High in the cold Sierra Nevada Mountains in the winter of 1854, three men cautiously navigated an isolated, uneven trail in Rocky Canyon, unaware of the real danger awaiting just a few steps ahead.


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

Davis, along with James C. McDonald of Alabama and Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks of Mississippi, had been prospecting for gold on December 19th when a band of fourteen gunmen ambushed them. 

Because of the increasing violence associated with the California Gold Rush, the trio decided to carry weapons.

The attackers filled the air with gunfire, and a bullet struck McDonald, killing him where he stood. Bolivar yanked out his pistol and fired a couple of shots but fell to the ground, wounded.

Captain Davis, an expert marksman, drew his two Colt revolvers and returned fire, killing several attackers. Then, when the hammers of his guns fell on empty chambers, he pulled out a Bowie knife to defend himself.

Wielding the blade with abandon, Davis charged the shooters, stabbing one to death and slicing off another man’s nose and right finger.

Davis later said, “Two of the four that made the charge upon me were unable to fight on account of their old wounds.” 

“They came up with the rest, making warlike demonstrations by raising their knives in a striking posture, and I acted accordingly…”

When the gunsmoke cleared the 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. However, the attack had ended when they reached the area to help. They found Davis dressing Sparks’ wounds and even aiding the injured assailants. The dead were buried in shallow graves.

One prospector pointed out he and others “counted 28 bullet holes through Captain Davis’ hat and clothes—17 through his hat, and 11 through his coat and shirt.”

But, he added, Davis “received but two very slight flesh wounds.” 

The prospectors searched the dead bodies and found less than $500 in gold and silver coins, gold dust, and various jewelry pieces.

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

The outlaw band—which included several members of a notorious band of Australian criminals called the Sidney Ducks—had also robbed and killed four Americans and six Chinese a couple of days earlier. 

Despite extensive newspaper reports about the “deadliest small arms battle in American history,” some editors considered the story too absurd.

A coroner’s jury, however, praised Captain Davis for his heroic one-man-stand.

The incident continued to attract widespread criticism. Some people couldn’t believe one man could survive such a battle. Davis invited the skeptics to travel back to the site and see the shallow graves, but everyone turned 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 had died from his wounds.

Also accompanying him were 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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