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Xavier Timoteo Martinez
Five Views: An Ethnic Historic Site Survey for California



Mexican War
World War II
Chicano Movement

Historic Sites
Selected References


A History of Mexican Americans in California:

Durgan Bridge
Downieville, Sierra County

Overt racism has played as important a role in shaping California's history as it has in other parts of the country. Until recent years, however, both professional historians and the general public have ignored "conflict history," with the exception of a few outstanding examples such as the Civil War and the Mexican War. By focusing solely on "consensus history," in which groups with differing aspirations and beliefs managed to cooperate for some mutually beneficial end, important elements necessary for understanding and appreciating American history have been downplayed, and in many instances virtually forgotten. The failure to incorporate racial and ethnic conflict in any presentation of the American experience denies us both the opportunity to see how far we as a nation have come in pursuit of the "American ideal" and how far we have to go. Only by examining such issues, no matter how painful, can we fully appreciate the complexities of our collective historical experience.

Certainly, strident anti-Mexican sentiment existed in California during the early 1850s. The influx of Mexican miners from Sonora, their success in locating profitable claims, and the pivotal role they played in transporting supplies to the mines did little to endear either Mexicans or native Californios to Anglo immigrants who were then swarming across the Sierra and around the Horn to seek their fortunes in California. Imbued with a sense of manifest destiny and an incipient social Darwinism, the newcomers confirmed their own sense of superiority by pointing to the ease with which the United States had first occupied and then defeated Mexico in the period 1846-1848. Despite guarantees extended to Spanish-speaking residents of California and other territories acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the war by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexicanos and Californios alike were viewed as inferior beings with few, if any, rights.

Shortly after admission of California to the Union in 1850, Mexicans and Mexican Americans were subjected to both legalized and mob-inspired discrimination and persecution. The First Foreign Miners' Tax, which levied a tax on all foreign miners, was inspired primarily by the desire to eliminate Mexican competition in the mines. This was accompanied by random but pervasive violence against Spanish-speaking individuals in the Mother Lode. The Chilean War at Chili Gulch, Calaveras County, the burning of a "Mexican" church in Drytown, Amador County, and the persecution of Mexicans at Rancheria were simply a few manifestations of anti-Mexican feeling in California. But one of the most shocking incidents was the lynching at Downieville of a young Mexican woman known through the years simply as Juanita.

Juanita, or Josefa (which was probably her real name), lived in Downieville with a young man named Jose, who was either her husband or her lover. Juanita was by most accounts an attractive young woman of a reputable nature who reportedly "had come to California from Matzalan in Mexico." (James J. Sinnott, History of Sierra County, p. 48) Juanita's character and appearance are the two things about which contemporary accounts agree. Her fate was sealed by the hostility of the Anglo community toward what they considered to be Mexican interlopers in their midst, as well as by the "ill-will between the roughly-dressed miners and the usually flashy-dressed gamblers," one of whom was Juanita's companion, Jose, a monte dealer in one of the local saloons. Juanita became embroiled in an argument with Joseph Cannon, a popular English miner from Australia, whom she subsequently stabbed.

The incident began on the evening of July 4, 1851, when Joseph Cannon and at least one companion, according to most accounts, careened down Downieville's make-shift streets after a hard day-and-night celebration of Independence Day. Some said Cannon went through the town, knocking on doors and demanding that people join him for a drink, and that this was how he happened to bang on and inadvertently break down what was by all accounts the frail door of the cabin shared by Juanita and Jose. But others contend that Cannon fell through the door in a drunken stupor, and after staggering to his feet, was hustled from the cabin by his companion before he could do any mischief.

Most accounts seem to agree that the next day, Jose went to Cannon and demanded payment for the damaged door, although at least one account states that Cannon, realizing what he had done, set off voluntarily to make restitution for the door. In any case, Jose and Cannon got into an argument that looked as though it was going to become a fight. At that point, Juanita reportedly thrust herself between Cannon, who weighed "about 230 pounds and . . . was well over six feet tall," and Jose, a slightly built individual. Juanita and Cannon then continued the argument in Spanish. Although a crowd gathered, most of them could not understand Juanita and Cannon's exchange except for a few, who later reported that Cannon had called Juanita a whore. Enraged, Juanita supposedly told Cannon to come into her house if he was going to call her names. When he did, she grabbed a knife and stabbed him, although some said that she "sprang out from a place of concealment . . . and with a long sharp Bowie knife, stabbed him through the center of the breast bone and clear into the heart." (Sinnott, p. 48)

News of Cannon's death spread quickly throughout the town of 5,000 inhabitants and out to the surrounding claims. Infuriated miners, demanding Juanita's death, stormed into town, but were finally persuaded that she deserved a trial at the very least "though few doubted what the outcome of such a trial would be." (Sinnott, p. 48) Despite the fact that there were a number of notable individuals in Downieville for the Fourth of July celebration, including Colonel (later Governor) John B. Weller, a powerful orator, few tried to defend Juanita. Weller himself did not attend the trial, and those who tried to speak on behalf of Juanita were quickly thrown off the platform that had been erected for Fourth of July proceedings only to be transformed into a makeshift court facility.

One man who tried to intercede for Juanita was Dr. Cyrus D. Aiken, who testified that the young woman was enciente (with child), and that if she were hanged, two lives would be lost. Hearing this, the crowd became incensed and demanded that Juanita be examined by three other doctors. When these physicians failed to agree with Dr. Aiken, the mob turned against the good doctor and forced him to flee the township.

There is some question whether Juanita was pregnant. Indeed, Dr. Aiken's statement may have been simply a ruse to save the young woman. But the fact remains that, under most circumstances, the possibility that a woman might be expecting a child would have delayed execution for at least a reasonable period of time. Downieville's rush to hang Juanita in defiance of established precedent and in an era when the scarcity of women in California prompted almost a reverential awe of any woman, and in a town in which there were only 25 women out of a population of 5,000 in 1851, can be explained only by the harsh, unyielding anti-Mexican sentiment that pervaded the area.

The fact that Juanita was Mexican and not Anglo denied her the moral, emotional, and physical protection guaranteed Anglo women in the rough mining communities of the day. In the eyes of most of Downieville's inhabitants, Juanita, the Mexican, was an inferior being who was tolerated only so long as she did not threaten the Anglo community. But stabbing Cannon was a direct challenge to the dominant group, a challenge the community met quickly and unrelentingly by hanging Juanita.

Thus it happened that the only woman ever lynched during the gold rush was executed at Downieville from a bridge on July 5, 1851. Unrepentant to the end, Juanita declared that, if so insulted again, she would defend her honor in the same way — brave words that did little to sway the mood of the crowd. It was only later, as news of the event spread throughout the state, that Downieville's residents became defensive and perhaps a trifle remorseful for their precipitous action.

Juanita's death did not, unfortunately, end anti-Mexican agitation or attacks on other Mexicans in the Mother Lode. Through the years, however, her execution has remained one of the most vivid examples of inarticulate, unreasoning, strident anti-Mexican sentiment in the Mother Lode. Not only did Juanita's sentence embody the prejudices of a particular time and place, but it served as yet another warning of the danger inherent in unrestrained mob hysteria, particularly when based on racial or ethnic prejudice.

The original bridge spanning the Yuba River at Downieville no longer stands. According to James J. Sinnott, "there is considerable evidence . . . that the type of bridge from which Juanita was hanged was a double A-frame construction with a cribbed pier made of logs filled with boulders in the middle of the river, the width of the river being too great to be spanned by a single A-frame structure or a simple log platform-type bridge." This bridge was destroyed during the flood that occurred December 14-15, 1861. The present Durgan Bridge is a through-arch bridge.

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