The bloodiest Western gunfight you’ve never heard of

The "Mussel Slough Five" who were convicted by a court in San Francisco of obstructing a US Marshal.

The “Mussel Slough Five” who were convicted by a court in San Francisco of obstructing a US Marshal.

A frontier gunfight

May 11, 1880: a gunfight in a wheat field six miles northwest of Hanford, CA, the main town in what was then known as the Mussel Slough area of Tulare County (now Kings County) in the Central Valley. Seven men were killed or mortally wounded that day.

The fight was over land. In dispute were about 25,000 acres that had been granted to the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1866 by the US government as a subsidy to be eventually used for the construction of rail lines southward through California. A group of settlers in the Mussel Slough area argued that the railroad had forfeited its right to this land by failing to build the railroad on the route originally agreed. Exploiting this potential legal loophole, the group therefore sought to assert their right to the land under the federal pre-emption land law – ‘squatter’s rights.’ Furthermore, while the title to the land was being litigated, the settlers – or squatters — were also in conflict with the railroad over the price of the land, in the event that they should they have to buy it. Promotional literature, settlers claimed, had promised to sell the land for only $2.50 per acre. But the railroad, recognising the increased value of the land (as a result of the settler’s work in improving and irrigating it) wanted to sell for $20-$30 per acre.

The Southern Pacific’s land claims, however, had been repeatedly upheld in the courts. Fearing that the resistance in the Mussel Slough area would jeopardise their entire land grant, the railroad insisted on their legal title, by evictions if necessary. Attempts to negotiate a resolution of the dispute that would recognise the railroad’s claims to ownership failed. And, meanwhile, several men who had purchased land from the railroad threatened to sue the company for selling them tracts that were illegally occupied by squatters. Consequently, in May 1880, the railroad applied to the court for eviction notices.

The gunfight occurred when US Marshal Alonzo W. Poole and a Southern Pacific employee, William H. Clark, arrived with land purchasers Mills Hartt and Walter J. Crow to attempt an eviction order on Henry Brewer. They were confronted by a group of settlers, who, outnumbering the railroad party, “arrested” the marshal and tried to disarm him and his colleagues. According to Alonzo Poole’s account, there were around fifty armed and mounted men in the settlers’ party. The settlers claimed there were no more than a dozen, only four or five of whom were armed. Most eyewitnesses agree that the first to fire was Mills Hartt, who was then shot immediately by one of the settlers. Walter Crow, renowned as a crack shot, then killed or mortally wounded five settlers before fleeing the scene. Later that day he was tracked down and killed.[1]

This was one episode among many in the violent history of early Anglo California. The homicide rate in 1850s California was 1,240 per 100,000, the all-time high in the history of American murder, more than 100 times greater than today. In its early years, San Francisco was virtually ungovernable. On three occasions a self-appointed Vigilance Committee took control of the city and meted out kangaroo court punishments. Once, they imprisoned the Chief Justice of the state supreme court. Thousands of Civil War veterans moving west in the late 1860s only increased the supply of guns and, seemingly, men’s willingness to use them.

The Little Eden

In its traditional telling, the Mussel Slough gunfight is worth remembering not just as a brutal example of the violence and instability of California, but also because it pitted in violent confrontation two ultimately incompatible visions of the American dream. The settlers presented themselves as fighting not just for their homes but more than that, for a way of life – a vision of a co-operative community that was under threat from the rapacious forces of a monopolistic corporation that corruptly dominated California politics.

In September 1880, a delegation of Mussel Slough settlers presented a petition to President Rutherford B. Hayes, who was visiting San Francisco. It is this document that most eloquently sets out their case and which has inspired much subsequent writing about the incident. The settlers were not a “collection of outlaws” but “respectable American citizens”; and had “accomplished a great work of reclamation and development.” The “whole people of the Untied States who are Americans at heart and value the stability of our political institutions” would support their resistance to railroad corporations.[2] The settlers represented an agrarian vision of the American dream. They had created, as one supporter put it “a little Eden made by patience and endurance”, a glaring contrast to the corruption and exploitation of the railroads.[3] The local newspaper contrasted their farming and fruit growing community – “an American community in which peace and order, honesty and decency, industry and economy, plenty and comfort prevailed” – with the corporate, industrial alternative.[4] “While our large cities are filled with communistic agitators, paralyzing every branch of industry with their insane ravings, millions of acres of the richest land on earth is only awaiting a little intelligent labor.”[5]

By 1880 the population of the Mussel Slough area topped 4000. The slough was a branch of the Kings River and it provided the irrigation that turned an area about ten miles wide and 20 miles long into highly productive farmland. The settlers’ case was that they had a moral as well as presumed legal title to their holdings because it was their hard work that had made it profitable. “I shall never forget my first impression of the country,” recalled Mary Chambers, who, with her husband was in dispute with the railroad. “I was so discouraged with the looks of it that I did not want to look out [of] the wagon.”[6] The Chambers were determined, however, that “with our energy and perseverance [we] would make he wilderness to blossom and bear.” In the end that is what they did, not just through their own hard work but through co-operation with others, banding together to dig the eight-mile long Lower Kings River Ditch, and when that proved insufficient the 27-mile long People’s Ditch, and finally the aptly named Last Chance Ditch. After that the Chambers finally began to have success as farmers.

In their own account, Mr and Mrs Chambers’ success worked against them. In 1877, the railroad’s appraiser told the Chambers they would have to pay nearly ten times as much as they had expected to gain legal title to the land they worked. “Up went our land from $2.50 to $22 per acre,” testified Mary Chambers, “and why? Because we had a house, barn, orchard, alfalfa pasture, flower garden, ditches, and a well cultivated farm.”[7]

While the gunfight at the O.K. Corral near Tombstone, Arizona, a year and half later is now more famous, at the time it was the Mussel Slough shootings that captured the nation’s attention. It nourished the image of the Southern Pacific as a gigantic, loathsome “octopus” strangling the state of California. Over 40,000 Californians signed a petition in support of “the Mussel Slough Five” who, following the shootings, were convicted for impeding a US marshal in the execution of his duties. The five became California heroes, and when they returned to Hanford after a few months in the San Jose jailhouse, it was to a heroes’ welcome with 3000 people lining the streets to cheer.

Far away in London, Karl Marx, read about the Mussel Slough killings and wrote that California was “important to him” because nowhere else in the world was the upheaval caused by Capitalist oppression taking place with such speed.[8] It was certainly true that there was something about California that generated starkly opposed visions of what freedom meant. Three years later, one of the settlers’ leaders, Thomas McQuiddy, became the Greenback Party candidate for state governor on a strongly anti-Railroad platform. Even before that, Mussel Slough farmers had joined forces with San Francisco labour activists to form the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC), which campaigned for land reform and workers’ rights. At the same time, Henry George, another Californian who had been shocked by the assault on the Settlers’ rights to their land, began his internationally sensational crusade to introduce a 100% land tax that by eliminating the possibility of anyone making money from land they did not own and work themselves, would, he argued, restore economic democracy to the American dream. These kinds of political crusades were labeled radical and socialist at the time, but their advocates were actually campaigning for a restoration of what they felt the American dream had always been about – creating a virtuous community of equal citizens and based on property ownership (albeit one bounded by race and gender, and probably by religion).

The Railroad

While their rhetoric stressed the homestead ideal and their challenge to the monopolistic power of a corporation had deep roots in republican political culture, it also appears that their claims to have been duped by the railroad overstated the reality, to put it mildly. The settlers were not innocents, beguiled into settling on and improving land on terms that were later changed. And their protests were not the spontaneous uprising of families threatened with their homes and livelihood, as many at the time and since have imagined.

The settlers’ leader, John J. Doyle, came to Mussel Slough in 1871, and, by his own account, encouraged others to settle precisely in order to contest the railroad’s claims.[9] Doyle entered into secret contracts with hundreds of settlers to secure title for them for a fee of 25 cents per acre if they wound up paying less than$2.50 per acre for their land.[10] Despite the repeated failures of mass filings of rival homestead claims speculative contesting claims against the railroad’s land circulated as a form of local currency, bought and sold in an open market.[11] Therefore, argues Richard Orsi in his history of the Southern Pacific, the railroad’s contestants “were not just squatters but petty land speculators”.[12] Evidence for the settlers’ claims that the railroad had promised to sell them the land for $2.50 an acre is hard to track down, but Orsi has been unable to find any promotional literature issued by the company for this region from before 1876 so the notion that the settles were lured there by such pamphlets seems unlikely. Yet while the idea of broken promises by the railroad is central to the story as told, for example, by James L. Brown’s 1958 book, it was not in fact central to the settlers’ own case. They made much more of their moral right, as they saw it, to be sold the land at a low (or, as they saw it, fair) price.

Richard Orsi is also very critical of the “terrorist” tactics of the “squatters” as he pejoratively calls them, using the language of the railroad at the time. Doyle was instrumental in founding a Settlers’ Grand League along with a former Confederate army officer, Thomas Jefferson McQuiddy. Doyle claimed the League had 600 members.[13] League members used traditional legal and political means to put their case, organising petitions and issuing pamphlets to build public support but they also used violence and intimidation, riding out at night in masks, hoods and long red robes. Following the tactics of the Ku Klux Klan and other similar white supremacist groups in the South, the League terrorized local people who were seen as siding with the enemy – by doing a deal with the railroad. The League also paraded the streets of Hanford in uniform with rifles. By burning crops and threatening locals who wanted to legitimise their land-holdings, the League succeeded for a time in sharply reducing the number of land sales the railroad was able to make of disputed land.

The presence of a number of Confederate veterans in the League’s militia is not surprising given the large migration from the South into California after 1865. These were men who believed they had fought the Civil War for the right of white men to land, labour, prosperity and the pursuit of happiness. Those same issues were now at stake once again: here were white farmers battling against the odds against odious Yankee carpetbaggers (the Southern Pacific’s leaders – the “Big Three” of Charles P. Crocker, Collis P. Huntingdon and Leland Stanford, were all New Englanders and Huntingdon in particular was a prominent supporter of African American rights and did much to increase employment opportunities for black people). The parallel to the Civil War was clearly in the minds of the authorities as well. “It was supposed at the close of the civil war, which cost us a million of lives, that there would be no more armed resistance to the authority of the Government,” observed the judge presiding over the Grand Jury investigation into the killings. And yet “we have heard of the circumstance of the United States Marshal being met by an armed and organised force… If such a gross outrage against the law is to go unpunished we may as well burn our statutes.”[14]

Orsi’s account is derived, it seems, largely from Railroad sources. He suggests that most of the irrigation improvements were made by an earlier generation of settlers, not by those who ended up in dispute with the railroad. If true, this would indeed make hollow the settlers’ claims that they were being deprived of land they had rescued from the wilderness. “Squatters”, suggests Orsi, “were opposed not just by the greedy railroad but by man of the region’s “old-time settlers”.[15] It is hard to work out exactly what Orsi’s evidence for this claim is, other than the testimony of railroad officials. Orsi’s own evidence, and the testimony of Doyle, demonstrates that the settlers had been on railroad land in the area for almost a decade, and Leland Stanford, for one, had noted in 1870 was empty but for wild cattle and horses.[16]

Orsi seems to have stronger evidence, however, that the contested land was under-used, and where crops were sown it was typically grain or hay, which could be raised without irrigation.[17] Settlers did not have their whole livelihoods on the line, therefore; they built farm buildings on secure, legal plots nearby, risking only additional land they were claiming from the railroad. He also provides evidence that far from being simple homesteaders, several of the claims against the railroad were made by merchants living in the local towns.

But what does seem to have been the case is that the community around Mussel Slough was divided over the settlers’ claims. It was not just the railroad and the law enforcement officials of the state who opposed them (as the traditional narrative has it), but other settlers too – including those who had done a deal with the railroad, or those who were opposed to the vigilante rule meted out by the Settlers’ League. According to Richard Brown, the supporters of the railroad were all wealthier than the settlers’ group, and this seems plausible enough – it is also backed up, apparently, by evidence from local land registers (though I’ve not been able to verify this of course). The pro-railroad (or ‘anti-squatter’) faction may have included, as Orsi suggests, earlier settlers in the district who had done most of the irrigation work. It may also, however, have included a younger generation, too young to have fought in the Civil War. Walter J. Crow – the crack shot who killed five men — certainly seems to fit this mould. He regarded the Settlers League as a “set of demagogues”, mere “agitators” who were imposing a “reign of terror” on local area.[18] It is possible that the Confederate backgounds of Settlers’ leaders reinforced this sense that what was at stake was no less than the social and political order.

Notwithstanding this local division, the balance of public sympathy seems, on the basis of press reports, to have been on the settlers’ side. The funerals of the five dead settlers provided an “imposing demonstration.”[19] Their memorialisation as martyrs to the cause of the people against a soulless corporation is, if nothing else, testimony to what folks at the time wanted to be the case.

Furthermore, Orsi’s case that the railroad bent over backwards to deal fairly with the contesting claims seems over-drawn. Although their claims to the land had been upheld in California courts, the case was still being appealed to the US Supreme Court when the railroad sold land already in possession by settlers to others. They need not have done this, but did so because, as Orsi’s evidence from internal company records makes clear, they were absolutely determined not to give an inch on the crucial question of their land title. As the San Francisco Chronicle, not otherwise a newspaper in sympathy with either the Workingmen’s movement in the city nor radical land protestors in the country, commented: “The course of the railroad company in precipitating the issue cannot be too severely condemned… No excuse can be suggested for a resort to measures to disposes these men of the lands they had so long occupied… Whatever might be their strictly legal rights, it is undeniable that all the equities were in favor of the settlers.”[20]

Opportunists and victims

The settlers, or squatters, may well have been opportunists seeking to exploit the weakness of governance in nineteenth century California rather than the innocent victims of corporate greed. But, whatever the reality of the communities they represented, in making their case, the settlers drew – with huge success in terms of the public response — on a tradition of imagining the American dream as a homestead, communal ideal and in direct contrast to the corporate vision of America that wanted to marketise everything. That was also a vision that was harshly racist and based on the use of violence and intimidation by a white male majority.

Land was at the heart of this battle because the availability of land — and the roughly egalitarian society, guaranteeing opportunity that was imagined to result from that availability — is what has made America exceptional in the imagination of many generations. The homestead ideal made the ownership of land the subject of morality rather than just legal title, its value the product of human ingenuity and labour and not just market price.

[1] This account is drawn from a combination of sources, not all of which agree on the details. Richard Maxwell Brown, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), pp. 108-110; Stephen Schwartz, From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind (New York: Free Press, 1998), pp. 105-112; James L. Brown, The Mussel Slough Tragedy (privately printed, 1958); Richard J. Orsi, Sunset Limited: The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), pp. 102-103. Alonzo Poole’s account is in Alta California, May 12, 1880. Orsi’s account, which is based on research in railroad archives, presents the Southern Pacific as trying to broker a deal and avoid violence. He also stresses the complete legal right of the railroad to the land.

[2] “The Mussel Slough Settlers and President Hayes”, San Francisco Bulletin, September 13, 1880, p. 1.

[3] “Mussel Slough Settlers. Sympathetic Meeting Last Night”, San Francisco Bulletin, December 31, 1880, p. 1.

[4] Quoted in Richard Maxwell Brown, No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), p. 87.

[5] Fresno Republican Weekly, September 18, 1880, p. 3.

[6] Quoted in Brown, No Duty to Retreat, p. 98.

[7] Chambers quoted in Brown, No Duty to Retreat, p. 99.

[8] Quoted in Brown, No Duty to Retreat, p. 115.

[9] Doyle’s account is in Eugene L. Menefee, History of Tulare and Kings Counties, California (Los Angles, Historic Record Company, 1913), pp. 110-112.

[10] Orsi, Sunset Limited, p. 96. Copies of contracts were obtained by the railroad’s local land agent Daniel K. Zumwalt in 1876. They are filed in Zumwalt to Jerome Madden and to John B Bloss, Devember 6, 1876. Daniel K. Zumwalt Correspondence, Southern Pacific Land Company Records, San Francisco.

[11] Orsi, Sunset Limited, p. 97.

[12] Orsi, Sunset Limited, p. 98.

[13] Menefee, History of Tulare and Kings Counties, p. 111.

[14] “Investigating the Mussel Slough Tragedy”, San Francisco Bulletin, May 27, 1880, p. 3.

[15] Orsi, Sunset Limited, p. 98.

[16] Stanford is quoted in Schwartz, From West to East, p. 106. The presence of cattle ranchers as the original inhabitants in the area is discussed in Richard Brown, No Duty to Retreat and James Brown, Mussel Slough Tragedy.

[17] This claim was supported by the Visalia Delta, April 27, 1876, a newspaper usually supportive of the claimants, which observed that there were no improvements on contested land.

[18] History of Tulare County, California, with Illustrations (San Francisco: Wallace W. Elliot, 1883), p. 197.

[19] Quoted in Schwartz, From West to East, p. 108.

[20] Quoted in Schwartz, From West to East, p. 108.

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