If it bleeds it leads. Mendocino County has never been a stranger to senseless bloodletting. In the broader spectrum of history the tragic deaths of Jere Melo and Matthew Coleman last summer were merely another couple of notches in a long line of violence that goes back to Mendocino County’s first years.
My great grandfather John Robertson first arrived in California before the Gold Rush. I don’t think he can be directly linked to any Native American killings, but he got to this part of the state in time to be a major participant in the most extraordinary exhibition of gunplay in Mendocino County history, an event that proved to be just one chapter in the bloodiest sequence of events in the annals of this or any other county.
Mendocino is a divided county. The geographic barriers remain as obvious as they were in 1850 when Mendocino was one of the original twenty-seven counties carved out of the map in the infancy of statehood. Settlers came from far and wide with strongly held views. Nowhere was this as true as in Little Lake Township. Little Lake sprang up in the 1850s around the Baechtel ranch in what today is the southern part of the town of Willits. “Willitsville” was once a competing community just to the north. Little Lake grew from ranch houses to town in much the same order as other locales of the American West: first a saloon then a social hall and finally civic order took hold and a schoolhouse was constructed.
The school didn’t appear in Little Lake until about 1860. The 1850s, as any school child ought to be able to tell you, was a decade of division throughout the United States of America. Pro and anti-slavery factions battled each other at the ballot box, on the streets, and even in the hallowed halls of Congress where Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner was caned into unconsciousness by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks.
The Frost family, Democrats from Missouri, came to Little Lake with deeply ingrained views favoring the secessionist rights of slaveholding southern states. The family included cousins and in-laws, but they were led by Elijah “Pap” Frost and his four sons. The Frosts engaged in hog and sheep farming. All of them knew how to handle guns, especially Pap’s next to youngest, Martin (called Mart).
The Coates family (headed by three brothers: Abner, Thomas and George), staunch Republicans loyal to maintaining the Union, settled on farms in Rock Tree Valley, a bit east of Little Lake. After the Civil War broke out a Coates lad got into fisticuffs with a Frost boy in the Little Lake schoolyard. The teacher gave both a whipping. The Frost family took the matter to the school board. The trustees upheld the teacher’s discipline and the Frosts left the meeting hurling threats at the board and the Coates family. Taunts and more threats became a regular occurrence whenever a Frost spotted a Coates and vice versa. In 1866 several young men of the Coates clan badly beat twenty-two-year-old Mart Frost after he picked a fistfight with Abner Coates’ twenty-year-old son, Abraham. Other fights ensued, but they were all broken up by cooler heads until the judicial election day of October 16, 1867. In just fifteen seconds that afternoon more men would die than at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
Upcoming in River Views: The deadliest gunfight in Mendocino County history and my family’s part in the only recorded case of deodandum in the Old West.