A war veteran single-handedly fought off a gang of bandits during the Gold Rush

Feb 22, 2023 8:38 AM PST
3 minute read
gold rush miners

Prospectors working California gold placer deposits.


Three miners, John Webster, Isaac Hart, and P.S. Robertson decided to set out and hunt some game on a chilly…

Three miners, John Webster, Isaac Hart, and P.S. Robertson decided to set out and hunt some game on a chilly day in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. It was Dec. 19, 1854, the height of the California Gold Rush, and the mountains were filled with other “49ers” seeking fortune and bandits seeking to steal their fortunes. 

The three miners got a chance to see both in action that day, as they watched 14 armed bandits ambush travelers near the north fork of the American River. Instead of watching the heavily-armed gang wipe out the unwary riders, they watched one man John Wick his way through the ambush in an impressive display of gunmanship. 

Jonathan Davis, Dr. Bolivar Sparks, and James McDonald. While not much is known about Sparks and McDonald, we do know that Sparks had a home in nearby Coloma. The three friends were prospectors, looking for gold like almost anyone else in the mountains during those days. 

The bandits were murderous outlaws, from five different countries who formed a unit to make better raids and ambushes. In the days before the attack on Davis’ group, they had ambushed a group of Chinese and American prospectors, 10 in all. Three slow-moving men in an isolated canyon should have been an easy target, but they didn’t know Davis had seen his share of war. 

Davis was from South Carolina, and had joined the Palmetto Regiment of volunteers as an enlisted man. His skill and leadership saw him promoted to lieutenant very early in his career. The Palmetto Regiment was sent to the Mexican War when fighting started in 1846. It saw action in many of the major battles of the war, including Vera Cruz, Contreras, Churubusco, Chapultepec, and the Gaita de Belen. 

The Palmetto Regiment carried the American colors that would first be hoisted over Mexico City when Americans captured it. It was not the U.S. Flag, it was the Palmetto Flag of South Carolina. Capt. Jonathan Davis was himself wounded at the Battle of Churubusco. When he left the service, he was still known for his marksmanship, his skill with a sword, and the fact that he always carried two Colt revolvers and a Bowie knife. 

Battle of Churubusco, J. Cameron, published by Nathaniel Currier.

So when an international gang of two Americans, five Australians, two Britons, four Mexicans and a Frenchman ambushed he and his friends without warning, Jonathan Davis went into combat mode immediately. The three hunters watched the whole scene from a nearby hill, the only confirmation that Davis’ heroism actually happened. 

The bandits opened fire when Davis’ party entered the ambush zone. James McDonald was killed right away. Sparks was able to fire two shots before falling off his horse, wounded. Davis, on the other hand, pulled both revolvers and emptied them at the gang, taking out seven of them. Four of the remaining bandits charged at him, one carrying a sword. 

By the time the grim melee was over, three were dead, including the swordsman, and the gang’s leader was down, missing a finger and his nose. The last three bandits wisely ran for their lives. Davis was wounded, and had 17 bullet holes in his hat and coat, but managed to treat his wounds using strips of cloth. He then treated the wounds of the surviving gang members. 

Dr. Sparks was gravely wounded, so Davis took him home, where he later died. Davis stripped the bandits of their valuables and gave it to Sparks’ family before appearing before a judge to account for what happened. The judge ruled Davis acted in self-defense and he was set free, walking off into the sunset of the great single act of self-defense in history.


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