The duel was a scourge in nineteenth-century California. Perhaps it had something to do with the number of disputed gold claims throughout the state and the passions attached; perhaps it was the paucity of, and competition for, the hand of a women as, according to the 1850 Census, 93 percent of California's population was male while the remaining 7 percent was female. There's also the factor of cultural importation. Historian William Secrest attributes the prevalence of dueling in California to the large number of Southerners who jumped into the Gold Rush. Whatever the factor, between 1850 and 1860, no other state could match the number of fatal duels to have taken place in California, in spite of the fact that the code duello had been expressly outlawed in the state's Constitution.
That brings us to the legend of the dueling tree, which was purported to be a preferred spot for dueling in Sacramento during the 1850s. Set in the small (now extinct) village of Oak Grove, near present-day North Sacramento, was the so-called dueling tree, a towering valley oak that oversaw one of California's most notorious duels.
It was August 2, 1852, and the parties were California State Senator James W. Denver and Alta newspaper editor Edward Gilbert. As the story goes, Gilbert wrote satirical marks about Denver in a column, Denver didn't like it and the result was a duel.
The two met at the oak and Denver being the challenged party chose rifles. Stepping through the morning dew, they walked 40 paces and fired. Nothing happened. Then the next shot came. Denver was untouched and Gilbert died almost instantly. In the short term, Gilbert was buried in San Francisco. In the long term, Denver went on to be the Governor of Kansas, the namesake for a city in Colorado, and live a pretty comfortable life. But what about the tree?
According to an article in the August 30, 1964, Sacramento Bee, the tree endured and was purportedly located in the backyard of Mrs. Myrtle Johnson at 2121 Canterbury Road, in the Woodlake neighborhood of North Sacramento. But is/was that the actual tree? Was there even a tree or was it a grove of trees? While we can only be sure that we can't know for sure, the rest is lost to the fogs of time.
Learn of legends like this and so much more at the 2023 Sacramento Archives Crawl, set to take place on October 7, 2023, from 10 am to 4 pm at the Center for Sacramento History, the Sacramento Public Library, the California State Archives, and the California History Section of the California State Library.