Old buildings and ghost stories go together in American folklore. In the rough and tumble world of California gold country, there are many ghost stories waiting to be told. This is the story of Juanita, the only woman reported to have been lynched during California’s gold rush era during a racially charged event from 1851.
My story about ‘Just Juanita’ begins with my stay at the Groveland Hotel last month. The hotel was the catalyst for learning about ‘Just Juanita’. I stayed the night in an historic hotel building of The Groveland Hotel in Groveland, California. The hotel is directly on Highway 120, the northern gateway to Yosemite National Park.
Groveland-Big Oak Flat is a rural community of little more than 3,000 residents town going back to the Gold Rush 1849 years and these days Groveland is the last town before Yosemite Valley services 50 miles to the east in Yosemite National Park. The Groveland Hotel contains part of an 1849 adobe structure and the hotel is two building properties combined and conjoined into one hotel with both buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places for 1849 and 1914.
The Groveland Hotel of Groveland, California is two historic buildings with 1849 building at seven porch posts on right and 1914 portion seen behind tree.
The hotel site in Groveland has had a building since an old 1849 adobe was constructed in the early gold rush years modeled after Monterey Colonial homes. The site had many functions in its buildings from hotel to Post Office to businesses to Greyhound bus station stop. The current Groveland Hotel has operated as a hotel since 1992.
All seventeen hotel rooms at the Groveland Hotel have a name like Hetch-Hetchy Suite, Lillie Langtry Suite, Lyle’s Room (the resident ghost) and ‘Just Juanita’, the room I stayed in. Lyle’s Room is the legendary resident ghost quarters for the hotel. My room was next to Lyle’s Room.
During dinner at the hotel restaurant, Peggy Mosley, the owner of the property talked about the hotel resident ghost Lyle. Her stories had me watching for ghosts that night. I did not see anything that night out of the ordinary, but reflected a bit on some ghosts of my past.
On my way out of the Groveland Hotel I grabbed a standard 8-1/2 x 11 white tri-fold paper titled ‘Just Juanita’ with the Groveland Hotel contact information on the cover.
‘Just Juanita’ is a truly haunting story. Unlike Lyle, who was a resident and died in 1927 at the building that is now The Groveland Hotel, the story of ‘Just Juanita’ is an earlier tale of horror from the California gold rush days of 1851.
Second floor porch balcony outside room 14, ‘Just Juanita’, at The Groveland Hotel, Highway 120, Groveland, California. The porch is a public porch the length of the hotel, therefore I closed the drop down shades in the room.
‘Just Juanita’, the story of Josefa
The place was the mining town of Downieville, California, 200 miles north of Groveland. This story of Just Juanita has nothing to do with the Groveland Hotel, except as a room name ‘Just Juanita’ that led me to this grisly tale.
California was celebrating its first national Fourth of July since becoming the 31st state of the Union on September 9, 1850. There are several variations in the renderings of what actually happened in Downieville, California that Fourth of July holiday in 1851. The one fact consistent through all versions of the gold rush tale is a Mexican woman living in the gold rush mining town of Downieville, California was accused of murder, tried, convicted and hanged within a 24-hour period over the Fourth of July holiday celebration week of 1851.
All the Riches of Gold, but No Women to Hold
One account I read stated the population of women in California’s Gold Country was less than 3% in the early 1850s. The National Park Service story of Juanita or Josefa states Downieville had 25 women and 5,000 men.
Downieville, California July 4th, 1851
There is an historical marker in Downieville, California “In Memory of Juanita Marker” erected 1996.
In Memory of Juanita Marker Inscription.
The Spanish woman also known as Josefa, was hung off the Jersey Bridge July 5, 1851 a short distance down stream from this spot, for the murder of Frederick Alexander Agustus Cannon.
Cannon and his friends were celebrating Independence Day and after closing most of the saloons they passed Jose and Josefa’s cabin. He broke the door down, however history did not tell what happened. The next morning he came back, supposedly to apologize. An argument ensued and Josefa stabbed Cannon fatally in the heart.
A mob trial was held and she was sentenced to death. Josefa climbed the scaffold without the least trepidation and placed the rope around her own neck. Her last words were; “I would do the same again if I was so provoked.”
July 4th, 1851 was the fourth summer of the California Gold Rush since the publication of gold discoveries in early 1848. This was also the first Fourth of July celebration for California since gaining statehood as the 31st state of the Union on September 9, 1850. Miners came out of the hills to celebrate the nation’s birthday in Downieville, California.
Most stories state Frederick Cannon had been drinking heavily in Downieville. There are different versions of the story where Josefa worked in a saloon or ran a gambling house, and sometimes it is Jose, her living partner who worked in the saloon or operated a gambling house. In some stories Jose and Josefa are professional gamblers. In most accounts, the story states Cannon called Josefa a whore. She stabbed the big white mining man in the heart and he died quickly.
No matter which version of the story is told, the end result was a Mexican woman was charged with murder, convicted and hanged in a 24-hour mob trial in the gold country of early California.
California has a violent history. This is only one of those historical tales.
Sources: The Hanging of Juanita NevadaObserver.com
Wikipedia – Josefa Segovia
National Park Service – A History of Mexican Americans in California – Durgan Bridge, Downieville, Sierra County.
Blogger disclosure: My stay at The Groveland Hotel was free as part of a media tour for Calaveras and Tuolumne County tourism. This post is not a hotel review of The Groveland Hotel.
This post is a social history piece from the California gold rush which resonated with me more strongly learning the story behind the name of my ‘Just Juanita’ room at the hotel on the same day TV media was hyper-focused on the bizarre shootings and stabbings by Elliot Rodgers in Isla Vista, California. #YesAllWomen.
Ric Garrido of Monterey, California is writer and owner of Loyalty Traveler.
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