The first stagecoach robbery in the gold rush

Soon after gold was discovered in California it was so plentiful and easy to mine that there was no need to steal. But the situation changed quickly as more and more men poured into the mining country from all over the world. Every river and stream was combed by hordes of miners. The placer deposits rapidly disappeared. Law enforcement in mining areas was poor. All the miners were new to the gold country and strangers showed up practically every day. Men had spent their life savings to travel to the gold rush and when they found gold hard to find and prices incredibly high many turned to crime.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

At first bandits would accost travelers along a lonely spot on the trail and relieve them of their hard earned gold at gunpoint. One such man was Reelfoot Williams, who gained a reputation as a gambler and petty criminal around Downieville. By 1851 he’d been arrested for highway robbery but had won an acquittal. The next day the trial judge was accosted by a gunman on the Slug Canyon trail and recognized the robber as Williams, the man whose trial he had presided over the day before. When the judge, a noted gambler himself, protested to Williams that he had lost all the money he had in a poker game the night before, the bandit let him go and promptly robbed the next man who came along of $700.

Colfax CA, photo by Eoghan

By 1852 Williams had hooked up with Rattlesnake Dick, a particularly unsavory character, and three other crooks. For months they had been causing trouble along the trails in the area. Then, in early April, the gang held up the stage for Nevada City soon after it left Illinoistown, a supply point known today as Colfax. They took $7,000 from the strong box then turned to the two passengers. The man gave up his $230 without a fight but the woman swore she had no money. The gang searched her even though she put up a fierce struggle and found $300 in gold stuffed in her stockings.

Indians attacking a stagecoach

The hold ups continued for about a year until a sheriff’s posse killed three members of the gang but Williams and Rattlesnake Dick escaped and headed south. The next year Dick was knifed to death by another road agent at Spanish Dry Diggings along the middle fork of the American River. But Williams disappeared until the 1860s when he showed up in the boom town of Virginia City, Nevada where a competing hooligan wielding a shotgun fired through a saloon window and killed him.



  1. shawn thomas says

    This could be the $10 million in coins they just found.


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