Civilization and Its Malcontents
“Julian was never the hell roarin’ town commonly associated with mining camps,” wrote Dan Taylor in 1939. And that’s been pretty much the image ever since. Even so, the lure of gold magnifies human behavior, both civilized and savage.
Slim Jim I
In 1873, a lanky gent rode into Julian City. According to James Jaspar, editor of the Julian Sentinel, along with a tall hat and almost-floor-length coat, the man “wore a genial smile, drank a little, and gambled some.” He obviously had a bankroll but — an amiable sign in these parts — didn’t carry a gun.
He went by either “Slim Jim” or “Long Jack.”
When his money bled out, Slim wrote IOUs and vowed to be flush again when his mine sold in Arizona. Around this time, another man rode into town (Jaspar calls him “Shorty”; others, “Mr. Hicks”). A stage driver who could “handle the ribbons with the skill of a veteran,” Shorty immediately landed a job for Wells Fargo Express. He acquired a reputation as a droll wit and fine companion on the road. At the end of that week, Slim Jim hopped on Shorty’s stage to San Diego, said he wanted to check the sale of his property.
The next night, grimy, soot-faced miners congregated in front of the Wells Fargo station. Shorty’s inbound stage was bringing their $3000 payroll. As his rig drew near, instead of cursing his horses, they heard Shorty screaming: Holdup! Santa Ysabel! Masked!
As the call went out for a posse, Shorty told a constable that he was driving along, “not thinking of bandits.” Then his lead horse, a pinto, snorted, whirled around, and “darned near jack-knifed the whole team!”
Two men emerged from thick chaparral. “We only want the money box, pronto,” the one with the sawed-off shotgun said. “You sabe?”
Shorty unloaded the express box and “hit the grit for Julian.”
“Think you could recognize them?” asked the constable.
“Sure could,” said Shorty. “One was short, the other long. Just let me get my eyes on ’em with an even break, I’ll show ’em how to hold me up!”
An empty strongbox lay open at the crime scene. Tracks of a horse and a mule headed south. The posse trailed them for a mile and found both grazing in a meadow. No sight of the thieves or their escape route.
Next morning, Shorty made his run to San Diego. He usually left around sunrise and returned between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. This time he came back with Slim Jim.
Jim’s sale must have gone through, for that night he paid all his creditors. Either Wells Fargo let Shorty go, or he took time off. Whichever, he joined Jim in an epic debauch: gambling, sporting everyone to drinks, and spreading $20 gold pieces around “like so much chicken feed.” To frequent saloons in Julian City and down the grade in Banner, they bought a horse and buggy.
Jim got a hefty price for his mine in Arizona. But by 1873, locals in the gold country had become wary of scammers. They also suspected a sting: Jim being the “come-on” man, Shorty the inside “plant.”
Overnight, the duo disappeared. “Sensing an aroused community,” writes Dan Taylor, they fled the district.
Slim Jim II
Between 1870 and 1900, at least 55 African-Americans lived in Julian, “Auntie America” among them. America Newton had a homestead two miles from town and did laundry for miners. Susan “Mother” Tull, whose home at the south end of Main had a shield of stately hollyhocks, was a “good old soul,” writes Jaspar, “but anyone hunting for a scrap could just say [the N-word] and the battle was on.”
Mother Tull’s daughter, Margaret, met and married Albert Robinson, a former slave, in Julian. In 1887, they built the Robinson Hotel at the corner of Main and C, and ran it for 28 years. The nearby Bon Ton Restaurant, run by Ernest Morgan and Elvira Price, also African-Americans, sold fresh-baked bread every morning. Now the Julian Gold Rush Hotel, the National Register calls the Robinson “the oldest continuously operated hotel in Southern California.”
At the time, Julian had one of the most diverse populations in the country. “That there was racial harmony among the populace can only be the subject of conjecture,” writes historian David Lewis. “One clue may be that the Julian Cemetery shows no sign of exclusion or separation regarding the burial of Julian’s pioneers.”
But the town wasn’t without those eager to blot the portrait. Around 1890, James Walsh rode into town. The stencil-thin gambler suffered from tuberculosis, thus his nickname, “Slim Jim.” He frequented Julian’s saloons, Bill Decker’s — two doors down from the post office — in particular. During lulls at the card table, Decker and his clientele sought meaner forms of amusement.
One day Slim, Decker, and Frank Sanford (“Go easy with him,” the Julian Sentinel quoted a young man, “or he’ll get mad”) started drinking. After a few shots, they decided to visit Charley Hale’s saloon — “an Indian and Mexican outfit,” the young man said — across the street. As they sloshed more whiskey at Hale’s, one of them drew his gun. No one knows if someone said something — gamblers and revolvers had hair triggers in those days — or if the urge incited itself. The trio took target practice at mirrors and gilt-framed paintings. The one too drunk to aim pocked the walls and floor. Someone went into a back room and dragged Fernando Dailey, Margaret Robinson’s nephew, onto the saloon floor.
“Dance,” someone yelled.
When Fernando refused, “they made him dance to the sound of singing lead,” writes Jaspar. “When he would slow up from lack of breath, they would yell ‘Faster, you black…’” and shoot the floor around him. One bullet smashed his foot. Another went through a wall where Jaspar’s family was staying.
Jaspar and Decker, who were enemies, had had a previous showdown. When Jaspar wrote about “hoodlumism” in Julian, Decker swore there was no such thing and threatened to run the editor out of town. Julian deserves an “intelligent and law-abiding citizenship,” Jaspar retorted in print. Men who “think of nothing better than filling up on bug juice and painting the town red, never built a city, opened a mine, or developed a country.”
Decker promised to change his ways. But not long after, he, Sanford, and Slim Jim shot up Hale’s saloon.
Jaspar was out of town. Some days later, after Slim Jim and Decker did an alcohol “boil-out” at Warner Springs, they came to Jaspar’s office and turned themselves in.
Jaspar ordered them to pay Jesse’s doctor bill and all repairs for Hale’s saloon (which they did). Then he warned: It happens again and “every one who participates…is booked for a good stiff term in the pen.”
The next morning, Decker hailed Jaspar on the street, unbuckled his gun belt, and handed it to the editor. “You know how to use it, and if you ever pull it on a man you’ll get him even though that man be me.”
Jaspar accepted. He said Decker was not “raised to the life you are leading here.” With work, he could walk “a better trail.”
“I don’t want to think,” Decker replied, “I want to forget.”
Within two years, Decker had drunk himself to death. Slim Jim died of TB in 1893.
“Legal justice was swift and sure,” boasted Horace Fenton Wilcox, who carved the Banner Grade Road through the wilderness. “Criminals didn’t come into court with a staff of trick lawyers like they do now.” Wilcox added, “We never had much shootin’” and “women was perfectly safe.”
Wilcox’s selective memory omits one of the region’s most notorious incidents. On a Sunday morning in early June 1878, Laura Bell King started to walk a few hundred yards down the Banner Grade to see her sister. Laura carried an 11-month-old infant in her arms. Two other children, ages nine and three, trailed behind.
Up ahead, an Indian “frenzied with drink” approached. To avoid the man — 20-year-old Juan de la Cruz of Santa Ysabel — King herded her children across the creek. After he passed by, she recrossed and moved briskly to her sister’s house.
She heard footsteps fast approaching. She turned. De la Cruz was “at my heels.” Muttering “guttural sounds,” he grabbed her. She held the child in one arm. With the other, she clutched the man’s hair at arm’s length “and battled him as best I could.”
De la Cruz pulled away. He snatched the child and tossed it onto an anthill. Then he unsheathed a knife and attacked again. He stabbed her repeatedly.
“After a time,” King recalled, “I released my hold on his hair and sank to the ground exhausted...The Indian stampeded at the sight of my blood and took to the hills.”
Severe Victorian fashion saved her life. Beneath her Sunday dress, King wore a thick corset with heavy steel stays, and these warded off most of the slashings, though one was five inches long.
A man named Robert Johnson raced to the scene. He pulled the unharmed baby from the anthill and tended to Laura’s wounds.
When word of the assault got around, work ceased. A hastily arranged town meeting placed a $50 reward for the capture of de la Cruz, dead or alive. Search parties fanned out.
Ambrosia Ruiz, the Kings’ next door neighbor and close friend, went out alone. A Yaqui Indian and constable at Julian, Ruiz was a first-rate tracker.
He followed the trail east, to a native village in the desert, and ordered the chief to turn de la Cruz over. When the chief refused, Ruiz drew down on the man. “Now bring him out,” he said, cocking two revolvers for emphasis. “If you try to hide him, every white man in Julian will be down here. They’ll kill every last Indian of you, and burn your camp.”
The chief obliged. To curtail a white uprising, he sent a runner to Julian to call off the posse: the culprit was in custody.
Ruiz didn’t know about the runner. Convinced a mob in Banner would hang his prisoner without a trial, Ruiz took a back route to Julian, where he hoped to stow de la Cruz safely in the old log jail.
When Ruiz rode into Julian, a crowd awaited. Unlike most vigilantes, no one wore a mask. A grave had been dug, and a rope hung from an oak tree. They lynched de la Cruz and buried him with his boots on.
“No official action was taken,” writes Jaspar, “not even an inquest.” The next morning, natives from the Santa Ysabel village cut the rope and brought the body home.
Jaspar remembered a stranger remark: “You reformers have made a good start. You should now finish the job by hanging the white man who sold the Indian whiskey on the same limb.”
“That was the first public protest recorded in Julian against selling whiskey to the Indians,” Jaspar writes, “but not the last.” ■
— Jeff Smith
Botts, Myrtle, History of Julian, Julian, 1969.
Ellsberg, Helen, Mines of Julian, Glendale, 1972.
Fetzer, Leland, The Cuyamacas: The Story of San Diego’s High Country, San Diego, 2009.
Jaspar, James A., Trail-Breakers and History Makers, ms. at San Diego History Center.
Lewis, David, historian and tour guide of the Julian Cemetery, “Last Known Address: The History of the Julian Cemetery,” interview, San Diego, 2008.
Taylor, Dan Forrest, Julian Gold, ms. at San Diego History Center.
Wilcox, Horace Fenton, “Memories of the Gold Stampede to Julian,” Touring Topics, February 1932.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the Daily Alta, and the Julian Sentinel.