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Old Hangtown

From Dry Diggins to Hangtown to Placerville

Dry Diggins was the first of thirty mining camps to spring up around Coloma, where gold was discovered by James Marshall on January 24, 1848. While other camps, such as Bottle Hill, Georgia Slide, and Murderer's Bar just faded away, Hangtown, or Placerville, was a survivor, along with Diamond Springs, El Dorado, Shingle Springs and Georgetown.

New Epithet Earned ~ Dry Diggins became known as Hangtown in the fall of 1849, due to vigilante justice meted out to criminals at the end of a rope, often at the giant old oak tree on the thoroughfare in town. With the large influx of fortune hunters from around the world came the usual portion of unsavory characters commiting all manner of despicable deeds, from robbery to murder.

The miners quickly became short-tempered with the rising crime rate and the lack of readily-available law enforcement, so they took the "law" (or lack thereof) into their own hands. Criminals were punished in short order, whether it be flogging or hanging, based on snap decisions made by impromptu courts with hastily-formed juries. If you voiced your reasonable objections in favor of a more lengthy but fair trial for the accused, you'd risk swinging, too.

Flog Five, Hang Three ~ The first lynching in the camp, a triple hanging, came after a gang of five tried to rob a miner of his gold dust. They were caught and each received a whipping of nearly 40 strokes. Then someone in the crowd of 2,000 said he recognized three of the five (two Mexicans and one Yankee, or was it a Chilean and two Frenchmen?) as being wanted for involvement with a murder on the Stanislaus River. At that the three suspects, who were still weak from the flogging they took, were immediately tried, sentenced and hanged by the mob.

There was one dissenter, E.G. Buffum, who stood on a stump and protested on behalf of the accused, saying they were too weak from loss of blood to either stand or speak in their own defense. His valiant efforts were in vain, however, and he himself was threatened with lynching by the angry mob if he didn't 'shut up'. Buffum escaped with his life and later became the senior editor of the Alta newspaper in San Francisco.

The three suspects were hanged together from the huge oak tree in camp. The location of this well-used hangin' tree is marked by an effigy dangling by his neck from the second story of the Hangman's Tree Historic Spot in downtown Placerville. The stump is said to be in the cellar.

Crone Swings ~ A lynching in 1850 resulted from an incident that happened at the El Dorado Hotel, when a miner accused a young monte dealer of "waxing the cards". The card dealer was the infamous Dick Crone, who threatened to cut the miner's heart out if he accused him of cheating again. When the miner repeated the words, the gambler drew a large bowie knife, plunging it into the miner's chest twice, twisting it around the second time (obviously trying to make good on his threat to cut his heart out). Miners flocked into town from outlying diggins to locate and punish Crone. He was found hiding in Coffee's tavern, and was promptly tried (with witnesses testifying), convicted, and hanged that very evening by a mob jury of thousands.

Fed Up ~ The vigilante lynchings, with their often deserved but sometimes questionable justice, brought about a measure of peace within the camp. The criminals hadn't left the scene completely, however. They just moved their business to the outskirts of town, ambushing miners. These bushwackers had a gang-like network, complete with in-town spies, secret handgrips, and special passwords. (Could it be that they also wore their hats backwards, sported red or blue kerchiefs, and bagged their Levi's?) A vigilante committee was formed to deal with this problem.
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Gamblers caught fleecing the miners were not well-tolerated either and were run out of town. And once when a gang of ruffians tried to lynch an unfortunate black man named Bartlett for some imagined offense, "Yank" and his partner Dick Arnold saved him. Yank 'ran over the tops of their heads' with a knife between his teeth and cut Bartlett down after the Bill Burnes gang had hoisted him up into the top of a giant oak tree. And yet another example of the camp's intolerance for violence and cruelty was when they protested the inhumane treatment of a bull in the bull ring atop Circus Hill by uprooting the stockade and rolling the logs down to the creek.

Bull fighting in Gold Country? Yes. It was one of the few amusements the miners enjoyed, aside from fist fighting, gambling, and dancing with each other (the "women folk" wore kerchiefs tied as arm bands to differentiate themselves). Mexican miners brought the idea of bull fighting to the California mining camps, and it was often embellished into a "bear vs. bull" battle, pitting grizzly against one or two bulls. The bear's maneuver was to bear-hug the bull, pulling it down. The bull's maneuver was to charge the bear and try to gore it, swinging its head upwards. Thus the 20th century Wall Street jargon: a Bear market is down, a Bull market is up.

Enough of the Gore ~ What about the glitter? The first year, $1 million worth of gold came out of Cedar Ravine, running south from Main Street on Cedar Ravine Road, and another million from Log Cabin Ravine, running north from Main Street and now called Bedford Avenue. One panful of white clay taken from Hangtown Creek contained 75 ounces of gold dust. One fabulous cache after another was discovered. A lady found a 16-pound nugget while on a walk and served it to her husband in a skillet for dinner. Oregon Ravine, the original mining site (about a half mile west of Cedar Ravine running south of Main Street and now called Benham Park) was the richest of all, where half-inch nuggets were found just by hauling a sackful of dirt down to the creek to process. Placerville produced about $25 million in placer gold alone, not including the hardrock quartz mining and hydraulic mining ventures that were initiated when placer gold and its profits dwindled.

They Really Dug Placerville ~ Miners dug for gold just about everywhere in the camp. Traffic was hampered at times by men mining right in the street, digging holes wherever they reckoned gold would be found. They dug up the floors in their cabins. They dug into the steep ravines, cliffs, and hillsides. They plucked gold out of mortar on buildings with pen knives. And there are several reports of miners saying a few parting words at a fellow man's grave, getting a glimpse of gold sparkling in the newly-turned earth, and, well, you know what they did after "Amen"....

A Needed Change ~ The camp grew in population, becoming the third largest city in California, behind Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and Sacramento. (Los Angeles came in a distant 15th place at the time.) It had some fine big-city amenities and became more family oriented, more law abiding. So, in 1854, in an attempt to get rid of the grim sobriquet "Hangtown", the townsfolk elected to make "Placerville" its official name of record. "Little Town at the Gold Deposits." Now how could that possibly conjure up visions of anything unpleasant? But the fact is that "Hangtown" is proving to be an inescapable part of our past, still being used here and there to refer to Placerville.

Hangtown Hung In There ~ What was responsible for Old Hangtown's survival, when many mining camps disappeared soon after their gold did? Its ideal location on a prime transportation route over the Sierras was instrumental. It became an important stop for the Pony Express, which barreled in and out of town from 1860 to 1861; for stage lines, such as Wells Fargo & Co., hauling their loot and passengers; and for freight transportation to and from the silver-rich Comstock Lode in Nevada. After the turn of the 20th century, Placerville Road became part of US Highway 50, the first transcontinental highway. Placerville is the government seat for El Dorado County, beating Coloma and Diamond Springs, and is still a stop for travelers coming and going over the Sierra Nevadas. A bustling town in its own right, it may outgrow its reputation as a bedroom community for Sacramento commuters. Well, okay, maybe not.

More about Placerville


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