Press "Enter" to skip to content

Mendocino Outlaws: The Manhunt Commences

The Mendocino Outlaws murdered Tom Dollard and William Wright on Wednesday, October 15, 1879. By the weekend Sheriff Jim Moore arrived in Mendocino City with a posse of four other men. Moore had sent a message to Little Lake asking Jeremiah “Doc” Standley to join in the search for the killers. Standley had served as an on again, off again deputy for the county since 1867, making his first arrest at the age of twenty-two. The haphazard employment was not due to the quality of Doc’s work, he had solved some of the most notorious crimes on the coast and inland. The plain fact remained that the county couldn’t afford to employ deputies on a regular basis. Standley received Moore’s call to action on the 17th and rode alone from Sherwood to Mendocino via the Little Lake trail. 

Another deputy, Jerry Donohoe, had been in Mendocino since the night of the first Public Safety Committee meeting. Riding in his company, Charley Sheppard provided the first break in the case. He recognized Dr. Wheeler from his time spent at San Quentin. A telegram went out to that prison and soon thereafter the warden responded that a watchful eye should be kept on John F. Wheeler.

On Saturday, Oct. 18th, Sheppard, along with four others familiar with the roads, trails, and paths of the forests stretching east, set out to follow the tracks of the outlaws from the site of the ambush. Among them rode George Cortes, known locally as Spanish George, a man fairly familiar with Wheeler but not John Billings, Harrison Brown, George Gaunce, and Samuel Carr.

Jerry Donohoe had won election in September to become Mendocino County’s Sheriff, but had not taken office yet. Doc Standley had been a failed candidate for that post. This left Sheriff Moore a lame duck office holder; however, for the time being he still commanded all the deputies and posse men sworn beneath him in the chain of command.

Though Al Courtwright had not been taken into custody yet, word filtered to the lawmen that suspicious characters had been seen in the neighborhood of the cabin Courtwright habituated north of Ten Mile River. Sheriff Moore and Doc Standley rode north separately from Mendocino City. A handful of men deputized for the manhunt accompanied the sheriff. About four miles north of Ten Mile River, and several miles inland from the coast, Standley found the cabin Courtwright had used to hide the outlaws before they approached Mendocino. However, the cabin was vacant, so the lawman rode back toward Pudding Creek and the Noyo River. At some point, James and Mart Frost of Little Lake joined him. Everyone in Little Lake and Willits knew who the Frosts were, most likely the entire county knew. A dozen years prior, the menfolk of the Frost family engaged in an election day shootout on the streets of Little Lake with members of the Coates clan; the culmination of a North-South feud that carried on after the Civil War. When the smoke cleared, five Coates men lay dead and one Frost. Mart Frost drew his revolver fast and true that day, shooting and killing three of his Coates rivals within fifteen seconds.

Since he had met with the alleged killers longer than anyone else on the coast, Constable Bill Host provided descriptions of the four fugitives to Moore, Standley, and the rest of the deputized posses: One man about five feet, ten inches, dark complexion, short, dark hair. He possessed a mustache as well as a week or two worth of unshaven facial hair. He weighed in the neighborhood of 155 pounds, aged about twenty-five or six. This presumably was George Gaunce, who fell in with Billings in Bodie or Virginia City, Nevada. Though he looked boyish, Gaunce was already a familiar face at gambling halls in Oakland and the aforementioned mining towns where he was called Frenchy.

Host estimated another of the outlaws at about five feet, eight inches, heavy set, dark complected, short hair, black mustache, otherwise clean shaven; with dark eyes and about thirty-two years old. A third stood five feet, eight inches, light complexion, large mustache and goatee, blue eyes, about thirty-five. The fourth stood five feet, eleven inches, sandy complexion, blue eyes, big mustache and goatee, heavy set, about 175 pounds, age about forty-five. 

Doc Standley and Mart Frost decided to double back to the cabin. Tying their horses in the woods a short distance away the two men sneaked into the cabin on soft feet. There they discovered a man staggering over a breakfast frying pan. He appeared plumb worn out, boots off to soothe swollen feet and ankles. He threw his hands up in defeat, identifying himself as “Captain Jones.”

He fit the description of the light complected fellow, though this “Captain Jones” looked significantly older than Standley expected. “Jones” admitted being a party to the shooting east of Mendocino on October fifteenth, but asserted he had not fired a shot that day. Doc searched him carefully, finding his claim to be unarmed truthful. “Captain Jones” stated he’d possessed a shotgun, but tossed it in the brush as he neared the cabin. He said that being the oldest and physically weakest, the rest of the gang had left him behind without any food. He’d made for the cabin in hopes he’d find sustenance before full fledged starvation overtook him. “Jones” sounded most resentful about being abandoned by his lawless companions. He gave up the names and confirmed the descriptions of Billings, Brown, and Gaunce, acknowledging he had known Brown and Billings at San Quentin. He warned Deputy Standley that all three of his former comrades were heavily armed and would rather shoot it out than surrender, perhaps wait in ambush for any trailing posse. “Jones” reckoned they were headed for the Eel River.

Deputy Standley handed “Captain Jones” off to a pair of Little Lake constables for transport to Ukiah. At the county seat, Wells Fargo & Co. detective James B. Hume recognized “Captain Jones” from his stint at San Quentin, a prison where Hume had sent many a lawbreaker. “Captain Jones” was thus booked into the county jail under his real name, Samuel Carr.

Sheriff Moore’s posse joined with Standley and the Frosts, heading to Kibesillah where they spent the night on the coast. The next day they returned to the north side of Ten Mile River, meeting George Cortes and the original party of trackers who had set out on the outlaws’ trail. However, no trace of the criminals could be found and the burgeoning posse settled at Westport for the evening.

The following morning the lawmen set out on the road toward Cahto. With no sign of their prey, they were about to turn coastward once more when a messenger brought a telegram stating Billings, Brown, and Gaunce had been spotted and recognized by Dutch Charley between Ten Mile and Cahto, heading for the South Fork of the Eel River as “Captain Jones” (Sam Carr) predicted.

Doc Standley was thirty-four years old. The appellation, “Doc,” was spoken so commonly most folks didn’t know his given first name. It would have been rare to hear it outside his immediate family. His birth occurred in Missouri, but his father, Harrison Standley, brought his wife and children to California in the early 1850s. The father ran one of the first hotels in Ukiah, where the street still bears his last name. The future deputy sheriff earned his lifelong moniker as a child when he doctored a sick cow back to health after everyone else had given up on the creature. 

Doc had been a school teacher in Ukiah in between his early stints as a deputy. To accomplish his first arrest of a fellow accused of repeatedly knifing a Cahto Indian, the twenty-two-year-old deputy infiltrated a den of thieves and known gunmen at Usal. Standley solved the mystery of the Strong Mountain murder, subsequently riding the two suspects to safety at the county jail just ahead of a lynch party. 

Sheriff Moore’s original plan meant for his party and Standley’s to take the coastal route to circle round in front of the gang while Cortes and his trackers dogged the bad men’s trail from behind. However, the news from Dutch Charley sent both Moore’s and Standley’s men on a direct inland pursuit, crossing the headwaters of Cottoneva Creek to a cabin they encircled thinking Billings, Brown, and Gaunce might be holed up inside. After a night and dawn with no activity from the cabin, the posse discovered it abandoned.

At this point, receiving another report that the outlaws had been seen at Horseshoe Bend on the Eel, Moore and four men made for Piercy’s ranch. Meanwhile, Doc Standley had been joined by two of the Bowman brothers, Hansford (known as Boag) and twenty-two-year-old Andy. Despite his relative youth, Andy Bowman had gained renown in at least two counties for his ability to handle all types of pack animals and even more so for his capabilities in tracking beast or man through any terrain.

Ten years earlier Andy and Boag helped their siblings and widowed, wounded mother fight off  a violent group of Indians, who had legitimate grievances farther north along the Klamath River but chose to attack the Bowman house in southern Humboldt County. After a siege lasting more than a day and a half, Andy slipped on a horse and rode through the night for help.

Perhaps because Andy’s skills in hunting, tracking, and tending to animals mimicked his own, Standley displayed the utmost confidence in young Bowman. As soon as Doc suspected a long manhunt, he sent word for Andy to bring pack horses, mules and supplies.

The Frosts had dropped out of the posse by this point. Doc, the Bowman brothers and two others , Claib Wilson and Willie Ray, headed toward Rattlesnake Creek, striking it a mile and a half from its mouth, where the stream flowed into the Eel. There, Andy Bowman located three sets of boot prints. Heading off on his own he tracked them through mud from a recent rain that confused the situation mightily. The tracks of men and horses branched in two different directions. Andy chose a path he believed circled back to Doc and his brother. If he had chosen the diverging way he would have walked straight into the river in plain view of the outlaws.

Billings, Brown, and Gaunce had stopped by the stream. By the time Andy Bowman had rejoined the posse, Doc heard the sound of what he believed to be the lever action of a Winchester rifle. The deputy and his men approached the edge of a short bluff overlooking the river. Three men stood at the other side of the waterway, which spread out about forty yards wide but not much more than waist high. For a second Standley considered the possibility that they were three posse men split off from Moore’s outfit, but he hollered for them to throw up their hands.

Trees and brush camouflaged much of Standley and company’s position. Billings and Brown took a step or two toward their mounts. A rifle round passed between Brown’s right arm and side, loud as a swarm of bees but missing his body. He and Billings zigzagged along the riverbank, heading downstream for cover. Gaunce plowed into waist high water, using the bank nearest the posse to hide his head and upper torso. Nevertheless, he ducked his head and neck underwater periodically as he fired blindly with his revolver. In this fashion he dodged about, avoiding the posse’s gunfire. One of Andy Bowman’s rifle shots caught the lip of the riverbank, exploding a ball of dust and mud in Gaunce’s eyes and mouth. He dunked himself to regain his sight then continued to wade along the bank downstream, returning fire.

Outlaws Vs. Posse Shootout

As the shootout at Rattlesnake Creek continued late into the day of October 20, 1879, Andy Bowman’s mule, carrying all the outfit’s supplies, wandered into the line of fire. Andy dashed for the animal, grabbed the reins, and tugged the beast to cover.

Meanwhile, George Gaunce continued wading and dodging downstream so much that concentric waves splashed across the stream. Boag Bowman called out, “Someone’s swimming the river.”

As the posse watched the waves, waiting for a swimmer to emerge, Gaunce made his way much farther downstream and crossed the river unnoticed.  He pushed through branches into thick brush only to come eyeball to barrel with two revolvers. They belonged to Billings and Brown. In all the maneuvers he made in the stream Gaunce had not lost his hat. He waved it and his fellow outlaws lowered their weapons.

The outlaws whistled their horses to them, trampled through the brush and around a bend, then re-crossed the river out of sight of the posse. From there they traversed the lower slope of a hill covered by manzanita; a hill that a tenderfoot might mistake for a mountain. Billings, Brown, and Gaunce had abandoned almost all their belongings alongside Rattlesnake Creek and now they were staring at a hungry night ahead.

Doc Standley’s little posse led their horses and mule down to the gravel strewn stream bank the outlaws had vacated. Andy Bowman pointed out a bulking roll of blankets and shouted, “There’s a man rolled up.”

His brother teased, “Give him a shot.” Then added that he better make it two or three rounds to make sure he’s dead.

It turned out to be a extra thick roll of blankets, four in all. Speculation ensued as to whether one belonged to Samuel Carr and whether Billings, Brown, and Gaunce had deprived the older outlaw even his blanket when they left him behind.

Doc Standley marked each item the posse took into their possession. Along with the four blankets they confiscated two six-shooters, a knife, a coffee pot, one cup, a sack of dried beef (presumably from the heifer butchered east of Mendocino), shaving utensils, two hundred fifty cartridges for pistols and rifles, two pairs of boots, four coats (again, was one dispossessed of Carr?), and two pairs of pants.

As his clothing had been shredded in riding and crawling through jagged brush in the pursuit, Standley tried on a pair of the pants. Seeing they fit, he exchanged his coat for a jacket and overcoat from the outlaws’ belongings. The overcoat belonged to Harrison Brown and this would not be the last exchange between Standley and Brown regarding its ownership.

Standley reckoned this locale to be roughly sixty miles north of the killing grounds east of Mendocino. From the spent cartridges found, he calculated sixteen rounds had been fired. None of his party had even been nicked, not even the mule. No blood in the vicinity meant the criminals had gotten away unscathed as well.

In examining the ground nearby and the tracks left therein, Doc noted that each of the three outlaws left a distinct mark. One was distinguished by a small-heeled boot with the heel projecting under the foot. Another proved slightly larger, supporting a square toe and and round, flat heel. The third was longest with two large round-headed tacks running diagonally across one heel, the other heel having a sizable tack at the center point of its front edge.

With only the little food and ammunition the outlaws possessed on their persons or saddles, Standley figured Billings, Brown, and Gaunce would head down river on the Eel to the south. If the outlaws headed west, Doc knew that another small posse held a bead on the area west of the confluence of Rattlesnake Creek and the South Fork of the Eel. The deputy sheriff sent a man to request that Sheriff Moore provide a guard for Dutch Charlie’s place. That member of the posse would eventually double back south and east to drop off the remaining confiscated goods at Standley’s home in Sherwood Valley for later deposit with the sheriff’s office in Ukiah.

However, the outlaws had not headed west or south. Instead they traveled slightly northeasterly. By the next daybreak they were making straight for the isolated cabin of the Ray family.

(Coming soon: What happened when the Mendocino Outlaws arrived for breakfast with guns drawn… Innocents and outlaws converge at


  1. Mark Laszlo April 16, 2021

    How like to historic Western history films through many years of film styles. Faithful telling of history is so much more interesting than hack screenwriters’ “artistic liscence”. Changing developments of the posse’s and outlaws’ movements hold interest. The scene on the creek, with the outlaw ducking underwater and shooting, is real exciting. So far, worth making a movie out of!

  2. Mark Laszlo April 16, 2021

    BTW, does anyone know, are we still living in the Wild West?

    • Mark Laszlo April 16, 2021

      I thought so when i saw Diamond Jim’s gun and liquor shop on N. State St. and thought it a foolproof business. He should have put a casino in back.

  3. George Dorner April 16, 2021

    What a rattling yarn!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *