Officials in the city of Placerville formed a subcommittee this week for recommendations over removing a noose from the city seal.
The seal, which includes a miner panning gold, also includes a noose hanging from a tree. It references the city’s growth from the California gold rush in 1848, as well as the frontier justice that gave the city it’s original name in 1849: Old Hangtown. The name and symbol came directly from an incident in 1849 when 3 men were hanged in the city over attempted robbery and murder charges. Old Hangtown continued to be the city’s name until 1854 when it was changed to Placerville. In the following years it became the county seat of El Dorado County and was, at one point, the third largest city in the state. Today, the city remains the county seat with around 11,000 residing there.
Calls to replace or alter the seal have increased in recent years due to problems over the imagery, most notably by modern day connections of lynchings to the African American community. A major effort to change the seal was launched last year in the wake of the George Floyd protests but stopped due to COVID-19 matters taking precedence.
“It is quite controversial, and I think there is a big divide within the community about what we ultimately do,” noted council member and former Mayor Michael Saragosa. “I do think we will have a more healthy and vibrant discussion if we have it in person.”
This week, the matter reached a council committee, which is now weighing how to move forward with public debate and council voting over the matter, as continued pandemic social distancing makes public comment difficult.
“Is this a council action, is this a vote of the community, do we take polling of folks, all of those items are going to be discussed,” added Saragosa. “I want to make sure we have a thorough enough conversation where people feel like they were heard, that we actually had a real conversation and didn’t rubber-stamp something.”
A divide in Placerville
Placerville residents remain divided on the city seal issue; some want to move away from the negative modern day connotations, and others want to keep it because of the history of the hangman’s noose and the fact that it was not used racially in Placerville.
“You know, that was always the divide there,” explained former Placerville resident Kenneth Stevenson, who helped groups raise the issue in the 2000’s before the city council. “It is a non-racially charged piece of history of the city and was a big part of it’s early history. The city’s name was even Hangtown for like 5 years I think.”
“But today, the noose is becoming more and more of a symbol of violence against black people. It’s so powerful now that after all those suicides last year of black men hanging themselves in California, calls for lynching investigations happened in a snap.”
“El Dorado isn’t the biggest county in the state, and Placerville isn’t exactly widely known in the U.S., but you still see that city seal everywhere, including in legal documents. There are a lot of people who want to keep it and a lot who don’t, so the question really should be ‘Does it represent the city?’ We couldn’t figure that out 20 years ago, and based on how people there still feel today, there is no clear answer now.”
“The story of old Hangtown really begins at Coloma, where James Marshall built a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River for his employer John Sutter,” HistoricPlacerville.com reports. As the burgeoning gold rush grew towns in the region, “murders and robberies became frequent in isolated camps along the American River, and before long, several merchants and miners had lost their poke of gold at knifepoint. After one such crime early in 1849, an impromptu citizens jury met to consider the fate of the three accused. The jury wasted little time reaching a verdict.”
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