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The Call of Gold (1936) by Newell D. Chamberlain


Dr. O. M. Dickinson was one of the first settlers to arrive at Agua Fria. His business as a doctor did not prosper, for although there were many killings, cases of the sick and wounded were scarce. He, therefore, aspired for the office of Squire or Justice of the Peace. There were no printing presses, so political announcements were written out and tacked in prominent places by friends of the candidates. The following was so posted on August 1, 1851:

“Ples noteS doctor dickenson wants ter git too
Bee Squarr & of the People awl voet fur him,
he wil be illicted.”

He was elected and became the Justice of Peace, in the log-cabin Court House, at Agua Fria, where the affairs of the County government were conducted for the first two years. Here, as Justice, he was a mighty man and exercised far more authority than the law warranted and was not disposed to concede much to attorneys.

One day, during the trial of quite an important case, Mr. Wade, an able lawyer, in the course of his arguments, cited one of Judge Story’s decisions to establish his side of the case. The moment he commenced reading, the Justice excitedly called out: “Mr. Wade, Judge Story was a very good authority in his day, but he won’t do in this Court.”

Justice Dickinson owed a mechanic for some work done. This mechanic had often “dunned” the Justice and threatened to bring suit. The Justice, in a dignified and friendly manner, said, “Well, if you must sue, bring the suit in my Court, as it will save costs.” The mechanic consented, so left his account with the Justice, who issued summons against himself and acknowledged service of the complaint. The hour of trial arrived and the Justice stated that he did not suppose a jury would be necessary, as he did not dispute the bill. The mechanic agreed that no jury would be required.

“Your bill against me”, said the Justice, “is $97.50. It is correct and I admit the amount. But, I have a small bill against you,” and pulling out the bill and filing it as an offset, continued: “My bill for services, as a physician, against you is just $100. I shall therefore enter up judgment against you for $2.50 and costs.” The astonished mechanic began to realize the fix he had been caught in, paid the costs and swore eternal vengeance on law as thus administered.

In those first days, the miners did not rely entirely on the Court to settle their problems. They had their own ways of dispensing justice. In June, 1852, difficulties had arisen between American and foreign miners. Accordingly a meeting was held, at the corner of Agua Fria and the Fresno road, at which it was resolved to expel all foreigners from the district.

A Spanish gentleman, named Don Jose Llaguno and about fifty other foreigners, comprising Spaniards, Chinamen, Manilamen, and Mexicans were forthwith forcibly expelled from their claims, which they had been working for about five months and on which they had erected considerable machinery. Llaguno’s life was spared on condition that he leave the State immediately and he was given the following passport:

“The bearer of this has been under arms to resist the laws of American miners, and his life and liberty has been threatened, unless he leaves the State of California. Americans are requested not to molest him, on his way out of the State. By order of a Company of Miners, commanded by CAPTAIN REYNOLDS.”

Another early-day problem was solved in an interesting but tragic manner, according to J. M. Hutchings, who wrote as follows: “When the Indians in California first saw the Chinese, there arose a dispute among the former as to the country to which the latter belonged, some contending that the Chinese were an inferior race of Indians, from beyond the seas; and others, with equal pertinacity, asserting that their eyes and facial expression were utterly unlike the Indians; and that, therefore, there could he no tribal relationship between them. This question, they all determined, should be effectually settled at once; and as they all agreed upon one point, viz., that, if the newcomers were Indians, they could all swim, a water test was accordingly accepted as thoroughly satisfactory and conclusive to both parties.

“When the Spring snows were rapidly melting and the angry streams were booming, a tree having fallen across by which to form a foot-bridge, at an understood signal between the parties to the dispute, they met a couple of Chinese upon this bridge; and pushing them into the angry current, drowned them both. It is stated that this was a perfectly demonstrated settlement of the doubtful point and decided that Chinese were not Indians, but it is not stated authoritatively that this process of determination was equally satisfactory to the Chinese.”

The operation of the “People’s Court”, its method of inducing confessions and its immediate enforcement of sentences, is graphically illustrated in the following description, printed in the Mariposa Chronicle, in March, 1854: “On March 2nd., a rather noticeable case of larceny was tried and settled by the “People’s Court”, at Upper Agua Fria. Early in the day, a miner, who had been robbed of some $150., made his loss known to the Court and pointed out two Chinese, whom he suspected.

“Accordingly, the Celestials were immediately arrested and conducted to the tree for a confession. Continuing to persist in an utter denial of the charge, even after having been strung up, they were liberated and told to leave. Far from being satisfied, however, several of the miners determined to watch the accused. This was done so admirably that the Chinese were thrown off their guard and in the course of the day, one of the pair was again arrested in the very act of digging up the lost money.

“Back he was hurried to the aforesaid tree, but during a discussion as to the mode of punishment, he slipped away and started over the hills, with all the speed that terror could inspire. Now commenced a race which almost baffles description. China made splendid time, but unforunately for him, his pursuers made better. China strained every nerve and adopted the novel dodge of dispensing with his shoes, unmentionables and indeed every rag about him, but to no purpose. He was overhauled in something over ‘2:40’ and once more marched back.

“This time he was made sure of by being immediately subjected to the execution of his sentence, which was moderated from first intentions, to fifty lashes and the destruction of his queue. This latter infliction seemed to the hapless John worse than death”.

Lafayette H. Bunnell, early-day miner and namer of Yosemite
[click to enlarge]
Lafayette H. Bunnell,
early-day miner and namer of Yosemite.

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management