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The Jonathan Davis Incident

Situation:

You’re surrounded by an armed gang, and your two companions are shot down next to you. Your response?

Lesson:

“Outnumbered” doesn’t mean “hopelessly outnumbered”… one determined, skilled armed man can do more than most would think … backup weapons are important … and we are reminded “If it was not documented, it didn’t happen.”


Ayoob

Sculptor Mike Trcic’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.

On the 19th of December in the year 1854, the great California Gold Rush was on. Law enforcement was in its infancy, banditry was common, and it was understood when you went on that quest for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a revolver was as essential a tool as pickaxe, shovel and sifting pan. That was a concept obviously grasped by Captain Jonathan Davis of South Carolina, Dr. Bolivar Sparks of Mississippi and James McDonald of Alabama when they went prospecting along the American River near Placerville, Calif., and not far from Sacramento.

The death battle which occurred there that day was, for several reasons, largely overlooked by historians of the Old West. According to writer Richard Fournier, “…researcher Bill Secrest uncovered the account in the 1980s. John Boessenecker retold the story in his book, Gold Dust and Gunsmoke in 1999.” It has also been the subject of at least one article by the respected historian Bob Boze Bell, and touched on by various bloggers with a penchant for the history of the Western Frontier.

What brought it to our attention was an article in the January 2012 edition of VFW magazine by the aforementioned Richard Fournier. AH readers Max Albritton and Scott Schindehette called that piece to the attention of editor Roy Huntington and myself, and Max was kind enough to even mail a copy of the magazine. Roy and I agreed: the incident is definitely on point for discussion in this space. With the invaluable help of the awesome Old West researcher Rita Ackerman, whom I met a few years ago when we both taught at the Western History Symposium in Tombstone, Ariz., American Handgunner was able to unearth some long-ignored facts, and correlate some modern learning points.

The Incident

As the three prospectors made their way through a remote area known as Rocky Canyon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, they were caught in a very effective ambush. In the first few seconds of gunfire, Mr. McDonald was killed outright, before he could raise a finger to protect himself or his companions. Dr. Sparks was able to draw his revolver and get off two shots. It’s unclear whether he hit any of his antagonists before being shot, himself.

Sparks then collapsed, so severely wounded he could no longer fight. Only one of the party was left standing. He was Captain Jonathan Davis, his rank earned in the Mexican War between 1846 and 1848. He had seen heavy combat, had survived being wounded at the Battle of Churubusco in 1847, and had earned a reputation as a master at wielding both gun and blade.

It was a reputation that would be tested, and reinforced, in the minutes to come.

Davis was armed with two cap-and-ball Colt revolvers and a large knife. This, obviously, was a time to shoot. The ambush had found the party outnumbered by more than three to one. Now, Davis stood alone against as many as 14 armed opponents. He instantly began to return fire.

His skill rapidly changed the odds. One by one, bandits fell. By the time his second and last revolver ran dry, Davis had shot seven of the murderers to the ground.

Writer Fournier notes, “Ammo rapidly depleted on both sides.” It was at this time, apparently, that four of the remaining bandits decided to close in and finish off the sole apparent survivor with edged weapons. One of them was armed with what various accounts describe as “a cutlass,” “a short sword,” a “sabre” and a “4-foot cavalry saber.” He is generally attributed the role of leader. The others were apparently armed with substantial knives.

So, however, was Davis.

As the four outlaws closed on him, Davis drew his final weapon, generally described as a Bowie knife. When they came within a few feet, Davis lunged to meet the attack. In moments, three of the four were out of the fight, mortally wounded or already dead. The swordsman was described by one researcher as “disarmed” by Davis with a flurry of slashes. He tottered away from the scene hideously mutilated, his amputated nose and right index finger on the ground behind him. He would die in a matter of hours.

Historians generally agree the final tally was 11 men killed single-handedly by Captain Jonathan Davis, seven with hot lead and four with cold steel. The remaining three, by some accounts, fled the scene. But there were witnesses who said that only 11 men had ambushed Davis’ party, and that he cut them all down, and that the “14” number came from papers found on the bodies of the deceased indicating the gang had originally had that many members.

Now the last man standing, not just of his own party of three, but of all 14 to 17 men involved, Davis became aware of three more men coming toward him. He drew the unfired revolver from the holster of the dead Alabaman, James McDonald, and braced himself for another deadly fight. Fortunately, the three newcomers came in peace: they were miners who had been hunting on a nearby hillside, and though out of range to assist, had witnessed the entire affair.

They helped to bring the gravely wounded Doctor Sparks off the mountain, but his wounds were too terrible for medicine of the day to successfully treat. Dr. Sparks died a week later.

Accounts seem to agree that Davis emerged with only two minor flesh wounds. It’s unclear whether they were bullet grazes, or cuts from the final encounter. His clothing had been torn by many near misses. www.hubpages.com says: “It was reported there were 28 bullet holes through his hat and clothes … 17 through his hat and 11 through his coat and shirt.” Author Fournier puts it at only six through the hat, but the same tally of 11 through shirt and coat.

The Gang

Richard Fournier described Davis’ opponents as “One cutthroat gang roaming the prospecting paradise (which) consisted of two Americans, one Frenchman, two Britons, five Australians and four Mexicans — the equivalent of an Army infantry squad in number. This assortment of criminal scum had just murdered 10 people, including four Americans, the day before taking on Davis.” However, reports from the newspapers of the time indicate there had been two prior attacks by the bandit gang, numbering 10 murder victims. When the dying leader confessed to the rescuing miners, according to Placerville’s Mountain Democrat newspaper in a reprise of the incident published Nov. 28, 1946, “He said also that they had just commenced operations — having killed six Chinamen 3 days ago, and four Americans, on the day before yesterday.”

Searching the bodies found at the scene, historians seem to agree, Davis and those who came to his aid found the slain criminals to have between them “$491 in gold and silver coin, four ounces of gold dust,” and assorted gold and silver watches, at least some of which were later traced to their previous 10 victims.

Important To Document

In researching this case, I found an amazing dearth of information. The telegraph had come into being when Samuel Morse sent his famous “What hath God wrought?” message in 1844, but the first transcontinental telegraph network wasn’t established until the 1860s. Teletype, pooled news services, and of course the Internet were far, far away in the future. It has long been a truism that “If it wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen.”

Jonathan Davis found this out. He got back to civilization and told his story, and was met with the 21st century equivalent of “Yeah, right … ” (insert rolling-eyes Internet emoticon here).

Stung by the disbelief greeting his account when he reached a populated area, Davis rounded up the witnesses to the incident who had come to help him. All agreed to give sworn statements under oath as to the battle they had seen. The newspapers of the time seem to have taken this as proof positive the incident did, indeed, occur as Davis described.

Respected Western historian Bob Boze Bell wrote in True West magazine, “Three months after the battle, Davis and three eye-witnesses to the fight — John Webster, Isaac Hart and P.S. Robertson — appeared at the offices of the Mountain Democrat. Before Judge R. M. Anderson and a delegation of prominent citizens, the men presented written and verbal depositions of the fight to everyone’s satisfaction.”
Thereafter, the doubters seem to have faded away for the most part, though there would always be questions.

And the lesson we learn is, document such an incident you might be involved with, archive it, and make sure there’s something to solidly prove you did the right thing, even after you’re dead.

What We Don’t Know

What’s generally available as research on this issue does not address exactly how far the good guys were from the bad guys when the bullets were flying. Anthony Belli, writing in the Mountain Democrat in more modern times, could conclude only that it happened “at close range.” Nor do we know the exact kind of weapons used. Did the bandits have rifles, single shot pistols, revolvers, or … ? It’s generally agreed Davis was armed with a brace of Colt percussion revolvers, but it’s unclear if they were the recently introduced .36 Navy model, or .44 Dragoons dating to the previous decade, or the even older Patersons, or the .31 caliber Pocket Model that historians say was a popular concealment gun among those who took part in the Gold Rush.

Technique? We don’t know. Artists’ illustrations of Davis depict him with a Colt in each hand, but it is unclear from what I’ve found so far whether he fired them simultaneously, or sequentially, or emptied one and only then resorted to the other. The exact duration of the encounter seems likewise murky. It is reasonably safe to go with Richard Fournier’s conclusion in VFW that Davis “methodically picked off seven bandits with lethal accuracy.” It’s unclear how many of those “Unlucky Seven” required more than one shot, or how many others may have been wounded by Davis’ fire, but remained ambulatory.

The 1946 reprise by the Mountain Democrat says that “Seven of the deceased robbers were shot in the heart.” Two, five- to six-shot revolvers, 10 to 12 shots means that’s seven heart hits — and what? Were the other shots misfires, or hits elsewhere unrecorded, or simply misses? At this point in time, that seems to be a matter of conjecture.

Another lesson: Don’t assume your opponents to be wimps, but don’t necessarily assume them to be supermen, either. It appears that if 14 thugs were present, at least three of the bandit gang didn’t charge Davis’ position when they realized his guns were empty. In his True West account, Historian Bell stated the last two attackers Davis killed with his knife were “weakened by their wounds from previous raids.” This may have been true of the gang members who hung back and at last fled, and for some of those killed earlier in the fight as well. Those three might have hung back far enough to have gone unnoticed by the distant witnesses who counted only 11.

As to the “weakened” ones, the Mountain Democrat of Dec. 30, 1854 published an allegation that two of the four slashed down by Davis at the end of the fight were so crippled by previous wounds as to be ineffective fighters. There is no way to know at this point in time if that was true, but even if it was, there would have been no way for Davis to assess the physical capability of each of the men charging him, and his killing them in self-defense would have been entirely justified by every standard, then or now, under the circumstances.

Important lesson: Experienced in combat, Jonathan Davis was a hardened warrior, a tempering that served him well on Dec. 19, 1854. He had developed the necessary skills before the event in Rocky Canyon occurred. Anthony Belli wrote in an August 11, 2000 article about the incident in the Mountain Democrat, “In the diggings, Davis was known as an expert pistol shot, and ‘second to none in the state’ for fencing.”

Interesting Parallels

We live now in the time of the Internet, and gun folks being technical folks, the gunnies got to the Net early and established a very strong presence there. Defensive firearms use being a life or death issue after all, it’s no surprise gun-related forums stir some heated debate about armed self-defense, some of which seem to reach the intensity of religion-based warfare. Let’s look at some of the now commonly seen threads and themes there, and how they relate to a battle that occurred 158 years ago.

One often-voiced theory is, “Armed citizens don’t need spare ammo! Show me just one case where anyone did! Show me the link!”

Well, as they say on the Net, “Bwahahaha!” … Google “Captain Jonathan Davis.”

Long since mustered out of the Army after the Mexican War, Davis was an armed citizen. He had to empty two revolvers, and was still in the fight against multiple armed men. When the last of his opponents had fallen or fled, he was approached by still more strangers, whom he had no reason to initially believe had benevolent intent. At this point he took recourse to a third loaded revolver, taken from one of his downed companions. Fortunately, he did not need to use it.

Lesson: No one knows what attack they will face, nor how many attackers will comprise that assault, nor how many shots they’ll need to fire to come out alive.

Another question is, “Ain’t it kinda paranoid to carry more than one gun?” Well, the anti-gunners will say that it’s paranoid to carry one. Jonathan Davis is believed to have been carrying two revolvers … to have shot them both empty … and to have downed seven attackers before his guns ran dry. Whether each revolver was loaded with five bullets or six, and irrespective of how many shots it took to put each of those seven members of the killer gang on the ground, it’s probably safe to assume that he wasn’t putting one double-neutralizing bullet through two bad guys with any given shot.

A cap-and-ball revolver is a particularly laborious thing to reload. A powder flask needs to dump a charge carefully into each and empty chamber. A ball must be inserted over each charged chamber, the ramrod lever has to be precisely pressed down to seat each and every one and the fired percussion caps must be plucked off the nipples at the back of the cylinder one by one, and then replaced one-by-one. All of these are fine motor skill tasks having to be accomplished at high speed with the shaking hands and trembling fingers of a man presumably in full-blown “fight or flight” response, which is well known to destroy fine motor coordination.

Spare pre-loaded cylinders? They were used, for sure, in the Civil War (and even in at least one Clint Eastwood “spaghetti Western” movie), but that was in the future when Jonathan Davis fought his fight, and exchanging cylinders was not exactly a simple gross motor skill, either. It’s irrelevant in any case, because there is no reason to believe Captain Davis had spare cylinders.

Another common weapon discussion today is, “Knife to back up a gun? Come on! That will never happen in real life!” Umm … sorry, it appears it did happen more than a century and a half ago. The last four opponents who were trying to kill Davis were taken out of the fight with his blade after his two guns were depleted. Was the recourse from gun to knife a unique thing that only happened once, all those years ago? No.

In the past year, 2011, a police officer in Tennessee was attacked from behind by a man who tried to rip his Glock 22 out of its holster as the officer stood at a urinal. Responding instantly, the officer secured his .40-caliber pistol with his dominant hand, drew a knife with his non-dominant hand, and proceeded to literally carve the attacker off of his gun.

Many thanks to the readers who alerted us to the Fournier article in VFW, and particular thanks to researcher extraordinaire Rita Ackerman. The Davis incident reminds us all that the hardware, the clothing, and the surroundings may change, but the essential elements of strong-minded armed citizens using weapons to fight off murderous criminals remain pretty much the same over not just the years — but the centuries.
By Massad Ayoob

Suggested Reading: “Mexican War Vet Wages Deadliest Gunfight In American History” by Richard Fournier, VFW magazine, January 2012; “Captain Davis: A California Ballad,” citing “The Sparrowgrass Papers” by Frederic S. Cozzens, Derby & Jackson, New York, 1860, www.elfinspell.com.SparrowgrassPapersBallad.html; “The Gang Slayer: Captain Jonathan Davis vs. 14 Polyglot Killers,” by Bob Boze Bell, www.truewestmagazine.com; “Captain Jonathan Davis’s Incredible Tale,” hubpages.com.; The archives of the Mountain Democrat newspaper, Placerville, CA, http://ritaackerman.weebly.com.

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  1. Robert Gentry says:

    Great article on a man determined to survive a deadly encounter. I am a military combat vet and now a law enforcement officer for almost 15 years. One thing I think should be looked into, we commonly think of “Fight or Flight” instinct, when it actually is “Fight, Freeze, or Flight”. This in my experience are the three main instincts when encountering dangerous or deadly situations. Mr. Davis did not freeze or run, but charged into the conflict with a determination to survive. Hopefully this lesson will help others survive, when the going gets hard and its time to act.

    Thanks for all you do,

    Robert Gentry

  2. Robinson Hitchson says:

    Legendary tale from a heroic figure.

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