wildwest1880

2½ TALES FROM OUR WILD WEST DAYS

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in “The Music Man” or the sort of rough place seen in “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?”

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you’re reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian – to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that’s really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it’s illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 – which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a “Wild West” here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland – he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa’s love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South – but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns – including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are “unchecked by restraints of an old social order,” it didn’t matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. “If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way.” That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that “a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law” and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become deadly. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.

This is the “half” tale, which means I’m only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe’s Hidden History of Sonoma County. It’s a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, “Hidden History” is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises – a full “hidden history” would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it’s even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley’s pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because “they are all Odd Fellows,” as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley’s confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa’s night watchman was surprised by four masked men. “Keep quiet,” he was told, “there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail.” The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley’s cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what’s now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.

Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin’s Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner’s Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, “to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.” That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife’s head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton’s sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was wounded in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of “sporting man,” by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don’t know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up – he was looking for a fight.

“There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I’m going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn’t have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I’ll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane’s revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the “special reporter” for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. “I’ll let them know that I’m not dead yet, but don’t care a damn how soon,” said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane’s saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn’t say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner’s Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest – only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it’s how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer – remember the plot of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” While that’s true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple “shooting affrays” every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It’s doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal too many people were certainly packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne’er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.


J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder…

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock – whose real name was Joshua – along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre’s Chair Factory (there’s a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her “bull-dog” pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been “slandered” by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims – Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around “made a face at me,” Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother’s life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. “One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county,” sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.

So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol’ Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities – with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma – were very much gun-toting “Wild West” towns. Here I’ve only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don’t presume the pistol-packin’ days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver” at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I’ve never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it’s a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.

 

* Later that year Byrd’s sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.

 

Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

– Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867

 

Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

– Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867

 

Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

– Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867

 

Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

– Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875

 

From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; “Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879

 

People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

– Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880

 

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