Hangman’s Tree

Posted on 18 January 2014

Hangmans Tree

The American tradition of lynching transcended the white-black milieu of the former Confederate states. Historians have made a strong documentary case that the “lynching rate” for Mexican-Americans in the Far West was comparable to that for African Americans in the Deep South. Nineteenth-century California led the way in anti-Mexican and anti-Chinese vigilantism.

Gold Rush executioners did not mark their gallows; eyewitnesses typically only mention “a convenient oak tree.” In a few mining camps, the tree of convenience earned its own name through repeated use. Most famously, the town of Jackson, in Amador County, fussed over its “Hangman’s Tree,” located on Main Street next to a saloon. At least ten men died here—seven Mexicans, one Chilean, one European (variously identified as German, Swiss, and Swedish), and one indigenous man. After a town-wide conflagration in 1862, residents of Jackson cut down the blackened bough; in response, a regional newspaper opined that California’s “most remarkable tree” should have merited preservation. A pioneer-era historian informs us that this plant (an interior live oak) was “never very beautiful, but was a source of so much pride to the citizens” that they engraved a likeness of it on Amador County’s first seal. Similarly, when the namesake tree of Placerville—known popularly as Hangtown—withered and died, residents turned its wood into souvenir canes. In 1941 a donated heirloom piece of the Hangtown Oak found its way into the handle of the specially made shovel used to lay the cornerstone of Bank of America’s headquarters in San Francisco.

Hangman TreeIn the post-pioneer period, “Hangman’s Tree” became a generic place-name and the subject of fakelore. Many towns boasted of having one, and invented or exaggerated the number of people killed. The most famous of these legendary trees, seen to the right and above, was in Tuolumne County. Here in California’s “Gold Country,” tourism boosters placed unofficial signs on this massive oak along the main access road to Yosemite National Park. (The locale, just outside Groveland, at the site of a ghost town evocatively named Second Garrote, is known as Big Oak Flat.) In 1932 the California Department of Public Works severely pruned the decaying oak to prevent falling limbs from killing automobilists. Supported by guy wires, the amputated framework of this Hangman’s Tree stood as a roadside attraction (next to the falsely advertised “Bret Harte Cabin”) through the sixties. Sentiments around this pseudo-historical tree were hardly innocuous, as evidenced in 1942, when some xenophobe pinned to the oak’s dead trunk the U.S. military’s relocation order for all persons of Japanese ancestry living in California. Today, the base of the tree, barely held together by metal belts, stands over a picnic area at an RV resort on Old Highway 120. No branches remain, so locals hang the requisite noose within the hollow of the tree.

(For more information, see my article “Witness to a Hanging: California’s Haunted Trees” from Boom: A Journal of California.)

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