Battle of the Titans

Dangberg vs. Lucky Bill: One of them won the first round. The other got the last laugh.

1856 Was a Tough Year . . . . 

Where’s that “Wayback” machine when you need it?! It’s difficult to be rock-solid certain you’ve separated fact from fiction after more than 160 years have passed. But if there was one person in the world who had good reason to hate Lucky Bill Thorington, it was probably Heinrich Friedrich (“Fred”) Dangberg. And some would hint that he eventually got his revenge.

Dangberg was born September 16, 1830 in Halle, a province of Westphalia. Although today we know it as Germany, it was officially the Kingdom of Prussia at the time. Fred’s father was a farmer and stage operator. But Fred, the oldest of four sons, didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, at least immediately. Instead, he was apprenticed to an uncle to learn the trade of operating a flour mill.

In 1845, when Fred Dangberg was just 15, his father passed away. His mother would remarry two years later, in 1847. All together this added up to a rough period in the young lad’s life. His relationship with his step-father was not a happy one and, with war looming in Europe, he faced the very real possibility of being conscripted.

Young and ambitious, Fred Dangberg was in no mood to wait for Fate to overtake him. In 1848, at the age of 18, he sailed from Germany to New Orleans. Lying ahead were not only fresh opportunities but a life on his own.

In America, Dangberg initially took a job rafting logs down the Mississippi. The following year, Dangberg and a friend, Benjamin Mast, followed the river upstream to St. Louis, where they secured work in a flour mill. And in 1850, the pair hired out as farmhands at a ranch in Illinois.

Nattily-dressed rancher H.F. Dangberg, circa 1875-1880. (Courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park).

In the meantime, of course, the Gold Rush had begun. The lure of riches and land proved too compelling for ambitious young men like Dangberg and Mast to ignore. In the spring of 1853, the pair left St. Louis and headed west, driving 200 head of cows and oxen with them. They reached Gold Canyon on October 11, 1853, and promptly set to work panning gold.

For the next two-and-a-half years they would split their time between mining and trading, running their sluice box in the months when water was available, and trading goods to emigrants when water was scarce. They purchased wares in Placerville and Sacramento, and sold everything from flour, coffee and similar staples to simple comforts like tobacco and alcohol.

By early 1856 Dangberg had branched out into the dairy business, too, and began selling butter – more than 450 pounds of it that year alone, factoring in the weight of the small wooden barrels (firkins) that held it. Things were going so well, in fact, that he decided to abandon gold mining entirely and turn his energies to ranching instead.

Sometime that same year (1856), Dangberg settled on 320 acres of rich bottomland beside the East Fork of the Carson River, land that would later be known as the Klauber Ranch. He began building a log cabin, and set his cattle to grazing nearby. But as far as we can tell from recorded documents, Dangberg never bothered to file a formal land claim. Maybe he was working on it. Maybe he intended to hire a surveyor later, and just wanted to get his cabin up first.

Local trader and land baron, William “Lucky Bill” Thorington. (K. Dustman illustration)

But Dangberg wasn’t the only one with an eye on that same stretch of land. Returning home from a supply trip over the mountains, Dangberg found local trader and land baron Lucky Bill Thorington occupying his partly-finished cabin – armed with a gun and a group of supporters. Some say Lucky Bill taunted Dangberg, boldly declaring that he’d jumped Dangberg’s land claim and demanding “What are you going to do now, Dutchman?”

Although this may well have been Dangberg’s take on the situation, the vague descriptions and primitive title system of early land claims made it a far more nuanced matter. The intervening 160-plus years makes it doubly difficult to tell for sure, of course. But here’s one fascinating tidbit that might help explain the confrontation: these 320 acres could be the same property claimed and surveyed by Fred Heath and F.D. Clift on August 9, 1856.

Assuming it’s the same land, the big question, of course: did that Heath/Clift survey happen before or after Dangberg settled on the property? Did Dangberg perhaps even buy out Heath and Clift’s interest in an unrecorded transaction? Or did he commence building his cabin, unaware of their claim? On the other hand, could Lucky Bill have bought the Heath/Clift land claim? Or might Lucky Bill just have been friendly with Heath and Clift, and tried to help pitch out a person they felt was an intruder? We may simply never learn the truth. But it’s possible that Lucky Bill – a resident of Carson Valley since 1853 – honestly believed he or his friends had a valid right to the land.

By the time Dangberg arrived, would-be settlers were swarming into Carson Valley and land disputes with those who’d settled earlier were common. Newcomers frequently had difficulty finding unoccupied land and many bitterly resented those who’d arrived before them, believing it unfair that early settlers had tied up such huge swaths of land.

It would seem out-of-character for Lucky Bill to have taken advantage of a newcomer, especially by force. He seemed to be well-liked by at least some (though not all) in the community, with contemporaries describing him as a “merry citizen.” Tales are still told of his kindness toward unfortunate travelers. Lucky Bill certainly had no need to steal land, having already amassed a home in Genoa, an extensive ranch in Eagle Valley, and another ranch at Fredericksburg. On the other hand, Lucky Bill probably wouldn’t take it lightly if he felt that someone was trying to take advantage. So perhaps the dispute was simply an unfortunate collision between two determined individuals, both convinced they were right.

The confrontation was certainly an unequal one. Fred Dangberg was a strapping young man, and hard work had made him strong. But Lucky Bill, topping six feet, was even larger. Worse yet for Dangberg, Lucky Bill had friends standing by his side as the pair faced off at the cabin site.

Finding himself outnumbered – and perhaps aware that his own unperfected land claim might be somewhat shaky – Dangberg abandoned his partly-finished cabin and sought out other land to claim. He moved south about a mile, crossing the river and heading upstream. There, in 1857, Dangberg and partners Ben Mast and C.E. Holbrook took up 640 acres of land in the middle of the fertile Carson Valley – land that ultimately would form the nucleus of the Dangberg Home Ranch.

From a water-rights perspective, it was a canny move. Here where the East Fork and the Middle Fork separated, Dangberg had first access to the water that flowed on to downstream ranchers – including Lucky Bill. And this time, the partners made sure they did things right: they hired a surveyor and set out corner markers for their property.

The Dangberg Home Ranch — H.F. Dangberg’s second choice. (Courtesy of Dangberg Home Ranch Historic Park).

But that early, ugly confrontation with Lucky Bill Thorington was one that Fred Dangberg never forgot – and probably never forgave. When Thorington was hauled up on trial in June, 1858 for his alleged complicity with murderer William Edwards, eighteen jurors were plucked from the community to hear the charge. Old-timers including Thomas Knott and Harry Hawkins would later hint that Fred Dangberg was a member of that jury. Others, however, dismiss the allegation as pure rumor.

Rumor or not, perhaps no one was happier than Fred Dangberg when Lucky Bill was dispatched into eternity on June 19, 1858 by a hangman’s noose. Some two years after the unfortunate confrontation at the cabin, Dangberg may well have felt Lucky Bill had gotten his come-uppance.

And oh yes. There was one final joyful celebration ahead for Fred Dangberg:  he finally, finally managed to purchase the Klauber Ranch in 1902.

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Unsolved murders. Brazen stage robberies. Tales of buried treasure. They’re all here in our new book, “Forgotten Tales of Carson Valley“! Get your copy at local merchants or find it on Amazon.com!

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