David Carrillo lives in Northern California, a region rich in western frontier history and folklore. He writes fictional notices about the Old West in the blog trailpost1850.com. Mr. Carrillo's short stories also appear in "Frontier Tales" and recently completed his novel, "The Emergence: When Survival and Resistance Becomes a Family Affair."
Folks in town already took up a collection to erect a marker at the site of the shootout. The Riparian Irrigation Club wanted to proclaim the incident “The Capay Valley Stand-Off.” Locals who traded at Black’s Station called it a downright massacre. Big cattle declared war against the homesteaders living on parcels where the sweet-grasses grew. Clashes over land and water rights took place throughout the winter of 1870. The struggle yielded no victors, only heartache.
Marshal Frank Kegan and seven men rode to the Kettner place situated in Hungry Hollow. The Kettner family came overland from Tennessee’s Sequatchie Valley to claim their 160-acre parcel in California, where they raised vegetable garden and a few head of cattle with the “K Dot” brand. The Marshal was out delivering eviction notices petitioned by the Ramage Land, Water & Stock Company. Kegan did not realize he would encounter a funeral that grey February morning.
Mourners gathered from Capay Valley and the nearby town of Esparto to pay their respects to Liliana Kettner, daughter of Carl and Rebecca. The ten-year-old was killed in a stampede set off by a dynamite blast at the Ames Ditch headgate. The ditch belonged to Jarred “Jake” Ames, who diverted water from nearby Cache Creek, to irrigate his Chilean clover fields east of the Kettner’s property. Ames suspected the explosions were part of an intimidation campaign waged by the Ramage Land, Water & Stock Company.
Western painter and storyteller Charles M. Russell tells a story about a couple of prospectors he knew. “Bedrock Jim” was working a claim in the Big Horn high country with his partner, “Pick Axe Jack.” And, it dawned on them that they were out of meat for supper. So, they went hunting. Not far from camp, Bedrock caught sight of an exceptional elk with large, pitchforked antlers. He got off a shot with his Henry and dropped the bull.
The two men strode over to admire the prize, leaning their rifles up against a fallen log. Standing over the 800-pound animal, they rolled over on its side. Bedrock could see a spot of blood on its neck. Thinking that its neck was broken, he grabbed a horn to straighten it out so that he could make a proper cut to the throat with his knife.
The elk got to its feet, still very much alive, and went after Pick Axe. The bull was fighting mad, and the two men were at once embroiled in a mighty struggle. To their misfortune, their guns rested on the wrong side of the angry elk.
Exhausted and unable to subdue the beast, Bedrock Jim scampered up a pine scrub growing near a rocky ledge. The small tree was not tall enough to accommodate both men, so Pick Axe Jack found sanctuary in a hole where varments had hibernated. Read more
Alarm reached a fever pitch in the mining towns and camps along the Sierra Nevada. In early 1853, A marauding gang of horsemen led by the enigmatic leader known as “Joaquín” terrorized the Mother Lode communities—Hornitos, Murphys, Sonora, Mariposa—plundering gold, stealing horses, and killing anyone who dared resist.
Newspaperman Andrew Joshua Bell followed the events concerning the dreaded Joaquín, writing notices for The Republican concerning the murders committed in the lonely gulches and solitary outposts of Calaveras County.
Then on August 19, 1853, the reign of terror appeared to come to an end. Willing spectators lined up around the Stockton House, paying a dollar apiece to view the severed head of Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo displayed inside a jar of whiskey. Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, identified the pickled head as belonging to the notorious Bandido with signed affidavits. Read more
As a scout for emigrant and government trains crossing the Great Plains to California, he had seen it all. Burned out wagons, discarded furniture, and the skeletons of settlers and their stock that met with terrible misfortune.
On a fall day in 1860 near Honney Lake, William Drannan and a fellow scout came across something that beat anything they’d witnessed before.
They heard a dog barking in the distance. As they stopped to listen, the bark turned into a howl. Intrigued, Drannan’s partner Jim offered to check it out, while the chief scout set up camp.
When Jim did not return right away, Drannan became concerned. It would be an hour before the investigating scout returned to report that he had followed the canine for nearly a mile before learning why it had wandered so far from civilization.
Jim found a dog with a black mask and tan markings baying over his master’s lifeless body lying on a blanket as if he’d fallen asleep. The animal had so far kept the buzzards and wolves away. However, its howl was not so much a warning to ward off predators, but a deliberate summons for help. Once the scout discovered the dead man, the stray came within petting distance, enthusiastically wagging its stumpy tail.
The lost émigré must have become separated from the wagon train with which he was traveling. There were no signs that the dog’s master had died violently. Tragically, he did not possess a gun to hunt. The man must have wandered for days until he became too weak to continue, eventually dying of starvation on the lonely trail.
The next morning, the two pathfinders returned to the unfortunate pioneer’s last resting place to cover him over with rocks and brush. They brought along three rabbits they shot along the way to share with the half-starved dog. Jim tried every which way to lure the animal away, but the dog would not leave his master’s side. It remained friendly toward the men, panting with his tongue out and mouth in the shape of a smile.
William Drannan could see his fellow scout had become attached to the dog. A cattle dog was not good only for herding, but was a valuable asset for hunting, locating water, hauling a pack, and forewarning his master of unwelcome visitors in camp. More important to Jim, it was the dog’s loyal companionship that the frontiersmen prized.
Jim told Drannan that he was having a difficult time leaving the dog behind to starve. He proposed putting a rope around its neck and leading him away. But, out of tender regard for the devoted dog, the Chief Scout replied, “No Jim, if he will not be coaxed away, it would not be right to force him to leave his deceased master.”
So, William Drannan and his reluctant partner mounted their horses and left the dog behind—a more faithful soul they’d never again find.
Sheriff Harry Morse crouched outside the adobe. He had a critical decision to make: he could wait for the fugitive to emerge and take him by surprise or boldly march in and make the arrest. Juan Soto was inside, and the sheriff was not about to let him getaway.
Morse had relentlessly tracked Soto over several months from Alameda County, where Soto killed a man. The outlaw had also raided a Sunol grocery store and shot the clerk to death. The store belonged to Assemblyman Thomas Scott, who demanded justice. Newspapers were calling Juan Soto “The Human Wildcat,” because of his erratic behavior.
And now, fifty miles southeast of Gilroy in the dry and rocky Panoche Mountains, Morse had him cornered. But, how does one take an unpredictable wanted man into custody? Whichever course of action the sheriff chose, he knew he would have a bloody fight. Harry Morse continued to ponder his options until a white mist of fog rolled in, deciding for him. Read more
To someJim Gilliswas the “Thoreau of the Sierras.” Others knew him as the “Father of Pocket Mining.” But, Jim Gillis’ most enduring quality was his cock-and-bull storytelling.
By his own account, Gillis was solely responsible for giving a certain unemployed junior reporter his first big break.
After losing his job at theMorning Call,Sam Clemenshung around San Francisco with Gillis’ younger brother Steve. One night Sam had to sign a $500 promissory note to bail Steve out of jail after the younger Gillis slugged it out with a saloon owner. Sam had not the means for paying the bond. So, he and Steve lit out of town for the Sierra foothills, fugitives from the law.
Steve invited Sam to lay low at his brotherJim’s cabin on Jackass Hillin Tuolumne County. It was a hovel really: leaning badly to one side with plenty of loose planks and a saggy roof that leaked when it rained. But to Clemens, it was a cool place to drink during the day and sturdy enough to keep the wind off the card table at night.
Many a good yarn was spun in that tumble-down, ramshackle of a cabin, and Sam, being an upstart writer that he was, wrote them all down. Jim’s favorite story was the time Clemens tussled with a pig. It went something like this…
Gillis trained his pig, John Henry, to dig pocket mining holes along the hillside by burying biscuits. He also had a good for nothing bulldog named Towser. Towser and John Henry got along famously except for their clashes at bedtime. Jim looked forward to letting in the two each evening and watch the battle royale over the rights to the bunk directly beneath his.
Sam was not privy to the nightly spectacle. After sleeping several weeks on a hard couch, Sam asked if he could stow away in the bottom bunk that evening. Jim said he could, and Sam had no problem falling asleep with John Henry and Towser clamoring outside to get in, thinking they were forgotten. When Gillis unlatched the door, the two rushed for the bunk, at which point they engaged in a fierce struggle for the territory where Sam bedded down.
Sam, who’d been dreaming about piloting riverboats up the Mississippi, was rousted in the roughest and most unfriendly manner. He could not extricate himself from the topsy-turvy bedlam. And, it didn’t help matters that Jim shouted, “Go to it, Towser! Give it to him John Henry!”
Clemens did the only thing he could do: he swore and yelled and swore some more—hurling insults at John Henry, Towser, and Jim. The more Sam cussed, the more Jim laughed, until the latter had to hold his sides to keep them from splitting. Gillis finally showed some compassion and took Sam in on the top bunk.
Still indignant that next morning, Sam began to pack his bags. Jim persuaded Clemens to stay with a promise that he would secure the young writer clear title to the story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in recompense, as Jim put it, “for damages sustained to Sam’s sensitive nature.”
Sam, never one to let a good story go to waste, jotted the yarn down in his notebook: Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50—the stranger had no frog and C got him one—in the meantime, the stranger filled C’s frog full of shot so he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won. Sam changed Coleman’s name toJim Smileyand embellished the fable with all sorts of ironies and witticisms, but beyond that, the gist was pretty much the same.
As you probably know, under the pen name Mark Twain, Sam made the most of it. The story was published inThe New York Saturday Pressin 1865.
According to Jim Gillis, the most successful pocket-miner in California, it was he who gave his young house guest the story that would make him famous the world over. Gillis told his well-preserved yarn to anyone gullible enough to listen.
It was a complicated relationship—father and son, filled with so many expectations and disappointments.
Louren Upson, prominent editor of the Sacramento Daily Union, did not approve of the rudderless direction his son’s life had taken or the company he kept. Nineteen-year-old Warren Fremont Upson had taken up with rowdies and troublemakers from Sutter’s Fort, riding through the countryside and shooting off guns at all hours of the night, annoying the neighbors.
The boy didn’t seem interested in following in his father’s footsteps: studying law and preparing for a career in politics. He had a head full of adventure and was more interested in horsemanship than a place in society. Read more
The desk clerk at the exclusive Santa Barbara hotel was abrupt with the dusty stranger inquiring about a room. Sure, the man’s clothes were covered with alkali dust from the Carrisa Plains. And due to the hot day, he smelled pretty bad too. But, to judge this man solely based upon his appearance was a mistake. The traveler looking for lodging that day was Henry Miller—thee Henry Miller.
Miller and his partner Charles Lux had amassed more land, wealth, and power than most kings. Through opportune purchases of old Spanish land grants, Miller & Lux owned over 1,200 square miles or 800,000 acres of prime grazing land in California. He was then and remains today the largest landholder ever in the history of the United States and perhaps the world. Miller could drive his 80,000 head of beef from Mexico to San Francisco on land owned entirely by his brand. He was the Cattle King with a legion of hired hands awaiting his every command. Read more
Tom Bell must have known he would pay for his crimes. He managed to elude capture for months. But on October 4, 1856, a posse led by Judge George Belt finally caught up with him along the Merced River.
Mrs. Tilghman, the wife of a popular barber, had been shot during a holdup and was not expected to live. It was the first stagecoach robbery in United States history. The townspeople of Marysville were outraged and demanded justice. Already in custody were two of his associates, John Fernandez and Bill Gristy. The captured men credited Bell as the mastermind.
After Judge Belt informed Tom Bell that he was to be hung from the nearest tree, he was granted permission to write two letters of farewell—one to his mother, the other to his mistress. Read more