Courtesy of The Madera County Historical Society
The courthouse in which Harry St. John Dixon refused to register Gabriel Moore to vote can be seen in this photo. It is the large, two-story building in the center of the picture. At the time, Millerton was the county seat of what is now Fresno and Madera counties.
Harry St. John Dixon was fully a product of his time and place. He had been born in Mississippi, fought for the Confederacy, and after the war, turned his back on his devastated homeland. In 1868, he and his brother Jimmy came to California and joined the Alabama Settlement on Cottonwood Creek.
Within a year, Harry Dixon found his way to Millerton, the county seat at the time, and in his own inimitable way made friends with all the right folks. In the election of 1869, the voters elected him County Clerk of Fresno County (There was no Madera County at this time). This placed Dixon in the position of being the only public official in California after the Civil War to close the voter registration books to blacks.
The confrontation took place in the Millerton Courthouse, where Dixon tended to his duties. Sometime during the last week in December of 1870, old Gabe Moore rode into Millerton from Centerville. He had it in his mind to register to vote for the first time.
Gabe had been born on a slave plantation in Alabama in 1812. Later he was sold to the Glenn family, and by 1850, he was living in Crawford County, Arkansas — the property of the Widow Glenn.
Now Mrs. Glenn had two grown sons, William and Richard, who had a hankering to travel west. In 1853, they realized their dream and joined a wagon train that was headed for the Kings River. That’s how Gabe got to California; the sons of his owner brought him with them.
Whether or not Gabe knew that coming to California would mean freedom for him, nobody knows. The fact is, however, that is exactly what happened. When the wagon train crossed the state line, Gabriel Bibbard Moore was a free man. Although the California Constitution prohibited him and others of his race from voting, he nevertheless was no longer anybody’s property. He settled on a little piece of swampland near the King’s River and began to farm.
Through the remainder of the 1850s and 1860s, Gabe continued to farm. Little by little he added to his holdings until, by 1870, he had built a substantial farming and cattle operation. Quite an accomplishment for anyone in those days, to say nothing of a man who just seven years before had lived on a slave row in Arkansas.
With the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the United States Constitution, in 1870, Gabe headed for the courthouse. He wanted to vote in the next election. What he found when he got to Millerton was what an Oakland newspaper called “an unreconstructed Rebel County Clerk.” Harry Dixon told Gabe he couldn’t vote.
The ex-slave quarreled with Harry for a bit, but then gave it up for a lost cause. With the community solidly in his corner, Dixon wouldn’t budge. Citing the facts that the California Constitution still withheld the suffrage from Blacks and that California had rejected the 15th Amendment (California did not ratify the 15th Amendment until 1962), Harry showed Gabe the door.
Gabe Moore continued to farm and raise cattle for another decade. Although definitely a second class citizen, by dint of hard work he was worth over $15,000 by 1880.
In that year, on March 25, while attempting to move his cattle across the Kings River, Gabe was swept off his horse and drowned. They buried him in a corner of the Akers cemetery in Centerville. In 1965, vandals shattered his tombstone, until now it is almost unrecognizable as Gabe’s marker.
For his part, Harry’s fortunes plummeted in the 1890s. They put him in a mental institution where he lived out his life and died in 1898. Harry St. John Dixon was brought back to Fresno, and he now lies buried in a cemetery on Belmont Avenue.
Today, one can visit the tombstones of both men — Gabe Moore and Harry Dixon. One sits broken and alone, as if he never amounted to much. The other lies beneath a huge memorial under the shade of trees and adorned with a visitor’s bench.
When one thinks about it, the two tombstones capture the whole story — injustice and all.