The Story Of Jonathan Davis
December 19, 1854 was a cold day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Three prospectors carefully traversed a rough trail in aptly named Rocky Canyon in El Dorado County, near the North Fork of the American River. Unknown to them, 14 heavily armed bandits lay in ambush ahead. Unknown to both parties, three miners watched from a nearby hilltop. They were about to become witnesses to what historian John Boessenecker calls, “The single most extraordinary feat of self-defense by an American civilian in the annals of frontier history.”
Jonathan R. Davis was born in Monticello, S.C. in 1816. Following his education at the University of South Carolina, he enlisted in the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers and was quickly promoted to lieutenant. Davis fought with distinction in several battles in the Mexican War. He was wounded at Churubusco in 1847, along with over 1,100 other American casualties. In those days, simply surviving one’s wounds and the inevitable infections was too much for all but the toughest of men. Jonathan Davis proved to be made of boot leather and barbed wire—a tough man indeed.
Davis mustered out of the Army in 1848 with the honorary rank of captain, and, along with hundreds of other veterans, cast adrift after the war; he later headed for the gold fields of California. There, his soldierly demeanor, skills with arms and unblemished character earned the respect of his fellow prospectors. He was known as a superior marksman, and described by a friend as “second to none in the state as a fencer.” He was never seen without his two Colts and a big Bowie knife.
The Gold Rush drew dreamers, dilettantes and desperadoes from all nations, either to seek their fortunes in the streambeds and hills, or to prey upon those who did. Since most honest prospectors were armed and determined, the predators frequently formed murderous gangs and operated by raid and ambush. One such gang was made up of two Americans, five Australians, two Britons, four Mexicans, and a Frenchman. In just the two days previous to December 19, they had robbed and murdered six Chinese and four Americans. Ambushing three men in a lonely canyon must have seemed like plucking flowers. But one of those men had never been anybody’s daisy.
Ambushing The Wrong Party
As Davis, his good friend Doctor Bolivar Sparks, and James McDonald picked their way along the trail, all 14 bandits leaped from cover and opened fire. McDonald was killed instantly, dropped before he could even pull his revolver. Dr. Sparks got off two shots as he fell, his fire apparently going wild.
Jonathan Davis drew his Colts and commenced firing until they ran dry. It is unknown if any of his slugs missed, but when the firestorm ended, seven of his attackers lay dead or dying, and the rest had also run out of ammo.
The fight wasn’t over. Four of the bandits charged, one with a short sword, the other three with knives. Davis drew his Bowie and engaged. In seconds, he had killed three and grievously injured the gang’s leader, among other wounds, cutting off his nose and a finger. The three surviving bandits ran for their lives. And those three miners on the hilltop saw it all.
Davis had suffered two flesh wounds, but he immediately began tearing strips from his shirt and bandaging not only his good friend Dr. Sparks, but also three mortally wounded but still breathing bandits, trying to save their lives as well. He won, they had lost, and as the victor, mercy was his duty to give.
When the witnesses came running up the trail, Davis leaped to McDonald’s body, grabbed his loaded revolver and shouted “Halt!” John Webster, Isaac Hart and P.S. Robertson identified themselves and explained they had been out hunting game and had seen the entire fight. They assisted Davis in tending the wounded, then returned to their camp, bringing back 15 others to witness the bloody scene and help dig graves.
As the sun went down, three wounded bandits died. The noseless leader confessed to his gang’s 10 murders on the 17th and 18th. He died the following day. One of the miners counted six bullet holes in Jonathan Davis’s hat and 11 more through his shirt and coat. The bandits’ bodies yielded $491 in gold and silver coins, nine watches (two silver and seven gold), and 4 ounces of gold dust. Davis informed the group that Dr. Sparks, who was still clinging to life, had a home and family in Coloma; he urged that all the ill-gotten plunder should go to Dr. Sparks’. They agreed.
The next day, all the dead were buried. Being law-abiding men, the group formed a coroner’s jury, wrote out a report of the incident, citing all evidence and witnesses statements, and concluded Davis’s party acted in self-defense. Seventeen of them signed it and it was sent to Placerville, the county seat. Davis carried his friend Bolivar Sparks to his home in Coloma, where the doctor passed away on December 26th.
In the months following, many people expressed doubt about Davis’s deed, and city folk proclaimed it wild exaggeration. Davis sought neither publicity nor notoriety, but was stung by the challenges to his honor, and felt it was disrespectful to his dead friends. Finally, Davis and the witnesses appeared before Judge R.M. Anderson and a court of inquiry, where detailed depositions and comparisons of statements set the matter to rest.
Jonathan Davis said, “I did only what hundreds of others might have done under similar circumstances, and attach no particular credit to myself for it.” Indeed, hundreds of others might have—but would they have done it so well?
Special Thanks To:
Michael Trcic, gifted sculptor and longtime GUNS reader: Mike’s prodigious talents can be seen at Trcic Studio in Sedona, Ariz., and at www.trcicstudio.com. His striking bronze of Jonathan Davis bears the quote by Thomas Jefferson: “One Man with Courage is a Majority”—a perfect choice.
John Boessenecker, noted frontier historian and prolific author: Without his probing, scholarly research the Jonathan Davis story and many others might never have been brought back to light.
By John Connor