Pictured here in 1880, the Hildreth Hotel was a typical pioneer watering hole, which witnessed its share of frontier violence. (Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society)
Gold! It was Madera County’s first industry, and thousands followed its siren call in search of treasure in this land of Ophir.
From the 1850s through the 1880s, gold mining camps proliferated throughout our foothills. Towns like Coarsegold, Finegold, and Grub Gulch enjoyed a rapid growth, and many suffered an equally rapid decline. Most of these mining towns of Madera County have long since passed into oblivion, with only weed-choked cemeteries or old newspaper accounts left to mark their existence.
One of these ghosts of Madera County is the townsite of Hildreth, located just a few miles from Spring Valley School on Road 210. There is little there today to indicate that where the William Ryan home place now stands, a rip-roaring gold mining community of several hundred once occupied the land.
Likewise, there is nothing about the lonely rock wall at the bend in the road to indicate this was the site of the Hildreth Hotel where Harry Daniels was shot to death in a barroom scene that could have been lifted directly from the pages of a Zane Grey Western.
The town of Hildreth straddled the stage route from Millerton to O’Neals and boasted a hotel, three general stores, a millinery shop, a barbershop, and a host of other small businesses. It had come to life in the late 1870s when Thomas Hildreth opened up a mine there and later a general merchandise store.
As the town reached its peak of placer and quartz mining in 1888, Harry Daniels was looking for a new home. He had immigrated from Cornwall, England, in 1886, and landed in Grass Valley. While there, he became acquainted with the Williams family, especially their lovely but gullible daughter, Mary.
Daniels managed to work his way into the good graces of young Mary Williams, and within a short time “accomplished her ruin under the promise of marriage.” There was, however, one small hurdle. Daniels had a wife in England.
When in late 1887, it became obvious that Daniels was to become a father, he beat a hasty retreat. He abandoned poor Mary, leaving her in the care of her family, which included two brothers, Johnson and William. The Williams family “cared for the unfortunate girl and her child and experienced the usual ups and downs of life in an effort to blot out the past.”
On Jan. 28, 1888, Mary’s brothers, William and Johnson, left Grass Valley in search of greener pastures. Learning of the gold fever at Hildreth, they settled there, obtaining employment at the McNally mine. The town took to the brothers immediately. They were well liked by all; their future looked bright. They were making excellent wages at the mine, drawing an ounce of gold at the end of each day’s work. Besides, no one at Hildreth knew the family secret, provided one did not count the town’s most recent arrival.
By some strange twist of fate, Harry Daniels had also gotten wind of the mining excitement at Hildreth, so he packed up his belongings and headed out for the foothills of what was to become Madera County. Having no idea the Williams brothers had taken the same course, Daniels checked into the Hildreth Hotel on March 10, 1888, intending to find work in the mines the next day. He was never to get the chance.
That evening William Williams, as was his custom, joined his miner friends for a drink in the saloon of the Hildreth Hotel. As he walked through the doors, he could not believe his eyes. There stood his enemy of two years, Harry Daniels. William excused himself, unnoticed by Daniels, and went to inform his brother of his discovery. The two decided the matter was of such long standing that a fight for honor was senseless. They determined to just let sleeping dogs lie.
Whether by accident or design, however, the brothers found themselves back in the Hildreth Hotel saloon the next night, and this time Daniels, who was quite inebriated, spotted them. Putting on a bold face, he invited the Williams brothers to the bar for a drink. When William Williams refused, Daniels attacked him, knocked him to the floor, fell on top of him, and proceeded to give him a beating.
Somehow Williams managed to slip his revolver out of his holster and put an end to the fracas. He shot Daniels, who died two hours later.
The constable locked the brothers up in his cabin, not far from the hotel, and took them to Fresno the next day where they faced Judge Stewart. They were granted bail in the sum of $1,000 each, and Russell Fleming, a well-respected citizen of Fresno County, put up the money. At that point, the Williams brothers were released.
Judge Stewart examined William and Johnson Williams in court the next week. With a host of witnesses appearing on their behalf, it was determined William Williams had acted in self-defense and that Johnson Williams had no culpability whatsoever. The brothers returned to work at the McNally Mine, and everyone, except perhaps Mary Williams, forgot Harry Daniels had ever existed.
So somewhere in the old Hildreth cemetery Daniels lies a victim of his own passion, un-avenged by a strange sense of frontier justice.