Of the countless men and women who walked these mountains a century and more ago, most are forever lost to memory for the simple reason that, even if their lives were filled with adventure, they lived those
lives quietly and passed on without having accomplished anything
noteworthy enough to obtain a chapter, a page, or even a footnote in
the history books. Others chalked up one well known deed after another
and are still remembered for what they accomplished. And others, such
as The Man Who Was the First Prisoner In the Jail He Built, are still
remembered by some of us simply because they – how should I say it? –
simply because they lived life in a Large Way.
Charles Converse came to California in 1849 to seek his fortune in the
gold fields along with thousands of other hopeful young men. After
spending a couple of years panning for gold he gave up on the
uncertain prospects to be found on the bottom of a mountain stream to
try the more direct approach of selling the miners what they needed,
and by 1851 he had opened a retail store in the town of Coarsegold.
Yet even after being in California for such a short period of time,
Converse had quickly acquired a reputation for living life somewhat on
the edge and was often involved in or suspected of committing
questionable acts. He had a habit of getting fervently involved in
local elections, and was arrested and fined for stuffing the ballot
box in one such election. He found himself arrested more than once for
illegal gambling, and that must have taken some effort in a community
where gambling and drinking were the two of the three main
By the mid-1860’s Converse had moved on to the town of Millerton,
which at that time was the seat of Fresno County. In 1866 Fresno
County solicited bids for the construction of a new county jail and
courthouse as the ones they had were barely standing and largely
non-functional, which had proven to be a boon for prisoners wanting to
escape but a frustration to the judge. So Charles Converse, changing
professions to adapt to local need, billed himself as a contractor and
won the contract to build a courthouse of which the citizens of Fresno
County could be proud and a jail from which no one could escape. And
he did just that. Within months both structures stood proudly on the
streets of Millerton.
Shortly after this there was another election in the county, this time
for sheriff. And, like before, Converse became passionately involved.
Converse had butted heads frequently with the incumbent sheriff, a man
named Ashman, during the construction of those two fine edifices of
which he was so rightfully proud, so he was an ardent supporter of the
challenger, a man named Walker. Feelings ran high during the campaign,
verbal abuses were hurled with abandon, fights had broken out, and in
a town where all men carried guns, it was feared that a death or two
might become a part of the campaign.
After the polls had finally closed on Election Day without anyone
having been killed (yet), Converse retired to his favorite watering
hole, a bar called Payne’s Saloon, to have a drink or three while he
awaited the counting of the ballots. As he stood at the bar with drink
in hand an Ashman supporter on the street outside saw him standing
there, picked up a large rock, and hurled it through the plate glass
window right at Converse’s head, apparently not caring that the
election was over and still wanting to eliminate the most vocal Walker
supporter in town. It missed him by inches. Converse spun around, drew
his pistol, and fired one shot at the back of the rock thrower who by
now was wisely running down the street and around the corner. The shot
But as Converse’s back was turned to the bar the bartender - and
another Ashman supporter, a man named Crow - saw his opportunity. Crow pulled out his ‘equalizer’ from underneath the bar – a lump of lead
wrapped in a cloth which he could swing at misbehaving drunks and
render them unconscious – and swung it as hard as he could, hitting
Converse squarely on the head. Charles Converse was a big man; a
strong man. Over two hundred pounds and six feet in height, most of
him was solid muscle. So a blow that would normally have badly hurt
most men and even killed others turned out to be a blow that only
slightly dazed Charles Converse. Crow, perhaps realizing that he had
made a severe error in judgment, turned and ran from the bar,
following in the steps of the rock thrower of a moment before.
That was a mistake. Converse was already facing the street through the
broken window, and he already had his gun in his hand. So, head
throbbing slightly but vision unblurred, Converse raised his gun and
again fired a single shot. This time the bullet found its mark and the
bartender fell dead in the street. At this point the rock thrower,
wondering what all the fuss was about, stuck his head out from around
the corner to take a look. Converse saw him and fired another shot in
his direction, knocking the hat off his head and causing him to
disappear for good. Then, perhaps slightly irritated at these
unexpected and repeated attempts on his life, Converse probably turned
to everyone in the bar and said the equivalent of, ’Anyone else want a
piece of me?’ Well, they did. The crowd swarmed on Converse and
disarmed him, then marched him down the street to where the
bartender’s body lay in the dirt. When they saw that Crow was dead,
they continued marching him down the street to the brand new jail, and
Charles Converse had the honor of being the first prisoner in the jail
he had built. The escape-proof jail.
Charles Converse was found Not Guilty on the charge of murder when his trial came up. The jury agreed with his opinion that he’d acted in
self-defense. History doesn’t record how many Walker supporters sat in
the jury box that day. Walker, by the way, won the election.
But Converse still seemed to attract trouble, or be attracted by it.
Later that same year the Fresno County treasurer, a man by the name of
Gaster, suddenly disappeared. With him the entire county treasury
also went missing. And who was the last man to have been seen with
Gaster? None other than Charles Converse. So, in the eyes of many (or
of most) citizens, Converse was the natural suspect. Yet there was no
actual proof linking Converse to the disappearance, so suspicions
simmered for a few years with no result. But in 1869, when Converse
suddenly married Gaster’s former wife, suspicions resurfaced with a
vengeance. Converse had had enough. Still maintaining his innocence,
Converse took his new bride and came up to what was to become the
Grant Grove area of the mountains and filed a claim on several
thousand acres of prime Sequoia trees. His idea was to cut the trees
and float them down the Kings River to sawmills in the valley, and he
formed the Kings River Lumber Company and began looking for investors
to fund his idea, because, despite what his accusers were saying about
him and the missing county funds, Converse claimed to have no money.
But an economic recession made investors hard to find, and Converse
had to walk away from the mountains and from his dream.
Converse then drifted for several years, first working for the
railroad and then marketing himself as a mining consultant in several
western states and becoming a famous man, if not a successful man,
wherever he hung his hat. By the 1890’s he was in San Francisco, still
trying to find work as a mining consultant but instead finding himself
broke and hungry. When his body was pulled from San Francisco bay one day by two fisherman it made front page news because of his numerous well-known exploits. Because of the many enemies Converse had made over the years everyone suspected murder, but the county coroner ruled that Converse had weighed his own clothing with rocks and thrown himself in the bay because he was broke and depressed. But anyone who knew Charles Converse was still convinced that it must be murder, no matter what the official verdict might be.
It can’t really be said of Charles Converse that he accomplished
anything of historical note, but whatever he did, he did in a
flamboyant way. He Lived Life Large. Yet even so he most likely would
not be remembered at all if he hadn’t come to this part of the Sierra
Nevada Mountains looking for a new life with his new wife. Although he
was only here a brief time he gave his name to the land he claimed,
and although the thousands of Giant Sequoias which once stood there
are now gone, that land is still known today as Converse Basin, and so
we still remember Charles Converse.
As a footnote: Gaster, the missing Fresno County Treasurer, was
discovered many years later in Nicaragua, where he had wisely invested
the county funds and was living quite comfortably. The flamboyant man
who had once been the first prisoner in his own jail had nothing
whatsoever to do with that crime.
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.
Sequoia Parks Conservancy, the official 501(c)(3) nonprofit partner of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks (National Park Service) and Lake Kaweah (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), uses tax-deductible contributions to support these parks.
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