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Capt. Jonathan Davis's Incredible Tale

Updated on July 2, 2015

There were many gunfights in the Old West. Some were famous and made their way into the annals of history. Others may have been more dramatic and deadly, but never attained great fame. Such is the story of Captain Jonathan R. Davis, James McDonald and Dr. Bolivar Sparks. Although major newspapers across the country carried the story it soon became old news and eventually, virtually forgotten.

The three were heading for a quartz mine near Placerville, California December 19, 1854 when they were set upon by a band of 14 blood thirsty cutthroats. James McDonald of Alabama, was immediately shot and killed, his pistol still in its holster. Dr. Bolivar A. Sparks, of Mississippi, fired twice and was struck twice before he fell mortally wounded. Now only Davis, a South Carolinian, stood to fight.

His white hat made him an easy target. Or so his attackers thought. To their utter amazement Davis drew his two pistols and began firing into their midst. What the band of desperados didn’t know was they had picked the wrong man to tangle with. Captain Davis was known as one of the deadliest gunslingers in the Old West. The barrels of his revolvers had barely cleared leather before a pair of dumbfounded bandits bit the dust.

The outlaws returned the fire, but the mutton chopped Captain’s aim proved to be much more accurate. By the time his pistols were empty, seven outlaws lay dead. Davis then drew a Bowie knife and waded into what was left of the group, neatly sidestepping the barrage of bullets tearing through his clothing.

Three more fell as he slashed and stabbed his way forward. The gang leader briefly stopped to survey the scene of carnage surrounding him. Angered at the lone man standing before him who had decimated virtually all of his men, he made a last desperate charge brandishing a four-foot cavalry saber. The gang leader promptly lost part of his nose and one finger for his folly. One more lost his life to Davis’s blade and the rest were quickly dispatched with knife wounds. Three would later die from their injuries and a few were fortunate enough to escape with all their members intact.

A party of three amazed miners witnessed Davis’s valiant action from a nearby hilltop, but by the time they arrived to lend a hand it was all over. The trio found Captain Davis tending to Spark’s wounds and surprisingly, the surviving attackers as well. They also saw a bloody scene with eleven men sprawled on the ground. Eight were dead, three were soon to be and the rest were regretting the fact they woke up that morning. The end total of 11 dead became an official Old West record for the most killed in a single battle by one man.

Captain Davis received two minor flesh wounds during the fray. It was reported there were 28 bullet holes through his hat and clothes…17 through his hat and 11 through his coat and shirt. The miners searched the dead bodies and found $491 in gold and silver coin, four ounces of gold dust, seven gold watches and two silver watches which they had stolen from 10 others who had crossed their path earlier.

When things had quieted down, the group buried the dead in shallow graves. Davis took the loot and carried his friend down the mountain to his home. Sparks ended up dying a few days later and Davis donated the money to Spark's family.

At first, nobody believed Davis’s outlandish tale even though the 3 witnesses swore to the facts and signed depositions describing what they had seen. Davis offered to lead the disbelievers to the grave site. There were no takers.

Davis was born in Monticello, South Carolina on August 5, 1816. In December 1846, he enlisted in the Palmetto Regiment of Volunteers to serve in the Mexican War. He was quickly promoted to second lieutenant, and fought honorably in many battles.

In 1848, after being wounded in action at Churubusco, he was Mustered out of the army with an honorary rank of Captain. He later joined the California Gold Rush and was known for his skill with a pistol and as a fencing expert.


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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      This would make a great movie! I'm surprised Hollywood has never done it given that the story has been around for quite some time and is completely true. There've been more old west movies about unsubstantiated accounts and fables and yet here we have the real thing.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      No worries JY - you know my heart will always belong to the Corps, lol.

      But, still, what a guy! Courage and valor warrants kudos!

      And, since a Marine taught him everything he knew ... well then, that explains everything, doesn't it?

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      7 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Nils, I'm sure I have more already done. But I writem when I findem.

      Femme, why are you falling in love with him...he was army and besides I taught him everything he knows.

      Vicki, thanks. I try very hard.

    • vicki goodwin profile image

      Sojourner McConnell 

      7 years ago from Winchester Kentucky

      What a great article. I loved how you brought him to life. I enjoy reading about history and you are gifted at providing great information. Thanks!!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      If it weren't for a Carolinian accent, I could maybe fall in love with this guy!

      How suave rico! I'd never heard of him until I read it here, and so glad you've managed to come across it and fill us in!

      I loved it! Voted up, up, up!

      P.S. I mean no offense to my Carolina friends and kin. Those accents are a challenge for my ears, lol.

    • Nils Visser profile image

      Nils Visser 

      7 years ago from Brighton UK

      I'm really beginning to enjoy these hubs of yours. You've taken what used to be a series of visual impressions (from childhood play, tv shows, movies and visiting a few places in the Western US) and made them become alive by introducing the actual people who inhabited these places, in a conversational tone which, to me at least, strikes a good balance between matter-of-fact and well rationed superlatives and adjectives. I try to do the same for Medieval England and France, talk about the real people who lived there, not the cardboard cut-outs. So, keep 'em coming. As an honorary Okie (lived there), I'd love anything on some of the outrageous characters amongs the Sooners, if I may be so bold as to replace a request.


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