Soon after gold was discovered in California it was so plentiful and easy to mine that there was no need to steal. But the situation changed quickly as more and more men poured into the mining country from all over the world. The placer deposits rapidly disappeared as every river and stream was combed by hordes of miners. Law enforcement in the mining areas was poor. All the miners were new to the gold country and strangers showed up practically every day. Men had spent their life savings to travel to the gold rush and when they found gold hard to find and prices so incredibly high that many turned to crime.
Colfax, Ca. 2010/Eoghan
At first it was single bandits who would accost travelers along a lonely spot on the trail and relieve them of their hard earned gold at gunpoint. One such man was Reelfoot Williams, who first gained a reputation as a gambler and petty criminal around the mining camp of Downieville on the Yuba River north of Nevada City. In 1851 he’d been arrested for highway robbery but won an acquittal. The next day the judge was accosted by a gunman on the Slug Canyon trail and recognized the robber as Williams, the man whose trial he had just presided over. When the judge, a noted gambler himself, protested to Williams that he had lost all his money in a poker game the night before, the bandit let him go and promptly robbed the next man who came along of $700.
Virginia City 1867/Wikipedia
By 1852 Williams had hooked up with Rattlesnake Dick, a particularly unsavory character, and three other crooks. For months they had been causing trouble along all the trails in the area. Then, in early April, the gang held up the stage for Nevada City soon after it left Illinoistown, a supply point known today as Colfax. They took $7,000 from the strong box then turned to the two passengers. The man gave up his $230 without a fight but the woman swore she had no money. The gang searched her even though she put up a fierce struggle and they found $300 in gold stuffed in her stockings.
The holdups continued for about a year until a sheriff’s posse killed three members of the gang, but Williams and Rattlesnake Dick escaped and headed south. The next year Dick was knifed to death by another road agent at Spanish Dry Diggings along the middle fork of the American River. But Williams disappeared until the 1860s when he showed up in the rough and tumble boomtown of Virginia City, Nevada where a competing hooligan wielding a shotgun fired through a saloon window and killed him.