Three men moved with caution navigating a lonely, uneven trail in Rocky Canyon, high in the cold Sierra Nevada Mountains. Unknown to them, a gang of gunmen waited in hiding. 


Captain Jonathan R. Davis, a veteran of the Mexican-American War, served as leader of the group. Davis had been battle-tested several times before a bullet wound put him out of action. 

After he left the service, he kept the honorary title of captain and headed to California to join the gold rush.

The two other prospectors accompanied him: James C. McDonald of Alabama and Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks of Mississippi.

Because of the increasing violence associated with the California Gold Rush, all three carried weapons.

While making their way along the North Fork of the American River on Tuesday, Dec. 19, 1854, a band of fourteen gunmen emerged from ambush and began shooting.

A bullet his McDonald, killing him where he stood. Bolivar yanked his pistol out and snapped off a couple of shots, but he fell to the ground wounded.

Captain Davis, an expert marksman, drew his two Colt revolvers and returned fire, killing several of the attackers.

When the hammers of his guns fell on empty chambers, Davis pulled out the Bowie knife to defend himself.

Wielding the blade knife with expert abandon, Davis charged the gunmen. He stabbed one to death and sliced off another man’s nose and right finger.

“Two of the four that made the charge upon me were unable to fight on account of their old wounds,” Davis later said. “They came up with the rest, making warlike demonstrations by raising their knives in a striking posture, and I acted accordingly…”

When the smoke cleared in the small, confined battleground, seven attackers lay dead, four suffered wounds, and the last three ran off. 

Three miners witnessed the battle from atop a nearby hill, but the time they reached the area to help, the gunfight was over.

They found Davis dressing Sparks’ wounds, and even aiding the injured assailants. The group buried the dead in shallow graves.

“Though we counted 28 bullet-holes through Captain Davis’ hat and clothes—17 through his hat, and 11 through his coat and shirt—he received but two very slight flesh wounds,” according to one of the prospectors.

A search of the dead bodies turned up a little less than $500 in gold and silver coin, gold dust and various pieces of jewelry.

A subsequent investigation revealed members of the gang came from several different countries and had robbed and killed six Chinese a couple of days earlier. They had also robbed and killed four Americans the previous day.

Despite extensive newspaper reports about what would be branded the deadliest small arms battle in American history, some editors branded the story too preposterous to merit belief.

A coroner’s jury praised Captain Davis for his heroic one-man-stand. Even though, the attack attracted widespread criticism. Some people simply couldn’t believe one man could stage such a defense and live.

Davis invited the skeptics to travel back to the site and see the shallow graves, but everyone turn him down. 

Several months later, Captain Davis appeared at the office of the Placerville, (Calif.) Mountain Democrat with the brother-in-law of Dr. Sparks—who died from his wounds—and with the three miners who witnessed the battle.

After providing the newspaper with depositions, editors finally bought the story and gave Davis recognition for one of the most courageous feats in American history.



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