.

An advertisement was placed in the Alta California announcing the meeting and on June 12, 1849, a large group of citizens gathered in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square.
A committee was appointed, consisting of Peter H. Burnett, Esq., who would become California’s first American governor, William D. M. Howard, Myron Norton, Edward Gilbert and E. Gould Buffum “to correspond with the other districts and fix an early day for the election of delegates and the meeting of the convention…”

When General Riley, who now claimed to be not only the military governor of California but also the civil governor, received word of the proposed mass meeting he immediately reacted and called for the same thing – a constitutional convention to form a state government for California. This was his attempt to squelch what he believed was outside of the law.

Riley’s early reaction to the meeting called by the citizens defeated their further action. As General Riley had given no hint of his desire to turn over California to its citizens before this time, the a chain of events starting in a little mining town in the foothills may well have forced him to set in motion the wheels of statehood.

Under General Riley’s direction, elections were held around the state in districts delineated by him. The Sacramento district included what would become El Dorado County and the following delegates were elected from that district: John A. Sutter, Jacob R. Snyder (an attorney from Sacramento), Winfield Scott Sherwood (an attorney from Mormon Island) and W. E. Shannon (an attorney from Coloma).

On September 1, 1849, the 15 delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention, along with numerous supernumeraries, met at Colton Hall in Monterey. It was a difficult task, but they were obviously up to it since, in little more than two months they had produced a constitution for California and had it printed and distributed in both in English and Spanish. In addition, they produced a list of candidates for state offices.

On November 13, 1849, everything they had done was put to a vote of the people and the California Constitution was adopted with 12,065 votes for it and only 811 against.
Sixteen senators and thirty-seven assemblymen were elected to the State Legislature and Peter H. Burnett, an attorney and former real estate agent for John Sutter, Jr., was elected Governor. John McDougal was elected Lieutenant-Governor; William Van Voorhies, Secretary of State; Richard Roman, Treasurer; J. S. Houston, Comptroller; Edward J. C. Kewen, Attorney General; Charles J. Whiting, Surveyor-General; S. C. Hastings, Chief-Justice; A. Lyon and Nathaniel Bennett, Assistant-Justices and Edward Gilbert and George W. Wright to represent California in the House of Representatives.

On December 15, 1849, California’s legislature met and, after a few days of debate, elected two United States senators, Dr. William M. Gwinn and Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fremont.

Realizing the people had spoken, although he openly disagreed with their legal right to do so, on December 20, 1849 General Riley declared the renunciation of the administration of civil affairs and California assumed the character of a State, skipping entirely the preparatory condition of a territory.

At the opening of the 31st U. S. Congress on December 3, 1849, the issue of statehood for California immediately came up. It was obvious to everyone there that tired of waiting for action from congress, California had itself decided statehood. But congress still balked.

The Constitution of California forbid slavery, which did not set well with southerners such as Calhoun, Foote and Jefferson Davis. That issue, was not up to the citizens of California, they argued. Senator Douglas, the “Little Giant” of Illinois, who had previously brought the issue of California statehood before congress, stood in favor of statehood with Webster, Clay, Benton and William H. Seward.

There, before the Senate, Seward gave California a welcome with these glowing words: “Let California come in! California, that comes from the clime where the west dies away into the rising east; California, that bounds at once the empire and the continent; California, the youthful queen of the Pacific, in the robes of freedom, gorgeously inlaid with gold, is doubly welcome. She stands justified for the irregularities in the method of her coming.”

The fight was long and hard and, for some time it looked like this session of congress would not take any action. However, the bill allowing statehood for California did pass the U.S. Senate on August 13, notwithstanding the senators from the south almost unanimously opposing it, and the lower house on September 7.

On September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore, who had replaced Zachary Taylor upon his death, signed the bill and California became the 31st State in the Union.
Official news of the passage of the California Admissions Act did not arrive in California until October 18, 1850, when General John Bidwell stepped off of the steamer Oregon in San Francisco, with a packet of documents from Washington D.C.

At once the people of San Francisco took to the streets to celebrate California’s statehood and flags of all types flew from everywhere. A holiday was declared for a parade and a ball, which were both well attended.

What a few determined men had set out to do in Portsmouth Square, less than eighteen months before, had been finally accomplished.

The man who may have set much of this in motion, Edward Gould Buffum, was left out of Riley’s convention process and soon went east to publish his book, “Six Months in the Gold Mines.” He would return to represent San Francisco for one term in the State Assembly in 1855. His popularity with the other assemblymen was such that many believe he could have been the Speaker of the Assembly, had he wished to be such.

buffum Obit Jan 5, 1868In 1857 he left for Paris, France, where continued to write while still serving as a correspondent for both the Alta California and the New York Herald. On Christmas Eve of 1867, he would die from an apparent suicide.

The Herrick Building and the “Hangman’s Tree” Bar – Placerville, California

Placer Hotel - Jackass Saloon with Hanging Tree behind building.

Placer Hotel – Jackass Saloon with Hanging Tree behind building.

The historic brick Herrick Building and the adjacent “Hangman’s Tree” bar are in the process of being lovingly rebuilt by the owners, the Taylors. Their action saved them from an attempt by the City of Placerville to have them torn down. It is very fortunate that someone like the Taylors came along because this site has quite a history, going back to the very early days of the Gold Rush.

The first building of any size erected on the northeast corner of Main and Coloma (now Center) streets was a wood frame structure known as the Placer Hotel. It was built around1849 and owned by R. W. Barkhurst and Joseph Bullis. Bruce Herrick, newly arrived from Ohio and a cook at the hotel, formed a partnership with several others and bought the building in 1850. He and his wife, Elizabeth, operated it as the “Jackass,” “Hangtree” or “Hangman’s Tree Inn, depending upon whose history you read. Adjacent to it, in the same building, was the El Dorado Saloon, run by M. R. Elstner, whose name will come up again.

The “Jackass” name comes from an old photograph of the building that shows a sign with the head of a jackass on it. The “Hangtree” and “Hangman’s Tree” names make reference to the oak tree that was once adjacent to the building.

I was from that famous tree that three men were hanged on January 21, 1849 after being tried under the laws in effect at the time. That event would not only provide the name for the inn, but also for the town, which retained the name Hangtown until 1854 when it was incorporated as Placerville, since some officials of the State of California did not feel Hangtown was an appropriate name.

In 1853 Herrick, now believed to be ths sole owner the building, tore it down and replaced it with a new, two-story, fireproof brick building, most likely made with bricks from his brickyard in Oregon Ravine, a short distance away to the south. The building had a 40 foot frontage on Main Street and 60 feet on Coloma Street, the exact size of the building today, not including in Hangman’s Tree Bar, which is on an adjacent lot.

In order to build such a building, the tree, which is reported to have been on both his lot and the adjacent lot, had to be cut down and there were significant objections to it being done. One objector, an immigrant from Indiana named Joe Fisher, went so far as to compose a poem from his feelings:

Herrick, spared that tree!
Let not its branches fall;
Here let it always be
A warning to us all.
For it was in forty nine,
When our good town yet was young,
Three men for murder vile
Upon that tree were hung.
Yes, on this same old tree
These miscreants met their doom;
Keep it for all to see –
As a grave-tree o’er their tomb.
This tree let always stand!
For ‘tis of great renown;
Then, Herrick, Stay thy hand;
Spare this relic of our town.

In spite of Fisher’s poetic pleading, the tree was cut down down by Herrick with the help of another Indianan, wheelbarrow maker John Mohler Studebaker.

Herrick Building and adjacent "Hangman's Tree" 1890

Herrick Building and adjacent “Hangman’s Tree” 1890

In 1856 Placerville had at least three large fires, the July 6 one destroying much of the city and partially Herrick’s building. He is believed to have sustained damages of some $10,000 as a result of it.The damage to the hotel was repaired and the business continued. Then on October 2, 1857 Bruce Herrick passed away after a long illness, leaving a wife and three small children.

According to his obituary in the October 10 issue of the “Mountain Democrat” he was a well liked person in the city and a volunteer fireman with the Hope Hook and Ladder Company. In his honor the different fire departments draped their machines and houses in “the habiliments of woe.”

Earlier that year, probably because of his illness, the building was shown as being for sale as a “Well known brick, two story building the the corner of Main and Coloma…Haidie Saloon on the first floor.”

In 1860 the building passed into the hands of A. C. Henry and soon became known as the Henry building in newspaper articles. An advertisement in the January 16, 1872 Democrat makes reference to the “Shady Saloon, corner of Main and Coloma, opposite the Cary House, W. B. Farrell proprietor.”

A map of the City, dated June 1886 shows dwellings on the ground floor and a jewelry store above. The January 1891 “Sanborn-Perris” map of the City shows a drug store on the ground floor (probably owned by William Fairchild) and a jewelry store upstairs.

Jumping ahead several years, after the building passed through a few hands, we find it is owned by a J. A. Sigwart, who may or may not be the same person who bought half interest to it in 1879. A recorded agreement between the two indicates that one F. F. Fisher was to clear the lot, excavate and construct iron work, brick work, etc. for $1925.
In 1934 Pardee’s Market was in the building. In 1937 it became Pardee’s Grocery. Then in 1938 George Fausel purchased the business and ran it as George’s Market. Around 1947 the name changed top Butch’s Quality Market and then P. & M. Cash Market. In 1951 it is listed as P. & M. and Butch’s Quality Market No. 1. Gene Barraque purchased the business in 1955 (taking Bob Higgins as a partner in 1965) and ran it as P. & M. Market, a name it would retain until its closing on July 9, 1980.

Herrick Building and adjacent "Hangman's Tree" 1920s

Herrick Building and adjacent “Hangman’s Tree” 1920s

Over the years following, the building was the home to two restaurants, catering businesses and a home gifts and accessories store. It is now vacant while under restoration..

Today’s Hangman’s Tree Historical Spot, which is directly to the east on a separate lot from Herrick’s building, sits on the site of M. E. Elstner’s hay yard, his feed business being in the building directly to the east.

Dr. Robert Rankin is the first record owner of this lot and in July of 1850 sold his log house to Collis P. Huntington and partners. Huntington, who would become one of the “Big Four” that built the railroad from Sacramento to Promontory Point, Utah, where it connected with the tracks of the Union Pacific, got his financial start with his store at this location and another one at Mormon Island.

From 1853 until 1856 John Hettinger operated the Chicago Clothing and Tailor Shop at this location. After the fires of 1856 Francis Mell and his wife opened the first Ohio house here.

The same June 1886 map of the City referenced before, indicates that a barber is occupying this space, while the the same January 1891 “Sanborn-Perris” map gives it an occupancy of “N.G.,” which is most likely an abbreviation for notions and goods.

On June 6, 1934 this location became California Historical Landmark No. 141. The sign says, “In the days of 1849, when this city was called Hangtown, vigilantes executed many men for various crimes. This was the site of Hay Yard, on which stood the ‘Hangman’s Tree.’ The stump of the tree is under the building on which the plaque is placed.”

Apparently not a lot of research has been done on this building between 1900 and now, but somewhere around 75 years ago the Hangman’s Tree opened at this location and the always controversial hanging dummy appeared over the door.

In 1996 the hanging dummy became controversial enough to warrant nationwide coverage in many newspapers and even an article in the December 16 edition of “Newsweek” magazine.

Sources for this story include: “A Walking Tour of Historic Placerville,” Marilyn Ferguson and Jane Schlappi (1973); “Historical Souvenir of El Dorado County,” Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado County Friends of the Library (1998); El Dorado County Recorder-Clerk’s Office; various issues of the “Mountain Democrat” and “Empire County Argus.”
Special thanks to the El Dorado County Library and especially to historian Marilyn Ferguson who allowed access to her extensive files and provided direction.

When Placerville Knew How to Party

Placerville LabelSome time ago Steve Crandell, who owns Steve Crandell, Historic Prints on Main Street in Placerville, came across an interesting old advertising poster for an event in Placerville. “When I saw it I knew I had to have it,” said Crandell, “I had never seen one like it before.

“It had a picture of an old saloon with people dancing and said it said, ‘Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown’ and ‘Placerville Days of ‘49 Mining Camp, May 21 to July 5.’ I knew it was something special. It wasn’t in perfect shape, but since most of these kinds of posters were thrown away when the event was over, it was amazing to find one at all.

“It was printed using an old process called stone printing, that was only used commercially up until the 1920s or so.  I figured it might be really old, maybe even from the 50th celebration of the discovery of gold in 1898 or at least the later 100th celebration in 1948.”

It turns out that the celebration was neither of those events, but a very special, six week long event that took place in 1931.

Like 1930, 1931 was predicted to not be a good year for the country. The Great Depression was affecting everyone in all walks of life and things looked grim. That is probably the reason that the California State Chamber of Commerce and California Newspaper Publishers Association came up with the idea to make 1931 the “California Fiesta Year, Bringing Happiness to the World.”

In October of 1930 three members of the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce attended a meeting of the state chamber in Sacramento where local communities were encouraged to came up with an idea for an event with a “ ’49er” theme. At the next meeting of the El Dorado Chamber, one of the attendees commented that “Although Mariposa, Woodland and Stockton have plans for events, the northern part of the state is looking to Placerville to stage the biggest ’49 celebration. After all, old Hangtown is the home of ’49.”

In November of the same year, the County Chamber announced that there would be a one day event on May 23, 1931 as a special feature of entertainment for the Grand Lodge of the Knights of Pythia, who were meeting in Sacramento that week. It addition, there would be a ten-day celebration ending on July 4 as the “principal ‘49er observance of the summer in Placerville.” They then offered a $5 prize to the person who could come up with the best slogan for the event, using the word “Hangtown” in it and invited bids from private citizens for the staging of the event.

At their next meeting the County Chamber announced that W. J. Tracy of Pacific House had won the slogan contest with “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and accepted the plan and bid from L. J. “Doc” Anderson, to manage the affair.

The final plan was to call it the “Hangtown 49er Homecoming, Celebration” with the theme “Hit the Gold Trail to Hangtown,” and it would last for seven weekends, starting on May 21 and ending on July 5th. On five acres next to the Marcus P. Bennett, Jr. Memorial Park they would build a Gold Rush style “Hangtown Camp” with a saloon and casino, an outside dance floor, and much more. For races and games they would use Bennett Park.

Posters, such as the one Crandell located, were printed, “in the old manner on a coarse grade of wrapping paper, which used to be known in some sections as ‘butcher paper’” it said in the April 17, 1931 edition of the “Mountain Democrat.” These were widely distributed and a later edition of the same newspaper mentions that they were posted in Sacramento and San Francisco, and as far away as the El Cortez Hotel in San Diego.

Stickers were also printed, along with 5,000 programs as an advertisement. The stickers were perfect for putting on packages and letters to friends outside the county and the programs fit easily into a regular envelope.

A delegation of local citizens led by the Native Daughters of the Golden West met with California Governor James Rolph who was so delighted with the idea that he arranged to have both houses of the State Legislature recess so that the delegation could meet with them to promote the event. As a souvenir, the governor was presented with a paperweight containing a golden butterfly created with flakes of gold from the gold mine James Marshall had opened in Kelsey. The governor also agreed to attend the event and June 13 was scheduled to be “Governor’s Day.”

A. B. Gray, the secretary of the California Tourist Association, and former editor of the Mountain Democrat, visited communities with posters in hand, promoting the event, and for  the first time ever  banners advertising any event, let alone one in Placerville, were allowed to be hung on the Ferry Building in San Francisco and several bridges between Sacramento and that city.