Saturday, September 7, 2019

Sheriff J.C. Boggs -- A No Nonsense Lawman

As most of us know, the California Gold Rush brought hundreds of thousands of people from around the world to California in search of wealth. In addition to the miners arriving hoping to get rich, there were tens of thousands who came wanting to cash in on the boom by providing goods and services to meet the needs of others. Some say the merchants were the people who really got rich during the California Gold Rush.

John Craig Boggs was born in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, on October 18th, 1825. He was the middle child of a family of eight children. His father was a prominent doctor in Greencastle. His father died in 1847 at the age of 59. John Craig Boggs lost his mother in 1850 at the age of 56.

It's said that J.C. Boggs was like his brothers and sisters in that he was educated in what was termed the "common school" in Greencastle. A "common school" was what a "public school" was called in the United States during the 19th century.

Like his siblings, he excelled in the classics and theology. Of his brothers, two went on to become ministers. As for J.C., though he was a smart young man, going to school didn't hold his attention -- so he went to work instead. It's said that he started out as farm help, and later worked in an ironworks. In fact, by age 20, he was promoted to manager of an ironworks in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania.

By December of 1848, the news of the discovery of gold in California reached the East Coast. With a gift of $1,000 from his mother, actually an inheritance from the loss of his father, J.C. Boggs boarded the ship Xylon bound for California. It was a trip that would take him around Cape Horn, inside the Golden Gate, and to the gold fields.

Now, before someone writes to say that the Golden Gate Bridge was not there at the time, I know that. The term Golden Gate did not refer to the bridge. In fact, it referred to the strait leading into San Francisco Bay. It was called the Golden Gate because it was the golden passage to the Orient and wealth through trade with that part of the world.

As for J.C. Boggs on the Xylon, there is a story about an experience that Boggs had with the Xylon's Captain. Captain Brown was the master of the Xylon and is said to have been overbearing and cruel. He was a tyrant who treated passengers inhumanely, including putting paid passengers on short rations of water. It's said that Boggs and two other men were chosen by a committee made up of the passengers. The three were to deal with Captain Brown.

During their talk with him, they succeeded in persuading Captain Brown to dock at Rio de Janeiro. One story says that they convinced Brown to port there to take on needed water, after an argument took place. Another story talks about how Boggs stuck a small pistol into the Captain's belly during their conversation. Boggs is said to have then calmly explained to the Captain that they really needed more water, the crew sided with Boggs -- and the Captain agreed.

As for Brown, he was relieved of duty by his sailing company and sent home in disgrace. What helped getting Brown dismissed was the fact that the passengers all filed complaints with the American Consul in Rio de Janeiro. The American Consul was appalled at Brown's conduct and immediately used it's power to have him relieved of his command of the vessel Xylon.

By September of 1849, with a new Captain of the Xylon, Boggs arrived in California. He didn't bother with San Francisco and almost immediately headed to the gold fields. It was just a few months before that Placer County was the latest boom. As was the case, when Boggs got to California, he went to where the latest strike was taking place.

A lot of folks might not realize it, but the discovery of gold in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains was not just a single discovery made by James Marshall on January 24th, 1848, when he found gold at his boss John Sutter's mill in Coloma, California. Fact is, what took place was an ongoing gold rush that entailed a number of individuals who "discovered" gold up and down what became known as California's Gold Country.

For example, it's said the Murphy brothers were in Coyote Creek when they discovered gold down in that part of Calaveras County. It was there that the mining camp known as "Murphys Diggins" would turn into the town of Murphys.

Not too many miles away from Murphys in Angles Camp, a miner by the name of Bennager Rasberry was squirrel hunting when his ramrod got stuck in his musket. To dislodge it from the barrel of his musket, he fired it. The ramrod dislodged itself, but then lodged itself in the dirt near some bushes. Some say he accidentally shot his ramrod from his musket. But either way, he had to fetch it.

The story goes that when he went over to retrieve his ramrod from the dirt near those bushed, he pulled it out of the ground, and found gold quartz stuck to it. His finding those specks of gold led to his digging thousands of dollars worth of gold in that area. That's how the Angles Camp rush started, or at least that's the story that everyone down in that area is sticking to.

Within a few years of the discovery of gold, California counties were formed. Placer County was made up of portions of Sutter and Yuba counties on April 25th, 1851. The mining town of Auburn was made its county seat. Placer County took its name from the Spanish word for the sand and gravel containing gold. Miners washed away the sand and gravel while leaving the heavier "placer gold" behind. This was what is meant by "placer mining."

Auburn had only recently become a mining town after Claude Chana discovered gold in what is known as the Auburn Ravine in May of 1848. While Auburn, California, is not talked about too much in Western lore, or in the annals of Old West, the town had one of the toughest lawmen in the West right there to keep the peace. That lawman was J.C. Boggs.

Fact is, not too long after arriving in California, J.C. Boggs found himself in the mining camp of Auburn in Placer County. While there, he engaged in gold mining. But also, he ran a store that dealt in general merchandising. Soon, he found himself serving as Placer County Sheriff.

Placer County Sheriff J.C. Boggs was one of the Old West's must successful and courageous lawmen. He was a credit to those who pinned on a badge. To say that he was a no non-sense type of sheriff is an understatement. It's said, J.C. Boggs was the downfall of some of the worst outlaws of the Old West. Among them was the Tom Bell Gang.

Tom Bell was known as the "Outlaw Doc" because he was in reality a physician. In the history of crime in the United States, believe it or not, Bell was the first outlaw to organize a stagecoach robbery. Just as the Reno Gang were the first train robberies in United States history, Bell was the outlaw that started folks robbing stages.

Tom Bell was born Thomas J. Hodges in Rome, Tennessee. As a surgeon, he saw action in the Mexican–American War. After that war, Bell went to California during the Gold Rush. In his case, he was a lousy prospector and soon took to gambling. He supplemented his income by being a doctor in this mining town and that, before he took to being an outlaw.

His first arrest as "Doc Hedges" was over stealing five mules. He was arrested a few more times before starting to use the alias Tom Bell. During that time, he was just a small time cattle rustler trying to make quick cash. He was caught stealing cattle and was saved from a rope when it was decided that Bell should serving time in Angel Island Prison.

At the prison on Angel Island, he met Bill Gristy. The two successfully escaped later after faking a severe illness that fooled the prison doctor. With another five outlaws, Bell and Gristy formed a gang. Their business was robbing stagecoaches.

On August 12th, 1856, the Camptonville-Maryville stagecoach was supposedly carrying $100,000 worth of gold bullion. The Tom Bell gang tried to rob that stage. Though unsuccessfully, that was the first stage robbery in American history.

Everything went wrong for the Tom Bell Gang during the robbery. A shootout took place that resulted in a woman passenger being killed. The woman passenger was a black woman by the name of Mrs. Tilghman. She was the wife of a popular barber in the town of Maryville. Also, two male passengers were also wounded. And finally, the outlaws were driven off by the stagecoach guards who were a lot more armed and willing to defend that shipment than the outlaws had banked on.

While the attempted robbery was enough to galvanize the citizenry into action, the death of Mrs. Tilghman is what truly angered the citizens there at the time. She must have been a very beloved women, because both a sheriff's posse and the local vigilantes saddled up to search for those who killed her.

While we've all seen the movies where the posse turns back because they lost the trial of those they were pursuing, that wasn't the case with the folks in Placer County. In fact, a little of a month later, Bill Gristy was finally captured. To get him to talk and disclose where his compadres were hiding out, Sheriff Boggs threatened to turn him over to the local vigilantes. In fact, Boggs had a group of concerned citizens outside the jail just waiting for the chance to hang Gristy. Seeing that his options were limited, Gristy told Boggs how to find Bell's hideout.

On October 4, 1856, the law went after Tom Bell. It's said that when the law had arrived at the location to arrest Bell, they found that others had gotten to him first. What happened was that Bell was found near Firebaugh's Ferry by a Merced River rancher. His name was George Gordon Belt, and he quickly formed a posse. So when the law arrived, they found that the posse had already hanged Tom Bell. And no, no one ever said who hanged him.

While Tom Bell was swing, Sheriff J.C. Boggs went after the other members of Tom Bell's gang. The shootout that took place led to the sheriff capturing all of those responsible for perpetrated the first stage robbery.

Sheriff Boggs went after Richard “Rattlesnake Dick" Barter for armed robbery. These two hated each other. To giver you an example of how much Boggs hated Barter, there's the story of how Boggs went after Barter on a tip -- armed only with a derringer because he was in such a hurry to get him before he could get away.

The story on that has to do with J.C.Boggs being told that Rattlesnake Dick was taking a stage from Grass Valley to Folsom. In a hurry to catch the bandit, Sheriff Boggs stood by the side of the road and hailed the coach with only armed with an arrest warrant, a pair of handcuffs, and a single-shot derringer that he stuck in his pocket. Along with Barter was another member of his gang, an outlaw by the name of George Taylor. Knowing that Barter could be dangerous did not faze Sheriff Boggs.

It's said Barter and Taylor were sitting on top of the stage. Between them sat a San Francisco journalist by the name of A.W. Bee. It's said that, like most journalist even back in the day, Bee sat there very nervous as Sheriff Boggs found his men and held them there at gunpoint.

Barter and Taylor denied their identities. Then they refused to come down from the stage. One story about what too place says that Barter as for Boggs to produce a warrant for his arrest. When Boggs went for the warrant in his pocket, the two outlaws saw their chance and went for their guns. Barter and Taylor opened fire at close range on Boggs. But because they were in a hurry, both missed.

At the same time, Sheriff Boggs is said to have fired back. But he too missed to hit either man. The problem with derringers is that they are a close up weapon, and since the outlaws jumped from the far side of the stage, Boggs derringer was fairly ineffective as the outlaws ran away.

Sheriff Boggs would have other face-offs with Barter. One of their running gunfights resulted with Barter being captured and sent to prison. Barter would later escape, but he wasn't free very long. Though Barter and another of his gang members escaped together, the other members of his gang were either killed or behind bars.

On July 11th, 1859, Barter and a cohort ambushed Placer County Under Sheriff George C. Johnston, a deputy tax collector by the name of George W. Martin, and deputy William Crutcher in Auburn. The first shot from Barter immediately killed George W. Martin. Under Sheriff Johnston was wounded in the attack, but deputy William Crutcher shot Barter twice. Barter's cohort skedaddled when the shooting got thick. As for Barter himself, though shot twice, the outlaw was able to escape on horseback.

Sheriff Boggs led a posse the next morning. They found Barter's body on the side of the road near the Junction House stagecoach stop in Auburn. Barter is said to have refused to return to prison and took his own life by shooting himself in the head. A note found on the body of Rattlesnake Dick Barter indicated that he mistakenly thought that he had killed Sheriff J.C. Boggs in the ambush on the previous day.

The note found on Barter read, "If J. Boggs is dead, I am satisfied."

What Barter didn’t know was that the man that he had shot from ambush was not Sheriff Boggs. The man that Barter shot off his horse was a tax collector by the name of George Martin. Barter also didn't know that the wounds that he was dying from were not fired by Sheriff Bogg -- but were shots fired by Sheriff George Johnson and deputy William Crutcher.

Every now and then, I'll get a letter from someone wanting to take me to task over my belief that there were many unsung lawmen in the Old West who were really and truly great at enforcing the law of the land as they knew it. I argue that most became unknown because they weren't sensationalized in dime novels, nor credited with things they didn't do. Most have been forgotten simply because that the way life is since not everything in life is remembered.

We should keep in mind that most all did their job without the benefit of formal training. They didn't have the benefit of today's police academies, on-going training, fitness programs, monitoring, supervision, and good salaries. Most were simply handed a badge and sworn in. They would get basic instructions, but it really was a case of on the job training. The oath that most took was to uphold the law as they themselves understood it to be, and to protect people and property. Taking such an oath was not done lightly. It was all based on one's honor, integrity, and personal code of ethics.

Yes, indeed. John Craig Boggs is one of those unsung lawmen of the Old West. He made his mark in the California Gold County and not back East in Kansas cow towns. And maybe, just maybe, that's why you've probably never heard of him. Even though he was known for getting those that he was after and took on outlaws, he was fortunate that he always left a shootout without being hit. All, while in many cases others right next to him were shot down.

Some say Old West lawmen never lived very long. Some say they aged before their time, grew cynical and callous, bitter and broke in many cases. Some say they died alone without family or friend to speak of their good deeds. I don't know if I can agree with that. For J.C. Boggs, he was a '49er, a man who came West to California to get rich just as hundreds of thousands of others did. In the process, he became a prospector, a miner, storekeeper, county sheriff, town marshal, county assessor, and postmaster. All before finally settling down on a farm in Newcastle.

On May 28th, 1909, he died at the age of 83, surrounded by his wife and children, and friends, in his beloved Placer County. He was buried in the Newcastle Cemetery there in Newcastle, after living a life well lived.

Tom Correa

1 comment:

  1. A much deserved article to a real and local hero. An epitome of Auburn aspires to be to this day, and I still hear it around town when trouble shows up, "Not in our town...."

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