It’s a classic tale:
A pirate and his band of cut throats lying in wait to ambush a
treasure-laden convoy which unknowingly steers its way into their
trap; carefully aimed volleys fired to quickly neutralize the heavily
armed guard; gun-waving scoundrels gleefully making off with the
stolen loot while their defeated and disarmed opponents helplessly
look on; a treasure trove of gold bullion buried on the side of a
remote mountain - treasure which lies hidden to this day. These are
all chapters of a tale one would expect to read in the pages of a book
by such early writers of swashbuckling adventure as Stevens or
Kipling; tales which took place in the warm waters and tropical
islands of the South Pacific. One would not expect such a tale to be
adapted to the high altitude of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of
California, and one would certainly not expect such a tale of piracy,
adventure, and treasure to be authentic. And yet, indeed it is. The
hero of this bloody tale was a colorful character who roamed the
Sierra who proudly answered to the moniker of Rattlesnake Dick; -
which was not, as one might suspect, a condition contracted from the
practice of consorting with the ever present mining camp groupies of
the Sierra, but rather a colorful mountain man who could not have been
more appropriately cast had he been conceived within the stylized mind
of a Hollywood studio executive.
Dick Barter was the son of a British army officer who was stationed in
Quebec and who had brought his family from England over to the
provinces with him, thinking that his sons would be better raised into
adulthood if his stern fatherly influence was always close at hand.
But when daddy died in 1853 Dick, along with his brother and a cousin,
headed for the gold fields of California to make a quick fortune
picking up gold which, they had heard, was just lying around for the
taking. They ended up at a place called Rattlesnake Bar on the
American River, where with much disappointment they barely found
enough flakes to keep themselves fed. Dick’s brother and cousin
decided that this was just too much damn work, so they packed up and
left for Oregon. But Dick, with all the certainty and naivety of his
twenty one years, decided to stay on in California and trust in his
luck to make it pay off.
But luck turned against Dick, and although the nickname of
‘Rattlesnake’ was attached to him by his fellow prospectors in regard
for his persistence in sticking to that one area of the gold fields,
it soon came to hint at a darker side as Dick was soon accused of
stealing another miner’s livestock. He was acquitted, but another
similar charge soon followed the first. Upon being found not guilty a
second time Dick nevertheless found that his reputation had been
permanently tarnished. The old premise of ‘where there’s smoke there
must be fire’ took hold in the minds of his fellow miners and Dick
found himself more or less constantly looked upon with suspicion. So
Dick moved on to other mining camps, changing his name to Dick Woods
in the hope of losing his past while pursuing an honest life. But a
man who had known him years before eventually turned up and ‘outed’
him to his new friends. At this point Rattlesnake Dick threw up his
hands in despair and said, “The hell with it! If you’re going to
believe that I’m a thief, then I’m damn well going to be one!” He
disappeared from town but, a few nights’ later, walked out of the
bushes on a high Sierra road and robbed a late night traveler. After
taking the man’s money he then took particular care to identify
himself as Rattlesnake Dick. Then, as he walked back into the night,
he turned back to the man and added, “Rattlesnake Dick - the Pirate of
the Sierra”. This was a telling moment, for it showed that Dick had
already begun to think of himself as the incarnation of a
swashbuckling hero from a daring and romantic adventure novel.
Rattlesnake Dick immersed himself into his new career with enthusiasm
and energy. One day he would be on the road holding up travelers; the
next he would be down on the streams helping himself to the glittering
gravel from the pans or sluice boxes of his former compatriots; while
a week later might find him making off with a rancher’s cattle or
horses. The zeal with which he greeted his victims spoke of his
assurance that he was going to be happy following this new life path
for as long as it lasted. And, in order to show those who had scorned
him just how intelligent of a pirate he was going to be, Rattlesnake
Dick began to plan the largest robbery in the history of California.
Dick started off by not-so-carefully recruiting five relatively
untalented and inept men into his pirate band. Big Dolph Newton
handled the transportation – he was an experienced handler of horses –
probably because he had stolen so many of them. An Italian immigrant
named Romero was a lady’s man and boasted of several illegal acts,
none of which he could actually prove. Bill Carter had, on the other
hand, successfully carried off several small robberies, and he was
looking for something bigger. Brothers George and Cyrus Skinner signed
on as a team. Both had multiple convictions behind them as well as
multiple jail sentences and multiple successful escapes from jail.
George Skinner soon became Dick’s second-in-command.
Rattlesnake Dick’s Master Plan of Piracy was to waylay a pack train
carrying gold bullion. He knew of one place high in the Sierra where
the road was so bad that the bullion from the mines had to be packed
out on mules since neither horses nor wagons could negotiate its
treacherous turns and inclines. Dick knew of one particular spot on
the trail where the slow moving caravan could easily be waylaid, and
the guards could be surprised and overpowered quickly while the gang
made off with the gold. The only problem Dick foresaw in this
seemingly foolproof plan was that all of the mules in the gold caravan
bore the very distinctive brand of the company operating the mule
train, and he knew that he could never allow those mules to ever again
be seen by anyone without them being recognized; that they would have
to disappear forever or they would arouse suspicion.
So Dick divided his gang of pirates into two parts. The first part,
led by George Skinner, would lay hidden on the trail, ambush and
disarm the guards as the train approached, and make off with the gold
bullion still strapped to the backs of the company mules. George would
take Dolph and Carter along to help him carry this off - and the
inexperienced Romero as well, apparently in case any ladies needed to
be distracted. While they were doing that Dick would take Cyrus and
steal some unbranded mules – he knew where he could find some on a
local ranch - which they would then drive up into the mountains and
the gold could be transferred onto their backs so as not to arouse
suspicion. The company mules with the distinctive brands would then be
shot or abandoned.
On the appointed day George headed off to the ambush site to carry out
his part of the deed. On the way – and unbeknownst to Rattlesnake Dick
– George decided it might be good to add an extra pirate to the party
and recruited a Mexican whom he knew only very slightly. They reached
the point on the trail designated for the ambush, lay in wait, and
duly ambushed the mule train when it came into view. True to Dick’s
plan the guards were surprised and easily overcome. George’s gang
disarmed them, tied them to trees, and made off with the gold-laden
mules. They disappeared into the mountains to soon arrive at the
pre-arranged rendezvous point with Rattlesnake Dick and the unmarked
But Rattlesnake Dick wasn’t there.
George Skinner and his gang hunkered down and waited. They were
confident that Dick would soon show up with the mules, but they also
knew that their window of opportunity for getting away was shrinking;
that the guards they’d left tied up would soon loosen their bonds and
run down the mountain to raise the alarm. This ominous possibility
seemed to weigh most heavily on the newest addition to the gang. The
Mexican quickly grew restless, but George told him they were going to
keep to the plan and wait. The Mexican then threatened to kill George,
pulling a knife and demanding his share of the gold. George calmly
drew his revolver and put a bullet through the man’s heart. They were
going to wait.
But as the hours passed and their chance of getting away shrank with
them, the other members of the pirate’s gang soon pressed George to
take action. So George agreed to divide the gold – estimated to be
about $80,000 worth in 1850’s dollars – into two parts. Half of the
gold the four men loaded onto their horses while the other half George
carried off into the mountains and buried it where the others could
not see. They would come back for it, George insisted, only when it
was safe. Then they gave up on waiting for Rattlesnake Dick and the
unbranded mules and set out down the mountain.
But the guards of the mule train had long since managed to untie
themselves and had walked down the mountains and raised the alarm.
When George and his men rode out a posse was waiting for them. The
robbers were outnumbered and outgunned. Carter and Newton raised their
hands and surrendered. Romero tried to escape but was shot and
wounded. And George Skinner, the only man who knew where the gold was
buried, died instantly from the first bullet fired. Newton and Romero
were tried and sent to prison. Carter turned state’s evidence and plea
bargained his way out of jail. He told the law everything they wanted
to know and was pardoned.
But what happened to Rattlesnake Dick?
Rattlesnake Dick may have been the Pirate of the Sierra but he proved
to be rather an inept mule thief. The rancher had caught him and Cyrus
Skinner stealing his stock, and they had landed in jail. This was
embarrassing, so Dick and Cyrus plotted their escape, as any true
pirate would. As it happened, they didn’t have to plot very long. A
deputy inadvertently left his key in the lock of their cell door. They
were out of jail and out of town before anyone knew it. Dick and Cyrus
then made their way to San Francisco, but a resurgence of the
unfriendly activities of the Vigilance Committee made them
undesirables in that town and they wisely decided to move on before
they got hung. They split up, Rattlesnake Dick heading back to the
mountains where he was most comfortable while Cyrus though he’d be
safer far away in Montana. As it happened, Cyrus was wrong. He was
hung soon after his arrival there.
Rattlesnake Dick soon returned to his old ways in the Sierra, robbing
whoever he could find and usually escaping. Sometimes he was caught,
but he always managed to somehow get out of it. Sometimes he escaped
from jail and sometimes he was acquitted for lack of evidence.
The luck of the pirate finally ran out on the evening of July 11th,
1859. The tax collector of Placer County picked up a rumor that
Rattlesnake Dick and a companion had been seen riding on a road
outside of town. He went over to tell the sheriff but instead found
only two deputies on duty that night. So the three of them, after
talking it over, decided to ride out and see if they could catch
Rattlesnake Dick and be heroes. History doesn’t record exactly why a
tax collector went along on this errand, but one might fairly assume
that alcohol was somehow involved. As luck would have it the three men
took the right road and soon caught up with Dick and his companion.
One of the deputies called out for them to halt. Rattlesnake Dick
turned in his saddle, drew his pistol, and fired a single shot which
shattered the deputy’s hand and cut the horse’s rein in two. Dick’s
companion spun his horse around and also fired, and the tax collector
doubled over with a cry of pain and dropped from his horse. As the two
outlaws rode off into the dark each of the two deputies fired a single
shot after them. Before the night swallowed them the deputies thought
they saw Rattlesnake Dick bend low over his saddle. Then they were
gone. The deputy had lost a hand in the battle. The tax collector had
lost his life. The Pirate of the Sierra was thought to have
successfully escaped once again. But, as it turned out, a dead man was
now riding that horse.
The next day a body was found lying on a road several miles from where
the encounter with the deputies had taken place, and it was soon
identified as that of Rattlesnake Dick. His companion had apparently
made a successful getaway. Dick’s horse was found shortly thereafter,
also with a bullet wound, and both were taken into town for a final
examination before the legend of Rattlesnake Dick, as well as the man
himself, were finally laid to rest.
Rattlesnake Dick, the Pirate of the Sierra, was gone. But two mysteries remain.
The first mystery is that, when the body of Rattlesnake Dick was
examined by a doctor, three bullet wounds were found. Two bullets had
pierced his chest and a third had lodged in his brain. The doctor said
that any one of those bullets would have been sufficient to kill him
instantly. But what is especially puzzling is that both of the
deputies swore that they each had fired only one shot during the fray,
yet Rattlesnake Dick’s body contained three bullets while his horse
held a fourth. Where had those extra two bullets come from? Even more
eerie was the fact that Dick had apparently managed to continue to
ride his horse for several miles after he had died – a feat which was
indeed worthy of a True Pirate.
The second mystery is – What happened to all that gold? George
Skinner buried half of it – an estimated $40,000 worth of it in 1856
dollars. In today’s dollars that would be worth about $1,200,000.00.
And no one knows where it is. Carter, Newton, and Romero all swore
that they had not followed George Skinner the day he had ridden alone
into the mountains to bury it and they had no idea where it lay
hidden. All three were closely watched for years, and none of them
ever went near that mountain where the gold was reported to be.
So a Pirate’s Treasure still lays buried in the Sierra; over a million
dollars in gold; and no one knows where it is.
Except a dead man, and he’s not telling.
With a degree in Anthropology and an avid interest in history, Tim Christensen has lived in the Sierra Nevada Mountains for many years. He has no cell phone or television, but manages, when not chopping firewood or shoveling snow, to keep himself entertained with a library of several thousand books.