Blood Feud in the Kern River Country
In 1892 a deadly California feud erupted in the rugged Kern River country of the lower Sierra Nevada. The cause of the hostilities was simple enough — a dispute over a gold mining claim. Before the disagreement was settled, two men had served prison terms for a crime they hadn’t committed, one man was a permanent fugitive from justice, four men were dead and one survivor was the defendant in one of the most sensational murder trials in the history of Kern County.
Some 28 years earlier, gold had been discovered near the Kern River. As a result of that 1864 strike, William Walker and his growing family had migrated into the Kern River country from California’s mother lode region. Walker liked his new home and remained there for the rest of his life. By 1880 the 51-year-old Walker and his 38-year-old wife, Mary, had seven children — James, 19; Thomas, 17; Benjamin, 15; William, 13; Newton, 8; Hal, 6; and Mary, 3. The family was well regarded in the mountain community.
The Kern River country was also the home of another family of early arrivals in the area, the Burtons. In 1880 that family consisted of Sarah Burton, a 45-year-old widow, and six children — James, 22; Luther, 20; Laura, 19; Fletcher, 17; David, 16; and A.V., 15. Like the Walkers, the Burtons were considered solid citizens.
In 1883, though, James and Fletcher Burton had a brush with the law. On October 12, Morris Jacoby and two companions transported some gold bullion belonging to the Big Blue mine by wagon to the Southern Pacific rail stop at Caliente. While on the road, they were stopped by two armed and masked bandits who demanded their cargo. Jacoby advised the outlaws that the gold they demanded had been shipped the week before in another conveyance. The would-be bandits believed Jacoby and disappeared into the nearby brush.
The masks did not keep Jacoby from identifying the bandits as James and Fletcher Burton. On October 18, he accompanied Kern County Sheriff William Bower into the Kern River country to arrest the brothers. Jacoby and Bower were successful, placing James and Fletcher Burton in the Kern County jail in Bakersfield on charges of attempted robbery.
While being questioned by law enforcement officers, the Burton boys confessed to the crime but revealed that John Spratt had planned and directed the holdup. Spratt was promptly arrested and held for court action. If the Burtons would turn evidence for the state, they would be granted immunity from prosecution. Indeed, in January 1884, during Spratt’s robbery trial, James and Fletcher Burton testified against their former leader. Convicted and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin, Spratt swore before witnesses that if he lived to get out of prison, he would kill James and Fletcher Burton for their treachery. The charges against the Burton brothers were dismissed as promised, and they went home.
In 1886 brothers William and Charles Gibson moved into the area from Missouri. William purchased a farm in Hot Springs Valley, and Charles helped him work the land. The brothers also prospected the nearby hills for gold. They enjoyed good community relations and became friends with both the Burton and Walker families. The Gibsons also made friends with Edgar Allison, whose farm was close by. When the brothers became established on their California farm, they sent to Missouri for their sister Addie. After her arrival in the Kern River country, Addie eventually married David Burton.
In early 1892, the Gibson brothers entered into a mining venture with the Burton brothers. Apparently all of them contributed money to the venture, but David Burton and Charles Gibson did the preliminary work. They investigated an old mine works that had been in a mountain landslide. Working up the mountainside, they located an exposed vein that they felt deserved further exploration. Below a ledge of decomposed quartz they found gold, and further work on the site by Fletcher and Luther Burton suggested that the payoff would be high.