Hang ’em High


 I was thrilled recently to learn that my entry, Outlaw Bride, has finaled in the Romance Through the Ages Contest sponsored by RWA’s special interest chapter, Hearts Through History. This work-in-progress features a horse-hang-tree-barethievin’ heroine who manages to escape getting strung up on a tree outside an Arizona town. This second chance at life finds her mending her evil ways…and falling for a handsome Cavalry scout turned rancher.  All the while she’s outrunning her big bad outlaw brother and the bounty on her head. ..disguised as a nun.

Well, she’s itsy bitsy, so the hangin’ tree didn’t have to be very big…but most hanging trees, real or legendary, had to be sturdy with dramatic, stretched-out branches.  In California, oaks and sycamores were the trees of choice although juniper came in handy, too. Or should I say, necky? Many trees have been lost to age, disease, or development, but some remain, like the hanging tree in Holcomb Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains.  (shown below) 

The valley was the richest gold field in Southern California, a good dozen years after the Forty Niners up north. While miners and prospectors worked hard and honest to find their lucky strikes,  claim jumpers, gamblers, and outlaws such as Button’s Gang all the way from Salt Lake City, Utah, made harsh frontier justice necessary. In the first two years after gold was discovered in 1861, some 40, possibly 50 murders demanded a strong message of law and order.


Records claim that this lovely juniper in Holcomb Valley witnessed as many as four  hangings at a single time. When the hanged criminal was cut down, so was the branch from which he hung.

Down the mountain, in the canyon below a tollway in Orange County’s  master-planned community of Irvine, bad guys were hanged long ago from a stand of seven sycamores. A plaque reads, “Under this tree, General Andres Pico Hung Two Banditos from the Flores Gang in 1857.”

General Pico, the brother of California’s last Mexican governor, led the posse that captured and hanged at that spot Francisco Ardillero and Juan Catabo of the treacherous Juan Flores Gang. The gang had massacred a Los Angeles County sheriff and three other lawmen during a reign of terror that blazed for a hundred miles. 

Juan Flores himself was strung up in downtown Los Angeles while thousands of spectators watched, but the humbler Ardillero and Catabo were soon forgotten.

They might be nameless even today if the monument shown below hadn’t been erected forty years ago by an equestrian club. Today these sycamores symbolize life. Docents will lead hikes to O.C.’s Hangman’s Tree later in the summer only after a pair of nesting hawks have raised their young.  


 Up north, about an hour west of Lake Tahoe, Placerville, California still lays hangman-tavern-placervilleproud claim to its original moniker, Hangtown. All along historic Main Street, establishments display such names as Chuck’s Hangtown Bakery, Hangtown Grill, and even Hangtown Tattoo and Body Piercing. Without a doubt, Hangman’s Tree Tavern is the site most deserving of bragging rights, for down in its basement you can see the original stump from the white oak hangin’ tree. I’ve seen it…kind of sad, really. 

Placerville likely got its original name in January 1849 when a colorful gambler was waylaid by robbers after a particularly profitable evening at the saloon. Once captured, the thieves were unanimously declared guilty and condemned to death by hanging after a 30-minute trial and little evidence. At that time, the infamous white oak hanging tree stood in a hay yard next to the aptly-named Jackass Inn.

 Ken Gonzales-Day, an art professor at Scripps College in Claremont, California, has written an excellent book, Lynching in the West, which chronicles 350 such cases in California between 1850 and 1935. Tragically, many were racial injustices. Because he feels people tend to fictionalize the past unless they realize real people lived it, he has photographed dozens of “hang trees” in his research and describes his pictorial journey as “part pilgrimage and part memorial.” Some day, he says, the trees will be gone, and the last living pieces of this history will be lost.

Ken, who describes the trees as “witnesses standing there when the mobs walked by,” has kindly shared with us some of his hauntingly beautiful photographs, the three below and the “bare” tree at the top. It actually is very like the imaginary scene in my head where my outlaw bride almost meets her Maker. I didn’t know Ken’s work when I wrote the story.


hang-tree-twoFortunately, most of California’s native trees don’t have such  grim histories. Our state has got California live oak and palm trees (not native), groves of avocado and lemon and olive, the giant Sequoia, Generals Sherman and Grant, the coastal redwoods, ponderosa and jeffrey pines, and bristlecones thousands of years old. Not to mention hundreds of species inbetween.

Other than a Christmas tree by my fireplace in December, my favorite tree hang-treeis the lemon tree in my backyard. I raid it almost daily for slices for my iced tea. And we found a humming bird nest in a red-leaf not long ago.

What are your favorite tree stories? Did you climb them as a kid? Build a tree house? Hang a tire swing from a branch, or a hammock between two trunks? Tack a fairy door over a knothole to give the little people some privacy?

Please share!

(Many thanks to Professor Ken Gonzales-Day and the LA Times, May 7, 2009.) 


Website | + posts

A California beach girl, I love cowboys and happy-ever-afters. My firefighter hubby and I enjoy travel, our two little grandsons, country music, McDonald's iced coffee, and volunteering at the local horse rescue. I was thrilled last year to receive the CTRR Award at Coffeetime Romance for Sanctuary, my tribute to my cancer-survin' hubby!

38 thoughts on “Hang ’em High”

  1. Mornin’ Tanya!

    Interesting blog. I knew hanging trees were commonly used in Texas, but I didn’t think about other states. That’s what Hollywood showed us, so it must be true. 🙂

    I love the flowering trees in my area, but the tree that sticks out in my memory is the huge mulberry my brother “made” me fall out of (and that’s a story for another time).

    • hi Tracy! Ah, those pesky brothers. Now you’ve really got me intrigued. I wasn’t much of a tree climber, but my hubby claims he built a rockin’ tree house as a kid. I recall hammocks…and an apricot tree in my gramma’s backyard that had the most delicious fruit.

      I felt just the way you describe, when I saw the Holcomb Valley tree for the first time.
      What? This kind of thing happened here?

      Thanks for stopping by this morning.

  2. Hi, Tanya,

    It was fun to see my town, Placerville, California, featured in your blog post today.

    Since I live here, I’ll give you an update. The historic Hangman’s Tree tavern has moved to the nearby town of Smith Flat, and the much-photographed mannequin no longer hangs outside the original Main Street location. The building is currently vacant, and we residents wait to see what business will go in at the well-known location. I’ve never seen the actual stump, but one day I hope to do so.

    Chuck’s Hangtown Bakery has changed hands several times. The business currently occupying the lower floor of that building opposite our landmark Bell Tower is Centro Coffee House.

    I believe Hangtown Grill has become a victim of the downturn in our economy. The phone number has been disconnected.

    Hangtown Tattoo and Body Piercing, however, is right where it’s been for many years. It’s one of about 35 businesses that begin with the town’s second name. (Placerville was originally known as Old Dry Diggins.) Some of our older street signs still bear the words Old Hangtown across the top, with the O being a rope formed into a noose.

    Despite Placerville’s renown as being the site of the first mass lynching in Calfornia, it’s a great place to live. Buildings dating as far back as the 1850s line our wide main street. We’re the only municipality in the state of California to own a gold mine, The Gold Bug Mine. And we’re only eight miles from Coloma, where James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill.

    • Hi Keli, thanks for stopping by today with the update. We were in Placerville exactly a year ago which is when I visited the Tavern and saw the stump. We also visited the Gold Bug…it was a fascinating experience. I took tons of pix which will end up someday on another Wildflower junction blog 🙂

      Placerville is indeed a charming town full of history. I can’t wait to visit again, and since our niece now lives in the Tahoe area, it shouldn’t be too long before I do.

  3. Hi Tanya! This was an interesting post to read. I knew about some of the hanging trees, but didn’t know that California had some. Growing up, my brother and I would see who could climb the highest in a couple huge maple trees in my parent’s yard. I know that at one point I was above the garage roof. Across the road in the swamp my brothers and I had built a fort, but never had a tree house.

    • Oh Becky, a swamp and a fort! How fun would that be! I grew up in the suburbs, so my adventures were pretty limited. I don’t care much for heights…I guess that’s why I left the tree-climbing to my brothers and cousins. Thanks so much for stopping by today. It’s always great to hear from you!

  4. Hi Tanya,
    My life changed for the better (I think) because of trees. My father was stationed in SF area for a brief time in WWII and loved the foliage and trees in the area. It took him 15 years to convince my mother to move from NY, and when I was 7, he moved us from New York and cement yards to southern California.

    He bought a house on one third an acre of land and planted fruit trees throughout. We had orange trees, lemons, cactus fruit, pears, nectarines and more. He loved his yard and was out there everyday nurturing his trees. No hanging trees, but trees I could climb!

    Thanks for bringing back a great memory.

  5. I grew up in an old country farm house.

    Here’s an interesting fun fact about trees.
    In the midwest there were no trees when the pioneers came through. Windbreaks became a big thing during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930 and now nearly every house you see has a windbreak, usually on the north and west sides, to stop the wind.

    So, here’s the fun fact. In the midwest you can identify homes by looking for the trees. In the east where it’s so heavily wooded, you can identify homes by looking for the clearings in the trees.

  6. Hey, Tanya! I LOVED your post! Being from southern California, the terrain is familiar to me. My husband’s family had a lemon tree in the front yard, and he often waxes poetic about fresh squeezed lemonade.

    We live in Virginia now. It’s nice but not the same. I miss cheap avocados, palm trees and the shade of an oak tree. My parents had a mountain home built beneath a massive oak. It was lovely . . . except when the acorns turned the deck into a danger zone.

    My favorite tree here in Virginia is the dogwood in our backyard. Right now it’s covered with pink flowers and it’s gorgeous, but we’re worried about it. Unlike most trees in California, the trees in Virginia have a shorter life span, maybe 30-50 years for some species.

    Thanks for making me smile : )

  7. Oops, as I started to say, I grew up in an old country farm house. We had a wind break on the north and the west side. These ‘woods’ were a constant source of adventure for us. Now I drive by that house where my folks lived until they retired and moved to town and those woods are tiny. As a child I felt like we could explore in there for hours.

    The one woods on the west was wilder, the north side was very regimented rows of pine trees, very much a planted, new windbreak…though it was probably thirty years old and had mature trees in it.

    On the west the trees were older, no idea when they’d been planted. We’d go in those wilder woods (laughing here, it’s about a block square, yet it felt like Lewis and Clark to go in there) and somewhere in the middle of those woods was a depression. A dent in the ground.
    It was very weird. I wonder what it was really like, how much my memory is skewed. We’d hunt and hunt and hunt for that depression, the neighbor girl, Joani and I. Then we’d finally find it, all buried in dead leaves and branches and underbrush, this depression that was probably about six feet around and one or two feet deep, a perfect bowl in the ground.

    Then we’d sit there and that would be our ‘fort’ or house or whatever game we were playing.

    I loved that dent.

  8. Hi Charlene, I totally agree with you about how trees make life better. I was absolutely grief-stricken when friends cut down SIX just to build a new house. I actually love those architects who design a home around a tree, not rip it down.

    My childhood home was built where an orange grove had been, so we had a couple of orange trees. And the prevous owners had planted a plum and peach tree, although my dad did take those out when he added on a room. My gramma had an avocado tree that grew up into the clouds.

    Or so it seemed to a little girl 🙂 Thank you back for the memories! oxoxox

  9. Good morning, Mary. Thank you so much for the facts about windbreaks. I remember them from my college days in Nebraska. And oh, I remember them guarding against those north winds. Brrrrrrrrr.

    And I love your dent story, and your Lewis and Clark feeling, reminding me of that childhood perspective we all unfortunately must lose. My family spent many summers camping in the High Sierras where, every day, the big deal was going to the “swimming hole.” Oh, it seemed as giant as an ocean.

    Years later, taking our kids there…they may have thought the same but as an adult I saw the hole for what it really was, a big puddle. Boo. But happy childhood memories anyway 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. hi Vicki, those California live oaks are gorgeous, aren’t they? I can easily imagine a house built underneath one…they are so big and “spready.” And I alway why they’re called live oaks because obviously they aren’t dead ones 🙂

    I’ve seen white dogwood blossoms in the San Bernardino Mountains and thought they were just about the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. My hubby even bought me a necklace with a white dogwood pendant. That reminds me to go to my jewelry box and wear it today.

    Other than my college days, I’ve never lived anyplace but California. It must be wonderfully interesting, living in such a different environment as Virginia.

    Thanks for stopping by today! Hope that dogwood tree lives long and prospers. (Yes, I did just go see Star Trek…)

  11. Tanya,

    What an amazing post. Well done! I’m in CA, too, and spent a great deal of time with the Kumeyaay nation, and learned about the California Live Oak and how they are of key importance to the native people even today.

    Gorgeous pictures, wonderful account. I love this blog! Having just published my first historical romance, set in the American West, I couldn’t feel more at home!

    Going to spend some time here, reading more posts!


  12. HI Tanya!

    Another Californian here. Loved this post. I so love trees. I think I spent my childhood in trees. WE had one out back — a weeping willow — it was close to our gas tank and we’d all climb on the gas tank and jump out onto a limb of the tree and then there was my neighbor’s tree — I think the entire neighorhood spent their childhood in that tree.

    Today, I’m allergic to most of tree’s pollen, but that doesn’t daunt me. I love tree and have many planted in my yard, despite my allergies. Great post, Tanya!

    • Hi Kay, we had the best-ever neighborhood tree, a malleleuca, between our house and our dear friends next door…and all the neighborhood kids learned to climb it. A few winters ago, we had record rain (35 inches) and the tree blew over in the wind. Oh how we all miss it.

      So I know first-hand how beloved a neighborhood tree can be.

  13. Great block, Tanya. I’m from the south and we have mostly maples and oaks and lots and lots of flowering trees. Spring is fantastic because of the redbuds and dogwoods amd flowering peach treees. Maples do their bit in the fall with gorgeous their magnificent golds and reds.

    • hi Pat! We can’t get our evergreen pear trees to flower since their arboring a couple years ago. But around Southern California right now, the purple jacarandas are blooming. Actually, they’ve been at it for a while as we had a pretty warm winter. They look just like lavender lace.

      I saw my first colorful autumn trees during my college days, but not again until my husband and I did a leaf-peeper tour through New England. Oh my, those Berkshires, those maples. Well, the Green and White Mountains too. It was amazing to see such densely wooded mountains and hills, ablaze with color. I even checked on Yankee.com which has live updates as to the “color” spots.

      Thanks for posting today, Pat. oxoxo

      I hope to get South some day…other than DisneyWorld 🙂 But I did see Spanish moss hanging from trees when we went to DW, so that is a fantastic memory.

    • Thanks, Cheryl. 🙂 Here’s a hug backatcha. {()}

      I just learned in this morning’s paper that a local Boy Scout troop Pack 3663 recently planted five historical trees to fulfill the requirements for the World Conservation Award. The trees honor famous people and events important to American history and culture, and include an Andrew Jackson Southern Magnolia, Dwight D. Eisenhower Green Ash, Clara Barton Redbud, Gettysburg Address Honey Locust, and an Elvis Presley Sweetgum. Such cool-sounding trees.

  14. Welcome, Ashley. Thanks sooo much for visiting the Junction today. I’ll be checking out your website for your book. Congratulations!

    I don’t think there’s anything lovelier than the deep green live oak against a background of our hills covered in camel-colored grass. The area where I live was once home to the Chumash who I expect will show up in a future blog 🙂 The native people’s respect for nature is such an important example for the rest of us.

    Thanks again!

  15. Hi Tanya! Wow, lovely post and gorgeous photos! I grew up in the suburbs so I don’t have any tree stories, LOL, but I do love to look at them.

    And I’ve said this before all over the web, but huge congratulations on your contest final. I’m rooting for you!

    • hi Helen! Welcome to the Junction today. Aren’t the picturse glorious? I was so excited when Professor Gonzales-Day told me I could use whichever ones I want.

      And thanks for your congratulations and good wishes. Actually today I need to print out the final hard copy for the ultimate judging. Whew.

  16. The first tree that comes to my mind was a huge tree that grew in my hometown, Lyons, NE. This tree was on the approximately 3 block long main street. It seemed to grow right out of the sidewalk by the bank. In the summer there were usually some local men sitting on a bench that had been built with one end attached to the tree.
    I’m sure they solved all the world’s. (or at least the town’s) problems.
    The second tree was Grandma’s cherry tree. I hated that tree because every summer we had to pick the cherries.
    Third and last are mulberry trees. Picking the sweet berries and eating them right off the tree. Our hands and lips would be stained purple so there was no hiding the fact that we were eating them. The way we harvested them for jelly making was to spread an old sheet under the branches and shake them (spiders, dirt and leaves)
    into the sheet. Unlike the ones we ate right off the tree, these were washed and cleaned before making into jelly, or just eating them with fresh cream and sugar. There are a few mulberry trees on the golf course where we play now days. I still like to nibble on a few as I pass by.

  17. Hi Sue, a golfer, eh? I have hacked in the past but not for a long while. Hubby is an addict, however, and BTW, very, very good at it.

    How far is Lyons from Platte Center? My upcoming book is set in fictional Paradise which I based on PC.

    I love your memories. My gram had an apricot tree; my mouth is watering just now thinking about how luscious and melt-in-your-mouth a perfectly ripe one was right off the tree. The apricots I buy at the grocery store seem to be like mini-hand grenades for days and days.

    Cherries are always pretty expensive, although we do splurge. I think I’d love to have a tree of them! Thanks for stopping by today!

  18. Platte Center is about 80 miles northeast of Lyons
    mostly east. We now live in Norfolk which is about 40 miles north of Platte Center.

    • Hi Sue, yes I know where Norfolk is…in fact, I’m led to believe it’s pronounced “NorFORK.” Norfolk plays a minor role in my wip-sequel to Marrying Minda.

      I have dear friends in Platte Center and also Neligh.

      Thanks for relying back. Now, go hit the links 🙂

  19. Hi Tanya,

    Congratulations on finaling with Outlaw Bride! That’s wonderful. Hope you win a nice award.

    Interesting blog today. I used to climb trees in my childhood and sit up there in the branches for hours. For some reason it always seemed cooler up there than it did on the ground. I’d loved to have had a tree house, but never got one. My dad wasn’t the kind to build them.

    • Thank you, Linda. You fillies certainly are my inspiration.

      Yeah, I know about those dads LOL. Mine always promised me a playhouse. Nada. Now I keep whining for one for our toddler grandson. Maybe before I die….:)

  20. When my family moved to the “country,”(we later
    found out we were 12 blocks past the then-city
    limit line!) Daddy cut in the streets so we would have street markers. Across the “street”, was a
    forested area with lots of pine trees. During the
    spring & summer, I would take my books & a blanket
    out under those trees and read all afternoon. The
    memory of the shade and the sound of the breezes through the branches can still soothe me into a nice nap.

    My second tree memory is more recent and not so
    peaceful! Last September 13, Hurricane Ike paid
    an uninvited visit to Texas. Around 1:00 AM, the
    winds strengthened & began a low-pitched “moany”
    sounding attack on the trees in our NW Houston
    area. I kept peeking out the window because it
    sounded so strange! My poor pecan tree branches
    were whirling like a child’s pinwheel toy! We later found out that a tornado had spun through
    the area. Our city has always been known for its
    uncountable numbers of trees. We really lost so
    many of those gorgeous trees!!

    Pat Cochran

    • Hi Pat, thanks for joining me today. It’s always good to see you here. Your memory of your “country” childhood is adorable. There’s nothing like shade with a nice breeze.

      Oh, I am so sorry about those lost trees. That is certainly something to mourn. We still miss the one between our houses that blew over. I have a friend in Texas who we didn’t hear from for days during Ike, and I was so worried. So you get a tornado along with a hurricane? Wow.

  21. I have one old Finnish story about a tree:
    A man was in a forest checking his traps, but he was getting hungry and tired, so he decided to eat and rest under a tree. After he had eaten, he tried to take a little nap, but he had barely fallen asleep, when a voice woke him up. It said:”move over, the old one lays down.” But because he didn’t see anyone, he thought he had just been dreaming and started to sleep again. And again the voice woke him up: :”move over, the old one lays down.” But he still didn’t see anyone, so he went back to sleep. But the third time the voice was so loud he got scared and he bolted. When he stopped and turned back to see what had made the noise, he saw that the old tree under which he had been started to fall and he realised it had been the tree, that had warned him.

  22. Hi Minna, so glad to hear from you today. This story is absolutely wonderful! We have a Finnish “daughter” who was our exchange student several summers ago. So I have learned a bit about Finland from her. Her English was perfect, as is yours!

  23. Climbed trees all the time as a kid. We had one cedar that had a very thick branch growing sideways then curving upwards. It became our horsey tree. I used to climb as high as I could in the tree and get it to sway back and forth. Our son climbs well. He does tree work and is the one to go up and limb it out then top it. He had a tree house, but it was too tame for him.
    We had a beautiful old oak in the front yard of the old farm house we bought. Barn owls and marsh hawks nested in it. Unfortunately, a strong wind sheer knocked it straight down (not over) snapping the huge branches off. There were baby owls in the nest and all four were killed. We really miss them. Our neighbor shot the marsh hawks and the owls aren’t around as much. We used to sit on the porch to watch and listen to them. We came home one night and there were two adults and 3 juveniles on the fence posts along our driveway.

  24. Congrats on OUTLAW BRIDE!! Neat on the lemon tree in your yard. My grandma’s yard had an apple tree and I used to love to go climb up and sit in the V of the tree just to be alone up there. My grandma knew where to find me but never let the others knew where I was. I always got the fresh apples up there too before they fell, so she could make her many apple recipes (I loved the Apple Butter!! I so miss having that).

    • Hi! Good to see you here and thanks sincerely for the good wishes. Your gramma sounds like mine, a real friend. She’s the kind of gramma I want to be…although I don’t bake pies like she did 🙂 Give me that ready-made Pillsbury crust any time.

      We toured Vermont not long ago and that’s the only time I had an apple right off the tree, at Shelburn Museum. Oh, and also pie from the cafe LOL that was made from those trees.

      I also love apple butter, and pumpkin butter. But I’ve never learned how to make either.

      Thanks everybody, for making trees so interesting today!

  25. Fascinating blog, Tanya. I’d never thought about hanging trees before. And the photos are wonderful.
    Congratulations on OUTLAW BRIDE. It sounds like a great story!

  26. Interesting blog! I had never though about hanging trees. When I was young we use to go into the woods and swing on the grape vines. By the way was not aloud to go into the woods but we did anyways.

    Trees are an amazing thing and its funny because when my son was real young we planted this English oak tree in our yard so he would have something to climb when he got older. How dumb are we not to realize that the tree has just got big enough for someone to climb and my son is almost twenty years old. My hubby and I laugh about this now, we think maybe someday a grandchild may get to climb in that tree in our back yard or build a tree house who knows. Hey this tree can live to be 150 years old.

Comments are closed.