Frontier Justice in Placerville

In Camp and Cabin with John Steele — part 7

Steele met his share of desperadoes and lowlifes during his time in California. He tells of several men murdered in their tents for their gold. He worried about being a victim himself. He saw criminals harass and bully law-abiding folks, and sometimes the “reckless interference” he witnessed “brought them to grief.” Here is his example:

One afternoon in the latter part of August, 1852, I went to Placerville for supplies. After I had completed my purchases and was ready to return, I discovered two desperate characters on horseback parading the streets. Both were, or pretended to be, intoxicated, and flourishing large revolvers, they rode furiously while shouting to people on the streets, “Hunt your holes! Hunt your holes!” (p. 271)

In other words, find a place to hide. Steele stayed inside his “hole,” in the store for some time, until he thought the men had gone. But no sooner did he venture out, than they came riding back, on the sidewalk no less,  “flourishing their pistols and howling at the top of their voices.” Walking a short way ahead of him, Steele saw a large man.

His clay-stained clothing indicated that he was a miner; a coat lay on his left arm; attached to his belt a large revolver hung at his back; and on the set of his pantaloons was a large patch, evidently a piece from a flour sack, as it bore the mark Extra Fine.Nearer came the the man on horseback, still flourishing his pistol and shouting,  “Clear the track! Clear the track!”

A shot from the horseman’s pistol glanced along the sidewalk. The miner’s hand had been laid upon his pistol; now it was instantly drawn and fired.The rider threw up his arms; then he made an effort to grasp the saddle, but fell heavily to the sidewalk; the horse shied into the middle of the street and the rider on the opposite side went quietly down to the South Fork, a noted gambling headquarters. 

When I reached the body, the miner stood beside his victim; with some emotion he said, “I’m powerful sorry I had to do it; but I won’t be shot at nor run over if I can help it.” (p. 272-273)

They tried to raise the wounded man, but his body hung “limp and lifeless” as the blood flowed from his chest. “He was a fine looking young man,” notes Steele, and could well have been still in his teens. His was a life ended too soon, recklessly thrown away.

A birdseye view of Hang Town (Placerville), showing the famous hanging tree to the left of the Empire building, ca. early 1850’s. Courtesy University of Southern California

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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1 Response to Frontier Justice in Placerville

  1. Sandy Hill says:

    I so enjoy these stores Nancy. Thank you so much.

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