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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


Having disposed of his tent-store, William purchased another three hundred and fifty acres of land and named the property Lower Buena Vista, known in history as Howard Ranch, quite near the town of Hornitos. He also bought six quit-claims near the mountains. The latter purchase proved to be very beautiful, for on leaving the Merced River one entered open prairie, broken by large oaks. To-day the rich products of this valley soil, planted, tended and watered by Mother Nature, and known the world over. On one of these quit-claims he erected a frame house and store, which became known as the Merced Inn and was successfully managed by Doctor and Mrs. Chambers.

About this time California was admitted into the Union, and San Francisco in particular voiced the extreme in celebrations, for two hundred people paid twenty dollars each to obtain reservations for the famous Admission Dinner and Ball. There was a unique procession, gay with beautiful banners, and broken occasionally by pistol shots. A very elaborate chariot drawn by six horses carried thirty children, dressed in blue trousers, belts and shirts of white wool; they held decorated shields representing the various States of the Union. In the center sat a pretty girl of six years; she portrayed California, and was the first Anglo-Saxon child born in San Francisco; her name was Mary Elizabeth Davis. Most gala days have tragedy in them, and on this particular occasion the largest boat plying between San Francisco and Stockton met with disaster. Its decks were thronged with passengers when, without warning, the boiler burst, killing many people and sending the ship to the bottom. The few survivors who escaped drowning were taken to the nearest hospital, where at two o’clock in the morning a fire broke out and burned them to death.

At the request of the Federal Government, Adam M. Johnston chose several licensed traders to take care of the Indian Reservations. Among them he selected Judge G. G. Belt as the Merced representative, and to him Captain Howard sold Merced Inn, the name being changed to the Merced Reservation. George Gordon Belt was once Quartermaster Sergeant in the State of New York. While in California he became an Alcalde and made a great deal of money through trading, but did not live to enjoy the fruits of his labors, for he was murdered at Stockton in 1869 by William Dennis.

Howard accepted the position as licensed trader for the Tuolumne Reservation. There he had a house and store built, and renewed his friendship with the Indians, to whom he sold large quantities of beef and flour.

Being in need of help on his ranch, he hired a young man named Bill Aike, who after only a few months’ work left for Arizona, where he secured a position with an honest, reliable settler. However, possessing an avaricious disposition, Aike killed his employer in cold blood, and then left immediately for Merced, where he built a new home.

The unfortunate settler left several children and a widow who, a few hours after the tragedy, gave the eldest boy a note, put him on his pony and sent him to his uncle in Texas. The note enabled the boy to obtain nourishment and assistance along the route. Several months later the boy, acompanied by his uncle, a very reserved man, called at the Howard Ranch and enquired for Bill Aike. No one knew of Aike’s whereabouts; nevertheless, they waited around for three or four days, and one night when Bill was about to enter his home he was riddled with bullets by an unknown man.

Frontier justice of this sort was nothing unusual in the early days of California. The whole State was overrun with robbers and murderers; people lived in fear of their lives, especially the women and children. Roving bands of Mexicans and other nationalities were holding up people and robbing homes in their efforts to obtain both food and gold. They were too lazy, often too discouraged, to dig for the precious metal, but had no compunctions about stealing it.

The Mexicans of the upper class, commonly known as Dons, were of an arrogant disposition, and treated the peons shamefully. These servants were considered no better than slaves, and it is said that the slavery days of the South never furnished such cold-blooded treatment as that accorded the poor peons by their lordly masters. The masters usually grabbed everything in sight, so far as the peons were concerned, and allowed them just sufficient to eke out a miserable existence. When the peons were sent into the mountains for mining purposes they were usually accompanied by a despotic boss or mayordomo. These were the designated overseers, whose duty it was to see that every scrap of gold was accounted for, and it was a sorry day for any peon who attempted to evade their vigilance. The slightest infraction of the rule brought down upon his head a punishment whose cruelty he was not likely soon to forget.

Remnants of the old 'rock store' on the outskirts of Hornitos, California

Courtesy of the Sacramento Library

[click to enlarge]
Remnants of the old “rock store” on the outskirts of Hornitos, California.

Dance-hall of 1850 at Hornitos

Courtesy of Stockton Chamber of Commerce

[click to enlarge]
Dance-hall of 1850 at Hornitos, with an underground passage for escape when things grew too hot.

One of the most prominent of these Dons was Se˝ior JosÚ Pacheco, and it was well known that his peons had been quite industrious in the accumulation of a large quantity of gold by the method described. The gold was stored at their master’s ranch on the west side of the San Joaquin river, known as the Nile of California. One night in 1850 fourteen masked men appeared at the Pacheco Hacienda and levied tribute to the extent of fourteen thousand dollars, under penalty of death for refusal. This amount the wealthy rancher handed over without a murmur rather than take any chance of losing his life.

At the same time the ranch of Don Ramundo Olivas was robbed. This home was situated on the Santa Clara river, six miles from the town of Ventura. Sixty thousand dollars in gold were stolen, and the system by which this burglary was accomplished would pale into insignificance some of the most romantic achievements of Claude Duval. Various theories prevailed as to who was responsible for these outrages; the Americans contended it was the Mexicans, and the Mexicans said it was done by the Americans.

By reason of ill feeling thus engendered, large numbers of Mexicans were always visible in the neighborhood of Hornitos (Spanish for “little ovens”), a small mining town in Mariposa County. Mexicans also congregated in large numbers in Sonora, the seat of government for Tuolumne County. These towns were mining camps of the old type, where gambling and dance hells were wide open and every form of vice indulged in.

Daily one heard of some new robbery or arrest. A Doctor Bell on the Stanislaus, at the head of a band of marauding Mexicans who were holding up coaches and robbing homes, was arrested at the instance of Judge Belt, and upon the verdict of a jury was ordered to be hanged on the west side of the San Joaquin. Before the hanging took place he asked for a paper and pencil, and taking full advantage of the time allowed, wrote a pathetic letter to his mother in Alabama.

Six months later two families named Dallas and Jones crossed the plains from Tennessee. Wishing to celebrate their arrival into the Golden State, they elected Major Baldwin as toastmaster, and invited a large number of miners and merchants to a dance and dinner at the Merced Reservation. A few days after this feast, Major Baldwin, in cooperation with a miner named Anderson, opened a store near the Merced River, on the trail leading from Stockton to Mariposa. One evening when Howard was traveling to Mariposa, he felt very hungry, and entered the store to buy some crackers and cheese. There a horrible sight met his gaze. Beside the barrel of crackers, which was streaked with blood, lay the bruised and bleeding body of Baldwin. At the back of the store was the mutilated corpse of Anderson. Everything indicated that the murderers had been looking for gold. Captain Howard immediately informed his nearest neighbor and notified the Sheriff.

The next day the Captain, accompanied by his faithful Indian boy, set out for Stockton to buy provisions for the Reservation. Carrying a well-filled money-belt and being fully aware that robbers were waylaying coaches and horsemen, he suggested that they take the short cut, thus avoiding the main road. While they were loping leisurely along, the Indian suddenly called Howard’s attention to a man coming through the thicket in a stooping position. A gang of robbers was stalking them’ Like a flash the red man disappeared as Howard turned his horse and galloped away. Looking back, the Captain saw four men riding toward him as hard as their horses could carry them, so he immediately made for the Stockton road, and had gone only three or four miles when he saw four other robbers a few hundred yards away. To avoid the eight he doubled, struck in the direction of the Tuolumne River, and made for a shallow place where he knew it was possible for his horse to cross. After crossing the river, in order to arrive again on the Stockton road, William turned to the left and, looking across the water, saw two Americans and six Mexicans on the opposite bluff.

“What do you want?” he shouted.

“Your money!” came the reply.

“You won’t get it.”

“We’ll get it one day,” the robbers yelled, as William waved defiantly and went on his way.

Shortly after this thrilling chase William Howard visited his ranch to look at his thoroughbred cattle. When he was taking a little refreshment three men called and asked the way to Kern River. Being well informed concerning the surrounding country, he gave them a map and imparted to them a description of the Kern River district, which he thought would be useful to them in their desired undertaking.

Champion was the name of the leader; after mining at Kern River for one month, all three decided to mine near Howard Ranch and obtained the permission of Captain Howard to live in his house, providing they took proper care of it.

When Howard went again to the ranch he was grieved to find that these prospectors were tearing up the floor of his much valued home, to make mining boxes. He remonstrated with Champion, who was extremely disagreeable and raised an argument as to the title of the land, insisting that he was the rightful owner. Not being in a quarrelsome mood, Captain Howard told the three men to clear out of the place within five days, then resumed his journey to Hornitos.

Hornitos was built by the Mexicans and Spaniards in the days of 1848, and at that time was considered one of the richest gold diggings in California. To-day many of the original adobe buildings are still standing, and the general atmosphere of the “Forty-nine” days is apparent here more than in any other California mining town.

In this town W. J. Howard was successful in securing several nuggets of gold. Putting them in a buckskin bag and rolling the bag in his coat, he tied the package securely to his saddle. On arrival at Merced he was surprised to see his brother Tom, who had just arrived with news from home. Naturally he could not refrain from telling Tom about the nuggets, which he intended sending his mother, and in great glee the two brothers loosened the coat behind the saddle. Imagine William’s disappointment when he discovered that the gold was missing!

Early the next morning William and Tom set out to find the buckskin bag containing the nuggets. Riding through the oats, along the trail made by William the previous evening, they approached a slight rising in the ground.

Suddenly stopping, William said, “I have an idea that I lost it here.”

Tom, walking four to five feet behind his brother, looked around, spotted the buckskin purse, and exclaimed, “Brother, there it is!”

They carried the refound gold carefully back to Hornitos, and from there it was dispatched to their mother in Galveston. She received the nuggets safely and sent them to the mint in New Orleans, where they assayed nineteen dollars to the ounce.

Having forwarded the nuggets to Galveston, William, his brother Tom, and the Indian boy made for Buena Vista Ranch to see if the undesirable miners had vacated the premises. Arriving quite early in the morning, they found Champion in the yard cleaning and testing his revolver. He at once led the way into the house and seated himself on a bench near the large fireplace, in which blazed a huge log. William, presuming that the other two miners were still in bed, stood in the doorway while Brother Tom and the Indian boy listened outside for orders.

Champion, in a contrary mood, still insisted that the land belonged to him.

Howard impatiently replied, “You’re a coward.”

This was enough to start a fight. With a look of contempt on his face, Champion raised his pistol and arose to shoot. But before he could do any damage, William had drawn a derringer from his coat pocket and shot Champion through the forehead. As he fell into the fireplace, William said to Tom, who had now entered the house, “Pull that man out of the fire.”

He then went to the bedroom door and held his pistol at the head of another miner, while a third stood near the bed. Both of them appeared very nervous as they held up their hands saying, “Oh, don’t shoot!”

Tom and the Indian boy looked quite pale as they stood near the fire, waiting for further orders. Then William said to one of the miners, “Ride to Hornitos and fetch the Sheriff.”

In quick time the Sheriff arrived with thirty men, and a jury was soon formed. Turning to the miners, Howard said, “You heard it all; you tell the officer.”

When the Sheriff heard the statement of the witnesses, he decided that Captain Howard’s action was in self-defense, therefore a just one. The jury came to the same decision. Orders were given for the burial of Champion; the two miners cleared out as quickly as they could, and William was left in peaceful possession of his own property, which he handed over to his brother to superintend.

Many years later Captain Howard met Champion’s brother at a San Francisco race-course. He was a tall, well-built man about sixty-five years of age. They became good friends, and he informed Howard that his brother had been killed while mining in Mariposa County, but he did not know who had committed the deed.

Next: 12. Major Savage & IndiansContentsPrevious: 10. Pack Train

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