Solving a 166-Year-Old Crime

By Eilene Lyon

One of my readers, Irene at My Slice of Mexico, commented, “Great research! When I read your family history posts, I always think of one of my favourite shows ‘The History Detectives’” Thanks, Irene! I love that show, too. In fact, I frequently DO feel like a history detective. So let me share with you a story of my recent sleuthing. I believe I have solved a crime that occurred in 1852. See if you agree.

Changing Partners
ED_Pierce
Elias D. Pierce, about 1860.

When Elias D. Pierce went to California in 1849, he formed a partnership with John W. Lane, William Fisher, and Fisher’s brother-in-law, Samuel Keese. Evidently, the four men got along well, because they crossed the continent and worked together in California until late 1850. Then Lane decided to settle down in Yuba City, where he owned property. Fisher and Keese headed home by sea, with Keese dying before reaching New York.

Left on his own, Pierce headed back to the Trinity River mines in December 1850 with a drove of cattle and a pack train of supplies to sell to miners. Hearing of a rich strike in Scotts Bar, with miners desperate for supplies, he decided to try to make it over the mountains to the Scott River valley.

Scott's Bar - CSL
(California State Library)

Another man, William S. Good of South Bend, Indiana, had the same plan. Both of them had livestock and supplies. They agreed to form a partnership. With the help of a group of eager miners, they were able to forge a path through the snow over the mountains to the Scott River.

William Good had two partners back in Trinity River, and he convinced Pierce to let them join their enterprise. Without even meeting the two men, James D. Brown and P. S. Pfouts, Pierce agreed to the arrangement. Brown and Pfouts joined them in Fort Jones in early 1851. They eventually moved the business to Shasta Butte and James Brown headed back home to the states.

In the fall of 1851, Pierce was elected to represent Shasta County in the State Assembly, along with Samuel Fleming. They left in December for Vallejo and then Sacramento. Before leaving, Pierce arranged with his partners for a leave of absence, plus an additional leave after the legislative term ended so he could go to Ohio to get his fiancée.

The term began in January 1852. One of the tasks for Pierce and Fleming was to introduce a petition for the creation of Siskiyou County. This bill passed and the county was created. The town of Shasta Butte was named county seat and the name changed to Yreka. The term ended in early May.1

IMG_5676
View of early Yreka. (The Siskiyou Pioneer. 1976. Vol. 4, No. 9. p. 1.)
A Daring Theft

When Pierce returned to newly re-christened Yreka in May, he found that William Good was gone. P. S. Pfouts said he had bought out Good’s portion of the business (thus making himself the senior partner). Then he claimed that Good had cleaned out the safe, taken all the livestock and sold it, and headed back to “the states.”

Pierce asserts that Good essentially robbed him of $40,000 (undoubtedly an inflated figure). He settled with Pfouts for an unspecified amount (but likely a small sum) and headed north to Oregon and Washington Territories. He later returned to Yreka, but Pfouts was gone by then.2

Does anyone here smell a rat?

I do – and his name is P. S. Pfouts. Pierce has slandered William S. Good’s good name for no reason. Why? Because he was a gullible ninny!

Pfouts must have been one damn good liar (which is probably why he later went into the newspaper business).

Paris Pfouts

Clues and Evidence

In working with Pierce’s memoir (I am working on a biography), I have to dig through a lot of historic documents, history books, etc. I am satisfied that his reports of the people he dealt with are real, if somewhat lacking full candor as to his role in things, and sometimes omitting people of consequence.

In the book History of St. Joseph County, Indiana, I found confirmation that William Good of South Bend went to California with the 49ers.3 The 1850 U. S. Census places him in Trinity River living with two other men, James D. Brown and P. S. Pfouts.4 Aside from Pierce’s report that Good left Yreka in early 1852, there is no further record tying Good to California.

1850 Good Pfouts Trinity River p4 L8-10 - A 9-4-18
Clipping from 1850 U. S. Federal Census for James D. Brown, William S. Good, and P. S. Fouts [sic]
But Good did not go back to Indiana. He reportedly died in Carson Valley, Nevada, in 1853.5

Based on Pierce’s account, the only certainty is that Good and Pfouts parted ways and Good left Yreka. If Good had really committed the theft, why didn’t Pfouts press charges? Theft was punished swiftly and harshly in the early gold rush days.

In the 1852 census, dated in July, Pfouts claims he is a rancher.6 A rancher!! He had to have the livestock. What is a ranch without cattle? But he apparently left Yreka later that year or in 1853.

1852 Pfouts - Siskiyou - A p.7 Line 45 9-4-18
Clipping from the 1852 California Census for Siskiyou County, p. 7 showing P. S. Pfouts.

He returned to Missouri and went into partnership with J. H. R. Cundiff, purchasing The Gazette in St. Joseph. In 1855, he married Cundiff’s sister, giving her a ring he’d had made, set with a gold nugget from California. In the Civil War, the Cundiffs sided with the Confederacy, so Pfouts moved to Montana to avoid the conflict.7,8

He opened a store in Virginia City and became the first mayor of the town. He also served as the head of the vigilance committee.9 His store is mentioned in Mark Twain’s Roughing It, in a tale about the downfall of the notorious Jack Slade.10

Other sources indicate that Pfouts had originally supported Slade, then turned against him.11 A great guy to have as a friend, right? After the war, Pfouts moved to Galveston, and later Dallas, Texas. He returned to the newspaper business and gave himself the fictitious honorific of “Colonel.”12

All circumstantial, of course. But I have a final piece of evidence: the probate record for William S. Good of South Bend, Indiana.

William’s brother Joseph served as executor. William’s mother and siblings were his only heirs. Joseph testifies in the documents “that William S. Good departed this life in the year 1853,” though he doesn’t mention where or how.13

More importantly, on the final decree in September 1862, Joseph explains that the only asset in William’s estate is a note from P. S. Foutz [sic] for $2,000. And he further explains that he was able to collect on the note in real estate and cash and the proceeds were distributed to the heirs.14

If Good had stolen money and livestock from Pfouts and Pierce, why would Pfouts owe William S. Good’s heirs $2,000? Why wouldn’t he make a counter-claim against the estate for the theft?

I believe Pfouts is the real thief.

What do you think? Case closed?

Addendum: This is my take on what really happened.

P. S. Pfouts did buy out William Good. Good probably took a third of the merchandise (including some livestock) and the $2,000 note from Pfouts and left town. Pfouts probably intended to liquidate the remainder of the business and leave town before Pierce returned from Ohio with his bride. He made the erroneous assumption that Pierce would head back east directly from Sacramento. Instead, Pierce surprised him by showing up in Yreka in the middle of May, long before he was expected back from the states.

Pfouts, a quick thinker, dreamed up the story about William Good’s theft in hopes that Pierce would leave town to hunt down Good back in Indiana (which would have been fruitless, but would get him out of Pfouts’ way). Lucky for Pfouts, Pierce did decide to leave town. This was clearly a pivotal event in Pierce’s life. He did not go to Ohio and get married, because at that point he felt like a failure, as he makes clear in his memoir.

 

Feature image: Photo by marco forno on Unsplash


  1. Pierce, E. D. 1975. The Pierce Chronicle: Personal Reminiscenses [sic] of E. D. Pierce as transcribed by Lou A. Larrick. Edited by J. Gary Williams and Ronald W. Stark. Idaho Research Foundation, Inc. Moscow, ID. pp. 35 – 46. (This entire section taken from this source) 
  2. Ibid. 
  3. History of St. Joseph County, Indiana : together with sketches of its cities, villages and townships, educational, religious, civil, military, and political history, portraits of prominent persons, and biographies of representative citizens : history of Indiana, embracing accounts of the pre-historic races, aborigines, French, English and American conquests, and a general review of its civil, political and military history.. Chicago: C.C. Chapman & Co., 1880. Online at: https://search.ancestry.com/search/db.aspx?dbid=25178&path
  4. William S. Good. Year: 1850; Census Place: Trinity River, Trinity, California; Roll: M432_36; Page: 69B; Image: 150. Ancestry.com. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009. 
  5. William Striker Good. https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/101731312/person/240010863388/facts 
  6. P. S. Pfouts. Siskiyou County, page 7, line 45. Ancestry.com. California State Census, 1852 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010. 
  7. Biographical Sketch of Colonel J.H.R. Cundiff, St. Joseph, Buchanan County, MO. From “History of Buchanan County, Missouri, Published 1881, St. Joseph Steam Printing Company, Printers, Binders, Etc., St. Joseph, Missouri. http://files.usgwarchives.net/mo/buchanan/bios/c5230001.txt 
  8. https://dallasgateway.com/pionners-view-covered-wagon-1923/ 
  9. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46nsdj.37?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents 
  10. Twain, Mark. 1899. Roughing It, Vol. I. Harper, New York and London. p. 96. 
  11. Langford, Nathaniel Pitt. 2003. Vigilante Days & Ways. Farcountry Press. p. 287. 
  12. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/59516563/paris-swazy-pfouts 
  13. William S. Good. Probate Records; Author: Indiana. Circuit Court (Saint Joseph County); Indiana. Superior Court (Saint Joseph County); Probate Place: St Joseph, Indiana. Ancestry.com. Indiana, Wills and Probate Records, 1798-1999 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA. p. 18. 
  14. Ibid. p. 2. 

24 thoughts on “Solving a 166-Year-Old Crime

Add yours

  1. Hi Eilene, thanks for the mention! Very interesting story; suspicious indeed that Good would have that note and that it was paid with no contest. Do you think Pfouts told Good the same story but with Pierce as the villain?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh this is so interesting! Excellent research and I think you’ve made a good conclusion. Pierce must have been gullible and/or Pfouts was quite the convincing liar! Enjoyed all the old photos and images, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness what fascinating sleuthing! Gosh I don’t like to jump to conclusions especially when all this happened so long ago, and there could be so many things that we don’t know, but I say it’s not looking good for Pfouts! And it’s never too late to clear a “Good” name! 🙂 Such an interesting read, thanks for sharing your work with us

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Very well written and much more than your interesting research with a logical conclusion. This illustrates the value at looking at a wide variety of records, and not just those of direct ancestors, but those who impacted their lives to really see what has shaped their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

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