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Captain Jonathan R. Davis

The Old West's most famous shootout is probably the 1881 street fight near the legendary OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, between the Earp and Clanton factions, which left three men dead. But the Gold Rush saw many shooting frays that equaled or exceeded the death toll of the OK Corral. Most significant of all Gold Rush shootouts was the Rocky Canyon fight. Just as the California Gold Rush saw civilian violence in degrees never experienced before or since in peacetime America, it also saw one of the greatest of all pistol and Bowie knife fights. On a lonely mountain trail in the Sierra Nevada in 1854, Captain Jonathan R. Davis, after his mining partners were shot down by marauding bandits, single-handedly killed eleven outlaws with pistols and Bowie knife in possibly the single most extraordinary feat of self-defense by an American civilian in the annals of frontier history.

Jonathan R. Davis was born on August 5, 1816, to a prosperous family in Monticello, South Carolina. He was educated at the University of South Carolina, and in December 1846, he enlisted in the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers for service in the Mexican War. Soon promoted to second lieutenant, he served with great distinction, fighting in many battles; he was wounded in action at Churubusco. Mustered out of the army in 1848, Davis carried the honorary title of captain and later joined the Gold Rush. In California Davis stood out among many veteran fighting men in the diggings. He was known as an expert pistol shot, and according to a friend he was "second to none in the state as a fencer."

On December 19, 1854, Captain Davis and two fellow prospectors, James C. McDonald of Alabama, and Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks of Mississippi, were walking down a miner's trail in Rocky Canyon in El Dorado County, on the North Fork of the American River. McDonald and Sparks were armed with pistols; Captain Davis carried two Colt revolvers and a large Bowie knife.

Unknown to Davis and his companions, a band of robbers was lying in wait in the canyon brush near the trail. They were a typically diverse and motley group of Gold Rush bandits: two Americans, one Frenchman, two Britons, five Sydney Ducks, and four Mexicans. The band had robbed and murdered six Chinese two days before, and had robbed and killed four Americans the previous day. Two of the gang -were -wounded in these encounters. As Captain Davis and his companions trudged on foot past the place of ambush, the bandit gang charged out of the brush, pistols flaming. James McDonald died instantly, -without time to draw his revolver or react in any way. Dr. Bolivar managed to get his six-shooter out and fire twice at the highwaymen before he dropped, badly wounded.

Captain Davis later described himself as being "in a fever of excitement at the time." Unfazed, he stood his ground, pulling both pistols and firing a barrage at the charging outlaws. Davis's shooting skills stood him in good stead. One after another he shot down his assailants. The outlaw bullets tore at Davis's clothing but caused only two slight flesh wounds. Within moments seven of the bandits were dead or dying on the ground and Davis's pistols were empty. Four of the remaining robbers, three armed -with Bowie knives and one with a short sword, now closed in on the Captain to finish him off. Davis whipped out his Bowie knife, and quickly warded off the thrusts from the two most aggressive bandits. He stabbed one of them to death; the other he disarmed by knocking the knife from his grasp and slicing off his nose and a finger of his right hand.

The two last attackers were the men who had been wounded in the pre-vious bandit raids. Despite their weakened condition, they foolishly approached Davis with drawn knives. As the captain explained later, he did not know that they were wounded: "Two of the four that made the charge upon me were unable to fight on account of their old wounds. They came up with the rest, making warlike demonstrations by raising their knives in a striking posture, and I acted accordingly. I noticed that they handled them with very bad grace, but attributed it altogether to fright or natural awkwardness." The captain reacted in an instant. Slashing with his heavy Bowie, he killed them both.

Seven of the robbers were dead, three desperately wounded, and the eleventh, the now noseless bandit, did not appear to be fatally injured. The three remaining outlaws fled. Ignoring his own wounds, Captain Davis removed his shirt, tore it to strips, and began bandaging Dr. Sparks and the wounded brigands. Suddenly Davis spotted three well-armed strangers coming up the trail. He sprang to the body of James McDonald, grabbed his revolver from its holster, and yelled, "Halt!"

To Davis's relief, the three turned out to be John Webster, Isaac A. Hart, and P.S. Robertson, members of a mining party camped a mile distant on a creek running into the North Fork of the American River. They were out hunting game and had seen the entire fight from a nearby hilltop. With Captain Davis they returned to their camp and every miner there, eighteen in all, quickly gathered at the scene of the fight. By nightfall the three badly wounded bandits had died. Their bodies were searched and relieved of $491 in gold and silver coin, four ounces of gold dust, seven gold watches, and two silver watches. At Davis's request, the booty was given to Dr. Sparks.

The noseless survivor confessed that the band had but recently joined together and had slain the two parties of Chinese and Americans. Someone examined Captain Davis's hat and found that at least six balls had passed through it. In the morning McDonald and the ten dead robbers were buried. The surviving bandit's wounds proved to be more serious than had been thought, and he died that day and was buried with the rest. John Webster and the other miners formed a coroner's jury and prepared a long statement setting forth the facts of the affair. They concluded, "From all the evidence before us, Captain Davis and his party acted solely in self-defence-were perfectly justifiable in killing these robbers - and that too much praise cannot be bestowed upon them for having so gallantly stopped the wild career of these lawless ruffians."

Seventeen of them signed the report, which was delivered to Placerville by one of their number, John E. Lyles. At the same time, John Webster wrote a long letter to a friend in Placerville offering his firsthand account ot the desperate battle in Rocky Canyon. The wounded Dr. Sparks was carried down the mountains to his home near Coloma by Captain Davis; unfortunately, the good doctor died there on December 26.

The coroner's report and the letter from John Webster created a sensation in Placerville. The Placerville Mountain Democrat ran an extra edition on December 23, publishing both accounts in full. The issue was reprinted by the San Francisco and Sacramento newspapers, and eventually by major newspapers in other parts of the country. So incredible was the story that many doubted it. The editor of the Mountain Democrat had reservations at first, commenting that the story might be "slightly, very slightly, exaggerated, but not impossible." The editor of the Sacramento Union was more blunt, suggesting that the story might be "bogus" and that the published accounts "savor strongly of Munchhausenism." The San Francisco California Chronicle countered with, "The story, though it might be considered certainly fabulous in any other country, is quite in character with things that often take place in California." The Mountain Democrat's, editor quickly pointed out that the seventeen miners who had signed the inquest report included "some of the most respectable men in our county." Of Captain Davis he wrote that "gentlemen in this city who have known him long and well place the most implicit confidence in his integrity."

Captain Davis was stung by the skepticism, which was a stain on his honor and credibility. The day after his friend Dr. Sparks died he came into Placerville and paid a visit to the editor of the Mountain Democrat and confirmed that the reports published in that newspaper were true. The next day the editor received and published a letter from John E. Lyles, who had not signed the original inquest report. Lyles also verified the story and provided additional details. Still there were skeptics and a rankled Captain Davis made a public offer in the columns of the Mountain Democrat to take any doubters to Rocky Canyon and show them the graves. No one took him up on his offer. On January 6 the paper published a letter from the captain, clearing up a few minor points and reaffirming the story. Davis concluded modestly, "I did only what hundreds of others might have done under similar circumstances, and attach no particular credit to myself for it."

The fact that his two friends died in a bandit raid that many believed never occurred continued to grate heavily on Captain Davis. The three miners who had witnessed the fight, John Webster, Isaac Hart, and P.S. Robertson, had moved to new diggings twenty miles farther up the mountains. They had no contact with outsiders until they were visited by a Mr. Williams, a brother-in-law of Dr. Sparks, who had searched for them for several weeks before finding their camp. Williams, who wanted to confirm the details of Dr. Sparks's death, told the three for the first time that their account had been discredited. As they related it, "Mr. Williams . . . told us that it was our duty to appear before the people at once, and verify our statement."

On March 20, 1855, three months after the battle, Captain Davis, Williams, and the three eyewitnesses appeared in the office of the Mountain Democrat. Before Judge R.M. Anderson and a delegation of prominent citizens they recounted the battle in detail. After careful questioning of Webster, Hart, and Robertson by Judge Anderson, those present were soon convinced that the fight had taken place exactly as described. The three young miners presented letters of introduction and also gave a written statement about the battle. Their testimony in a semiformal setting seems to have settled all doubts in the public mind.

By now Captain Davis had become something of a heroic public figure. Captain Jonathan R. Davis's courageous stand against overwhelming odds on that wintry day in Rocky Canyon is emblematic of the ethic that governed men in the Gold Rush. Every Forty-Niner knew and accepted that he and he alone was responsible for his own safety. And a man's sense of personal honor would not allow him to back down from an enemy. At the same time, the brutal world in which he lived made it mandatory that he have at least a rudimentary degree of skill with pistol and knife. The most able of these frontiersmen were what we now call gunfighters.

The myth of the western gunfighter is writ large in American culture, for he has taken a place in our collective consciousness far out of proportion to his historical significance. The image of the gunfighter is a relatively recent one. The term "gunfighter" was not used until the 1880s and did not become popular until after 1900. The "hired gun," a man who made a living from his daring and his skill with firearms, skills that made him part of a special breed, became a mainstay in western films and novels. But contrary to myth, historical gunfighters were not proponents of a special art or science. Nor were they professionals who made their living through expertise with the gun. They were merely tough men, called on by chance and environment to carry and use firearms for their survival.

Heroes of nineteenth-century western fiction, particularly dime novels, were rarely gunfighters, but instead were soldiers, scouts, mountain men, cowboys, and detectives. During the 1920s and 1930s there was an outpouring of books about western gunmen of the post-Civil War period. These accounts relied heavily on oral history and old-timers' recollections and were hugely entertaining but highly unreliable.

These same books inspired many motion pictures in which the gunfighter was the hero. These in turn inspired dozens of television westerns of the 1950s and 1960s. As a result, the gunfighter became an American icon. The derivative nature of these films and television series, each one based upon previous fictions, caused the image of the gunfighter to become increasingly exaggerated, more unreal, and further removed from history. Thus things that almost never took place in the historical west - the fast draw, the showdown or walkdown on Main Street, the wearing of buscadero holsters tied down low on the leg - now became synonymous with the Old West.

For novelists and film makers, the gunfighter became a fitting symbol for all that was good and bad in America. In the process, the reality of the gunfighter - his nature, his ethics, his reason for carrying and using a gun - became buried in myth and was lost to the American public. In our time, the historical gunfighter has become more important as a man who 'was solely responsible for the defense of his person, his name, his honor, and his family. These are very appealing attributes in a oworld that grows more and more complicated and threatening. The significance of the western gunfighter lies not in his symbolic nature as a literary figure or a cultural icon, but in his historical reality as a potent example of self-reliance and self-defense.

Today, Gold Rush gunfighters are completely forgotten, their dramatic stories long lost in dusty newspaper archives and crumbling court records. But in that obscurity lies their historical salvation. Novelists, filmmakers, hack biographers, and inept historians have had no chance to distort their stories or to embellish their deeds. For the Gold Rush gunfighter was not a product of literature or myth, but rather a real man who developed his skill owith Colt revolver and Bowie knife both out of necessity and as a response to the violent society in which he lived.

John Boessenecker. . John Wiley & Sons. March 1999.


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