Desperados were as much a part of the Gold Rush as picks, pans and mules.
And for good reason...the wealth was there virtually for the taking. In a dry ravine close to where James Marshall found those important first few flakes, four and five-ounce nuggets were uncovered.
Men working one streambed were averaging two ounces a day. In a gully two miners made $10,000 in a single week. One observer calculated the gold field take at $30,000 to $50,000. A day.
As miners waited patiently for winter to end, word came in the spring of 1850 that five men were taking eight to ten ounces a day -- each out of a gravel gulch. Another prospector hit the area and took two and a half pounds of gold out of the ground his first day.
These spectacular stories attracted outlaws who were after gold that had already been found. Less than two years after Marshall discovered the gold, bandits had become a familiar part of the Gold Rush.
Stage coaches carried gold from the Sierra foothills to Sacramento and Stockton...and all too often to the highwaymen who lay in wait.
Two of the men who made a fortune with pistols instead of a pan were Frank Dow and his partner, Milton Sharp. They started work in the Auburn area, preying on stages. Their first stick-up netted $88 from Wells Fargo Express and three watches from the passengers.
But, the boys were quick learners. The next stage they stopped yielded more than $15,000 from the express box and $200 cash from the passengers. Ranging as far as Carson City, Dow and Sharp robbed six stages in less than four months.
Their careers ended when Dow was killed in a shoot-out with shotgun-toting Wells Fargo agents following the holdup of the Carson City to Bodie stage.
One of the agents was badly wounded and while he was taken to a nearby ranch house, Sharp stepped out of the sage brush and calmly ordered the agents' driver to throw down that stage's cash box.
Smarting from defeat and insult, the Wells Fargo detectives tracked Sharp to San Francisco, where he was arrested.
After conviction in Nevada, Sharp worked a few bricks out of the jail wall and escaped, along with a 15 pound iron ball chained to his leg.
Recaptured, he began serving 20 years in the state pennitentiary. Sharp was rumored to have buried his stolen gold in several places, and perhaps an old-fashioned plea bargain was struck with prison officials for part of the riches. In any case, he disappeared from prison in 1889, and was never again seen.
Even when criminals were caught, Gold Rush justice was far from exacting. This is how Mark Twain described a jury which soon freed the killer of an upstanding citizen:
"It was a jury composed of two desperadoes, two low beer-house politicians, three bar-keepers, two ranchmen who could not read, and three dull, stupid human donkeys!"
Another Gold Rush desperado with a taste for other folks' gold was "Rattlesnake Dick." Writer Joseph Jackson traces this outlaw's career in the book Tintypes in Gold.
Rattlesnake Bar is now just a shallow bend in the north fork of the American River were the stream loses its vigor, slowing down for its journey into the wide Sacramento Valley.
In the early 1850s Rattlesnake Bar was crowded with hundreds of cabins and its gold was thought to be inexhaustible. But it could only be had with long hours of back-breaking shovel work.
Miner Dick Barter became the outlaw known as Rattlesnake Dick. He roamed from Rattlesnake bar to Folsom plying his trade, robbing miners of their hard-earned gold. Assembling a gang, he planned the biggest robbery in California's history. The target was a mule train with gold from mines near Yreka. The haul was $80,000. That much gold is too heavy to carry very far, so the gang buried half of it somewhere on the side of Trinity Mountain.
The gang was captured and half their loot recovered. But, the buried $40,000 was never found. A shoot-out with lawmen in Placer county later ended the saga of Rattlesnake Dick. The fortune in stolen gold has been reclaimed by the earth that so painfully gave it up.