Saturday, June 9, 2012

Old West: Rattlesnake Dick - Old California Outlaw

This tale from the pages of the Old West comes from Old California. It is one about an ordinary man gone bad.

His name was Richard Barter, but he was known more famously as "Rattlesnake Dick". He was born in 1833, and shot dead in 1859 - a mere 26 years old.

Richard was born in Quebec, Canada, the son of a British officer. Though little is known of his early history, he was said to have been a reckless sort of boy.

His parents died about 1850, so he, his brother, his sister and her husband, and a cousin moved to the United States and immediately headed West. They took a wagon train to Oregon and built a home at Sweet Home, Oregon, near Corvallis.

While there, they kept hearing about the gold strikes in California, so Dick, his cousin, and his brother headed south. They settled in at a mining camp in Placer County on the American River known as Rattlesnake Bar.

Some say Richard got the moniker "Rattlesnake Dick" because of his sneaky ways, but others say that that wasn't the case because he was known as an honest miner who also worked for others in the area. He picked up the handle of Rattlesnake Dick simply because he lived in Rattlesnake Bar up near Auburn.

Mining camps in California had many interesting names. There was a Shirt Tail Canyon, Humbug Bar, Hell's Delight, Chili Gulch, and of course there's a place once known as Mosquito Gulch - where I call home.

Though hard working, they were unsuccessful - soon the rest returned to Canada. But, Dick remained at the camp, working for other miners and still doing a little prospecting on his own.

Miners at the time speculated that some of the best ore was being found on the American River. But though that was the case, on Rattlesnake Bar most claims had already been staked. Many newcomers found themselves either moving on to other camps or simply going to work for others.
Dick was confident that there would be a new find. Hope and wishful thinking sustained many a miner back in Old California. 

About that time, a store owner was missing some cattle. Someone who had a score to settle with Dick accused him of being the thief. He was found innocent but the stigma was attached to his name.

Later the same year, a man working the north fork had a mule stolen from him. Dick was convicted of it on the flimsy evidence that he had been in the area. Fortunately while he was still in jail, the real thief confessed, but the incident damaged his reputation even more. He left the area for Shasta County, 200 miles away. He changed his name to Dick Woods for good measure.

For two years he was left alone, doing just well enough prospecting to support himself. At French Gulch, someone recognized him from Rattlesnake Bar, so he left.

Rattlesnake Dick's criminal career began in 1853 when he was arrested for stealing some clothes from a store. The following year he was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to a year at San Quentin.

It was during his imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison that Dick met Tom Bell. After his release, Dick joined Bell's outlaw gang and participated in a string of horse thefts, robberies, and killings in California's mining country. Then following Tom Bell's death in 1856, Rattlesnake Dick took control of the gang.

Rattlesnake Dick and the gang conducted several daring thefts, including the February 1857 burglary of a Wells Fargo safe in Fiddletown and robberies of three stagecoaches for a heist of more the $30,000.

This was as good or better than Jessie James did many years later. And like Jessie James years later, huge rewards were issued for the his arrest. All while that gang continued to evade the law enforcement.

I can't help but wonder about the need for recognition, many outlaws in the Old West went out of their way to get it. It's said that Jessie James actually wrote his own press releases that he handed out before leaving a robbery. Rattlesnake Dick would tell everyone that he'd robbed that they'd just been robbed by Rattlesnake Dick. It's as if they wanted the notoriety.

Strange as it sounds, Rattlesnake Dick was captured and brought to justice on several occasions. Each time, he repeatedly manage to escape custody. Of course, sometimes his stay was longer than others and he'd also have to get together a new gang.

At one point he met Jack Phillips who was the proprietor of a saloon and fandango hall. Phillips knew all sorts of unsavory characters, and there were plenty to choose from.

Soon Dick put together his own gang. He chose George Skinner as second in command, and the others were Cyrus Skinner, George's brother, Big Dolph Newton, Romero, and Bill Carter. They pulled several small jobs in Placer and Nevada Counties in California.

This was practice for the big job that Dick had in mind.

Back in March 1851 Abraham Thompson, a mule train packer, discovered gold near Rocky Gulch while traveling along the Siskiyou Trail from southern Oregon.

By April 1851, 2,000 miners had arrived in "Thompson's Dry Diggings" to test their luck, and by June 1851, a gold rush "boom-town" of tents, shanties, and a few rough cabins had sprung up. Several name changes occurred until the little city was called Yreka. The name comes from the Shasta for which Mount Shasta is named. The word "Yreka" means "north mountain" or "white mountain".

By 1856, Yreka was a boom-town, and that was the year that Dick learned from a drunken mining engineer that large gold shipments were being sent down Trinity Mountain from the Yreka and Klamath River Mines.

He wanted to rob the pack train taking gold out of Shasta and Trinity Counties. The challenge was how to haul away the gold. For some reason, they decided that they couldn't use the pack-train's mules because they were branded with the Wells Fargo mark.

Why they figured that the branded mules couldn't be used for a while until they either switched to fresh mules or buried their loot is beyond me. 

So because of their concern about using the branded Wells Fargo mules, they figured they would just steal some other mules - which probably also had brands - when the time came.

In my opinion, these guys were not exactly the brightest bulbs on the porch by any stretch of the imagination.

They scouted the best place to hit the train and where they would hide out. They knew the train usually left Yreka on the first of the month.

So on that day, they were ready. Dick sent George Skinner and three others to intercept the gold shipment - which was packed on mules. Dick and Cyrus Skinner rode off to steal the other mules.

George and the other bandits got the drop on the mule train outside of Nevada City just north of Grass valley. There, while holding guns on the muleskinners, they relieved the muleskinners of over $80,600 in gold bullion. Skinner and his men made off with the gold, all without a shot being fired.

The bandit's next move was to rendezvous in Folsom with Dick and Cyrus Skinner. However, George Skinner found it next to impossible to take the heavy gold shipment down the mountain passes without fresh mules.

It was slow moving, and both Rattlesnake Dick and Cyrus Skinner were no where to be found. The rest of the gang was nervous, and George needed to do something or risk getting caught.

Once in Folsom, the gang waited and got even more nervous. George didn't know that Rattlesnake Dick and his brother weren’t at the rendezvous point in Folsom because they had been arrested and jailed for stealing mules. Like I said, not real smart fellas!  

George Skinner had been left in charge. He decided to bury half the loot alone away from the others. He then divided up the rest between them. This made the load light enough to carry.

While making their way to Auburn, the outlaws were soon intercepted by a posse led by Wells Fargo detective Jack Barkeley. When the gang found themselves in trouble, a gunfight ensued. In the melee, George Skinner was killed and Romero was wounded. Newton and Carter surrendered.

They each got ten years at Angel Island. The lawmen recovered $40,600 of the stolen loot, and though they searched Folsom diligently - they failed to find the remaining $40,000.

Though Rattlesnake Dick and Cyrus Skinner had been arrested in Placer County for the attempted theft of mules, they escaped before trial. Both made it to the rendezvous spot in Folsom, but once there they found that George Skinner had been killed and the others were in custody. No one knew where George Skinner buried the gold. 

Dick and Cyrus spent the next several weeks trying to find the buried gold before they finally gave up. Some say that Cyrus Skinner was recaptured and sentenced to four years in San Quentin State Prison, while others say that he and Rattlesnake Dick went on to more robberies.

Rattlesnake Dick did in fact assemble a new gang, and for the next two years he got away with more robberies in five California counties - but as before he would be arrested and held until he'd escape.

In 1858, he was caught trying to break out of Auburn's jail while there awaiting trial. Reluctant to return to San Quentin, Dick repeatedly filed for a continuance in an effort of delaying his court date. Before the trial could take place, Dick had successfully escaped!

Once free, the young outlaw sought to avenge his capture. Believe it or not, he is known to have actually camped all night outside the house of Sheriff John Craig Boggs. The sheriff was absent and did not return until the following morning, at which time he found a threatening note from Rattlesnake Dick pinned to his front door.

But on July 11th, 1859, Rattlesnake Dick was spotted again in Placer County on a stage. TaxCollector George Martin, Under-Sheriff George Johnson and Deputy Crutcher, took off to chase him down and slap him in irons.

Once they caught up with Dick, who was with a companion, he was so brazen that he first asked for a warrant before pulling his pistol and shooting Martin dead while wounding Johnson.

As Dick tried to steal one of the horses and get away, Johnson and Crutcher shot Dick as he rode off.

A posse hunted all night but couldn't find him. The next day, the Iowa Hill stage found a dead body near the road about a mile away. With two bullets in him, rather than be go to prison once more, he finished the job with a self-inflicted bullet to the head.

The stage hauled his body on its roof top to town. Deputy Crutcher formally identified the body as Rattlesnake Dick.  A young man who died a brazen outlaw with no money on him.

He seemed to be destined to dance at the end of a hangman's rope, but instead took his own life at 26 years of age. He was buried at the county's expense. Later a stone was erected to tell the tale of the outlaw known as Rattlesnake Dick.

Now as for the lost gold.

Back in 1856, the price of gold was $20.67 an ounce. So let's now do the math.

Take $40,000.00 worth of gold and divide that by $20.67 an ounce. Our result is 1935.17 ounces of gold. Divide the 1935.17 ounces by 16 ounces, which is 1 pound, and you get 120.94 pounds of gold.

At today's gold price of say $1,500.00 an ounce, that $40,000 in gold in 1856 would now be worth about $3 Million!

So you might be curious, and may right now be asking, what ever happened to that buried gold? Well, the gold is still buried somewhere near Folsom - as it has never been found.

Story by Tom Correa

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