The massacre at Burton’s bar
Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society
In 1890, L.O. Sharp, shown here on the right, was Madera’s postmaster. Thirteen years earlier, as a constable, he was trying to clean up the mess from a bar room brawl in the hills.
In October of 1877, the Madera County portion of the San Joaquin Valley was almost deserted. Madera had just celebrated its first birthday, and its neighbors, Berenda to the north and Fresno to the south, each were only five years older. In between these fledgling communities were the sparsely settled “Fresno Plains,” so named because of their proximity to the Fresno River. Pioneer life on the Valley floor was just beginning as the last quarter of the 19th century dawned.
In the foothills, however, it was a different story. Communities such as Coarsegold, Finegold, Fresno Flats, and Buchanan were well established by the time that civilization reached the valley, and the usual institutions of organized society — churches, schools, and sewing circles — had long ago transformed these rugged little mining camps into full-fledged towns. Standards of common decency prevailed, and by 1877, Eastern Madera County had shed its frontier garb and wrapped itself in the clothing of civility — except for places like McKeown’s Store.
McKeown’s, located on the Fresno River at the Millerton Road Crossing, had a rough reputation. For years it provided a back-woods haven for outlaws and other ne’er-do-wells. John Burton, the proprietor, always had his hands full, trying to keep peace in his saloon, and generally he did a pretty fair job, until that fateful evening in 1877, when knives flashed and pistols cracked in one of this county’s bloodiest barroom brawls.
It was Saturday night, October 27, and McKeown’s was packed. On the inside, liquor was flowing, and the card tables were full. On the outside, however, scores of Indians milled about, prohibited by law and custom from participating in the revelry. John Burton, from his position behind the bar, grew increasingly uneasy. He felt the tension rising as the crowd of Native Americans grew and pushed closer toward the entrance to his store.
Suddenly the fuse was lit when “One-armed Frank” was pushed through the door by one of his own tribesmen. Frank was quickly dispatched by one of the saloon crowd, who lodged a charge of shot right in his face. With that, McKeown’s Store erupted in wall to wall fighting.
One poor soul, known to history only as Captain Scammon, tried to restore calm and was rewarded for his efforts with a pistol shot through the head. Burton, meanwhile, ran behind the bar and grabbed his gun, but before he could fire, he was shot in the thigh. As Burton went down, he spotted his assailant and returned the fire, striking the man just under the chin and sending the bullet completely through his neck.
At that point, someone doused the lanterns, and those who were able to do so quickly faded off into the dark, leaving behind a groaning mass of humanity. When the daylight dawned on McKeown’s store the next morning, five men lay dead, including John Burton, the barkeeper. He had bled to death from his leg wound.
More than 25 shots had been fired in the melee, and from all appearances, there were many more who had been hit but had escaped. One of the Indians had been stabbed to death.
Justice Lewis Sharp of Buchanan was sent for, and after examining the scene, the jurist hurried to Fresno Flats to confer there with Constable Walter Brown. On the way, the judge had to dodge a few bullets himself. Presumably someone didn’t want the law to extend its influence into the backwoods of Madera County.
Brown was successful in apprehending two of the Indians who had been implicated and, assisted by Morgan Nichols and William Wade, he took them to Fresno, the county seat at that time, where they were lodged in the county jail. Constable D. C. Harris of Borden brought in another man known only as Theodore. Beyond this, no further arrests were ever made. It remained for the local civilians to clean up their neighborhood.
Shortly after the bloody affray at McKeown’s, some person or persons unknown set fire to the place, and it was never rebuilt. The undesirables who hung around John Burton’s saloon had to find another place to work off their frontier frustrations, thanks to the determination of some of the “law-abiding citizens of Madera County.”