Wave a flag and cheer, Santa Rosa; your National Guard boys are going off to protect the border with Mexico! The year was 1916 and beneath the cheery patriotism was terror about what might happen - and for good reason. It looked like a full-scale war with Mexico would start at any moment.

While the soldiers going off to fight in Europe in 1917 get lots of attention from historians, the National Guard's call up for duty a year earlier is lesser mentioned, often just dismissed as sort of a rehearsal for the real show. But it was their departure for the border that had the greater emotional impact on Santa Rosa, being the first time local men had been ordered to active service since the Spanish-American War, a full generation in the past.

The story has obvious relevance to us in 2018 because a president is again sending the National Guard to the Mexican border. But while researching those doings about a century ago, I found the story even more relevant to today than I expected - it was also a casebook study of "fake news."

That innocent American civilians were killed in the lead-up to deployment was an indisputable fact. But depending upon which newspaper(s) you happened to read - and remember, this was 1916 and before radio or TV, so your daily paper was probably the sole news source available - your reaction might be the indignation someone feels when any fellow citizens are slain by terrorists. Or maybe you'd feel the situation in Mexico was so abominable that the U.S. Army should go down there and take over the whole damn country.

The most irresponsible coverage found anywhere was undoubtedly in the San Francisco Examiner and other Hearst papers, with anti-Mexican racism on a par with President "Some I Assume Are Good People” Trump.* Here in Sonoma county, however, the dailies were the Argus-Courier in Petaluma with the Santa Rosa Republican and Press Democrat delivered to homes and businesses elsewhere. Of the three, the PD stands out - for making everyone more jittery by portraying Mexico as a lawless wilderness, where life was cheap and outlaws roamed the countryside like packs of feral dogs.

Scan the front pages of the Press Democrat from the start of 1916 and discover there were detailed reports about the war in Europe - albeit mainly good news that WWI was going ever so swell for the Allies and the unpleasantness would be over soon, one way or the other. In sharp contrast, the PD's account of the Mexico crisis was alarmist and became increasingly histrionic. Despite the enormous number of deaths in WWI, the articles about that had all the immediacy of chess match coverage; when it came to Mexico, PD editor Ernest Finley's hair was on such fire he could not be troubled to worry about printing the truth.



Trouble loomed not long after the year began: "MEXICANS MURDERED AMERICANS," read the headline in the January 12 Press Democrat. The incident - which became known as the Santa Isabel Massacre - would continue to dominate the PD's front page for the remainder of that week, even pushing out most news about the World War.

(RIGHT: ‘Pancho' Villa, in scene from 1914 docudrama)

In the Mexican state of Chihuahua, about 250 miles from the Texas border, sixteen Americans who worked for a mining company had been robbed, stripped, and murdered execution-style. Two other Americans in the area were killed three days later. The killers were part of the forces under the command of Francisco "Pancho" Villa, northern Mexico's warlord and leader of a military faction in their ongoing revolution.

When word reached El Paso, the nearest U.S. city to the site of the crime and home to the big Army base at Fort Bliss, soldiers attacked Mexicans downtown, leading to an anti-Mexican riot involving about a thousand soldiers and civilians alike. Martial law was declared and Mexican residents were ordered to leave their homes.

President Woodrow Wilson - who recently had given his blessing to the current Mexican government - rejected calls for a counterstrike, saying he trusted their country to punish those responsible. There was also talk of the mining company and American ranchers creating a mercenary troop to sneak into the country to capture Villa. Provoking an invasion of Mexico by American forces, however, was exactly what he wanted.

At that point the Mexican Revolution had been underway for five or six or seven years (depending on who you ask) with the U.S. meddling at every step. By the mid-1910s it had strayed from its revolutionary goal of upending the country's old feudalism and turned into a Game of Thrones-like contest for power with several factions locked in a civil war, Villa a major player among them.

As 1916 began, Villa and his once indomitable Army of the North (DivisiĆ³n del Norte) seemed headed for a small footnote in Mexican history. The previous year, better armed government forces had badly whipped them in three major battles - one of which lasted 38 days (!) - and the Villistas were reduced to a guerilla force unlikely to survive another direct encounter with the Army.

Villa believed the president of Mexico - a former ally of his, natch - was a sellout and conceding too much to American interests because he had some sort of secret deal with Wilson's administration. (It turned out Villa had been suckered into believing a conspiracy theory.) In Villa's mind the last hope to unify the country was to start a mouse-that-roared war with the U.S. And as the earlier attack had failed to spur necessary American wrath, he decided to lead his fighters across the border and attack a town in New Mexico. It would be the first time American soil had been invaded since the War of 1812.

Two months after the Santa Isabel Massacre, Villa and his forces targeted Columbus NM, a dusty bordertown about 70 miles west of El Paso. A very thorough and well-written description of the attack can be read here but all we need to know is that it was brutal; 18 Americans were dead and the little town was ransacked. President Wilson immediately ordered troops into Mexico to capture or kill Villa.

 "On the Border" by Donna Neary (Image: Army.Mil)

From that point on, all newspaper coverage of the crisis can be ranked on a scale. The better papers explained Villa was trying to provoke Wilson into invading, so their readers may have understood that while these were savage acts, they were part of his realpolitik gambit, and there were risks to the U.S. if we played into his hands. Rank the Press Democrat at the other end of the scale with the worst of the yellow press, painting Villa simply as the leader of a ruthless bandit gang on the prowl for horses to steal and gringos to slaughter.

Then there's the the Press Democrat's remarkable volume of stories. A week or more might pass without the Argus-Courier or Santa Rosa Republican mentioning Pancho Villa - but from April onwards, something about Villa appeared on the PD front page almost every single day, which by itself made the story appear as important as the World War. Most of those items turned out to be rumors and lies which the paper did not later correct, or made only a token effort to fix. The worst was probably when the PD made a big splash with a story about a Mexican Army general defecting to Villa and taking his 2,000 soldiers with him. When it proved untrue a day later there was a single sentence about it buried near the end of a long update of latest U.S. troop movements.

Even the best newspapers sometimes printed stuff that turned out false, but the PD was like a "fake news" clearinghouse. Villa had narrowly escaped capture, Villa was about to invade the U.S. again, Villa was dead, Villa was walking through passenger trains and murdering anyone he thought was American. Sometimes what was presented to Sonoma county readers slipped into outright propaganda - the PD featured a photo illustration showed a firing squad poised for execution with the caption, "How They Kill a 'Gringo.'" It was actually a scene from a 1914 docudrama about Villa filmed during the civil war with other Mexican factions.

The crisis came to a head in June - a fact we know because the PD's banner headline on the 18th shouted, "MEXICAN CRISIS NOW AT THE CLIMAX". The Mexican president ordered American troops to leave the country. President Wilson refused. Soon after, troops from the U.S. Cavalry were confronted by the Mexican Army, and in the "Battle of Carrizal" 12 Americans were killed with 24 captured. The next day Wilson ordered the entire 145,000 member National Guard called to duty. On June 24, the northern California Fifth regiment was mobilized and ordered to assemble in Sacramento immediately. Santa Rosa was going to war.




"Goodbye Boys! and May God Bless You and Keep You", cheered the Press Democrat headline on June 25. Half of the front page that day called for a big public turnout at 10:00AM as the local National Guard marched from the armory (Fourth and D streets) to the train station on North street. The other half of the page contained stories suggesting they were probably going to be walking into a trap and be slaughtered.

"The Carrizal battle was only an incident of what was planned to be a general attack on the American command," one of those PD articles read, citing a report supposedly received in El Paso. "Americans were flanked on both sides by Mexicans who practically surrounded the little detachment," read another story that described what happened at Carrizal. "In front was a concealed Mexican machine gun trench from which a stream of leaden death unexpectedly poured into the American ranks."

This upsetting "we salute you who are about to die" theme continued in the PD alongside news about the current whereabouts of our company. Three days later, the PD claimed the “Buffalo Soldiers" captured at Carrizal were expecting to be executed, 30,000 Mexican soldiers were waiting to attack U.S. soldiers and a half million Mexican civilians were heading for the border to repel an American invasion. The Republican printed none of that crap and by contrast,  balanced front page coverage of the National Guard deployment with news about the state political conventions and WWI developments.

Santa Rosa's Company E, led by Captain Hilliard Comstock (more about that fellow's soldiering later) had 75 members, one of them Fleming McWhorter, who already had been serving in New Mexico. He returned to join his Company E comrades even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the train and carried him on their shoulders to the armory. It was a grand moment:

Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street. The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present...

Irregardless of the garbage the PD was feeding its readers about hordes of killer Mexicans, the paper's coverage of their departure the next day was touching, promising it "...will always be remembered as one of the most notable of events that has ever occurred in Santa Rosa, and thousands participated in the many incidents marking the going away."

No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true...Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery.

And then the moment of farewell came. "The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa's greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last."




Tensions between the United States and Mexico remained high for a few following days but then the Carrizal prisoners were released unharmed, and even the PD grudgingly conceded on July 6 the "condition of [the] Mexican situation is improving." News about WWI again began to dominate their front page.

And then letters from Company E began arriving back home. They were headed for Nogales, Arizona and in good spirits. It was so hot on the train that most of them stripped down to their underwear. They started a "beauty contest" to see who could grow the best chin whiskers and moustache.

"Dog tents" of the San Francisco company, 5th California Infantry at Nogales (PHOTO: California State Military Museums



Mostly they were bored after settling into camp. It was hot and there was lots of rain. They drilled every morning for five hours, then had the afternoon and evening free. They slept six to a tent and Charles O'Bear, one of the cooks, wrote that he and his bunkmates "have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon." (Let's hope the O'Bears still have their family photo album.) They had brought along that little black dog named "Fox" which they now dressed with a canvas coat reading on each side "Co. E, Fifth." After a couple of days they adopted another fox terrier as an assistant mascot.

In the letters printed or summarized in the Press Democrat they often described how good and plentiful the food was. There were 2,000 men in the Fifth California Regiment at Nogales and in two weeks they ate 14,000 pounds of fresh meat. "Today's dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter," O'Bear wrote to his friend. The Sebastopol Merchants’ Association sent them a shipment of apples and a thank you note replied, "The apples which you were so kind as to send were, like all Sebastopol Gravensteins. delicious..."

Health was also a big topic; many were bedridden for a few days because of the typhoid vaccinations. They had been mustered up so quickly the men had not been examined by Army doctors here or in Sacramento, so everyone got a physical at the Nogales camp. An average of fifteen percent of the California National Guard failed and were sent home. Company E lost 17 - including Ezra Mortenson, who was too tall. The PD reported that an anti-smoking activist told the Santa Rosa Grange that many in the Guard were rejected because they suffered from "tobacco heart," leading to a letter-to-the-editor from all of Company E, griping that "people should know what they are talking about before breaking into print." (The same complaint could have been made about all of the PD's prior Mexico coverage, of course.)

What they didn't write about was military service, except for a letter from Al Mead. Nogales straddles the border and there wasn't a fence between the two sides until after 1918. Mead wrote, "The main street of Nogales forms the international boundary line between the United States and Mexico. American guards, dressed in the customary olive drab uniforms, guard our side of the line, while the Mexican side is patrolled by half-starved, scantily clad Mexican soldiers, dressed mostly in ragged overalls and dirty shirts, the red hat cord being the only distinction between them and the ordinary citizen."

After about a month at Nogales the Fifth Regiment was told to prepare for a 138-mile march, although they wouldn't be going into into Mexico; they would be heading to Fort Huachuca which had a particularly good rifle range. But as August was about to end, surprising new orders arrived - they were to pack up and head back to Sacramento to be part of the state fair. Theirs was the only regiment sent away from the border so early.

"Bronzed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators," reported the Press Democrat. "Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service." They took part in a sham battle where 16,000 rounds of blanks were fired and a prop bridge was blown up.

And that was that. They came home to Santa Rosa on October 7 with another parade and a banquet at the armory. They saw no action whatsoever. Any who dreamed of serving alongside Army regulars chasing Pancho Villa were certainly disappointed, but in truth President Wilson and the generals probably had no intention of letting them see combat - they were there to relieve the Army of policing the American side of the border and (to some degree) intimidate the government of Mexico.

More than anything else, it was an excuse to exercise the newly-enacted National Defense Act of 1916, which transformed the National Guard into an "organized militia" which could be folded into the regular Army during times of war or national emergency. All that drilling also made the experience sort of a pre-bootcamp bootcamp for all those men who would be drafted a few months later when the U.S. entered World War I.

But aside from the bad weather it seems the men of Company E had a fine time, and no one was hurt - except for Private Charlie Torliatt, who was declared to have an injury sustained in the line of duty because he was involved in a Sacramento auto accident in June.




* Hearst's San Francisco Examiner is not available online, but the Los Angeles Herald was a de facto Hearst paper, particularly when it came to stories like this which relied entirely upon Hearst's International News Service.






PEOPLE! ASSEMBLE AT 10 FOR BIG SENDOFF PARADE
Company E Will Entrain in Santa Rosa for Sacramento at 11 O’Clock This Morning, and Plans Are Made for a Big Demonstration

THE BOYS OF COMPANY E of Santa Rosa go away this morning!

They will entrain here at eleven o’clock. The orders came from Adjutant General Charles W. Thomas last night. Our gallant bovs leave Santa Rosa for the mobilization camp at Sacramento this morning, and the expectancy is that in a short time they will be sent with the other troops to the Mexican border.

Quoting again the sentiment of the headline —“GOODBYE! BOYS, AND MAY GOD BLESS YOU!”—Santa Rosa is with you today and will be with you in kindly thought and in prayer every day you are away.

Individually and collectively, “God bless you!"

GREAT DEMONSTRATION THIS MORNING

The going away of Company E this morning is to be the occasion of a great public demonstration. Every man. woman and child in Santa Rosa and vicinity should turn out to make it so. Gather on the streets outside of the armory, at Fourth and D streets, at ten o'clock and join in the march with the boys to the depot. Wear or carry a flag.

There will be a parade and it will be led by Mayor J. C. Mailer and the members of the City Council. Citizens are asked to follow in line behind the Mayor and precede the gallant officers and men of Company E as an escort. The Santa Rosa band will play for the march. Following the company, automobiles will be in line, and it is asked that in these machines women and children ride. But men are requested to walk with the soldiers to the depot.

LINE OF MARCH FOR THE PARADE

The line of march, as suggested by the committee last night after consulting with Captain Comstock, will be from the armory to Fifth street, along Fifth street to A street, along A to Fourth, up Fourth to North street, along North street to the Southern Pacific depot.

PETALUMA AND SAN RAFAEL, TOO

The National Guard companies of San Rafael and Petaluma will come to Santa Rosa on the special train provided for the troops. The train will connect with the Southern Pacific by means of the “Y” and Company E will embark at the Southern Pacific depot. That was the understanding last night.

Everybody assemble about the armory at ten o clock, and it is the wish of Santa Rosa, as expressed by her Mayor, Hon. James C. Mailer, that this be made one of the greatest demonstrations possible, to show the soldier boys in their departure that Santa Rosa and Sonoma county appreciates them. And the boys in khaki from our sister city will come in for a share of the sendoff. We appreciate them and their good commander, Capt. J. B. Dickson. And the lads from Marin county, all hail to them, too. God bless you all!

- Press Democrat, June 25 1916



...Fleming McWhorter, who had been serving in Columbus New Mexico, returned to join his Company E comrades, even though he would be turning around the next day. An impromptu group met him at the evening train Saturday night

Members of Co. E who have served their time as drummers, secured the drums of the Native Sons’ Drum Corps and headed the column. The company flag was carried and a mascot in the form of a little dog with a white blanket marked “Co. E,” was led in the line. About fifty men were in line and the column made an inspiring sight as it marched along Fourth street.

The Santa Rosa Boys’ Brass Band, in full uniform, was at the depot and tendered several selections while the crowd awaited the arrival of the train. As it came in the band played one of its liveliest tunes, arousing the enthusiasm of all present.

When McWhorter alighted from the train he was seized and tossed into the air by his comrades. He came down on the shoulders of A. M. Mead and Wm. Tabor, who carried him through the streets on the return march. The column marched around the courthouse before going to the armory, where McWhorter was cheered lustily. After reporting to the armory he was taken to supper and then returned to the armory, where he donned his uniform and prepared his roll for the return trip to the border. The evening was spent with friends.

While marching up Fourth street, Mrs. Crabtree, the florist, presented the company with a handsome and immense bouquet of red. white and bine flowers, which was carried in the parade and given a prominent place at the armory.

The impromptu parade was witnessed by a large crowd on the street and many followed the boys for some distance. There was much enthusiasm manifested and more interest was shown in the company than at any time since it left the city eighteen years ago for service during the Spanish-American war.

- Press Democrat, June 25 1916



VAST THRONG SAYS GOODBYE
Greatest Demonstration in Santa Rosa History When Soldier Boys Depart
Sunday Morning’s Tribute to the City’s Military Organization Will Always Be Remembered as One of the Most Notable of Events That Has Ever Occurred in Santa Rosa, and Thousands Participated in the Many Incidents Marking the Going Away—Cheers Also Given for the Petaluma and San Rafael Companies When They Arrived

"THEY'RE GONE! OH! GOD BLESS THEM!"

It came from a mother's lips. A few moments previously that same mother had clapsed a soldier son to her heart and had given him a farewell kiss.

The troops’ train had disappeared around the bend in the track out from the Southern Pacific depot; the clanging of the locomotive bell was now an echo; Santa Rosa's greatest public demonstration had ended; and the prolonging note of the mother’s prayer, sweeter than all else, for it really echoed the sentiment of thousands of hearts, came at the last.

MEMORABLE SCENE

No one who was an eye witness will ever forget Sunday morning, June 25, 1916, the time when Company E of Santa Rosa went to the front at the country’s call for the defense of the flag. It was gigantic. It was grand, significant and true.

 Did anyone say that the. fires of patriotism were waning?

 That vast outpouring of farewell in Santa Rosa Sunday morning, those marching thousands, flag-bearing and flag-waving cheering hosts; that wonderful moving picture that filled Santa Rosa’s principal streets, answers in behalf of every town and hamlet in this broad land an emphatic “No."

  THERE WERE THE PARTINGS ...

  CITY RALLIES MAGNIFICENTLY

  Santa Rosa rallied magnificently in her saying of good-bye. Long before the hour of ten, when the whistles blew and the bells rang, people commenced to congregate in the streets adjacent, to the armory, and when the parade formed with the departing company as the center of attraction, the streets for blocks were lined with one continuous mass of humanity. The bands played and as the parade came along men, women and children fell into line and marched with the soldiers. Winding up the procession were several hundred automobiles carrying for the most part women and children. The line of march was down Fifth street to A then to Fourth, along Fourth to North, and thence out to the depot. All along the line of march the air was rent with cheers. And as the soldier boys passed down Fifth street each was presented with a beautiful bouquet of Burbank’s Shasta daisies, carnations, roses and greenery. These bouquets had previously been made up with the generous gifts of flowers left at The Press Democrat office, where the committee met to arrange them.

[..]

- Press Democrat, June 27 1916



CHARLES O'BEAR IN LETTER TELLS OF COMPANY E LIFE
Something That Will Be of Interest to the Relations and Friends of Our Boys on the Border - Sample Menu Card of a Mean in Company Mess Department

...We are now located in our new camp and like it very much...I'll send you a bunch of pictures soon. I would have sent them before but couldn't on account of not having the cash to buy films, as we of the Fifth and Seventh Regiments of California haven't been paid yet, and we are all broke or badly bent. Believe me, when we do get cashed up we sure will have some time.

We have located on the side of a hill and we all had to dig out and level off a square for our tents so we would not fall out of our bunks.

Every company in all the regiments of the Second, Fifth and Seventh of the California Brigade have nice, big dining rooms and kitchens combined, and all are enclosed with wire screen to keep the flies out. The kitchen where I hash things is screened off from the dining room. It is big, nice and light, well aired, and is some swell kitchen all around.

Today's dinner consisted of cold boiled ham, corn on cob, French fried potatoes, iced tea, chocolate cake with bread and butter - a regular Sunday dinner, eh? Dine with us? Come on up any time. I'll serve you.

Everyone has become acclimated by this time and all are hardening up to a regular soldier's standard and all are feeling fine and are in the pink of condition for the 136-mile hike that we are to take starting September 1 and ending about November some time, as it will take us two weeks to go there, a stay of two weeks while we into [sic] a stiff and continuous round of soldiers' life, which consists of drilling, target practice on the rifle range, pitching of tents and all other soldier duties that one should do, with a lot of extras thrown in for good measure.

Then we will take two weeks to return to our present camp, and we expected to be on our way back to Santa Rosa some time soon - after six weeks, months or years. I wish it was tomorrow...

...Top Sergeant Campbell, Quartermaster Sergeant Pozzi, Cook Walker and I have a tent all to ourselves next to the cookhouse, and we have all sorts of fun amongst ourselves. We took a lot of freak pictures this afternoon. I'll send you one when we get them developed.

Give my best to all my friends In Santa Rosa and remember me as your friend.

- Press Democrat, September 1 1916



Fifth Regiment Takes Part in Sham Battle Thursday in Capital

Bronsed and campaign-hardened by the active service on the Mexican border, the« members of the Fifth Infantry swung into the State Fair grounds today to the strains of martial music and the cheers of thousands of spectators.

 Their course through the fair grounds and on the lawn, where they passed in review betore the multitude and Governor Hiram Johnson and his party, was an unceasing ovation. Erect and with swinging stride of regulars, the men and their officers made a splendid appearance, clearly demonstrating the result of their arduous border service. During the afternoon the command, together with apprentices from the United States Naval Training Station at Yerba Buena Island, in San Francisco Bay, and the Engineer Battalion. N. G. C., participated in an exciting sham battle, in which 16,000 rounds of blank ammunition was need by the opposing forces and a bridge was blown up.

- Press Democrat, September 8 1916


Fine Banquet Is Feature Much Enjoyed by All
Met at the Depot by Band and Citizens and Escorted to the Armory While Vast Crowds Accompany Marching Men—-Words of Welcome Bring a Hearty Response--Ladies Aid Materially in Arrangements and Affair Is a Great Success

Company E came home on Saturday night and Santa Rosa said at the home-coming--"God Bless You Boys! We're Glad to Welcome You Home Again!"

The city welcomed its soldier boys with band music, cheers, parade, banquet and general enthusiasm...

- Press Democrat, October 8 1916

Yay, sesquicentennial! So what was Sonoma county really like in 1868? If a movie was made of Santa Rosa in those days, would it have the flavor of the sweet little town in "The Music Man" or the sort of rough place seen in "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral?"

I recently visited the Midwest and while waiting at the St. Louis airport I met a very nice Dutch family (Jan, if you're reading this, please get in touch; I lost your business card). They found it novel to meet someone from the West Coast, then became excited when they learned I was a local historian - to them, this place called Santa Rosa was somewhere between Deadwood and Dodge City.

Jan used to follow the Wild West festival circuit around Europe (yep, that's really a thing). He even had a custom-made Indian costume which he said was authentic down to the eagle feathers. (NOTE: the feathers were probably imitations, as it's illegal to sell them in the U.S.)

He peppered me with questions: Does our history museum have any guns of famous outlaws? (Uh, I doubt it.) Was Billy the Kid ever here? (No.) Jesse James? (No.) Wild Bill Hickok? (No.) Buffalo Bill? (Yes, but only with his circus.) Was there an army fort? (No.) Did Indians go on the warpath? (Oh, please.) Were there gunfighter shootouts? (No.) Were there lynchings? (Sure, the last being in 1920 - which gave him such pause that he asked me to write down the year to make sure he understood correctly.)

There never really was a "Wild West" here, I explained; Sonoma county was mostly settled by farmers from Missouri, and as a result the people in Santa Rosa and the rest of the county acted pretty much like, well, Missouri farmers. Yeah, it was unusual that Santa Rosa cheered for the Confederacy to win the Civil War and anti-Chinese racism was virulent, but there was never exceptional violence or lawlessness in Sonoma county during the latter 19th century. Then reflecting on our conversations during my long flight back to California, I regretted portraying that our history was ever so clear cut.

First, Sonoma county indeed had the sort of Old West outlaws that so intrigued my friend from Holland - he even might have heard of the poetically-inclined “Black Bart” who robbed three stage coaches here. B.B. gets all the press, but there was also the Cloverdale-based Houx Gang in 1871 and just a bit further north there was the cattle rustling and stage robbing Buck English Gang in the mid-1870s (and yes, Jan, his gun is in a museum). This pattern of stick-em-ups continued through the next decade with Dick Fellows and others whose names were never known.

As per Missouri: Sure, Santa Rosa's love of Dixie came from Missouri families often having deep ties to the Old South - but it was simplistic to say those Missouri immigrants hung on to all their Midwestern values once they were here. Even a deeply-rooted belief in civility can be degraded when someone is dropped into a frontier situation, where there are loose rules for conduct and weak institutions. All of the tales told below show the result; there are acts of impetuous behavior which never would have been tolerated back in their hometowns - including person-on-person violence and community vigilantism.

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed this across several essays about the unique problems of the American frontier. When people are "unchecked by restraints of an old social order," it didn't matter if the frontier was the Carolinas during the 1730s, Missouri in the 1810s or California in the 1850s. The pattern was the same: American pioneers were quick to take the law into their own hands instead of waiting for the legal system to preserve order. "If the thing was one proper to be done, then the most immediate, rough and ready, effective way was the best way." That often meant lynching or pulling out a pistol.

Turner also pointed out that "a crime was more an offense against the victim than a violation of the law" and an insult or show of disrespect could swiftly lead to violence. Add the presence of firearms and a confrontation which might never have gone beyond shouting or bloody noses can become a deadly situation. And that brings us to the first tale from our Wild West days.



This is the "half" tale, which means I'm only summarizing it because you should read the whole story in John Schubert/Valerie Munthe's Hidden History of Sonoma County. It's a gripping yarn and well told by them; the book also has a chapter that reveals the history of Houx Gang (I once tried to figure out their doings, but there was so much confusing info I gave up). All together, "Hidden History" is easily the best book on Sonoma county history published in ages. My only quibbles are the lack of footnotes/endnotes, and the title grossly overpromises - a full "hidden history" would fill bookcases. As of this writing, it's even on sale at the Santa Rosa Costco.

In 1867, Charles Henley killed James Rowland. The two farmers lived about a half-mile apart near Windsor, and there was bad blood between them because Henley's pigs kept getting loose. Rowland corralled some of those hogs and Henley went over to fetch them, carrying a shotgun; there was a confrontation  inside the pig pen and Rowland was shot dead at close range. The animals would mutilate his body until it was later discovered.

Later that night Henley visited a friend, confessed to the shooting and sought advice. The friend urged Henley to ride over to Windsor and surrender to the authorities, though he was hesitant because "they are all Odd Fellows," as was Rowland. Henley also asked the friend not to tell his hired hand because he was likewise a I.O.O.F. member, but the man had overheard Henley's confession anyway. Henley turned himself in the next morning and later that day, members of the Windsor Odd Fellows Lodge showed up to claim the body. Lodge members wore their badge of mourning for thirty days.

Henley was taken to the county jail to await trial. Exactly thirty days after the killing, Santa Rosa's night watchman was surprised by four masked men. "Keep quiet," he was told, "there are 150 of us, well-armed, and we have come to take a certain man out of jail." The watchman was held captive and soon joined by the jailer. Another of the masked vigilantes encountered a policeman on patrol and held the officer at gunpoint.

The jailer was forced to open Henley's cell and the prisoner was bound and gagged before being carried away. His body was found hanging about a mile west of town in what's now the Roseland district.

There was an outcry over the lynching in both the local press and the big San Francisco newspapers, with a reward of $2,000 offered for information on the identity of the mob. Any suggestion that the masked men were Odd Fellows was met with fierce denial and the pursuit of the guilty was soon forgotten.

Then just a few days after the lynching there was another killing in Santa Rosa.



Around midnight on the night of June 20, 1867, Byrd Brumfield used his pocket knife to slash John Strong to death at Griffin's Saloon. The number of wounds varied between 7-16, depending on who was telling the story. Although witnesses testified that Strong was running for the door at the time, the Coroner's Jury ruled that Brumfield had killed him in self defense. Testimony also revealed Strong had a six-shooter that he may (or may not) have attempted to draw, but the verdict seemed to come down to the jury being told that nobody liked Strong  and Brumfield was a good guy.*

Between the slashing and the lynching, we can all probably agree 1867 was a pretty violent year in Santa Rosa (and remember, that was the year just before the one which we are about to sesquicentennial-ly celebrate). Still, the Sonoma Democrat boasted after Brumfield was acquitted, "to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much." That of course was technically true, as Henley had been just strung up outside of city limits and when Michael Ryan had buried the point of a pickaxe in his poor wife's head two years earlier, his murder victim was not male.

Brumfield apparently decided that a pocket knife was no longer adequate for his needs. The following year he had an argument with Captain L. A. Norton and both men drew their guns. Brumfield fired four times before Norton's sidearm left his holster and the Mexican War vet was shot in the left hand. A jury again ruled Brumfield merely acted in self-defense.

In his youth Byrd had worked on the big Brumfield family farm, somewhere in the Russian River valley. By the 1870 census he appears at age 32 with the profession of "sporting man," by which we can assume means he was a professional gambler. By 1875 he found himself blacklisted by all saloon owners around Healdsburg; we don't know if that was because he was a card shark or just a violent alcoholic.

“Byrd’s on a big drunk today,” Harry Truitt warned those sitting in front of a Healdsburg Hotel on an afternoon that November. Brumfield was more than just liquored up - he was looking for a fight.

"There’s been a big poker game in town,” Byrd told a friend. “I'm going to play poker in this town,” adding he had been kept out of the bars long enough.

“They don’t treat me right in this town,” he told another, who asked, “Who don’t treat you right?”

“These Zane boys; they’ve got rich now and don’t notice a common man. I knew them when they didn't have a cent: then they treated me all right. I’m going into Will Zane’s saloon today or die; and I'll get away with it if I go in.”

Byrd held some sort of grudge against Willis Zane; six months earlier, Brumfield had borrowed Zane's revolver only to turn it on the owner and attempt to kill him (or so the "special reporter" for the Sonoma Democrat wrote). Zane was warned that Byrd was drinking and telling people he intended to show up at the bar. "I'll let them know that I'm not dead yet, but don't care a damn how soon," said the drunken Brumfield.

Shortly before sunset, Byrd staggered into Zane's saloon. Willis told him twice to get out. Byrd didn't say a word, but moved towards Willis (it was unclear whether his gun was drawn or his hand was still reaching under his coat). Zane drew his pistol from a pocket and shot three times. Byrd Brumfield was dead.

The Coroner's Jury acquitted Zane, declaring it was justifiable homicide, but much of the testimony was a mirror image of the 1867 inquest - only this time, nobody liked Brumfield and Zane was the good guy.

The takeaway from the story is not that Byrd Brumfield was a bad guy (which is pretty indisputable); it's how every time he had a beef with someone, he expected that other person to be armed. And he was right.

Scholars like to point out communities in the Wild West had strict no-gun laws, requiring those entering town to check firearms with a peace officer - remember the plot of "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." While that's true, our local newspapers also show there were multiple "shooting affrays" every year in Sonoma county, although rarely did the incidents end in a death or even injury.

It's doubtful anyone ever walked the mean streets of Healdsburg or Santa Rosa with a gun holstered on his hip (other than lawmen), but all those affray items reveal some people were packing under that Victorian garb. Often they were the Usual Suspects (see Male: young, drunkenness of) but others would probably be surprising. Captain Lewis A. Norton, the man Brumfield shot in the hand, was not a cocky ne'er-do-well; he was a middle-aged Healdsburg lawyer and local Democratic party bigwig, a former Justice of the Peace who ran for county judge the year before he was shot, then state senate a year after.

And sometimes the shooters were even women.



J. G. Hill of Forestville, better known as “Sock” Hill, while on his way to church at Forestville last Sunday evening, was fired at twice by Miss Georgia Travis. The first shot passed close to his left ear and through the rim of his hat, the second shot missing him entirely. Miss Travis was arrested Monday morning, on a charge of assault with intent to commit murder...

That little item appeared in the Healdsburg Enterprise and other local papers in September 1879. (The item right below it, incidentally, was another shooting affray, describing a 21 year-old Lakeport bartender killing a patron who was told to leave but went for his gun instead.)

Details emerged a few days later: Sock - whose real name was Joshua - along with two young women, were walking to a Sunday night church service, as was Georgia. As they passed Faudre's Chair Factory (there's a reference sure to excite Forestville historians), Georgia drew her "bull-dog" pistol and began shooting at him. After firing both shots, she handed the gun over to a man who intervened. Sock and his women friends sat through the entire service (!) then went to Santa Rosa to file a complaint. He said Georgia had been threatening to kill him for over a year and he was afraid. The Grand Jury dropped the charges for lack of evidence, and it was never explained why she wanted the 42 year-old man dead. All she ever said was that she had been "slandered" by him.

Another month passed and there was a meeting of the Forestville Blue Ribbon Club, part of a very popular nationwide evangelical temperance movement. Although it was a night of heavy rain, 60-70 still turned out including women and children. Sock Hill attended as did Georgia Travis and her brothers, Wirt and John.

John was seated two rows behind Hill, and Wirt was the same distance in front. John reached over and punched Hill in the face. Sock Hill jumped up and confronted John Travis, drawing his gun. Wirt Travis then shot Hill point blank in the base of his skull. Amazingly, he would remain conscious until he died about fifteen hours later.

Panic ensued. John Travis apparently fired his own gun and Wirt shot again, wounding a bystander in the leg as he fled the room along with the dozens of other attendees. In court testimony there would be the usual claims and counterclaims - Hill fired his gun, John did not, John socked Hill because he turned around "made a face at me," Wirt claimed he shot Hill because he believed his brother's life was in danger, &c.

Wirt was found guilty of manslaughter and sent to San Quentin. The jury returned a verdict of not guilty for his brother John. "One of the most exciting trials ever had in Sonoma county," sighed the Sonoma Democrat, having stretched the sensationalist coverage over two issues.



So there you are, Jan; I was mistaken to tell you at the airport that we were just a bunch of boring ol' Missouri farmers. There absolutely was a true gun culture here in Sonoma county, and our communities - with somewhat of an exception for Petaluma - were very much gun-toting "Wild West" towns. Here I've only describe some of our frontier-type violence over a dozen years, but there could be dozens of essays like this to document all our uncivil behavior in the latter 19th century.

And don't presume the pistol-packin' days ended with the Gaslight Era. As documented here earlier, it was common to carry a “bicycle revolver" at least through the 1910s. There was also a dramatic four-way shootout in 1907 that managed to avoid hurting anyone seriously because no one knew how to aim.

A final note: Lest anyone rush to claim that crimes were deterred in those 50+ years of locals carrying concealed weapons, let it be known that I've never found an incident where a good guy with a gun stopped a bad guy with a gun. Instead, it's a miserable chronicle of holdup men using them to scare victims, fools and drunkards wielding these deadly toys at times of heated emotions, plus a hearty portion of gun owners shooting themselves by accident. Just tragedies with a dose of farce.




* Later that year Byrd's sister, Jane, married an Alfred Strong, who is listed in the 1860 census as a farmer living in the Brumfield family home. I cannot find any family connection between him and John Strong. Byrd was living with the Alfred Strongs in the 1870 census.





Quick Work.—Santa Rosa might be called a fast place in some respects. This week a man was killed, buried, and the perpetrator examined and discharged, all in less than twenty-four hours. We may remark, to the credit of our town, that this is the first man ever killed in Santa Rosa. Few California towns can say as much.

- Sonoma Democrat, June 22 1867



Disgraceful. —We regret to see in the San Francisco Police Gazette a disgusting wood cut, purporting to represent Byrd Brumfield in the act of killing John Strong in Santa Rosa on the night of the 20th of June. The Gazette was grossly deceived by its informant in regard to the relations of the parties, circumstances of the killing, and burial of Strong. The latter, we learn, was buried under directions of a relative, had a good coffin, and was decently interred.

- Sonoma Democrat, July 6 1867



Testimony in the Case of the People vs Brumfield

[inquest]

- Sonoma Democrat, October 26 1867



Death of Byrd Brumfield.

[inquest]

- Russian River Flag, November 18 1875
- Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1875



From Forestvllle. Our regular correspondent writes us November 11th, as follows; "Forestvllle against the world. We have said this before and have occasion to reiterate it now. Saturday night last, 8th Inst., was one of our dark limes, and we were pained to witness such scenes as then occurred in our usually quiet village. As our tempetauce club was about to be called to order its peace and quiet was disturbed and the lives of women and children endangered by two brothers, Wirt and John Travis, who assaulted and shot to death J. G. Hill. The meeting was of course broken up for the evening, and the Society will hereafter convene at the Christian Church instead of the hall. Mr. Hill’s funeral took place at 2 o’clock on Monday, and the high esteem in which he was held by the community was manifested in the unusually large number of persons who attended the obsequies, over three hundred persons escorting his remains to the grave. He was a kind hearted man; one who was always ready to help the needy and to accommodate his neighbors. During an acquaintance of twelve years your correspondent always found him correct in his dealings, and his neighbors generally deplore his untimely death.

- Sonoma Democrat, November 15 1879



People Vs. Wirt Travis

[testimony]

- Sonoma Democrat, March 20 and 27 1880



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