Forgotten Famous Faces: Jonathan R. Davis, The Forgotten Warrior of California’s Gold Rush
Not all heroes from the mid-1800’s became famous. Some evaded the scribes pen and were never immortalized in the flickering lights of the silver screen. While the fiction writers of the following decades told fantastic tales of impossible odds, one man lived it for real, fought and won what is arguably the greatest stand-up gunfight in old west history.
*Editor’s Note – Historian John Boessenecker is responsible for the rediscovery of Jonathan R. Davis, who was lost to time and it was his writing that first introduced me to this lost legend. The story seemed too fantastic to believe. However, I began reading California papers such as the January 4, 1855 edition of The Los Angeles Star as well as other California publications including the Mountain Democrat. My conclusion was not only that this story should be common Old West reading, but what a travesty that his face remains unknown. Even the photo shown below is not the man. It's merely a stand-in of an unknown miner whose appearance is similar to our hero's description based on period accounts.
There are comparable accounts where one man faced down and prevailed over insurmountable odds or at least went down swinging such as The Battle at Blazer’s Mill, The Newton Massacre or The Frisco Shootout to name a few but Davis simply stacked up more bodies and survived against impossible odds virtually unscathed. This fight was a stand-up scrap, muzzle to muzzle; blade on blade, and chest to chest, in an ugly, gritty, bloody row. The outcome was so incredulous, that the witnesses were compelled to give testimony under oath as to what was seen. The story here is based on Boessenecker’s research as stated in his book “Gold Dust and Gunsmoke”. I used his data and fused it with my personal knowledge of 19th century life, weapons management, fighting methods, tissue wounds, and the natural world. I combined these elements to recreate the incident for readers to sample what it must have been like that December day. The tale of the shootout at Rocky Cañón in the winter of 1854 resurrected a man’s name from obscurity so that we may know a forgotten hero lost under dusty manuscripts and shrouded by the mists of time.
· Name: Jonathan Rutledge Davis
· D.O.B/Location: August 5, 1816 – Monticello, South Carolina (1820 Census shows him next living in Fairfield, SC.)
· D.O.D/Location: October 16, 1890 – Stockton, CA.
· Military: Captain (Honorary) of South Carolina Volunteers (Palmetto Regiment, Co. G) US Army Vols. – Mexican War (1846-48). Wounded at the Battle of Churubusco, Mexican Federal District – August 20, 1847
· Known & Alleged Occupations: College Student, Officer of State Volunteers, Miner, Merchant, and Lawyer
Rocky Cañón, north of Placerville, December 19, 1854
Three men paced themselves hiking over the wooded terrain of Rocky Cañón. They were 40 miles up from town in the wilderness off the North fork of the American River. A quartz vein reputed to be gold-rich was reported about 20-30 miles further north and they were in a hurry to find it. The terrain was far too rough for animals, let alone wagons so each of these men were completing the almost 70-mile journey through rugged terrain on foot. The men in the party were James C. McDonald of Alabama, Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks of Mississippi, and Jonathan R. Davis, a quiet but seemingly affable South Carolinian and veteran of the recent war with Mexico. More than likely, the three friends joked with one another in between conversation to pass the time as they still had a long walk ahead of them. If the prospecting location panned out, all the effort would be very rewarding and no doubt, much of their discussion must have been about the potential wealth this venture could earn.
They traveled light with their packs and tools, carrying only their belt knives and revolvers for protection. The area was relatively safe and there was no need for the added weight of extra arms. Davis and his party were alike so many other argonauts plying the wilds of Northern California during the State’s great gold rush. For the most part, robbers and ruffians had been run out of the territory by vigilance committees and established law enforcement. A good revolver and knife should have been a suitable deterrent against any perceived miscreants to be encountered along the way.
When referring to desperados, I often call them “2-legged beasts who live beyond the laws of man”, but perhaps I’m being too kind in using this to describe the murderous horde who stalked these woods in the winter of 1854. It was reputed that there were fourteen of them but there may have been more. According to eyewitness accounts, the robber gang was a mixed bag of miscreants from around the world including 5 members from the now defunct ‘Sydney Ducks’ a gang of Australian criminals who terrorized the Barbary Coast[i] ; as well as two American, three Frenchmen, and four Mexicans in the ranks. The day before this attack, they had robbed and massacred four Americans. The day before that, it was six Chinese miners who were likewise robbed and then slain without mercy. It’s difficult for a human being of a normal moral constitution to end a life and it really takes a dark soul to still the breath of a subdued victim who is pleading for his life. Although dead men tell no tales, this sort of savagery guarantees a hangman’s rope if ever such a man is caught for such crimes.[ii] These men were beyond criminal; they were bloodthirsty predators who were now lying-in wait for their next mark. Coming up the trail were three friends on their way to investigate a promising vein of quartz; fresh meat for this ravenous lot.
Each of the three men in the prospecting party breathed steadily and they made their way down the trail. Cold winter winds moved through the branches of fir and hemlock as the faint essence of cedar hung in the air. Kinglets and chickadees chirped and sang overhead but far out in front, everything was strangely still. Suddenly, a branch snapped, then gunfire shattered the silence. McDonald shuddered and crumpled like a meal sack dropped onto the trail. Davis carried a pair of Colt’s belt revolvers and a large Bowie knife on his belt. Two legendary American arms were about to be unleashed.
*The Colt's model 1851 'Navy Six' and Bowie knife featured here are the same type of weapons carried by Jonathan R. Davis during the fight in Rocky Cañón.
In an instant, his Navy-sixes[iii] were sending their messengers back toward the clusters of muzzle-flashes and gun smoke. Dr. Sparks then followed up with a shot from his revolver, then another before feeling a hard punch to his body. We will never know if he was so charged with the rush of a fight that he was temporarily immune to the pain or if he felt the customary dull ache radiating out to his shoulders, jowls, legs and hands as a hot, searing pain pushed its way through his body. The shock of impact sapped the strength from his legs and now, only one man stood alone.
The 38 year-old Davis was reputed to stand taller than the average man and his white hat made him easily identifiable at a distance. He had seen death in the Mexican War as an officer of the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers. Being no stranger to battle, he campaigned with the army for two years. During that time, he showed his metal and was even wounded at Churubusco. Davis was known to be an expert pistol shot and equally skilled with a sword or knife. Now, with each breath, air filled his lungs like a bellows[iv] and his blood coursed like a great river. In moments like this, men like Davis are not necessarily without fear but rather, they are temporarily numb to it. Countless hours of practice and experience developed his muscle memory to react without the need to think. All thoughts of loved ones, feelings of remorse, sadness, pity, or even anger would pass like distant clouds as pure, exhilarated instinct took over. According to Davis’s own testimony, he then entered the fight in a “fever of excitement”. As a condemned man, he was determined to kill every enemy there was or sell his life at a dear cost.
With pistols drawn, Davis went to work. He fired; sometimes twice if it looked like the shot missed its mark. A bandit heaved his arms skyward as he pitched head first into the brush. Davis fired again. A spot appeared on a second man’s head and he too would embrace the sod. Bullets snapped and whined past him as his revolvers roared in reply. Davis may have even felt the slight sting of a missile that got too close. Perhaps he did hear the sound of a bullet snapping through his hat brim. Either way, whenever a robber presented himself to take aim. Davis’s revolvers spoke and another man tumbled from this life. This scene repeated until seven men lay still on the ground. Witnesses said each had a gunshot wound to the head. With the brush of primordial forests being untended, the undergrowth is often to about chest height so the targeting of each man’s head was likely more a case of necessity than preference. To a skilled pistoleer like Davis, hitting seven marks with his twelve shots was not an impossible feat.
The crackle of gunfire played through the forest alerting the hunting party of a nearby mining camp. John Webster, Isaac A. Hart, and P.S. Robertson were out hunting game when they spotted the battle at a distance that was too great for them to assist. They hesitated and took stock of what was happening then decided to act. As they hurried down the hill to assist the lone-surviving member of the 3-man party, they would bear witness to an event so fantastic, many newspapers would first report it with a considerable amount of skepticism. Although they hurried, it’s likely, the men felt that they would arrive too late.
Meanwhile, the gunfire ceased as both parties ran out of ammunition. Some members of the robber gang fled but four survivors drew their blades to finish the fight. Two of these bandits bore wounds from their work in the previous days but still had enough fight in them. One of the desperados even carried a short sword or sabre. They closed upon Davis who was likely euphoric with the spirit of battle as he drew his large bowie and accepted the challenge. Round two was going to get close and ugly.
Despite its similarities, there are also differences between fencing and knife fighting.
Much of the footwork is similar to a degree but there are differences in the posture. With the knife, it is better to face the opponent as is done with a fencing stance but avoid taking a lateral facing as is done in a lunge using a foil or rapier. The body is not the only target so don’t overextend yourself in trying to reach it. When an enemy knifeman lunges, attack the hand. Trap it if possible; and deliver your strike when an opening presents itself. Also, the body must bend to accommodate fighting with a blade shorter than that of a sword. The abdomen must be kept as far from the opponent as possible but avoid presenting the face as a good secondary target in doing so. It is best to bend, crouch and get up under an opponent’s defenses. In the trapping of hands, parrying, volting and of course thrusting, keep the wrist’s underside away from an enemy’s parrying blade the same way a fencer would. In the event that your enemy successfully parries your wrist, it will be better that his blade bite the back of your hand than the soft tendons and arteries of its vulnerable underside.
This would have been second nature to a man like Davis as he engaged the first knifeman and struck deep inside of the inbound blow. The stricken man’s eyes may have grown large with surprise or winced with a sense of confusion and disbelief. Either way, he sank to the ground mortally wounded. The next bandit made a bold move forward. Davis quickly parried, striking off his nose. Another motion carried away the stunned desperado’s right forefinger, hurling his blade into the air. The two previously wounded adversaries were the last to fall. Both crumpled to the ground bleeding out in short order.
*Charge of the Palmetto Regiment at Churubusco, when Davis was wounded.
The aftermath would have been reminiscent to that which Davis saw in Mexico. The dead and dying already wore the pallor of death upon their faces. Eyes are still and drying with eternal rest. Others lay gasping or snoring loudly as their agonal breathing tried in futility to oxygenate a body whose heart has already stopped. One by one, each dying man surrendered to eternity. The sole surviving desperado would have shrunk from Davis with a mutilated face and disfigured hand. Davis cut his shirt into strips so that he could begin the grim work of bandaging those whom he could save. His friend, Dr. Bolivar Sparks was in bad condition. It would have made sense to tend him first. The maimed bandit would have been treated for his injuries next. He may have tried to save the other knifemen depending on their condition. The maimed bandit showed gratitude for his treatment by identifying the gang members and giving details of their exploits as well as information on how the gang had formed a short time ago. This injured bandit had a reason to be grateful. Davis gave him the one thing he and his cohorts had granted none of their victims and that was mercy.
When Webster, Hart, and Robertson finally arrived, the battle was over. Davis at first had his apprehensions about their appearance but was relieved to learn that they were friends. They verified the accounts and took stock of Davis’s two fallen friends as well as the ten prostrate gang members and the maimed prisoner. By sundown, three of the men who fell to Davis’s knife had joined their comrades in judgement before the almighty throne. Davis had 17 holes in his hat and 11 through his coat and shirt as well as two slight flesh wounds. The maimed bandit’s health would take a turn for the worse and he was buried the following day. A search of the dead men’s pockets produced copies of the gang’s “laws and bye-laws” that governed their accord. It was signed by W. C. Thompson and 16 others. In addition to weapons taken off the dead men, there were $491 dollars in gold and silver coin, four ounces of gold dust, seven gold watches and two silver ones. All the wealth was given to the ailing Dr. Sparks who was returned to his home in Coloma. He would die of his injuries on December 26, 1854.
John Webster and the other 17 miners included some of the most reputable men in the county. The primary witnesses would go under oath to give testimony of the event and J. R. Davis, whose word was in very high standing remained consistent in his testimony. Despite all this, Davis was attacked by papers such as the Sacramento Union which called his story ‘bogus’. Other newspapers such as the California Chronicle came to his defense.
In the March 20, 1855 edition of the Mountain Democrat, Captain Davis and the witnesses were exonerated of any doubt and their stories confirmed before a judge and delegate of prominent citizens. For a while, Davis became somewhat of a local hero. He remained in Northern California and would occasionally come up on some public records here and there until about 1887 when he seemed to vanish into relative obscurity. For the longest time, I did not know the date of his death but there is an obituary in a Stockton newspaper placing the date at Oct. 16, 1890. His life faded into the mystique of the American West and while someday, I would like to find an actual photo of him, I have mixed feelings about knowing the date of his fate. Part of me wishes it remained a mystery. In truth, I can hardly think of this man’s life without softly whispering “…and some folks say…he’s out there still…”
*Editor's Note: Special thanks to Historian & Author John Boessenecker for his resources and assistance on this article.
End notes for the section:
[i] Common name for a 9-block section of San Francisco along Pacific Street between Stockton and Montgomery streets. It was infamous for its crime, brothels, gambling-hells, saloons and other places of ill repute. [ii] Contrary to common myth, the US legal process reserved sentences of execution or hanging to capital offenses. There are no cases of a person being legally hanged for lower crimes such as horse-theft and common robbery during the era of the frontier west. This misnomer comes from the occasions were people were illegally hanged by lynch mobs for a variety of offenses.
[iii] Colt’s “Belt Model” was also known as the “Navy Revolver” or “Navy Six”. This was a .36 caliber, 6-shot revolver that was commonly carried by gunmen, and adventurers not only in the United States but around the world.
[iv] A bellows is a blacksmithing device that channels great draughts of air into coal forges which in turn stokes the fire to temperatures high enough to melt steel.