A synopsis of a law suit brought in 1851 provides a good description of the type of gold mining prosecuted at Negro Bar on the American River. Amos Catlin, who arrived in California in 1849, was a lawyer and represented numerous individuals in mining and property disputes around Mormon Island.
It is unclear why Catlin wrote about the proceedings of the Negro Bar law suit. He may have represented the defendant Hartford Anderson, but there is no definitive record to support this assumption. There generally were not court reporters for proceedings or trials at the Justice of the Peace level.
Amos Catlin’s Account of the Negro Bar Water Canal Lawsuit
Regardless, Catlin’s recording of the trial illustrates the extensive work to divert the American River from its bed in order to mine for gold. Similar to other parts of the north and south forks of the American River, water from the river was diverted into a canal dug at the river bank. Where granite was encountered, the miners would construct a wooden flume to contain the flow of the water. This diversion allowed miners to safely get to the bed of the river and sweep up the placer gold.
Catlin’s hand written account of the trial can be found at the California State Library, Catlin Collection, Box 149, Folder 9. I have lightly edited the Catlin’s account for clarity.
This action was commenced by George W. Nutter plaintiff against Hartford Anderson defendant before Robert Doring Esq. a Justice of the Peace of Sacramento County residing at Negro Bar in Missippi [sic] Township. At the return of the summons the parties appeared to wit on the 11th day of Sept. instant.
Upon the application of the defendant supported by affidavit to the effect that he could not get a fair and impartial trial in said township on account of the bias and predjudice [sic] of the Justice and of the people of the township against him. An order was made changing the venue before S. B. F. Clark Esq. a Justice of the Peace of the same county in and for the township of Natoma. The 20th of Sept. instant was fixed and agreed upon for trial.
The plaintiff filed a complaint stating that defendant did on or about the 5th day of Sept. 1851 with force and arms break down the race of the Virginia Mining Co. and flood with water the mining claim of plaintiff who was a member of said Co. thereby causing great injury to plaintiff and claimed damages to two hundred dollars and costs of suit. Defendant plead and denied generally plaintiff’s complaint.
The parties appeared before S. B. F. Clark Esq. a Justice of the Peace in and for the County of Sacramento and residing in the township of Natoma, at his office on the 20th day of September instant. At the request of the plaintiff a jury of six persons were duly summoned and empaneled to try said cause.
Robert Reeve, a witness for the plaintiff, testified that he knew the parties. Witness and the parties were respectively members of the Virginia Mining Company of Negro Bar, said company built a very expensive canal nine tenths of a mile in length for the purposes of draining the American River. Some two hundred yards of the canal were constructed of lumber. After getting into the river the company thought that it would not pay to work the claim as a company. They divided the claim into lots according to the number of shares in the Co. and drew lots for them among the members of the company.
At a meeting of the Co. they determined to rent the water priveleges [sic] afforded by the canal and appropriate the proceeds to the payment of the debts of the Co. At the same meeting it was resolved by a vote of the Co. to sell the lumber in the canal on the following Saturday deliverable to the purchaser on the first day of the November next. It was necessary that the lumber should remain in the race in order to enable the miners to work out their claims in the river and it was also necessary that the purchaser should be at liberty to take it out of the canal before the rainy season in order to save it.
The time when the lumber should be deliverable was discussed and some were in favor of fixing the time earlier and some later. The defendant was present and took part in the discussion and stated that he did not know but that he might bid on the lumber and was opposed to it being deliverable later than the first of November.
The proposition to sell the lumber as it stood in the race to be delivered on the first day of November was the only one in relation to the lumber which was passed by a vote except that Dr. Cline the Secretary and Beasemer should make the sale on the following Saturday. Witness paid attention to what was going on and did not hear that Dr. Cline had any authority given him to deliver the lumber earlier tha[n] first of November. Although it was proposed by some that he should be allowed to let the lumber go before that time in case all the miners had abandoned the river or in case the rains should come on and raise the river so as to endanger the safety of the lumber.
Edward Pollard, witness for the plaintiff, testified that he was President of the Virginia mining Co. The claim was divided into small lots and apportioned by lots to the members. Peff (plaintiff) became the owner of lot No. 104. Some four or five weeks ago the Co. had a meeting at which I (Pollard) presided; defendant was present. By a vote of the majority of the members it was resolved to sell the lumber in the race as it stood to be delivered to the purchaser on the first day of November.
The time for the delivery was adopted after a full discussion of the subject in which the defendant participated. Dr. Cline the Secretary and Treasurer was instructed to affect the sale on the following Saturday the 23rd of August. It was proposed that the Doct. should have authority to deliver the lumber before the first day of November in case he thought proper to do so, but this motion was not carried.
William Durna, a witness for the plaintiff, testified that he was acquainted with plaintiff claim in the ground of the Virginia Co. Plaintiff thoroughly prospected his claim after it was staked out and allotted to him and went to the City (Sacramento), bought lumber, made a (long) Tom, brought water to it from the canal and got ready for work.
He had worked it a few days and was doing well when he was driven out by the water which was let in upon him and overflowed his drain by defendant taking the lumber out of the canal. I (Durna) worked close by plaintiff and from what I know of the ground and from what I saw, I judge be had a good claim and was doing well. I (Durna) would not have had it happen to me rigged as he was for working for five hundred dollars.
William O’Niel, a witness for plaintiff, testified that he worked near peffs (plaintiff’s) claim which was overflowed by defts (defendant’s) letting the water out of the canal. Plaintiff was at work with a (long) Tom in the bed of the river and was doing well before this. The water is now two or three feet where he worked and it is impossible for him to work it.
About one week after this while I (O’Niel) was at work on Tennessee Bar, I saw deft (defendant) with another man going to that part of the race which is made of lumber and is called the “Break”. He (Anderson) said he was going to cut it down. I (O’Niel) followed him, he cut it down and let the water in the river. The direct consequence of which was that water overflowed what is called the Middle Bar of the Virginia Co. on which was located plaintiff’s claim. This was about three weeks ago.
Rogers, a witness for the defendant, testified that he was present at the meeting of the Virginia Co. A resolution was passed providing for the sale of the lumber in the race to be delivered on the first day of November and I (Rogers) understood that there was a proviso that Dr. Cline might [offer] it to be delivered before that time in case he thought proper to do so. Plaintiff was the only one who worked his claim as a claim by which I mean that the others worked where ever they wanted. Most of the miners had abandoned their claims because they would not pay for working.
It was proven further that Dr. Cline at the day appointed for the sale the 23rd of August put the lumber up at auction and sold the same that there were three bids and it was struck off (sold) to deft (defendant) who paid for it. That Dr. Cline when selling said nothing about when it was to be delivered.
Testimony was introduced on both sides as to what the earth on Negro Bar and the earth in plaintiff’s could pay to the bucket with the river of ascertaining the value of the claim.
Defendant’s counsel objected to such of the plaintiff’s testimony as related to the business transaction of the Co. on the grounds that better testimony might be introduced by producing the books of the Secretary of the Co. it appearing by the testimony that the Co. had a Secretary whose duty it was to keep the accounts of the Co. But what the nature of the Secretary’s records were did not appear. The Court overruled the objection and deft’s (defendant’s) counsel excepted to the decision.
The jury found generally for the defendant. And the Court entered judgement to that effect with defts (defendant’s) cost of suit against plaintiff.
Pioneer Trials and Justice
We don’t know why Anderson thought he could not get a fair trial at Negro Bar. The Justice of the Peace, Robert Doring, may have been a member of Virginia Mining Company. Jurors summoned for a trial from Mississippi Township would have most likely included other members of the company and friends of George Nutter, the plaintiff.
The verdict in favor of Anderson most likely hinged on the fact that he had bought the lumber. In the absence of any agreement to leave the lumber in place to contain the river water, Anderson was within his rights to dismantle the wooden flume and take the lumber else where.
Justice of the Peace, Sterling B. F. Clark, in neighboring Natoma Township, was a successful miner himself on the South Fork of the American River. In September of 1850, he wrote a letter to his girl friend on the East Coast in which the words were written with a form of glue and had gold dust sprinkled upon the glue. You can see the gold dust letter and hear the history of S. B. F. Clark at A Letter Written In Gold Dust produced by the California Society of Pioneers.
Amos Catlin, in addition to his fledgling law practice, would go on to form the Natoma Water and Mining Company. Catlin would eventually move to Sacramento, after serving in the state Assembly and Senate, and become a lawyer of high repute. He would be elected a Superior Court Judge for Sacramento in 1890. Both Nutter and Anderson continued mining in the region and then went on to other occupations.