Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Jackson's Hanging Tree History

Having lived in and around Amador County for many years, I have come to find some really interesting history regarding the county and surrounding areas. Many of the stories that I have found, I have shared on this blog or on my Facebook page, but many I have not. After so many years, I have decided to try to go back to my research and start posting more of the stories, whether big or small, so that I can share with you, my readers, more of this amazing gold country history.

Ever since I was a kid, I loved walking around Jackson. I remember the first time I noticed the plaque for the Hanging Tree right there on Main Street near the National Hotel. I was so intrigued to hear about this "Hangman's Tree" and wondered what stories that piece of land had to tell.  As time goes on, and as we get older, many of us have moments like this where we wonder about a person or place, but then we go on with our lives never to think about it again. Well, I am not one of those people. When I think about something, it bugs me until I find out everything there is to know about that particular subject. It might take me some time, but eventually, I get the story one way or the other.

As an adult, having moved back to Amador County, I was determined to finally get answers about the history of that forgotten tree, lost to history, although  I cannot take credit for digging all this up on my own. In fact, had it not been for the the late Amador County Historian Larry Cenotto, various archived newspaper clippings of the time period, and reports documented by Jesse D. Mason, we would never know what we do about this particular historic site. Facts show that in all the years that tree was used as a hanging tree, it only witnessed 10 deaths.

"This tree which has become noted wherever the name of California is known, formerly stood near Louis Tellier's saloon, and was a live-oak, with several branching trunks. It was never very beautiful, but was a source of so much of its history, that its likeness was engraved on the county seal, so that its appearance is not likely to be forgotten.

Its use at first as a hanging-tree, was quite accidental; but in the course of time the tree was a terrible hint for the quick solution of a criminal case, and when the tree was injured by the great fire of August, 1862, so as to necessitate the cutting of it down, the feeling regarding its fate was not altogether sorrowful."  (History of Amador County, Jesse D. Mason,1881)

According to documented newspapers, the Hanging Tree was located just across from the Astor House, and right in front of Dunham's Butcher Shop and the St. Louis House, all businesses that no longer exist.  The plaque that is located on the sidewalk off of Main Street is in as close proximity possible to the location that could be marked, since the actual location was actually in the street.

Death # 1.

The first case was "Coyote Joe," and Indian, charged with robbing and murdering blacksmith, Mr. Thompson at the Gate (Jackson Gate). He was tried by a jury of miners, with Dr. Pitt acting as the jury foreman, and shortly thereafter found guilty. It was mentioned that items found on the Indian belonged to Thompson when he was arrested. The trial took place in a restaurant close to the tree itself.

The first hanging took place on March 19, 1851.

Death # 2

The second death was said to be a Chileno, who stabbed a woman (who was his cousin). He was also tried by a jury and found guilty. Larry Cenotto's published findings state that it was really an unidentified Mexican who stabbed his brother-in-law to death.

The second hanging event took place on June 23, 1851.

Death # 3 & 4

In 1851, two Frenchmen were butchered in Squaw Gulch near Jackson Gate. As the history of Amador County states "One was stabbed with a long bowie-knife thirteen times, dying immediately. The other, though cut five or six times, lived for several days." 

According to Larry's research records, "Monsieur Pontanier and an unknown French "companion" on  May 20, 1852, were attacked while they slept in their tent in Squaw Gulch near the Gate." The men had been stabbed to death. The deaths of these two men was what led up to the formation of the Jackson Vigilance Committee. The committee offered a $300 reward to anyone who helped apprehend or deliver the murderer(s).

Initially, another man Gregorio Soberano was arrested while at a bistro in downtown Jackson, but he was later exonerated. Later on, another man was brought on charges. His name was Cheverino. He had been examined and sent to the "log jail," to be held until he could stand trial, but that night a mob of people (let me make this clear it was NOT the Vigilance Committee) broke into the jail and dragged Cheverino out to the oak tree on Main Street.

The first of two hangings took place around 8:30 p.m. on the evening of June 10th, 1852.

According to records, the rope was put around his neck and he was pulled up while his hands were free. So, he began clenching onto the rope around his neck, struggling to survive. This allegedly went on for about ten minutes before they dropped the rope, and tied his hands behind his back and then raised the rope again. It was said that Cheverino had admitted guilt in the murder of Pontanier.

His accomplice, Cruz Flores had been found out by chance when another Mexican, Mariano, who had been arrested for horse theft in Sacramento, implicated Cruz Flores, as the other man who murdered a Frenchman near Jackson Gate, or "The Gate."

Flores, the Hanging Tree's third execution was hanged the next day on June 11th, 1852.

Death # 5

According to Larry Cenotto's research, he claimed that the 5th victim of the hanging tree was none other than an "hombre with Murietta's band"-- you know, Joaquin Murietta.  On February 15, 1853 at approximately 5: 30 p.m.,  Antonio Valencia was hanged for the murder of Joseph Lake, 27, native of Philadelphia, who had settled in Jackson operating a butcher shop, as well as murdering a Chinaman and a string of robberies.

Murietta's gang had struck a Chinese Camp at Oppossum Bar on the Consumnes on February 8th, 1853, and started what Cenotto quoted as "history's greatest wave of murder, robbery and terror that rolled over Calaveras County." It was mentioned that allegedly it was this crime spree that put the nail in the coffin for Governor Bigler to decide to hire Harry Love to hunt Murrietta down. (We all know how that went! For the record, I still don't believe that head that was on display was Murrietta's but that is an entirely different story!)

The Sacramento Union account states that a couple of  Chinamen ran into Big Bar camp gasping that the Mexican riders who came to their camp were "no good."  William McMullen of Consumnes, returned with them to their camp to see what they were talking about, and he found four horses hitched in front of one of the tents.  McMullen suspected Murietta's gang was there and left immediately to get help from some of the miners nearby. In about thirty minutes, McMullen had rounded up about 11 people to come back to the camp with him to confront the Mexicans.  As they were nearing the camp, they were approached by several Chinese men who were running towards them, wounded by gunshots to the hand and neck.  The camp had been ransacked and all valuables had been stolen.

The posse of men traveled up river where they ran into two Americans who had just ran into the Mexicans. When the Americans drew their pistols, the Mexicans had allegedly told them they had no issue with them, they were only attempting to frighten the Chinese. So they passed by the Americans with no incident.  The next day, about six of the original men on the hunt for the bandits made it to Dry Creek where they found another Chinese Camp that had been robbed. This time the bandits made their escape towards Butte City.  Following intelligence given to McMullen along the way, they traveled to Butte City, Secrete and back to Jackson  when they heard the bandits had been at "The Gate" (Jackson Gate). It seemed that at each turn the bandits were one step ahead, giving them the slip and escaping up to Rancheria, and later on towards Fiddletown.

By the 5th day on the hunt for these men, McMullen's party dwindled from 11 to 3 men left helping him, and finally on the 6th day the men all but gave up and went back home. That didn't stop the bandits though, they continued pillaging and plundering Chinese camps along Jackson Creek and Sutter Creek and in the end a Chinese man was robbed & killed as well as Joseph Lake, a local butcher. Joseph Lake, had been shot three times and stabbed in the neck by Valencia. Some fanciful stories claim it was Murietta who killed him, all because Lake had gave away Murietta's whereabouts, but there is no conclusive evidence that this was the reason he was killed. That is merely conjecture.

Soon news had spread that the Mexicans had killed a dozen or more at Campo Seco. They were also blamed for 20 miners the month before, as well as two women and a male escort who had been killed after their Stockton stage had been stopped and robbed. Two days later, an armed posse of men surrounded Camp Ophir which was near Buena Vista, where they apprehended Antonio Valencia, one of the men of the Mexican group of bandits. When he was brought back to Jackson he was recognized by the Chinese miners who had been robbed by him on the 8th at Big Bar. He was placed in the "log jail," but within a few minutes a mob surrounded the jail, "rescued" him only to take him to the tree to be hanged. They strung him up once, and dropped him down, hoping he would confess to his crimes, but he refused.  So, he was hanged from the neck until dead.

The 5th death took place on February 15, 1853.

(For the record, there is no way to know if he was part of Joaquin Murietta's gang or not, but like all folklore about this infamous bandito, many stories still make their rounds.) 

Death # 6

According to Larry Cenotto's booklet "The Concise, Uncensored Historical Jackson Sightseer in Text, Map and Sketch" the sixth death was an "Unidentified Chilean for robbing and murder of Chinaman, 7/27/1853."  However, his "Logan's Alley" series dated February 5, 1975 mentions two men being held, one Chilean who was a horse thief who was hanged and another man who had attacked a Chinese camp (no mention of murder) and that the Chinese had attacked him back, causing a head injury to the criminal who wasn't hanged.

The San Joaquin Republican dated, July 18, 1853 mentions the hanging and states that it was a Mexican who was brought to Jackson from Marysville, for stealing horses just two days earlier. The newspaper states the following:

"The deputy went on to Marysville and found his animal and the person who had bought it, immediately pointed out this Mexican as the man, who had sold it to him. He had an examination before the Mayor's Court, and being unable to give a satisfactory account, he was placed under the care of the deputy sheriff to be taken to Jackson, for trial. 

Upon arrival at Jackson, the stage was met by a crowd of persons who seized both the deputy sheriff and his prisoner -- the officer, they locked in a room, taking from him his pistol, and the Mexican they led to a place called the Gate, about a mile from town. The Mexican refused to confess his guilt farther than another Mexican who is now at large in Marysville stole the animal, and gave him a mule to ride.

At this stage of the proceedings some Mexicans, Chileans and Negroes, who were present, took hold of the rope about his neck -- one end of which was over a tree -- for the purpose of releasing him, but immediately fifty pistols were leveled at them, and they were forced to retire. The Mexican still declaring that he was innocent, but feeling confident that he was about to die, begged for time to send for a priest, this was refused him, and more than twenty men taking hold of the rope, was launched into eternity.

Messrs. Peter Jewell and Thomas Johnson, two of those who had been active in procuring the hanging of the Mexican, in about an hour after the tragedy, retured to their work on a house, when they were unexpectedly attacked by three Chileans. They attacked Jewell first, inflicting a dreadful wound on his breast, and when Johnson ran to help Jewell, they stabbed him in the pit of his stomach and turned the knife around in his wound. Johnson cannot recover. A party of horsemen pursued the Chileans, but had not overtaken them when our information left."

I never did find any ending to that story after Johnson and Jewell were attacked, so I have no way to know if they ever apprehended those men.

In another account dated August 4, 1853, in the Daily Alta California, a letter to the editor of the newspaper was published with some detailed information about the event, where the gentlemen gives a more insightful account about this particular hanging and why he personally defended the incident.

His letter mentions there were two horse thieves originally arrested at Marysville. Their names were  Sanchez and Lopez. The story this man gave was that Lopez paid off one of the officers in the amount of $500 to secure his release, while Sanchez didn't have any money so he was sent to Jackson to pay for the crime alone.  The townspeople learned from Sanchez that Lopez had bribed his way out of the noose, and so, "As soon as the people of this place became aware of the gross injustice done them by the officers in Marysville in releasing one of the thieves, the greatest indignation was felt, and they then resolved to make sure of the other, and as guilt of the theft had been established beyond the least shadow of doubt, to hang him immediately -- which they did, and I believe justly, too." 

The writer claimed that Sanchez was hanged, but without being able to confess his sins to a Catholic priest as was his request (this correlates with the first account).  The person who wrote to the newspaper also goes on to state that Jackson Gate or "The Gate" as it was called,  had been having a lot of stock stolen regularly, and that since there were many Hispanic people moving into the area there had been a lot of theft operations going on and that the locals had to "execute the most extreme punishment upon the thief when caught" to set an example.

"You seem to think that it is not necessary at the present time for the populace of this county to try and execute criminals as the legal authorities are not only able but willing to do their duty faithfully and promptly. If such were the case -- if the officers of the law in Calaveras county were "able and willing to do their duty faithfully and promptly," there would be no necessity of the populace taking the law in their own hands, and executing justice upon evil doers, and they would not do it. Of late, criminals in this county have been managed very badly -- the people have become indignant at the course pursued by the lawful authorities, and the frequent escape of prisoners indicted and convicted of the highest crimes, from our jail, has greatly impaired the confidence of the people in the willingness or ability of our officers to fulfill the duty consigned to their charge.... We are not in favor of mob law, and we shall rejoice when the time comes that it will entirely be done away with in California, and the lawful authorities have the whole control of criminals; but until ample protection of life and property can be afforded the people by officers to whom we look for protection, we hope to see the populace continue to assume the authority of detecting, trying and punishing criminals according to the extent of their offenses." ---

The death of the Chilean or Mexican (whichever he was) who possibly went by the name of Sanchez, was hanged on  July 27, 1853.

Death # 7

The seventh death by way of the Hanging Tree was for the theft of a very valuable horse that was stolen from Jackson merchants, Evans & Askey who owned the Louisiana Hotel (where the National Hotel stands today).  The horse thief was Christopher Bennett, and he was apprehended near Bridgeport in Nevada County and brought back to Jackson.

Interestingly, according to "History of Amador County" by Jesse D. Mason, Bennett claimed to have purchased the horse from a traveler he met on the road. He even had a bill of sale which he produced to the authorities which read "Sac City, March 16, 1854, "Mr. C. Bennett, Bought of C. Cuper, for one gray horse, Three Hundred & Forty Dollars. Title guaranteed. W. Holman, Auctioneer.  C. Cuper." --

But once Bennett came back to Jackson, hundreds of people allegedly recognized him and the horse which was identified as belonging to Evans & Askey.  Bennett's trial was only a few minutes long and took place on the steps of the Louisiana House (National Hotel) at sunrise. Remember, this is according to Mason's account, but I don't know how many hundreds of people could possibly have been wandering around downtown Jackson at sunrise, being that the newspapers claimed that he was hanged before anyone was notified, and long before a crowd had a chance to gather. In the words of Larry Cenotto, "they hanged Bennett (alias Schwartz and Black) and he was tap dancin' on a breeze before 7 a.m."

Deaths # 8, 9  & 10.

The last three deaths by way of the Hanging Tree occurred in August of 1855, after the horrific massacre at lower Rancheria. If you do not know the story, please click on this link below to read Part 1, and don't forget read all four parts (I know, it's a long one, but totally worth it to get the whole story).


To make a long story short, three men were ultimately hanged on that tree within a week. These deaths were because all three men were accused of being part of the group of banditos who went on a killing spree in lower Rancheria on August 5, 1855.  First an unidentified Mexican was hanged on August 8th, then Manuel Garcia was hanged on August 9th, and finally the last man ever to be hanged on the Hanging Tree, Rafael Escobar was hanged on August 15, 1855.  (To read about Rafael's death, click on Part 3 here.)

Finally, the Hanging Tree met its own demise on August 23, 1862 when the "Great Fire" raged through Jackson, taking almost everything along with it. Only a few buildings survived that fire, and after the smoke cleared and the ashes settled, that Hangman's Tree was a charred fragment of what it once was. It was soon after cut down.

Many years later, on July 24, 1937, the Ursula Parlor No. 1 of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, had a plaque put in on Main Street marking the general area where that Hanging Tree once stood.


In ending, as you may have noticed, I cited much of Larry Cenotto's research within this blog.  I felt there was no better way to honor him than by sharing his research. Larry Cenotto was a huge inspiration for me personally in my quest to be a historical journalist and writer in my own life. In fact, had it not been for Larry Cenotto's personal advice to me to publish my work, I would never have published my first book "Behind the Walls." Since then, I have published four historical non-fiction books, all having some tie to Amador County history.

Although Larry passed away on October 7, 2012, the legacy he left the world, his work and his passion for history, lives on indefinitely as long as we keep reading and researching. Since the 1970's he spent time founding what is now the Amador County Archives, taking on the position as Archivist for nearly 30 years and contributing his knowledge of county history in newspaper columns for many years as well as publishing his works in paper form through books and travel booklets. Nearly every story you research nowadays regarding Amador County history, it is likely you will find something mentioning Larry in it. Meaning he either wrote about it, or he archived it! He truly was a treasure that not only saved this county's history from possible oblivion, but also preserved it for future generations to enjoy. And after all, preserving our history for posterity meant a lot to Larry. I know because he told me so, when he encouraged me to publish my blogs in book form.

In 2017, a plaque was erected on the side of the National Hotel, just steps away from where that Hanging Tree once stood, that pays tribute to Larry, forever sealing his story within the pages of the same Amador County history that he knew and loved so much. What a fitting tribute to Amador County's greatest historian.

(Copyright 2019 - J'aime Rubio,

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