The Mysterious Death of Peter Lassen — Part 3

Whodunit?

Lemericus Wyatt was quick to blame the Paiute Indians. The natives always made  convenient and believable scapegoats. A man named Fred Kingsbury, whose father had been Peter Lassen’s partner, later pointed out that:

When Indians kill they want something for it. They take anything and everything in sight. Nothing was disturbed, not even the food in camp, or Peter’s pocketbook, containing his money. It wasn’t an Indian job.

Left behind were two sacks of flour, plenty of dried meat, and a keg of whiskey. Why pass that up?

Young Chief Winnemucca denied involvement, and was quoted as complaining “that he was accused of killing Pete Lassen, who had been one of the best men he had ever known and with whom he had slept in the same blanket.” His cousin Sarah Winnemucca said that the Indian agent, Major Dodge, also did not think the Paiutes had killed Lassen. Dodge suspected Mormons.

The Mormons, it seems, were second only to Indians when it came to convenient scapegoats. There was no indication that Mormons had anything to do with it.

Captain Weatherlow suggested Pit River Indians. Weatherlow was in the other group that left two days before Lassen’s party to go prospecting in the Black Rock Hills. The settlers had had clashes with the Pit Rivers, and possibly they took revenge on Lassen. Again, there is no proof, and nothing was taken from the campsite. But Weatherlow didn’t want to think it could be a white man.

Three years later two two other men, James Bailey and William Cook, were attacked by Indians in the same region of Nevada. The camp was looted. Captain Weatherlow was in the group of ten men who set out in pursuit of the attackers. They found a camp of nine Indians (tribe not indicated) and killed them. By one of the corpses they found the gun Peter Lassen was carrying when he met his death. It was the only thing taken from Lassen’s campsite.

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Memorial to Peter Lassen in his home town of Farum, Denmark.

How did the gun get there?

Ken Johnston, in his book Legendary Truths, has some suggestions:

Did the Indians kill Lassen and take his rifle? (But why didn’t they take anything else?)

Did the Indians take the rifle from Bailey and Cook? (If so, how did those two get it?)

Did Weatherlow plant the rifle on the dead Indian? (But how could he have arranged that?)

Or was Lassen not the target at all? Perhaps someone was after Clapper, and Lassen just happened to be in the way.

I can’t tell you the answer. The Death of Peter Lassen remains a mystery, never solved. If someone (not me!) wants to write a series of historical mysteries set in 19th century northern California, here’s one you can start with.

By the way, I used the name Lemericus Wyatt because that is a version that shows up in newspaper reports. But the only name that comes close in census records is Lemarcus Wiatt. I imagine that’s the same man. In the 1852 California census he was a 49-year-old Kentuckian living in Sonoma. In 1870 he is married, a carpenter, and living in Petaluma. But in between he must have gone to the Honey Lake Valley, met up with Peter Lassen, and then . . .  the mystery.

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Trail marker installed at the site of the murders by the Oregon-California Trail Association.

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The Mysterious Death of Peter Lassen — Part 2

Peter Lassen (or Larsen, since his father’s name was Lars) was born near Copenhagen in 1800.  He became a blacksmith. In 1830 he applied to the king for permission to immigrate, probably because the depressed European economy made it hard to find sufficient work. Or maybe he was just restless.

He arrived in Boston, and later moved to St. Louis, Missouri. In 1839 he joined an emigrant party to Oregon. From Oregon he took ship down the coast and got off at Bodega Bay and traveled overland to Sutter’s settlement, where he easily found work as a blacksmith.

So by the time of his death in 1859 he had been in California nearly 20 years and was well-known and respected. For now I’ll skip over his subsequent peripatetic career in California. By the late 1850s he had lost his Rancho Bosquejo (at Vina) and had relocated to Honey Lake Valley near Susanville. (See my Ever Been to Nataqua? post for more information.)

In the winter of 1858 Lassen and friends heard about a silver strike in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, which at that time was part of the Utah Territory. It was a region that Lassen was familiar with from the days when he guided emigrants along the Lassen Cutoff of the California Trail. Peter Lassen, Edward Clapper, and Lamericus Wyatt* set out to do some prospecting on April 19, 1859. The plan was to rendezvous with another group of prospectors at Black Rock Springs. When Lassen’s group got there, they didn’t meet the other group, so they set up camp to wait.

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This photo, from the Black Rock Explorers Society website, shows Clapper Canyon, where the deaths took place.

Just at daylight on April 26th gunshots rang out and Wyatt and Lassen sprang to their feet. Going to rouse Clapper, Wyatt found him already dead, shot through the temple. According to Wyatt, who was the only survivor, Lassen said he would stand lookout while Wyatt gathered up their things and got the horses. A moment later, Lassen was shot and fell, gasping, “They have killed me.”**

Taking nothing but his rifle, Wyatt sprang onto his horse and rode without food or rest for 48 hours (so he claimed) until he arrived back at Susanville and reported the deaths. Twenty men immediately set out for the camp to recover any horses and property, and to assess the situation.

Wyatt blamed the ambush on Paiute Indians. He claimed that a Paiute had come to the camp the evening before, asking for ammunition for his muzzle-loading rifle. Over the objections of Wyatt and Clapper, Peter Lassen gave the man bullets and powder, remarking that he had always been friendly with the Paiutes, they knew old Uncle Pete, and no harm would come of it.

If that really happened, then it made it easy for Wyatt to pin the blame on Indians, and by extension, Peter Lassen himself, who had so foolishly supplied the Indian with the ammo to kill him the next day. But other people questioned this scenario. If Indians did the deed, why did they not loot the camp, as they typically did? When the posse arrived, nothing had been taken from the camp.

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Site of the camp, again from the Black Rock Explorers Society website. Note the historical marker on the left.

So if not Paiute Indians, then who? Let’s explore that in the next episode.

*Wyatt’s first name also shows up as Americus, LaMarcus, and similar variations.

** As reported in the Downieville Mountain Messenger, and quoted in History of Lassen County. See Ken Johnston, Legendary Truths: Peter Lassen and His Gold Rush Trail in Fact and Fable, p. 287, which is the source of most of my information.

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The Mysterious Death of Peter Lassen

330px-Peter_Lassen-portraitOn April 26, 1859 — 158 years ago — Peter Lassen was murdered at Black Rock Canyon in what is now Nevada. He had gone prospecting for silver with two men, Edward Clapper and Lamericus Wyatt. Clapper also lost his life in the ambush that occurred early on the morning of April 26. Wyatt escaped and quickly fled back to Honey Valley, where he reported the deaths. He stated that Lassen and Clapper had been murdered by Paiute Indians.

But had they? It was easy enough to pin the blame on Indians, and for many years that story stood. It is even stated on Lassen’s grave marker. But many historians have doubted Wyatt’s story.

If Wyatt was the murderer, what was his motive? Or was there some third party? lassengrave-001Disgruntled immigrants, led astray by Peter Lassen, have been suggested.

Stayed tuned and I’ll tell you more about the life and death of Peter Lassen, the California pioneer from distant Denmark, who met an untimely death in the desert.

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The Liberty Bell Comes to Chico

I read an article in the April 2017 issue of Smithsonian about the 1915 national tour of the Liberty Bell to promote war bonds (“Saved by the Bell” by Stephen Fried). Even though the U.S. had not yet entered World War I, the trip was organized “as President Wilson, former President Theodore Roosevelt and other leaders felt the need to whip the nation into a patriotic frenzy to prepare for the war to end all wars.”

On its 4-month long rail journey the bell stopped in 275 American cities and towns, but according to the map that accompanies the article, only 12 of those towns were in California. Among them were Red Bluff, Chico, Marysville, and Sacramento. The bell spent four months at the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition at San Francisco.

Everyone flocked to see it when it came to town. As Theodore Roosevelt said, ” Can any puerile, peace-talking molly-coddle stand before this emblem of Liberty without a blush of shame?”

The Bell came to Chico on Friday, July 16, 1915.  The Chico Record headline the next day proclaimed: 5000 of Patriotic Citizens of Chico View Liberty Bell. That number included folks from Oroville, Gridley, Biggs, Durham, and “fifty school children of Hamilton City.” Banks and stores closed for business so all could view the bell.

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The Liberty Bell in Chico. Photo courtesy Special Collections, Meriam Library, CSU Chico.

The special train carrying the bell and its escort of Philadelphia officials arrived at 1:05, an hour and ten minutes late, and remained in Chico fifteen minutes. During the stop members of the party on the train tossed souvenirs, a basket of peaches and apricots was presented the visitors by the Chico Development Committee and patriotic airs were played by the Park band.

Even Mother Nature herself got into the act:

As if in an exuberant, patriotic mood, Mount Lassen gave vent to its American spirit and fired a salute of steam and smoke as the Liberty Bell train passed down the valley toward Chico.

What a sight that must have been!

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Gold, Grizzlies, and Mexican Land Grants

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Take a trip back in time to hear John Bidwell recount his adventures in California. You’ll hear about gold mining, grizzly bears, and how he acquired a Mexican land grant. The year is 1858, and John Bidwell is 39 years old. He holds the rank of major in the California Battalion. He has been in California since 1841, and has been living on Rancho Chico for nearly ten years.

Nick Anderson, who portrays John Bidwell at events at Bidwell Mansion, and myself — Nancy Leek — as a lady reporter from San Francisco, will enact an interview with the proprietor of Rancho Chico.

Everything you will hear is either a direct quote from Bidwell or an abridgement of his words. All the incidents really happened to him – no need to make anything up. The only fictional element is the lady reporter. Bidwell was interviewed several times during his life, but not as early as 1858, and not by a lady (as far as I know).

It will be lots of fun! Come to the Chico Museum next Saturday, April 22, at 10 a.m. to hear John Bidwell himself tell his story.

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Costume Time

Here’s the dress I spent a good part of two months working on—

(actually half the time was on the underpinnings of the dress)

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We look serious because this is the 19th century, when no one smiled for photos 🙂

Nick Anderson is portraying John Bidwell, and I am a fictional lady reporter from San Francisco. I have given myself the name “Mrs. Letitia Norris.” I will be interviewing Major Bidwell on April 22 at 10 a.m. at the Chico Museum.

I made Nick’s shirt and vest too, so that he would always be ready to play John Bidwell for the Bidwell Mansion Association.

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Bidwell, Kelsey, and Mary Ray King

I haven’t been blogging much lately, but I have been working on several projects—-

An article for The Diggin’s: If you live in Butte County you probably know that The Diggin’s is the quarterly journal of the Butte County Historical Society. Editor Nancy Brower asked me to turn my biographical introduction for The Road to Cherokee, about the author, Mary Ray King, into an article for the journal. It will be out this month.

cover-for-nancyWhen I wrote the introduction, I used up every bit of information I could find about Mary Ray King. Since then I was able to meet with her granddaughter, Deborah King, and find out more. I learned that early in her career she wrote short stories under the name Ray McIntyre King. In the early 20th century the reading public had a voracious appetite for short stories and Mary Ray helped feed that appetite.

I also expanded on a sensational court case that Mary Ray took part in. You’ll have to read The Diggin’s to find out why rejected marriage licenses and foreign-born suitors caused the court to take the twin Hunter girls away from their parents.

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Nancy Kelsey

A new picture book biography: I loved working with Steve Ferchaud and wanted to do another book with him. Nancy Kelsey was the first American woman to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains into California, and she did it barefoot and carrying a toddler. I want to show what pioneer life was like on the California Trail and how an ordinary woman from the backwoods of Kentucky took part in the Bear Flag Revolt and others events in our history.

Look for my new book in the fall of 2017. I’ll keep you posted on how things come along as Steve creates the illustrations and brings Nancy and Ben Kelsey to life.

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Nick as Bidwell

An event at the Chico Museum: John Bidwell is coming back to Chico, and I will be interviewing him at the Chico Museum on Saturday, April 22 from 10 to 11 a.m. Don’t miss A Conversation with Major John Bidwell: Rancho Chico, 1858! Nick Anderson will portray John Bidwell.

It turns out that writing the script was the easy part — it’s all based on the actual words of John Bidwell himself, telling about his trip to California, the discovery of gold, the Mexican War, and grizzly bears — lots of grizzly bears.

The tough part was making a costume for myself! I take the role of Mrs. Letitia Norris, widow and lady reporter for a San Francisco newspaper. I have come to Rancho Chico to interview one of California’s most prominent citizens.

There are hours of work in a 19th century costume. I not only had to make a period dress, but I had to make the corset and hoop skirt to go under it. The reproduction fabric came from Debbie’s Quilt Shop in Paradise. I’ll post a picture as soon as I get it hemmed — that’s the last thing to do.

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