“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line from John Ford’s film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves apt for tales of the Old West time and again. The shootout between feuding members of the Coates and Frost families on Little Lake’s (southern Willits) dusty main street in October, 1867 was fictionalized as early as Lyman Palmer’s 1880 History of Mendocino County. Palmer’s account places the events two years and five days earlier than when three of Pap Frost’s sons rode into town. Elisha, Mart and Isom Frost were all grown men, Isom, the youngest, at twenty-one. Each holstered a Colt navy revolver on their hip. The three Frosts settled in at Baechtel’s store along with their brother-in-law, Frank Duncan. In addition to a pistol, Duncan carried a long-bladed knife.
Soon thereafter sixty-year-old Abner Coates drove his farm wagon into town with nine kinfolk aboard. Abner had been reared in Pennsylvania along with his brothers Thomas and George. All three brothers moved their families to Wisconsin around 1840 then all the way west to California in the 1850s. The Coates men were hard workers who’d supported the Union during the Civil War and voted a straight Republican ticket. That October, 1867 day Abner was accompanied by his twenty-one-year old son Abraham. George and his sons Wesley, Henry and James took time away from their grist mill, ostensibly to vote in a judicial election. However, James and Henry walked directly into Baechtel’s store, carrying no firearms. Hearing that the Frosts were in the store, George Coates went inside to retrieve his sons. They obeyed his command to leave, but Henry said, “I can’t get any fight out of any damn big man.”
That was a reference to a boast made six weeks earlier by Frank Duncan, “I can whip any abolitionist in Little Lake, or any Black Republican of the Coates name.”
Wesley Coates, who along with his cousin Abraham were the only members of the clan armed with pistols, made his way into Baechtel’s store and took up Frank Duncan’s challenge. The two stepped out onto the street where Frank Duncan pistol-whipped Wesley so hard the revolver cracked. By then Elisha, Mart and Isom Frost and several of the Coates men had gathered around. Wesley’s uncle Thomas tried to break things up, but too late. Wesley, bleeding from the scalp, grabbed Duncan’s knife from his belt and stabbed him three times.
Mart Frost yelled, “Stand back. Stand back!”
Twenty gunshots later, five men lay dead. Another perished in a matter of hours. Three more received wounds they survived. Elisha and Isom Frost shot dead two unarmed members of the Coates clan, including Thomas the peacemaker. In reaction, Old Abner Coates emptied his double barreled shotgun into Elisha. Mart Frost, who had been badly beaten by several members of the Coates clan a year before gained a measure of revenge and wide renown for his fast, accurate shooting. His .36 caliber bullets killed Abraham, Henry and Wesley Coates within the fifteen seconds the gunfight lasted.
Five Coates men lay dead and one Frost, but according to accounts of the time, “A preponderance of Democrats and fear of the Frosts accounted for a laxity of the law.” None of the survivors faced prosecution.
The legend of Mart Frost’s fast gun followed him for years until a rider-less horse outgunned the Frosts. Upcoming River Views will demonstrate why mythic events sometimes prove sounder than the truth, even in a court of law.