Town History - Gold Discovery, Early Citizenry, Legends

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Town History

      By the summer of 1848, the gold regions about Coloma were so crowded that late arrivals had no choice but to search farther afield for new diggings. As a result, Perry McCoon, William Daylor, and Jared Sheldon—ranchers from the Sacramento Valley—discovered rich placers on a branch of Weber Creek that June and took out $17,000 in one week’s time from a small ravine “not more than a hundred yards long by four feet wide and two or three feet deep.” Because the creek was dry in the summer and the dirt had to be carried to water for washing, the miners christened the new camp “Dry Diggings.”
      News of the rich diggings, rumored to pay six ounces a man per day, spread out quickly along the forks of the American River. Without hesitation, miners abandoned good paying claims to join the rush to Dry Diggings in the hopes of striking it even richer. As the winter of 1848 approached and water became more available, the camp grew even more prosperous. By the middle of December, a traveler passing through the camp reported that about fifty log cabins had been erected.
      An estimated one to two thousand inhabitants called Dry Diggings home in 1849. The gulches, ravines, and hillsides for miles around were dotted with tents, brush lean-tos, and log cabins, while along the camp’s main street dozens of buildings housed stores, saloons, boarding rooms, restaurants, and gambling halls. The town was not without its wild side; crime, unscrupulous characters, and violence resided among the streets, ultimately leading to grisly events which gained the camp its infamous sobriquet, Hangtown.
      Several versions exist concerning the aforementioned grisly events. One such is this. One night in January of 1849, five men entered a gambler’s room with nefarious intentions. When the gambler awoke, one of the intruders put a gun to his head while the others rifled his belongings in search of gold. Somehow an alarm was raised and several citizens rushed into the room and apprehended the robbers. The next day the five men were tried by a miners’ court, found guilty, and sentenced to receive thirty-nine lashes. A large crowd turned out the following morning to witness the event. They saw each of the men in turn tied to an old oak tree, his back bared, and then lashed thirty-nine times with a strip of raw cowhide. While the sentence was being carried out, fresh charges were preferred against three of the men, a Chileno named Manuel, and two Frenchmen named Garcia and Bissi. They were charged with robbery and attempted murder on the Stanislaus.
      The Stanislaus Three were taken to a nearby house, and too weak from their punishment to stand, were laid out upon the floor. They were then tried in absentia by a crowd of some two hundred men. As the charges against them were well substantiated, the trial lasted only thirty minutes and the guilty verdict was unanimous. When the question of punishment arose, a “brutal-looking” fellow in the crowd cried out, “Hang them.” Ropes were tied to the limb of a giant white oak, and thirty minutes later “the prisoners were marched out, placed upon a wagon, and then ropes put around their necks. A black handkerchief was bound around the eyes of each; their arms were pinioned, and at a given signal, without priest or prayer-book, the wagon was drawn from under them, and they were launched into eternity.”
      This triple header was one of the earliest recorded lynchings in the Gold Country. It was followed by the hanging of “Irish Dick” Crone, strung up on the same tree for knifing a man to death over a game of cards. Several other bad men wore the hangman’s noose and it wasn’t long before Dry Diggings was known throughout the Gold Country as “Hangtown.”
      Hangtown grew quickly during its infancy and by 1850 there were fifty to sixty buildings along the town’s main street; before the year was out there were hundreds. The post office was established on April 9 of 1850, and the following year the name Placerville appeared for the first time on a map of the region, bestowed for the numerous placer holes which made the streets almost impassable. The camp incorporated as a city on May 13 of 1854, and held its first municipal election on June 5 of that same year. Its voting population (1,944) was the third largest in the state at the time, with only Sacramento and San Francisco polling more votes.
      Up until 1856, Placerville had escaped the fiery destruction that seemed to visit Mother Lode towns on a regular schedule. This was unusual in itself as most of the buildings in town were made from wood and canvas (very combustible); it seems a miracle that the town survived so long. But you know what happened. On April 15 of 1856, a fire started in the Iowa House on Sacramento Street and destroyed many of the surrounding structures before it was contained. The town was lucky that time, but it wasn’t so fortunate a few weeks later when another fire broke out on the 6th of July. This blaze swept through the town, moving with such rapidity that nothing could be done to check its progress. When the flames had run their course, most of the town lay in smoldering ruin. The fire was the work of an incendiary and most likely connected with the conflagrations that destroyed Georgetown and Diamond Springs, all three fires occurring within about a month’s time. But before the ashes had cooled, rebuilding was under way with many of the new structures being built of stone and brick, just in case another fire should happened to occur.
      About this time, the rich yield of the placer deposits finally began to decline, causing some speculation as to the town’s future. The townspeople should not have worried. When a stagecoach crossed the Sierra Nevada in 1856, proving that a regular route was possible, both overland mail and regular stage service soon began. In 1857, Placerville won the county seat from Coloma, due in part to the popularity of the Overland Trail which brought thousands of emigrants into town, and to its importance as a supply center for the entire region. And when the world’s greatest silver discovery occurred in 1859, Nevada’s fabulous Comstock Lode, the resulting “Silver Rush” created a stampede of fortune seekers hell-bent on reaching the Comstock, and the road to Washoe led through Placerville. In 1860, the Pony Express began making its run through town and the camp never looked back.

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