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Shootout at Mussel Slough

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  • James Hardy Allen (1837 - 1911)
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  • Leland Stanford, Governor of California (1824 - 1893)
    Amasa Leland Stanford (March 9, 1824 – June 21, 1893) was an American tycoon, robber baron, industrialist, politician, Governor of California, and founder of Stanford University. He was one of the Big ...

The Mussel Slough Tragedy was a dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP) that took place on May 11, 1880, on a farm located 5.6 miles (9 km) northwest of Hanford, California, in the central San Joaquin Valley, leaving seven people dead, two deputy U.S. Marshals and five ranchers.


With a toll of seven dead, one wounded, seventeen indicted and five eventually jailed, the Mussel Slough Tragedy earns the dubious honor of being the second deadliest gunfight in the history of the Wild West.

The magnitude of an event cannot always be measured by the number of people directly involved in it," J.L. Brown, “The Mussel Slough Tragedy".

The news broke swiftly, and there was outrage throughout the nation. The media fanned the flames, calling the events of that day a "massacre of innocent farmers by greedy railroad barons." When the so-called Mussel Slough Five were released from jail, a crowd of over 3,000 people had gathered to cheer for them. In the end, it took over a thousand U.S. soldiers to complete the evictions of the settlers who couldn't afford to buy their farms.

What happened that day 130 years ago captured the imagination and excited the interest of the nation. Politicians and other famous figures were quick to jump into the fray. Ambrose Bierce lionized Crow, calling him "this bravest of Americans". A rash of highly-sensational fictionalized accounts were published almost immediately, and the tragedy has had songs written about it and even inspired the name of a heavy-metal band from Hanford, California.

After reading Norris' The Octopus, President Roosevelt pronounced that "...conditions were worse in California than elsewhere." In spite of all the sensationalism, what happened was mostly bad luck and miscommunication. There are so many conflicting accounts that we will never know for certain who fired the first shot.

What we do know is that the lives of many were affected. In addition to those who actually participated, there were many others, family members, friends, neighbors, and fellow settlers who should also be included in the project if we are understand what happened.

Project Profiles

  • Samuel E. Biddle, merchant, landowner
  • Ambrose Bierce, author & editor of San Francisco's The Wasp, which, under his leadership, lampooned the railroad interests over the shooting
  • William Braden, participant
  • Henry Brewer, settler whose farm was the site of the shootout
  • B. S. Burr, participant
  • William H. Clark, railroad land grader, participant, later asked assistance of President Hayes
  • J. Coffey, later asked assistance of President Hayes
  • Walter J. Crow, landowner, participant (killed)
  • John J. Doyle, participant, later asked assistance of President Hayes
  • Dr. J.B. Flewelling, later asked assistance of President Hayes
  • James Harris, participant (killed)
  • Edwin Haymaker, participant
  • John E. Henderson, participant (killed)
  • Mills D. Hartt, landowner, participant (killed)
  • Daniel Kelly, participant (killed)
  • Iver Knutson, participant (killed)
  • Archibald McGregor, participant (killed)
  • W. L. Morton, participant
  • James N. Patterson, participant
  • Alonzo W. Poole, U.S. Marshal, participant
  • Wayman L. Pryor, participant
  • John D. Pursell, participant
  • Daniel Spangler, landowner, friend of Mills Hartt
  • Leland Stanford, co-owner of the Southern Pacific Railroad
  • John Storer, business partner of Henry Brewer

Timeline of Events

Annotated Reading List

  • Arax, Mark, and Wartzman, Rick, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: Public Affairs, 2003) pp 77-78. [distorted, factually incorrect]
  • Armento, Beverly J., and Nash, Gary B., et al., Oh California (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991) pp 162-177, 190-201. [inaccurate, sensationalized]
  • Bean, Walton, California, An Interpretive History (New York:McGraw-Hill, 1968) pp 226-28 [many substantive errors]
  • Bederman, David J., The Imagery of Injustice at Mussel Slough: Railroad Land Grants, Corporation Law, and the 'Great Conglomerate West, Western Legal History 1 (Summer/Fall 1998): p 242 [largely erroneous, virtually no direct primary sources]
  • Beers, Terry. Gunfight at Mussel Slough: Evolution of a Western Myth. Santa Clara, California: Heyday, 2004. Print. ISBN 1890771821. [even-handed analysis]
  • Bristow, Barbara M., Mussel Slough Tragedy: Railroad Struggle or Land Gamble, (M.A. thesis, Fresno State College, 1971) [extensive research, critical of settlers]
  • Brown, James L. The Mussel Slough Tragedy. Lemoore, CA: Kings River Press, 2001. Print. ISBN 0967542014. [valuable sources, more or less objective]
  • Brown, Richard Maxwell. No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1991. Chapter 3: "California Conflict and the American Dream". ISBN 0195045106. [pro-settler]
  • Caughley, John W., and Hundley, Jr., Norris, California: History of a Remarkable State (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1982) pp 280-281
  • Conlogue, William, Farmer's Rhetoric of Defense: California Settlers Versus the Southern Pacific Railroad, California History 78 (Spring 1999) pp 40-55, 73-76.
  • Deverell, William, Railroad Crossing: Californians and the Railroad, 1850-1910, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994) pp 56-57, 137 [balanced, accurate]
  • Didion, Joan, Where I Was From (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) pp 38-51. [distorted, factually incorrect]
  • Hall, Oakley, Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades: A Mystery Novel (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) [contemporary fiction; very loosely based on events]
  • Henderson, George L., California and the Fictions of Capital, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) pp 123-149. [reliable; insightful analysis of Norris' The Octopus]
  • Lewis, Oscar, The Big Four (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1938) Chapter 3: "Monopoly" [many errors of fact and substance]
  • McAfee, Ward, California's Railroad Era: 1850-1911 (San Marino: Golden West Books, 1973) pp 117-118, 174-176
  • Miller, May Merrill, First the Blade [sensational fiction, 1938]
  • Mitchell, Annie Rosalind. The Way It Was: the Colorful History of Tulare County. Fresno, pages 49, 103, CA: Valley, 1976. Print.
  • Morrow, W.C., Blood-Money [sensational fiction, 1882]
  • Norris, Frank. The Octopus, A Story of California. Doubleday, Page & Co., 1901. Print. [Fiction; poorly-researched, highly sensationalized and inaccurate]
  • Olin, Jr., Spencer C., California Politics, 1846-1920: The Emerging Corporate State, (San Francisco: Boyd and Fraser Publishing Co., 1981) pp42-43.
  • Orsi, Richard J., Sunset Limited:The Southern Pacific Railroad and the Development of the American West, 1850-1930.
  • Post, Charles Cyril, Driven from Sea to Sea; or, Just A' Campin [sensational fiction, 1884]
  • Preston, William L., Vanishing Landscapes: Land and Life in the Tulare Lake Basin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) p.131.
  • Rice, Richard B., Bullough, William A., and Orsi, Richard J., The Elusive Eden: A New History of California, (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002 ed.), page 253
  • Roberts, Robin Michael. Hanford. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2005. Print. Online preview at:
  • Roberts, Robin Michael. Kings County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Pub., 2008. Print.
  • Robinson, William W., Land in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1948), pp.159-160
  • Rollins, Richard L., The Mussel Slough Dispute: An Inquiry Based on the Census and Real Property Evidence (M.A. thesis, California State University, Hayward, 1990) [extensive research, pro-settler]
  • Roske, Ralph J., Everyman's Eden: A History of California (New York: Macmillan, 1968)
  • Royce, Josiah, The Feud of Oakfield Creek [sensational fiction, 1887]
  • Salzman, Ed, and Brown, Ann Leigh, The Cartoon History of California Politics (Sacramento: California Journal Press, 1978)
  • Schwartz, Stephen, From West to East: California and the Making of the American Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1998) pp105-112
  • Semas, Michael J., Kings County. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2005. Print.
  • Watkins, T.H., California: An Illustrated History (New York: Weathervane Books, 1973) pp 222-231

Other Sources