A history of Sacramento violence

Gold Rush Days draw fire for fictionalized gunfights

Gold Rush Days are billed as a celebration of Sacramento’s “history and heritage.” If you haven’t been, the event happens over the long Labor Day weekend. The city dumps a bunch of dirt and straw on the streets of Old Sacramento. There are crafts and re-enactments and music. Volunteers dress up like they’re living in the 1850s, and they tell stories and give quick history lessons in old-timey accents. It’s charming and educational and hot.

For several years, Gold Rush Days have included mock gunfights in the street performed by paid actors. The skit generally involves some drunken ruffians, some put-upon lawmen, a lot of noise, a lot of bodies in the street.

The shows are popular, but Mary Lynne McGrath says they’re too violent for the little kids who line the wooden sidewalks to watch. “After Sandy Hook and everything that’s happened, I don’t think little kids need to be exposed to gunfire,” said McGrath, who used to teach storytelling in the child-development program at Sacramento City College.

Bites first wondered if McGrath wasn’t overreacting. Nibbles and Bits have seen these shows. And those kids are going to be screwed up, no doubt about it. But not from watching some hokey gunfight in Old Sac. Not even close to making Bites’ bad-parenting highlight reel.

And, it’s educational, remember. The kiddos are getting a taste of frontier justice. Or something.

“No, they are not historically accurate,” said Marcia Eymann, the City of Sacramento’s historian. She says the gunfights are made-up Hollywood Western-style inventions that have very little to do with the unromanticized, real, brutal violence that happened in Sacramento.

“Did shoot-outs happen? Yes, they did. If you want to base them on something that actually happened, that’s one thing. But when you’re basically just making things up, that’s different,” Eymann continued.

“The historians don’t like it, I understand that. But we’re trying to keep a fresh event,” said Mike Testa, senior vice president of the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau, noting, “gunfights did happen in the 1800s.”

“Are we portraying them in the way that they happened? I don’t know the answer to that.” Testa added the program is “No. 1 by far” among visitors. “The historically accurate part can only go so far. Sometimes you need that hook to bring people in, and while they are there, they get exposed to the historic re-enactment.”

The implication there is that real history is boring. But consider the recent response to the display of Sacramento’s historic “underground.” These are below-ground spaces and architectural features like windows, low barrel-vaulted ceilings and buttresses left behind when the city raised downtown streets after the great flood of 1862. These underground tours keep selling out, though they are no more dramatic than walking around in a basement and listening to a really interesting story.

And there’s plenty of interesting historic mayhem to present, too. Eymann notes re-enactments of the Squatters Riot of 1850 have been successful.

The Squatters Riot was sort of like the original Occupy Sacramento, born out of a legal dispute between would-be settlers and a powerful group of land speculators. Guess whose side the Sacramento City Council took?

The council actually passed a no-camping ordinance, and the militia was called in. Sheriff Joseph McKinney led a group of men in an attack on a squatters camp in Brighton (near where modern Folsom Boulevard skirts the Sacramento State University campus) and got himself killed, along with three squatters. In a separate fight, the mayor was wounded and the city assessor killed. A young rabble-rouser named James McClatchy was jailed for inciting and resisting the authority of the sheriff. He’d later go on to found The Sacramento Bee. Imagine a Sac Bee publisher siding with occupiers and squatters today.

A long digression, but you get the idea. Perhaps the Squatters Riot lacks some slapstick potential. But it’s more interesting than a reheated cartoon version of the O.K. Corral. Surely there’s enough good material there to put on a show that’s smart and draws tourists, too?

“Who owns history? Who gets to say what history is?” asked McGrath. “Do businessmen who want to cater to the hotel trade get to say what history is, even when it isn’t?”

Good questions. But Bites understands McGrath’s real concern has more to do with the city using public dollars to present any homicide, even a Disney-fied homicide, as entertainment. After all, we’d never put on a re-enactment of the New Year’s Eve shootings in Old Sacramento in order to amuse gawkers while they nibble their waffle cones. This is different, Bites supposes, because it’s not real. But then, it’s also not really part of our “history and heritage.”