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  • Writer's pictureDavid Baker

"Old Hangtown" Discards Noose from City Logo

As reported earlier this week in The Los Angeles Times e-newsletter, the City of Placerville, located in the Gold Mining region of northern California, stirred up unexpected controversy when the city counsel voted to revise the city's logo by removing a noose hanging in a tree in the background behind a prospector panning for gold.

"Anyone with even a passing knowledge of California history is familiar with the events of Jan. 24, 1848, when a man named James W. Marshall discovered gold while building John Sutter’s sawmill.

The story takes place a few miles away in a town that sprang into being in the months after Marshall’s discovery, as newcomers poured into the not-yet state in search of the Motherlode.

The fledgling city that would become Placerville earned the enduring nickname “Hangtown” in 1849, after three men accused of robbery and attempted murder were sentenced to death by hanging.

All three men — a Chilean national and two French nationals — spoke no English and were not present at the trial where a group of miners sentenced them to death. It’s also worth noting that no evidence against the trio was presented, “beyond their fitting a general description,” according to a history presentation prepared at the request of Placerville officials. Far from an isolated event, the extralegal killing was how justice was often meted out in mining camps.

More than a century and a half later, the violent iconography of Placerville’s history as “Old Hangtown” has morphed into a kind of kitschy civic branding.

The words “Old Hangtown” greet visitors from a large sign looming above Highway 50 and echo on murals throughout town, as my colleague Erika D. Smith observed on a visit to Placerville last year. Now reduced to a stump, the white oak tree that once served as a gallows sits in the cellar of a bar on Main Street. A dummy named George hangs from a noose above the second story of the bar.

Calls to remove the city’s nickname — and the imagery associated with it — began circulating last summer shortly after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked widespread racial justice protests.

“Let’s not pretend to be tone-deaf,” the originator of a petition to remove “Old Hangtown” from the city’s welcome sign wrote last year. “The name ‘Hangtown’ is threatening, outdated and offensive, and suggests that racial hate crimes are acceptable.”

As Seidman reports, those urging the city to “lose the noose” said they weren’t trying to erase local history but rather glorify more worthy aspects — namely ones that don’t evoke violence, death and mob justice.

“Handing my card to somebody with this noose on it that’s from a city with a high African American or Latino population, what signal does that send?” Placerville City Councilmember Michael Saragosa asked during Tuesday’s meeting, shortly before the unanimous vote to remove the noose from the city’s logo. “Yes, I could maybe try and have a history lesson with everybody, every time. But that’s not really something that’s going to happen.”

Saragosa said the issue had “come up in Placerville for at least the last 40 years, in different iterations” and suggested that “if there was Twitter in 1980" the city might have seen different outcomes at an earlier time."

Do you know what is depicted on the logo for your town or city? And, do you know what it symbolizes and how others respond to it? In this time of "cancel culture" and sudden, violent protests, rioting and looting, maybe you should doublecheck.

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