"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Old Time Shootout at Gold Flat


by Don Baumgart

Jailbreak! The word rocketed around the small community.

It was November 3, 1856, and bandit Jim Webster had escaped from the Nevada City Jail. What was to follow would haunt some residents of this Gold Rush town for the rest of their days.

Webster had made Nevada city his headquarters during his brief two-year outlaw career.

"Although a price was placed on his head," Ruth Herman writes in her book More Than Gold, "occasionally he boldly came into towns where he was known, but where none were courageous enough to stop him." Finally he was stopped and jailed, briefly.

As word of Webster's escape spread, reports came to Sheriff W.W. Wright that two unattended horses had been spotted at nearby Gold Flat.

In the spring of 1851 Gold Flat was an impressive mining camp, about a mile from Nevada City. Today, as with so many places that blossomed and disappeared quickly during the Gold Rush, its only remaining relic is a name on a street sign.

At its prime Gold Flat was a busy village with two stores, a butcher shop, four boarding houses, six saloons and the Round Tent gambling house. Thirty cabins and 300 people thrived and then disappeared a year later as miners moved on to richer spots. Claims were consolidated into large tracts as companies began sluicing away the dirt from the remaining gold. The houses were hauled off to Marysville.

By 1856 and the jail break, only one store remained, near the Sneath Clay mine. A few people still lived at Gold Flat.

As Wright led his men toward the spot where the horses had been seen, a Gold Flat resident, Wallace Williams gathered his neighbors and hid near the horses, awaiting the return of the desperadoes.

Darkness fell and the Gold Flat men waited, shuffling their feet and quieting the waiting horses so their presence would not be given away. These brave citizens were about to capture, or kill, a wanted outlaw. They heard men approaching and readied their weapons.

Shots were fired and returned.

"It was not until the two groups had exchanged gunfire that Deputy Plummer recognized on the other side Wallace williams' loud voice," writes Ms. Herman. The citizens had mistaken the approaching lawmen for the escaped bandit and his cohorts.

"Light was brought to the scene and the torches revealed that Sheriff W.W. Wright was dying and a deputy was critically wounded; he died the next day."

The Gold Flat men who mistakenly killed their sheriff and a deputy that night were burdened with remorse for years. Some took to hard work in the mines trying to forget that dark night, others simply stopped work and sank into depression.

And the bandit Webster? He got clean away.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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