The last two River Views columns recounted the feud between the Frost and Coates families of Little Lake (think southern Willits and you’re there), seemingly culminating in an 1867 gun battle that left five of the Coates clan dead as well as the oldest Frost brother, Elisha. In the shootout Elisha’s brother Mart Frost gunned down three of his Coates counterparts in a fifteen second span. The feud itself dated back to before the Civil War, stemming from the Frosts Southern roots and the Coates’ Union loyalties.
The catastrophic gunfight did not sober the survivors into pacifism, perhaps because not a single participant was ever indicted for their actions. In 1872 John Coates, who had witnessed the fatal shootout but did not participate, shot and killed his brother-in-law over a property rights dispute in Scott’s Valley.
Elisha Frost’s eldest son Elijah grew up so wild that his continual acts of violence, theft, and vandalism led a group of vigilantes, including his uncle Mart Frost, to lynch him and two conspirators from a bridge just north of Willits. A coroner’s inquest found “no one in particular guilty.”
Mart took to drinking heavily after the lynching. His quick draw got the better of him when confronted by the Ukiah city marshal in October, 1880. Thoroughly inebriated, Mart jerked the trigger on his revolver before pulling it from its holster, shooting himself in the heel.
Mart’s wounds healed sufficiently enough by March 11, 1882 that, with his cousin Ben, he was able to drive a herd of hogs all the way to the coast and up Navarro Ridge for sale. They spent the night in Mendocino and started eastward on horseback the next day.
Meanwhile my great grandfather John Robertson, by then nearly sixty years old, had just finished bringing a load of turkeys to Pine Grove (a lumber era boom town just east of Point Cabrillo). On the return trip, where the Caspar Road meets the Little Lake Road the Frosts met the Robertsons (John Robertson’s twelve year-old son John Finley Robertson accompanied him). At this crossroads fact, testimony, and legend collide. A newspaper account states Ben Frost was near to falling down drunk, that Mr. Robertson and Mart Frost tried to right him on his horse, and a pistol in John Robertson’s pocket accidentally discharged. The bullet went through Ben Frost’s left biceps, traveled through his heart and stuck in his skin near the right rib cage. Ben muttered, “Who fired that pistol?” then wheezed and fell dead.
At the coroner’s inquest that followed Mart Frost told a different story. Under oath he claimed that Ben’s hat had fallen off, and while trying to pick it up he’d fallen to the ground. At that point Mart claimed he and John Robertson were assisting Ben onto his saddle when, “I believe the pistol was exploded by the horse shaking itself.”
The coroner’s jury reached a verdict that stated Ben Frost died “by a shot from a pistol in the cantinas on the saddle of John Robertson’s horse, accidentally discharged by the horse shaking itself.”
Once upon a time in English law (from the Roman custom deodandum, meaning to give to God) an animal causing the death of a human was forfeited to the crown for use by the church. Great grandfather Robertson’s horse remained with the family for many years; by all accounts the only man-shooting horse in the history of California jurisprudence.
Next time in River Views: The truth behind the legend of the deadly shooting horse.