Up The Road: Girls Of The Golden West

Jan 10, 2018

We head up the road this week to Downieville, known these days for its northern gold-country charm and the annual Downieville Classic point-to-point mountain bike race, a 29-mile gold-rush-era route from Sierra City to Downieville.

The names of long-gone mining camps near here—Cutthroat Bar, Hoodoo, and Ranse Doddler—somehow say more about gold-rush society than any history text. And stories were sometimes poorly told, such as the gold-rush tale of Downieville’s  “Juanita,” the first and only woman ever hanged in California.

Downieville is a tidy, brick-and-tin-roof town squeezed into the cool canyon at the confluence of the Downie River and the Yuba’s north fork. During high season locals sit on storefront stoops and watch mountain bikers and tourists go by. The town may be sleepy these days, with fewer than 300 year-round residents, but was crazy in its heyday, the booming placer mining era initiated by William Downie and his multiracial crew. Nuggets weighing up to 25 pounds were panned here in Slug Canyon, so named, according to local lore, because gold just sat atop stream gravel like so many coins on a street. A bad, bustling city far from the mainstream, miners had to pay high prices for such seclusion: eggs were $3 each, whiskey $16 a bottle, and medicinal pills $10 each without advice ($100 with).

During the gold rush Downieville gained national notoriety for its spontaneous, whiskey-fueled sense of justice. In 1851, “Juanita,” a local dancehall girl, fatally stabbed a Scottish miner—in self-defense, she said, since he “pressed his attentions” on her. She was summarily convicted of her crime by a mob that had been celebrating, day after drunken day, the Fourth of July—finally a meaningful holiday for Californians, who had won statehood just the year before. Even the governor was there, speechifying, in between parades and other pageantry, such as miners reciting Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

The woman in question was not “Juanita,” however—a mining-camp term for any woman of Mexican descent, yes, racist—but Josepha Segovia, who lived in a small adobe with her common-law husband, Jose. Segovia is a key character in the new California opera Girls of the Golden West, by John Adams and Peter Sellars, a counterpoint to Puccini’s 1910 romance, based on David Belasco’s play Girl of the Golden West.

Josepha Segovia’s story is #MeToo, but all in caps. On the night in question her husband Jose was dealing monte at a local gambling establishment. Joe Cannon, a popular Scottish miner, and his drunken companions started banging on doors all around town. When they got to Segovia’s house their intentions were clear, but she fought them off before they could rape her. Cannon returned later that night—some say to apologize, others, to finish what he’d attempted before—but Segovia pulled out a Bowie knife and stabbed him to death.

Everyone in camp who knew Segovia tried to defend her—along with some who didn’t know her, including a San Francisco attorney, and a doctor who declared her three months pregnant—but mob justice was in a hurry. Segovia was sentenced to death by hanging, and two hours later she swung from a scaffold on the Jersey Bridge over the Yuba River. She was fearless as she climbed the gallows’ steps, and said she would “do the same thing again if so provoked.” Josepha Segovia’s gallows is long gone, but you’ll find a plaque memorializing “Juanita” near the bridge.

There is a gallows in town, though, in the trees near the jailyard of the Sierra County Courthouse—the state's only remaining original gallows, used for the first and last time in 1885 to hang convicted murderer James O’Neill. Assembled with wooden pegs, for complete portability, and rescued from oblivion with help from the county sheriff and his Friends of the Gallows (seriously), the refurbished and restored Sierra County Sheriff’s Gallows is now a state historic monument.