You’ve surely seen the name Lassen plastered throughout Northern California, but behind the name sits a wild west murder mystery.
A rifle shot fractured the silence of the canyon, and Peter Lassen and Lemericus Wyatt leapt to their feet. While Lassen scanned the ridges for the source of the shot, Wyatt tried to rouse Edward Clapper, but it was no use. The bullet had entered Clapper’s temple, and he was dead.
It was April 26, 1859, and Danish emigrant Peter Lassen and two others entered Black Rock Canyon (now Clapper Canyon) in the Utah Territory (now Nevada) in search of silver. It was ten years after John Sutter had struck gold on the American, and Lassen had already been in Northern California and Nevada for almost 20 years.
According to Wyatt, Lassen was surveying the ridge tops looking for the source of the gunfire. Another shot rang out, and Lassen dropped his rifle. “They have killed me,” he said, and they had.
The following account appeared in Goldfields, Life and History in Northern California: According to Lemericus Wyatt, the rifle shots caused the horses to bolt, but he eventually caught one and rode it (bareback) 140 miles back to the Honey Lake Valley. A group returned shortly thereafter and buried the remains of Peter Lassen and Edward Clapper closeby.
Wyatt claimed that Lassen and Clapper were killed by Northern Paiutes, who were in a state of unrest at the time. Lassen’s remains were later re-buried south of Susanville and his tombstone says “killed by Indians,” but this is widely doubted. Wyatt claimed a tribesman had visited their camp the night before requesting ammunition for his rifle. Wyatt said that he and Clapper were against the idea but that Lassen considered himself friends with the Paiutes and provided the ammunition.
What doesn’t add up about Wyatt’s story is the camp was never looted, a recognised indication the Natives were guilty. Nothing was missing; no food, no mining equipment, Lassen’s wallet and money, dried meat, a keg of whiskey, nothing except Peter Lassen’s rifle.
He Traveled Far
Peter Lassen was an early emigrant to California (1840) who kept company with other auspicious historic figures like John C. Fremont, John Sutter and Kit Carson. Before leaving Denmark he worked with his uncle as an apprentice blacksmith. Later he worked under a master blacksmith in Copenhagen.
He arrived in Boston in 1830 and spent time in Missouri (where he first met John Sutter) before joining a wagon train heading to Oregon. From there he hopped a ship to Fort Ross (a former Russian fort) headed south to what is now Sonoma County. Upon finding horses, Lassen traveled inland to Sutter’s Fort to meet again with his old friend.
For the next few years Lassen supported himself by working as an itinerant blacksmith. In those days California was still part of Mexico, so Lassen petitioned the Mexican Governor, became a Mexican citizen, and was given a 22,000 acre land grant along the east side of the Sacramento River (at Vina) which he named Rancho Bosquejo.
Today you can drive through part of what was Lassen’s ranch. Heading south from Los Molinos on Hwy. 99 you cross over Toomes Creek. Lassen’s ranch began just below Toomes Creek and spread south. Deer Creek split his rancho just about in the middle.
In 1845 Lassen laid out a town site on the northside of Deer Creek. He called the proposed town “Benton City,” after Missouri Senator Thomas Benton. In an effort to attract emigrants to Benton City, Lassen made a trip back to Missouri. He returned with a small group of emigrants only to find the town vacant. The few that had already settled there had abandoned their homes in search of gold.
The Lassen Emigrant Trail
Lassen became very well-known to emigrants, particularly from about 1848-1853. Many thousands of westward emigrants traveled more or less the same trail from Missouri. Smaller trails and what were called “cutoffs” spun off from the main trail to take pioneers to Salt Lake City, California and Oregon.
Lassen famously plotted his own trail which broke off in western Nevada (then called the Utah Territory), headed over to Goose Lake (north of Alturas) and then down the Pit River. The trail passed what is now the Bogard Ranger Station (Hwy. 44), down past (what is now) Lassen Volcanic National Park, west down Deer Creek to Vina and the Sacramento Valley.
At least twenty thousand emigrants traveled Lassen’s trail, which turned out to be tremendously difficult, and 200 miles longer than other established routes. One theory on Lassen’s mysterious murder suggests he might have been killed by aggrieved emigrants angry over persuading so many to take the Lassen Trail, clearly one of the more difficult and longer routes into California.
Like so many Californians ever since, Lassen had a string of bad luck that plunged him into financial trouble. He tried to sell off parts of his ranch, and was finally unable to collect. He purchased a stern-wheel steamboat, the “Lady Washington,” which eventually sunk in the Sacramento River. Someone made off with Lassens’ cattle when he was out of town.
In the end he lost his rancho. Lassen had heard a tall tale that there was an actual “lake of gold” somewhere up north, and he was determined to find it. While in the Susanville/Honey Lake area, Lassen and friends decided to hunt for silver in Black Rock Canyon.
The West Likes a Good Mystery
It took a lot of courage to be a pioneer. The West in those days was a vast expanse of wilderness that swallowed up many who were literally never heard from again. So many things could happen! There were always accidents, like getting thrown from a horse. There were hostile Natives as well as robbers, thieves and murderers of every race. You could run out of food or water. You could break a leg or contract numerous fatal diseases. There were bison, mountain lions, rattlesnakes and grizzly bears roaming freely. No one will ever know how many pioneers just simply disappeared into the wilderness without families ever learning their fate. We know when and where Lassen was killed, but not why or by whom.
Numerous different people and groups have been proposed as Lassen’s possible murderers. Goldfields, Life and History in Northern California suggests that Native Americans and (surprisingly) Mormons were popular scapegoats in those days for many crimes committed by others. Wyatt himself and Pit River Natives have also been suspected as the murderers over the years.
A Final Twist
Three years after Lassen and Clapper’s murder, James Bailey and William Cook were murdered by Natives in the same area, and their camp looted. The posse found a camp of nine Natives nearby and killed them all. Next to one of the dead Natives was Peter Lassen’s rifle.
Were these Lassen’s murderers? If so, why wasn’t his camp looted? Could someone have planted Lassen’s rifle next to the dead Native? Could the Natives have gotten the rifle from James Bailey or William Cook?
Reflecting on the huge influence Peter Lassen had on NorCal, I can’t help but notice all the places that bear his name, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Lassen Peak, Lassen County, etc. But what about that rifle? What about it?
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.