October, 2003 Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts
 

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William E. Carder---Gunfighter of Aurora
by Cecile Page Vargo

Our travels in September, 2003, took us to the remnants of  the prominent mining towns of  Bodie and Aurora.  Aurora , Nevada is so close to the California-Nevada border that it actually was the seat of  Mono County , California from April 1861-September 1863. Bodie and Aurora were noted for not only the mining that went on there,  but also for the bad men and women who lived there.  The story of William E. Carder  who rests lonely, but in peace, at the old Aurora , cemetery, is an example of the wilder side of these places, and represents the typical gunfighter story one expects to hear.

            A lonesome tombstone, cracked and fallen to the ground, appears cast aside and forgotten amongst the pinion pines and sagebrush of the cemetery in the ghost town of Aurora , Nevada .  The word “assassinated” is included in the engraved inscription on the marble stone that was so loving erected by the man’s wife in December of the year 1864. “William E. Carder, Native of Tennessee, ‘I  will avenge saith the Lord’”

            William Carder came to the California goldfields in the 1850’s, as so many men were inclined to do in those days.  His claim to fame was not the gold he found, but his reputation as a gunfighter.   An escapade robbing a Chinese miner of several hundred dollars of gold dust got him arrested at least once, but  the evidence against  him was insufficient to convict him, and he went on to other crimes,  as well as to help prevent a few more from being committed..  In the golden foothills of  the western side of the Sierras,  Carder was chosen second in command of the posse that tracked down and eventually captured the killer  of the Columbia ’s  City Marshal, John Leary.  William Carder fought on both sides of the law.

            At some point in time William Carder married a woman named Annie, and became stepfather to her son.   By the time the son was eight they were living in Aurora , Nevada .   How he supported his family at the time is not recorded, but he had apparently decided to pursue his reputation  as a feared gunmen.  Stories told by R. K. Colcord, “Reminiscences of Life in Territorial Nevada” claimed that Carder “could push his hat off the back of his head, draw, and put a bullet through it before it reached the ground.”  The Esmerelda Union noted that “Carder’s only method of fighting, was with deadly weapons, in the use of which he was probably more expert than any other man on the Pacific Coast...His quickness and proficiency in the use of deadly weapons were almost beyond belief, and his remarkable coolness and bravery rendered him the terror  of  the community.” When he was not busy  gun fighting, he could be seen gambling and drinking in the saloons of Aurora . 

            On February 2, 1864 , in the wee hours of the morning, Carder was seen in the Porter Saloon on Antelope Street   playing poker with John Daly and some of his gang.  Included in the group was the notorious John “Three-Fingered Jack” McDowell.  McDowell had  immigrated to New York during the 1840’s from Ireland .  He fought in the Mexican War, then joined the rush for gold  to California as Carder had.  He shot his way around the Tuolumne County mining camps,  moved on to Virginia City , then to Aurora .  On this morning the boys argued over the money at stake.  Carder laid his hand on his revolver and let it be known that anyone who contradicted him was a “damned liar.”  McDowell jumped up and replied “Fight, you son of a bitch, fight.”  Carder backed down. 

            In the fall of that same year, Carder left Aurora with a man named Moses Brockman.  They were headed to the Montgomery mining district to conduct business of some sort.  When they returned to Aurora , Carder arrived first, and Brockman showed up later.  Brockman had been asked by Carder to bring a horse with him from Adobe Meadows.  When Carder realized Brockman did not have the horse, he threatened to whip him.  Over the next days, Brockman kept on the lookout for Carder.  Carder was next seen on Saturday, December 10, provoking quarrels amongst the peaceful citizens of Aurora .  The Esmerelda Union reported that he outrageously abused them “by slapping them in the face, kicking them, pulling their ears and twisting their noses.”  He also was said noted as going around  threatening to kill Brockman.  Rather than sit and wait for Carder to kill him, Brockman hid in an unused doorway near the entrance to the Exchange Saloon and waited with a double barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot.  At half past eleven , as Carder strolled out of the Exchange, Brockman shot him in the neck “tearing a most shocking hole” which killed Carder instantly.  Afterwards, Brockman laid down his gun and surrendered to City Marshal,  John Palmer. 

            The day following Carder’s shooting, a coroner’s inquest was held.  It was determined that Brockman was a sober, industrious law abiding miner, who had been threatened by a man who was an expert  gunfighter.  Had Brockman not gone after Carder first, he would have been the dead man instead.   The jury, and most of Aurora ’s citizens, felt that Moses Brockman was justified in shooting William Carder.  Roswell Colcord thought “the killing of Bill Carder was a necessity.”  Carder’s wife, Annie, thought differently and decided the killing of her husband was an assassination and the Lord would avenge her husband’s death. She ordered the marble tombstone that is nearly buried in the ground on top  her husband’s grave in an almost forgotten part of the old Aurora cemetery.  Whether the Lord avenged Annie Carder’s husband’s death, is unknown as of  the fall of  2003, nearly 139 years after the actual event. 

For more stories of  the bad man and women of the old mining camps of Aurora , Bodie, and surrounding areas:

Gunfighters Highwaymen and Vigilantes

Violence on the Frontier

by Roger D. McGrath

University of California Press, 1964



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