October, 1879 — Four men rode into the woods east of Mendocino. They unsaddled their horses then set up camp in an old hay shed. There they waited for their leader to bring supplies and to tell them when all was ready. The task he had set for them: to rob the county sheriff as the lawman toured the coastal region collecting taxes.
That ringleader was a well-regarded professional, yet no stranger to the extraction of funds from the citizenry. He sent one-eyed A.B. Courtwright to them, carrying tobacco, cartridges, and copies of the San Francisco Chronicle. The same four had spent much of September at Courtwright's cabin, fourteen miles southeast of Westport, near Ten Mile River. The ringleader from Mendocino had mailed Courtwright twenty dollars to provision the four conspirators with bacon, sugar, tea, and other simple necessities.
Courtwright knew three of these men, Harrison Brown, John Billings, and Samuel Carr. All served time together with him at San Quentin Prison. Billings and Carr had both killed men in their past. The former had several scars under his shirttail, testament to a number of gun battles he'd engaged in throughout the West. All three were in their late thirties or early forties, though Carr, with sunken cheeks and a graying goatee appeared significantly older.
The fourth man, George Gaunce, was a comparative youth in his mid-twenties. By the time the four horsemen camped in the woods several miles east of Mendocino and less than a mile north of Big River, Gaunce sported two to three weeks worth of beard.
On Monday, October 13th, Mendocino town constable Bill Host started his day at the home he shared with his invalid wife. They called their spread Ash Grove. Though he still owned property in town, Host now preferred their Ash Grove farm about seven miles along the road toward the hamlet of Comptche; the same road wended farther east past Orr's Hot Springs and over the coast range to the county seat in Ukiah. Host rode north that morning of the 13th, crossed Big River while the autumn air still held a chill, then turned west. Near the north fork of Big River, the sight of recently turned earth the size of a grave caught Constable Host's eye. Stopping to inspect, he kicked away enough dirt to discover the hide, bones, and other remains of a freshly buried heifer.
He followed the tracks of horses to a location where the redwood forest petered out into prairie land dominated by huckleberry brush. There, the constable spotted four strangers camped beside a trickling brook. Host did not stop, though he noted a makeshift rack where strips of meat hung drying over an open fire.
Instead, he continued into town to report the incident to Chester Ford, superintendent at the Mendocino Lumber Company office. Twenty-three-year-old Jerome Chester Ford shared the same first name with his father, Jerome Bursley Ford, one of the founders of the lumber company. Bill Host expressed his suspicion that the heifer being jerked might belong to the company's herd. Chester Ford agreed that it proved a matter worthy of further investigation.
Host asked for and received a warrant from the local justice of the peace, then he and seven other Mendocino men rode back to the camp. They found it abandoned and no sign of the beef either. Host located stray items such as a label from iron ware, a pair of rubber slippers next to a log, as well as pieces of drawers and a rag. One of the men brought his dog who led them back to the buried heifer remains. On closer inspection, Host could not find a brand, but he discovered the ears had been cut off and were nowhere to be found, proving to him that the lumber company had tagged the bovine's ears. Eventually, the constable and his men found hoof prints leading away from the jerking camp, but dusk soon prevented pursuit.
Back in town, the constable procured promises from Tom Dollard and William Wright to ride along with him the next day. Dollard worked occasionally for the lumber company, but his main source of income derived from his co-ownership of the mercantile store known as “Jarvis and Dollard” at the northeast corner of Main and Kasten Streets. He was a divorced man, apparently much sought after as a partner at local Saturday night dance parties. Forty-year-old William Wright's employment stemmed more directly from the Mendocino Lumber Company as a wagoneer.
On the 14th, Host, Dollard, and Wright rode about four miles out the Little Lake Road then turned into the woods when they spied smoke rising. They soon found the four men encamped, with their beef hanging and ready to be cured or jerked. A couple of them wore holsters with revolvers while four rifles stood stacked against a tree within easy reach. Constable Host noticed the lack of sun on the strangers' hands and forearms and the high heels of their boots. No cowboys, he concluded before greeting the men.
William Wright said, “That is pretty good venison.”
Harrison Brown, a slim fellow with heavy eyebrows, and a scar at the center of his forehead, replied from the campfire, “Yes, pretty good for the woods.” Then he asked Host what he was looking for.
The constable said, “A tie claim. My old claim's about worked out.”
“What else do you make,” Brown asked.
“Posts, shakes, and shingles.” With only two men to back him, Host reckoned it poor odds to tangle with four well-armed outsiders. He, Dollard, and Wright made their excuses and headed back to Mendocino.
That evening eight men were sworn in to accompany Host the following day. The posse dwindled to seven when Chester Ford's father, who happened to be in town visiting from Oakland, objected in the strongest terms. Hardware store owner Eber W. Potter volunteered for Host's posse. On the street that night he encountered John F. Wheeler, the town dentist, known to townspeople as “Doc.” Wheeler's prowess with both rifle and revolver was a given in Mendocino. He had killed many a buck and rumor had it he'd scouted with Buffalo Bill and Custer after having spent three years as a captive of the Sioux in his boyhood. Potter liked him because Doc had purchased several boxes of cartridges and a butcher knife at the hardware store.
Potter asked if the dentist would join the posse. Wheeler responded that if the men who owned the butchered heifer put up $500 or $600 reward he would. He also cautioned Potter about the possibility of gunplay, saying, “Someone might get shot… Who would care for mother now.”
The next morning at 7 a.m., with an autumn cold snap in the air, Potter sat the saddle alongside Constable Host. Dr. Wheeler was nowhere to be found. Acceding to his father's wishes, Chester Ford sheepishly bowed out and watched his townsmen, armed with rifles and revolvers, head out on horseback. Laughter and nervous joviality marked the ride into the woods as if a lark of some kind, if not adventure, awaited. Dollard and Wright accompanied Constable Host again. Along with them rode attorneys Archibald Yell and J.J. Morrow as well as former mill hand turned saloon keeper Cy Galbraith. The one among them most familiar with the outdoors and hunting rifles was thirty-one-year-old woods superintendent James Nichols. Though both were more than a decade older, Dollard and Nichols were rumored to be suitors of Kate Carlson. She was one of nineteen-year-old twin daughters of a Main Street hotelier.
When The Posse Met Four Armed Gunman In The Woods East Of Mendocino
Mendocino constable Bill Host was on a mid-October, 1879, trail through the woods east of the coastal town. There he found a butchered beef hide and four heavily armed men, John Billings, Harrison Brown, Samuel Carr, and George Gaunce. Three of these figures were recent graduates of San Quentin Prison. A day and a half later Host organized a seven man posse to investigate the suspicious activity of these men. Conspicuously absent from participation in the posse was Dr. John F. Wheeler, Mendocino's dentist and sometime physician, a renowned shot with any type of firearm.
At 7 a.m., with an autumn cold snap in the air, hardware store owner Eber Potter sat the saddle alongside Constable Host. Dr. Wheeler was nowhere to be found. Acceding to his father's wishes, Mendocino Lumber Company Superintendent Chester Ford sheepishly bowed out and watched his townsmen, armed with rifles and revolvers, head out on horseback. Laughter and nervous joviality marked the ride into the woods as if a lark of some kind, if not adventure, awaited. Thomas Dollard and William Wright accompanied Constable Host as they had the day before when they saw that they were outgunned four to three. Along with them rode attorneys Archibald Yell and J.J. Morrow as well as former mill hand turned saloon keeper Cy Galbraith. The one among them most familiar with the outdoors and hunting rifles was thirty-one-year-old woods superintendent James Nichols. Though both were more than a decade older, Dollard and Nichols were rumored to be suitors of Kate Carlson. She was one of nineteen-year-old twin daughters of a Main Street hotelier.
Without a dog this time, the posse followed the tracks from the night before. Heading up a ridge they spotted pieces of meat, freshly jerked, dropped along the trail. They stopped above a gulch burned nearly bare by forest fire. At the bottom, traces of smoke from a campfire smoldered. On the far side, beyond a narrow stream and fifty feet up a steep bank, the only standing tree was a goosepen redwood, hollowed by a more ancient conflagration, but large enough to conceal John Billings, George Gaunce, and Sam Carr inside it. Harrison Brown stood behind the redwood. As the posse on the opposite hill dismounted, Gaunce whispered, ‘‘Look boys, the woods are full of men!”
“This is one of them Little Lake mobs,” Billings said before asking Brown, “What will we do?”
Brown muttered, “We will make them throw down their arms.”
William Wright walked and slid to the bottom of the gulch, with Dollard and Constable Host trailing him. Wright crouched and sifted a hand through ashes doused recently with water. “They must have camped here last night.”
Brown stepped part way out from behind the redwood and motioned Carr to do the same on the other side. Billings fired his rifle. The round struck Wright in the back of his neck, ranging downward. With a wail he spun and fell on the ground before a second shot hit him.
Dollard stood just uphill from Wright, studying the ground for tracks. At the sound of the shot his gaze rose instantly to the opposite hillside where he caught sight of Brown next to the redwood. For a split second both men, with Winchester rifles in their hands, fixed eyes on each other. Brown reacted faster and his shot struck Dollard in the upper thigh. He got off a round of his own, though it missed.
Rifle fire commenced from both sides of the steep gulch. Sam Carr, toting only a shotgun, retreated behind the redwood without discharging his weapon. Two more shots struck Dollard, who cried out, “They're killing me,” then rolled to the creek at the bottom of the gulch. Prostrate, he crawled under a small log in the shallow water.
Bill Host scrambled into the stream, slipping under the far bank for cover, fifteen paces from the gun smoke on the hill. J.J. Morrow fell on top of him, though he was not hit. Archibald Yell got off several shots before he, too, dropped into the stream to use its bank for shelter. Galbraith and Nichols ran up the hill toward their horses. Shots skipped off the ground around Galbraith, another pierced his hat and separated a lock or two from his scalp, but he reached his mount otherwise unscathed. A bullet tore into Jim Nichols right shoulder, but he kept running until he fairly leaped into the saddle.
Then the horses did the running, full gallop back to Mendocino where the town's other constable, Alf Nelson, Jr. met them. Doc Wheeler looked at Jim Nichols wound before Dr. T.H. Smith arrived on the scene.
This time Wheeler did not hesitate. He rode out for the woods before Constable Nelson gathered Chester Ford and a half dozen other armed men.
The dentist and a couple of other townsmen, including pharmacist C.O. Packard, stopped at an abandoned shanty in the forest. Before anyone else could dismount or even think, Wheeler whistled as emphatic as any bob-white. He repeated the call, but with no response, so the men moved on until they reached a point nearer the area of the shooting. Dismounting, they took cover themselves. All gunfire had ceased. Each of them whistled this time and they heard a lone, loud whistling sound coming from the gulch. They whistled some more then hollered when a familiar voice called out.
As the rescuers scrambled down into the gulch, Constable Host and J.J. Morrow were jostling to see who could crawl under the other for a safer position of cover against the river bank. Though considerable minutes had transpired since Nichols and Galbraith raced their horses to town, William Wright had intermittently put his fingers to his mouth and whistled. Occasionally he muttered, “Hold on,” presumably to Tom Dollard.
Wheeler asked Host, “What's up?”
Host responded he was pretty sure Tom Dollard was dead and Wright hurt badly, but alive. The dentist, and sometime doctor, peppered the constable with questions about the particulars of the shooting. Host told him this was no time for cheek.
Doc Wheeler moved to Wright's side, pulled him from the water, and helped prop him into a sitting position. C.O. Packard passed a bottle of brandy. Host watched the sawbones give the wounded man a drink, but Wright couldn't swallow. Someone called out that the ambushers might still be present. Wheeler hollered to Packard and the others with him, “Yes, that's so. Stand back, gentlemen. I'll go and see. I'm not afraid, have been in such places before.”
The assailants were nowhere to be found; however, their horses' tracks leading away from the scene were easy to find for Wheeler. He stuck around long enough to help tie branches and twigs into strings for a litter then remounted and rode off.
Constable Nelson, Chester Ford, and the rest of the second posse arrived at the shooting site. Dollard lay lifeless against the log in the gulch stream. Ford counted four bullet holes in the storekeeper. Wright had been hit three times. As carefully as possible, members of the second posse carried him up the steep incline then on toward a wagon waiting on Little Lake Road.
Within fifteen minutes, Doc Wheeler returned to the crest of the hill to inform Alf Nelson that the tracks of the killers led into Railroad Gulch near the foot of what locals called Big Hill. Others had begun using the term “Observatory Point” for the top of the highest spot around after a government surveying crew used the tallest and sturdiest redwood to establish an observation post the previous autumn.
Wheeler told the constable, “You had better not go on. I've been there and it looks as if there were from eight to twelve men in the party.” After a pause he added, “I know something about such things.”
Someone had brought a buggy for Wheeler to use for his return to town. Eventually all but Wheeler and another townsman departed on horseback or in the wagon carrying the wounded Wright and Dollard's body. Wheeler walked back toward the gulch where the killing took place, telling the other man, a Mr. Colburn, that he'd lost his revolver. Colburn asked if he wanted help. Wheeler said, “No. You go on with the boys.”
Colburn went on to the road, but waited there a while before mounting his horse for the ride back to Mendocino. Several minutes into the ride Wheeler caught up in his buggy, He pulled up alongside and informed Colburn that the revolver had been located. When Colburn asked if Wheeler wanted company on the way into town, the dentist replied that he wasn't afraid to go back alone.
At a later date, more on the aftermath of the ambush of the Mendocino posse.
(More Old West tales of early Mendocino County at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)