Truckee shootout at Hurd’s Saloon, Part I

Constable Jacob Teeter served his community for 24 years. | Courtesy Truckee Donner Historical Society

During the early years of the California Gold Rush, San Francisco was ground zero for tens of thousands of immigrants arriving from countries around the world, all hoping to get rich or die trying. There were honest men and women among them, as well as many ruffians, schemers and rogues.

In the early 1850s, a significant element of San Francisco’s population was comprised of hooligans and criminals from Australia. The British considered the island continent on the other side of the world a perfect prison and they established several penal colonies there in 1788. When word of the gold strike reached Australia, many thugs and convicts escaped or were released from the large penal settlement of Sydney in New South Wales, and sailed for California. Upon arrival in San Francisco the predominantly Irish ex-cons opened saloons, dance halls, taverns and other public houses of ill repute in a section of the city that became known as Sydney Town.

Crime in the district was so rampant that it gained international notoriety and was called the Barbary Coast. These “Sydney Ducks” were the principal reason for the city’s high robbery and murder rates. The foreign felons also banded together to extort money from businessmen, intimidate politicians and offer refuge to wanted criminals. Arsonists set the city on fire four times. Due to corrupt judges and bribed city officials, even the worst were released from custody without prosecution. Law enforcement in San Francisco was not up to the task of eliminating the crime wave.

In order to bring a sense of justice to the city’s dysfunctional government, the 601 Vigilance Committee was formed in 1851 to take law and order into its own hands. Comprised of upstanding citizens, the “601” vigilantes began conducting quick summary trials for known murderers. Those found guilty were promptly hanged. The rash of public lynchings caught the attention of the rascals in Sydney Town and the streets of San Francisco soon became safe again.

A few decades later, the town of Truckee organized its own 601 Vigilance Committee, but its focus would ultimately shift from punishing criminals to eradicating its substantial ethnic Chinese population. In the second half of the 19th Century, Truckee was a rough and tumble railroad town with more than its share of violent crime. The community endured many years of shootouts, bar brawls and frequent street fights. Its saloons and back alleys were rife with transient toughs, hustling prostitutes and nefarious characters. The frequent violence that marred Truckee’s reputation required lawmen with nerves of steel and strong will. Men like that were hard to come by, but early Truckee residents were protected by some of the best in the West.

West’s greatest lawmen
Truckee’s first law officer was Arthur Andrus, appointed Constable of Meadow Lake Township in 1867 by the Nevada County Board of Supervisors. The town of Truckee was part of the eastern Nevada County district and already a rowdy town, bustling with railroad construction workers, businessmen, thieves, con men and prostitutes. Enforcing the law was challenging for Constable Andrus, but fortunately he had Steven Venard as deputy sheriff.

Little is known about Andrus, as he quit after less than a year on the job, but Deputy Venard gained a national reputation as one of the West’s greatest lawmen. As the only deputy sheriff in eastern Nevada County, Venard patrolled a vast area studded with lucrative gold mining operations and Mother Lode towns connected by busy stagecoach and freight lines.

At the time, the region was plagued by a gang of highwaymen committing robberies on local stage lines. The final straw came on May 16, 1866, when the North San Juan stage was held up by the so-called Shanks Gang. The armed criminals escaped with $8,000 from the Wells Fargo money box, as well as valuables from six passengers. Determined to stop the criminals, Nevada City Sheriff Robert Gentry organized a citizen’s posse consisting of five local men, including Steve Venard.

At one point the sheriff split up his men, sending Venard to bushwhack upcountry on foot while the others traveled the main road. Venard suddenly came upon the three robbers near a ravine, surprising them from about 20 feet away. Taking advantage of the moment, Venard squeezed the trigger of his rifle as the men reached for their guns. One bandit dropped dead. One of his cohorts dove behind a large rock and tried to shoot Venard with his revolver, but the pistol misfired. Once again Venard dropped his opponent with one shot, and without hesitation he dispatched the third criminal with two well-aimed bullets. Within a matter of seconds, Steve Venard had singlehandedly shot and killed the notorious Shanks Gang and earned a place as one of the bravest lawmen in the West.

Teeter becomes constable
After Arthur Andrus’ brief tenure as a mountain lawman, 26-year-old Jacob “Jake” Teeter took over as Constable of Meadow Lake Township, stationed in Truckee. Officer Teeter would hold the position of constable, deputy sheriff or night watchman for 24 years until his violent death in a gunfight with another Truckee lawman in 1891.

Hailing from New Jersey, Jake Teeter arrived in Truckee in the 1860s when it was still called Gray’s Toll Station and Coburn’s Station. Teeter and his wife, Margaret, bought a home near Truckee’s commercial district where they lived and ultimately raised their five children. The family also had a house on nearby Donner Lake where they rented boats during the summer tourist season. With the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad in the late 1860s, the town of Truckee went through an economic boom as a logging and railroad center. By April 1868, when the small mountain community officially changed its name to Truckee, there were more than 170 buildings, 25 of them being saloons. At the 1870 census, the town had 1,675 full-time residents.

The logging and railroad industries provided jobs for hundreds of men, but along with the transient workers came increased lawlessness and street violence. Truckee’s saloons, poker parlors and red light district behind Commercial Row on Jibboom Street lured unsavory characters of all stripes. Despite the daily threat from armed criminals prowling Truckee’s streets and outskirts, Officer Teeter usually wielded a wooden pick ax handle instead of a gun, saying that it was “quicker to use and less likely to misfire.”

Read Part II.