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The reward

Grave of John Blackburn's daughter

You never can tell what you’re going to run into when you poke around in statute books. Except that sooner or later you’re going to run into a story worth telling.

Like the story of John L. Blackburn.

The story begins with a statute passed 28 November 1861 by the Nevada Territorial Legislative Assembly and enacted into law as Chapter XXXVII of the Laws of 1861. It’s one paragraph long, and it reads in its entirety:

That the sum of one thousand dollars be, and is hereby appropriated out of any moneys that may be paid into the territorial treasury, as a reward to any person, for the arrest and safe delivery of the body of Wm. Mayfield, at the jail in Carson City, for the murder of John L. Blackburn, late sheriff of Carson County, Nevada Territory, and, upon order of the governor, the territorial auditor shall draw his warrant for said sum.1

Now you know there has got to be a story behind that, and it’s a story any family historian worth his or her salt has got to dig out.

It turns out that John L. Blackburn had been a deputy U.S. marshal in Carson County in what was then the Utah Territory in 1859. He was elected high sheriff of the county in 1860 and, in 1861, when the Nevada Territory was organized, he was named sheriff under the new territorial government. On 18 November 1861, he’d been trying to execute an arrest warrant for a fugitive out of California. And so, the official history of Blackburn’s death reports,

At one point he searched a cabin of a gambler that was said to be providing the hideout. During this time the gambler taunted him that the fugitive had been there, but was gone and the Sheriff would never find him. Later that evening, as the Sheriff relaxed at the St. Nicholas Saloon, the same gambler confronted Blackburn and started the argument again. Blackburn threatened the arrest of the belligerent and the man stated that the Sheriff couldn’t do it. The powerfully built gambler pulled out a large bowie knife and Blackburn reached for his pistol. Blackburn’s companions, trying to avoid a fight, grabbed the Sheriff’s arm. The gambler stabbed the Sheriff four of five times. In shock, Blackburn’s friends released his arm and the Sheriff brought his pistol up, but before he could fire, he fell dead to the floor. As he fell, the gambler’s associates obstructed the crowd as the murderer made his escape flourishing his knife in the air.2

The gambler, of course, was William Mayfield, and initially the Territorial House of Representatives had adopted a resolution with a $2,000 reward for Mayfield’s capture. The problem is, a resolution wasn’t the right way to appropriate funds, so the upper house of the legislature — the Territorial Council — made it a statute with the $1,000 reward, and it passed by a unanimous vote.3

Bringing Mayfield to justice turned out to be no easy task. A report by Governor James W. Nye to Secretary of State William Henry Seward explained that

a large influx of secessionists and gamblers, sympathizers with the murderer from the neighboring towns, was noticed. The officiating minister, in his funeral sermon, referred to the circumstances attending the death of the deceased, called upon the citizens to arrest the murderer, and volunteered his own services, if necessary. On the 21st of November Mayfield was arrested and confined in irons in the miserable log building which at that time was made to answer for a jail. His rescue by the secession element, and his lynching by a party of the citizens, were alike loudly threatened; and under the circumstances I hastened to appoint a sheriff, and directed him to call out a guard for the jail, in which was confined other murderers, and, fearing a general jail delivery, despatched at the same time a messenger to Fort Churchill for a file of soldiers. During the night I visited the jail several times, and found it necessary to disarm a former deputy of Sheriff Blackburn. The following day, about noon, a lieutenant with fifteen men, since increased to twenty, arrived, and, under the direction of the sheriff, took possession of the jail. A day or two afterwards the prisoners were removed to a more secure building…4

And, various accounts continue, although Mayfield was convicted of the murder, with the assistance of the “desperate social element” he eventually escaped from prison and fled to Montana, where he was killed in a drunken brawl.5

Blackburn was survived by a wife, Sarah, then age 20, and a baby daughter Minnie, born in March 1861, only a few months before her father’s death.6 Sarah remarried, to Benjamin Foster, and Minnie became a schoolteacher.7 Minnie never married or had children; she died at the age of 20, in 1881, and was buried at Lone Mountain Cemetery in Carson City.8

On the 148th anniversary of Blackburn’s death, a bronze plaque was placed in Carson City’s Pioneer Cemetery as a memorial to Blackburn, “the first Nevada peace officer killed in the line of duty.”9

Good story, isn’t it? And if you have ancestors from Carson City in 1861, chances are pretty good they could have been involved in this story in some way. One of the townspeople, perhaps. Or one of the soldiers. Or maybe you’re descended from the minister. Or one of the jurors when Mayfield eventually stood trial. Or even one of Minnie’s half-siblings, the Foster children.

And you know what? That’s not all there is to the story either. Oh, the official version is just as it’s set out above. But the lore around the murder… oh my.

One published history of Nevada makes Blackburn out to be the bad guy, and Mayfield out to be the deliverer of the people from the bad sheriff.10

That same account — of Blackburn as “the most dangerous man in the Territory, and without exception the most reckless law-breaker” — also ran on the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in January of 1892, written by one Joseph Goodman for that newspaper. “In short,” Goodman wrote, “affairs had come to a pitch where a large and influential number of citizen (sic) felt that the man who should kill Blackburn would be doing a great public service.”11

Now I’m not going to try to work through all the facts here to see what parts of these differing versions may ultimately prove to be true. But one thing’s for sure: what started out as a good story has every earmark of turning into a great story.

And all from one paragraph in a statute book.

Image by Eric McGuire, used with permission.

  1. Chapter XXXVII, Laws of the Territory of Nevada Passed at the First Regular Session of the Legislative Assembly, 1861 (San Francisco : Valentine & Co., printers, 1862), 103; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  2. Bob Ellison, “Sheriff John L. Blackburn,” James D. Hoff Peace Officer Memorial ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  3. Journal of the Council of the First Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Nevada, 1861 (San Francisco : Valentine & Co., printers, 1862), 166-167; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  4. Message of the President of the United States, transmitting a copy of a communication of the 21st of December last to the Secretary of State by the Governor of the Territory of Nevada, March 27, 1862; S. Exec. Doc. 36, 37th Cong., 2nd sess. (1862), 2-3.
  5. See e.g. Hubert Howe Bancroft, “History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming, 1540-1888,” in The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft (San Francisco L History Co., 1890) 25: 167-168; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  6. Ellison, “Sheriff John L. Blackburn.”
  7. See 1880 U.S. census, Ormsby County, Nevada, Carson City, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 38, p. 48-D (stamped), dwelling 292, family (not shown), Minnie Blackburn in the household of Benjamin and Sarah Foster; digital image, ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 759; imaged from FHL microfilm 1254759.
  8. Lone Mountain Cemetery, Ormsby County, Nevada, Minnie Blackburn marker; digital image, Find A Grave ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  9. Honoring Nevada’s first peace officer killed on duty,” Lake Tahoe News online, posted 14 Nov 2009 ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  10. Sam P. Davis, “The Lawless Element,” The History of Nevada, (Reno : Elms Publ. Co., 1912) 1: 251-256; digital images, Internet Archive ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
  11. Joseph T. Goodman, “Early Nevada Days — How Sheriff Blackburn Was Killed — Bill Mayfield’s Escape from Prison,” The San Francisco Chronicle, p. 1, col. 4 (24 Jan 1892); digital image, Fold3 ( : accessed 4 Jun 2012).
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