William Watson, Gold Mining, and a California Tragedy

Gold miners shoveling sand from stream into sluice while one miner pans for gold in the same stream, small building and mountains in the background.

While recently writing about a Murder in Klondike, it got me wondering if there were any people from the Tuscarawas County area that decided to try and find riches in the gold fields of the American West. In doing so, I stumbled upon the sad story of William Watson.

A note: Names are often misspelled in historical accounts and newspaper articles occasionally have incorrect details.

Nancy Watson (1832-1910) and a delegation of pall-bearers from the Ex-Soldiers and Sailors Association of Newcomerstown were at the railroad station on the morning of Monday, July 14, 1884 to receive the remains of her brother William Watson (1842-1884). William had been killed while mining gold in northeastern California a little less than a month earlier. The pall-bearers escorted William’s coffin to Nancy’s residence where the funeral was held and, afterwards, to the Taylor Cemetery near Bakersville, Coshocton County for burial.

Nancy and William were the children of Irish immigrant Robert Watson (1790-1877) and his wife Agnes “Nancy” Mance (1796-1874) who had arrived in Adams Township, Coshocton County, Ohio, via Pennsylvania, sometime after 1842. The Watson farm was located just south of the town of Bakersville; about a mile from the Tuscarawas / Coshocton County Line. Robert and Nancy Watson had six children, four daughters and two sons, living on the farm with them in 1850 and William Watson was the youngest.

  • The Watson Family recorded in the 1850 Census for Adams Township, Coshocton County, Ohio. (Source: familysearch.org)
  • The location of the Watson farm south of Bakersville, Adams Township, Coshocton County, 1872. (Source: ancestry.com)
  • The Watson property located along Route 751 south of Bakersville, Coshocton County, Ohio, c. 2015. (Source: earth.google.com)

William attended school near the Watson home during his youth and, when the American Civil War began in 1861, he enlisted for three years in Company K, 24th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry. The regiment saw service in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi and Georgia until it was mustered out of service in 1864. After his service William returned home to Ohio and married Teresa Scott (1845-1923) in the spring of 1867. Perhaps it was William’s service that motivated his desire to leave Ohio, but shortly after his marriage he and Teresa moved to Marshall County, Iowa where their son Robert Watson (1868-1939) was born in 1868.

Gold had been mined and extracted in Tuolumne County, California since the “Gold Rush” of 1849, but improvements in techniques and technology led to a second rush that began around 1880. The Watson family was one of the many families to make the trek and try their hand at finding gold in the area around Sonora, California called Brown’s Flat. They arrived there sometime before the 1880 census was taken in June of that year. The Watsons, after their arrival, were competing with miners who had been in the area since the 1850s.

The kind of gold mining that William Watson used was a method called “placer mining.” Placer mining was a method that used moving water to separate gold ore from the surrounding sediment. The most recognizable method was the use of swirling water in a pan, but by 1880 placer mining used flumes of water instead of a small pan. Naturally, this method required a miner to have access to, and move, water from one place to another. It was this need for water that led to conflict between the newcomer Watson and one of the established neighboring miners.

  • Map showing the location of Tuolumne County, California, 1883. (Source: loc.gov)
  • Map of the location of Brown's Flat in Tuolumne County, California where the Watsons lived and mined, 1883. (Source: loc.gov)
  • Photograph of a gold miner standing next to a flume used in placer mining at Brown's Flat, California, 1870s. Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers. (Source: oac.cdlib.org)
  • Photograph of a flume used in placer mining at Brown's Flat, California, 1870s. Courtesy of Society of California Pioneers. (Source: oac.cdlib.org)

After arriving in California William enlisted the help of Edmund Gallagher (1863-1907), the son of a longtime Brown’s Flat miner, to help in his mining endeavor. William needed to run a pipe of water to his claim in June 1884 but, in order to do so, needed to cross the property of an adjacent quartz miner named Otis Greenwood (1860-1910). Otis had refused William Watson’s previous requests to run the pipe, but that was not going to stop Watson and Gallagher from trying. William and Edmund armed themselves and, with William’s young son Robert, began laying the pipe across the Greenwood claim on the morning of June 19, 1884.

Otis Greenwood, armed and accompanied by his armed mother, came down to the location where William was laying the pipe. Otis confronted the men and told him he was going to dismantle the pipe. According to one newspaper account of the altercation, William responded with “The first [expletive] that touches that pipe I will kill him!” Greenwood bent down to move the pipe when Gallagher brought his shotgun to his shoulder. The gun went off, whether intentionally or not is unknown, and the shot grazed Greenwood. Greenwood then fired his pistol at Gallagher, hitting his hand and grazing his forehead. The second shot from Gallagher’s shotgun then hit Otis’ mother square in the chest and she dropped to the ground.

  • Article from the Marysville, California newspaper detailing the altercation at Brown's Flat between Otis Greenwood and William Watson, June 1884. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • A excerpt from the article from the Marysville, California newspaper detailing the altercation at Brown's Flat between Otis Greenwood and William Watson, June 1884. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)
  • An note in a San Francisco newspaper about the events at Brown's Flat (note they erroneously give Robert Watson as the victim when, in fact, it was William Watson), June 1884. (Source: newspaperarchive.com)

William, Edmund, and Robert then started to run when Greenwood fired at William Watson. Watson was wounded and fell to the ground in a nearby ditch as Edmund and Robert made their escape. Greenwood, now realizing that his mother was dead from her wound, walked over to where Watson lay in the ditch. He then fired one shot directly into William Watson’s temple, killing him. After the altercation, Otis Greenwood and Edmund Gallagher both turned themselves in to local law enforcement. Following an inquest into what happened at Brown’s Flat, and initial charges of murder against Edmund Gallagher, neither Greenwood nor Gallagher were convicted of a crime.

William Watson’s body was sent to San Francisco to be embalmed before it was sent, via train, for the long return trip to Newcomerstown for burial in the family plots just south of the Watson property in Adams Township, Coshocton County. Teresa Watson and her son Robert, continuing to mine their claim, lived in Tuolumne County for the remainder of their lives. Robert married very late in life, after the death of his mother, and had no children of his own. The lure of gold had brought William Watson to California and it was, ultimately, the cause of his posthumous return to Ohio.

  • Report in the New Philadelphia newspaper of the arrival and burial of William Watson, July 1884. (Source: newspaperarchive.org)
  • William Watson's headstone in the Taylor Cemetery, Coshocton County, Ohio, 2010. (Source: findagrave.com)

Success! You're on the list.

© Noel B. Poirier, 2022.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: