The Good Guys and Bad Guys of Historic Northern California – Part 1

Hollywood is obsessed with “good guys and bad guys,” and why not? There’s something very satisfying when good triumphs over evil. It’s always been that way, yet real life is seldom so simple. 

Who among us is qualified to label another human being “good,” or “bad?” Of course, privately, we all do, even if our opinions never see the light of day. In the movies it’s easy to tell who is who because the bad guys tend to be really, really bad. Not all the good guys ride in on white horses, but they’re never quite as bad as the bad guys. In real life determining who is good and who is evil comes from a complex mixture of laws often based on Judao-Christian ethics, history and present-day social mores. 

So, just for the heck of it, we’re going to pretend we have the right to judge some historical figures, folks who are long dead, but were prominent in NorCal a long time ago. Of course, Northern California was a much different place in those days. Oftentimes there was no real law, and it was a time and place people commonly “got away with murder.”

In this first installment we will discuss Jedediah Smith, stagecoach driver “One-Eyed Charlie,” Kit Carson/John Fremont, and James Beckwourth. Some of these names might be familiar, others maybe not. 

No one claims ethical superiority or moral high ground here. These are merely opinions, impressions designed to maybe teach you something you didn’t know about NorCal history and the people who helped build the area we love so well. They were all human beings, meaning most were probably a hot mess of both good and evil depending on the day. We expect and welcome criticism and different points of view. We have no better claim to “the truth” than anyone else. Opinions vary, so what it comes down to is, what do you think?

Jedediah Smith

Smith was one of America’s original explorers/fur traders/mountain man, among the first non-Native Americans to see the vast, untrammeled wilderness that is now the western United States. He was first to locate the 20-mile long “South Pass” through the Rocky Mountains used by tens of thousands of immigrants on the Oregon Trail. He was one of the first to explore the Black Hills of South Dakota, Eastern Wyoming, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, the Mojave Desert and Nevada’s Great Basin.

Early in his career Smith tangled with a large grizzly bear who broke his ribs and chewed part of his scalp and one ear off. Smith instructed his friend John Clyman to sew it back on, and he wore his hair long for the rest of his life to hide the scars.

In 1827-28 Smith traveled through NorCal up the Sacramento River through present-day Red Bluff and Redding and veered northeast up the Pit River. Eventually they determined the going along the Pit River was just too tough, so they retreated back to the Sacramento River, then northwest through the Coastal Range and up the coast into Oregon Territory.

One notable thing about Jedediah Smith was that, given the hatred a lot of pioneers harbored toward Indigenous Peoples in those days, Smith tried to maintain friendly relations with the Natives as much as possible, and insisted members of his party did the same. He almost certainly killed some Native Americans along the way, but history records this was mainly in self defense or as a reaction to aggressive behavior.

On March 1, 1828, Smith recorded the following in his journal: “In going down Wild River,” wrote Smith, “we came suddenly on an Indian lodge. Its inhabitants immediately fl[e]d. Some plunged into the river and some took a raft while some ran down the bank of the stream. We galloped after them and overtook one who appeared very much frightened and pacified her in the usual manner by making her some presents. I then went on to the place where I had seen one fall down. She was still laying there and apparently lifeless. She was 10 or 11 years old. I got down from my horse and found that she was in fact dead. Could it be possible, thought I, that we who called ourselves Christians were such frightful objects as to scare poor savages to death.”

No, Smith was no angel, but for his determination to maintain friendly relations with the Native Americans he encountered while way too many white men preferred shooting them on sight, we call Jedediah Smith a “good guy.”

“One-Eyed Charley”

Charles Parkhurst was one of several northern California stagecoach drivers who rose to “rock star” status back in the 1860s when stagecoach robberies were a common occurrence. Soon after arriving in NorCal from the East Coast, Parkhurst lost an eye after being kicked in the head by a horse. 

Parkhurst developed a reputation for being one of the fastest and most dependable stagecoach drivers around. His runs included the Sacramento to Placerville, Stockton to Mariposa and the Oakland to San Jose runs. He was no stranger to stagecoach robbers.

Parkhurst was described as a “stout, compact figure, sun browned skin and a beardless face with bluish gray eyes.” His notably raspy voice and eye patch must have made him seem more like a pirate than a stagecoach driver. Once Parkhurst gave up a strongbox he was carrying to an outlaw known as “Sugarfoot.” Some time later Sugarfoot decided to come back for seconds, but this time Parkhurst put him in the ground. 

Eventually Parkhust retired from driving stages and passed on in 1879. In preparing him for burial in the Pioneer Odd Fellows Cemetery in Watsonville, an interesting discovery was made. He was not a “he” at all, but rather a crafty woman who spent most of her life masquerading as a man and benefitting from the better employment opportunities enjoyed by the male gender. 

We’re awarding “One-Eyed Charley” (born Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst) “good guy” (“good girl?”) status for outsmarting the tired, cliche gender expecations of the 1800s, and even making her way onto our nation’s political list of “Who’s Who.” 

You see, “One-Eyed Charley” voted in the 1868 presidential election, long before women gained the right to vote with the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1920. “One-Eyed Charley” (AKA Charlotte Darkey Parkhust) is recorded as the first woman to ever vote in a United States presidential election. Bravo!

Kit Carson/John Fremont

Much has been written about each of these men in their own right. Kit Carson (Christopher Houston Carson) was an American frontiersman made larger than life in dime novels of the day. He was also a fur trapper, wilderness guide, Indian agent and US Army officer. John C. Fremont was also an explorer, military officer and politician pivotal in wrestling what is now California away from Mexico. He went on to become a California Senator who ran for President of the United States in 1856, losing to James Buchanan.

The reason we lump these two together is because they shared several expeditions significant to the history of Northern California.

In 1842 John Fremont, a US Army officer in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, led the first five western expeditions exploring and mapping the West. His first trip didn’t quite make it to California, but it did allow him to cross paths with mountain man Kit Carson on a riverboat heading up the Missouri River. Carson had already spent a decade exploring much of the West, and Fremont recognized the value of an experienced guide. Carson promptly joined Fremont’s group, and the two would see far more of the western wilderness than most. 

The men went as far west as the Rocky Mountains where Fremont climbed 13,745-foot Fremont’s Peak, planted an American flag and claimed the entire West for the United States. Fremont was impressed with Carson’s skills and invited him to join his next several expeditions.

Fremont’s second expedition in 1843-44 brought him and Kit Carson into what is now Washington state, Oregon and California. The group traveled west along the Columbia River mapping Washington’s Mt. St. Helens and Oregon’s Mt. Hood along the way. They stopped to resupply at British-held Fort Vancouver before heading south into the Oregon Territory and Northern California. Along the way Fremont discovered and named Nevada’s Pyramid Lake. From there Fremont and Carson headed south to today’s Minden, NV, just East of South Lake Tahoe. The two would have been some of the first Americans to behold Lake Tahoe.

Carson led Fremont’s group over the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains through what Fremont named “Carson Pass,” (now Hwy. 88, just east of Kirkwood Mountain Resort). From there they followed the American River down to Sutter’s Fort (present day Sacramento). While at Sutter’s Fort, Fremont found a growing number of American settlers who considered Mexican authority over them to be quite weak.

Meanwhile tensions were building between the United States and Mexico. In those days Mexico laid claim to what is now Texas and California, but many Americans were already living in both places. Fremont and Carson played pivotal roles in the Bear Flag Revolt, a major stepping stone toward the United States taking control of California away from Mexico.

Fremont and Carson were together for Fremont’s third expedition, this time in northern California. While Fremont’s group claimed to be “scientific” in nature, the Mexican government was suspicious they were actually there to rally support for annexation by the United States. Fremont’s men were ordered to leave the area and never return, so they headed north, up the Sacramento River. Things were about to get dicey in NorCal.

Fremont and Carson stopped at Lassen’s Ranch, east of present-day Corning. Here they were told there was a large encampment of Natives in the area preparing to attack White settlements. Armed with what amounted to a vicious rumor, Fremont’s party went in search of these Natives. When the party arrived at Reading’s Ranch (present-day Redding) they spotted a large Native encampment, very likely Wintus. Boxed in on three sides against the Sacramento River, Wintu men formed a defensive line with the women and children behind them. 

Thomes E. Breckenridge, a member of Fremont’s party, described the ensuing violence.

“The settlers charged into the village taking the warriors by surprise and then commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequaled in the West. The bucks, squaws and paposes were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.”

An accurate estimate of how many innocent Natives died in the Sacramento River Massacre does not exist, but eyewitnesses agree it was hundreds. Whatever else John Fremont and Kit Carson may have done with the rest of their lives, the slaughter of innocent men, women and children can never be condoned. I’ll just say it. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson were bad men.

James Beckwourth

One of the more interesting characters in NorCal history was born into slavery around 1798 in Virginia. His father was a White man and his mother a slave. When Beckwourth was in his mid-20s, his father signed his Deed of Emancipation, freeing him from slavery. Young Jim Beckwourth headed West and ended up living with the Crow nation.

Beckwourth lived as a Crow Indian off and on for years where he ascended in status from warrior to chief (respected man). He spent some time in the US Army before heading over to Colorado where tensions between the United States and Mexico were heating up. Somehow Mexican soldiers managed to steal 1,800 horses from the US Army. Beckwourth made a name for himself when he went after the Mexicans and returned with the 1,800 horses.

When gold was discovered in California, Beckwourth opened a store in Sonoma, and later attempted to make a living as a professional gambler in Sacramento. Eventually he charted a trail through the Sierra Nevada Mountains that was shorter and less steep than going over Donner Pass (now Hwy. 70 east of Portola). 

By 1864 Beckwourth had returned to Colorado and was hired as a guide and interpreter for the Third Colorado Cavalry under the command of Colonel John Chivington. Little did he know of Colonel Chivington’s real plans. When Chivington told his men of his intention to attack an encampment of Cheyenne and Arapaho people in southeastern Colorado the next day, a number of his officers and men refused to follow his orders. Nevertheless, the “Sand Creek Massacre” proceeded and hundreds more Natives were murdered. James Beckwourth was one of several witnesses who publicly expressed their outrage over the needless slaughter. Though some people judged Beckwourth guilty by association because he was “involved” in the Sand Creek Massacre, he was certainly not a participant. 

We’re going to call James Beckwourth a “good guy.” To go from the life of a slave to cross the continent numerous times as a fur trapper, mountain man, chief of the Crow Nation, wilderness guide, soldier, store owner and professional gambler, James Beckwourth certainly saw much of the wild, wild West. Yet when given the opportunity to “get away with murder” in a day when he certainly could have, he refused. There were so many adventures in Beckwourth’s life people generally thought many were simply made up. But if even half of the stories about him are true, that’s a heck of a lot for a free black man to accomplish in a country mired in slavery.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

2 Comments

  1. Frederick Burnham was another good guy. When there were not enough Apache Indians left to make shooting them interesting he relocated to Africa and spent many happy years shooting African tribesmen who wanted their land and livestock back. He was a friend of Baden-Powell and the inspiration for the Boy Scouts.

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