The series Searching for California’s Hang Trees began in 2002 and grew out of my research into the history of lynching in California. I began the research on lynching in California by trying to assemble the most complete record of lynching in California that had been published up to that time. It was included in my book, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke, 2006) ,which I document over 350 cases of lynching in the State of California.
I was particularly interested in documenting how nineteenth century conceptions of difference had obscured the fact that, like African Americans in the South, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese, Latinos, and African Americans, had been targeted and lynched in California and the west, at least in part, because of their racial identities. I also documented cases involving “Yankees” and persons of European descent as well. I included every case I could uncover. The work was difficult to do, and at first, many people were skeptical that Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans were lynched.
But as an artist I had to do more than simply research the history. The resulting series of photographs was created to help me cope with the history of racial hatred that had taken place in the California landscape. it was an invisible history. The resulting photographs also function as a physical testimony to my efforts to raise awareness of the historical mistreatment of Latinos in this country from the American Invasion, to more recent anti-immigration actions, which have literally lead to the incarceration of thousands of Latinos in our own time all along the US/Mexico border. As families are being broken up daily and where children continue to be put at great emotional and physical risk.
Part documentary, and part an act of witnessing, not all the trees may be exact, since many of the locations were deliberately not recorded. Some of the locations were handed down in local lore, or written in personal accounts, in some cases leading me to an old jail house, a ghost town, or a city square. All of the photos where taken in the city and county where the events occurred. Several, of the trees were, well documented, such as the hang tree in Holcomb Valley. In other cases, there were no evidence or proof, beyond the age of the trees themselves, which suggests that if not the actual sites, they certainly may have been witnesses to the passing of the lynch mob. In Los Angeles, since all trees and scaffolds have long since been removed, I photographed a single tree in Griffith Park to stand in for cases from the City of Angels, where city officials continue to overlook this history, even when I have made detailed information on some of these locations available.
According to many accounts, the California Live Oak and the Valley Oak were favored by lynch mobs. Silent witnesses to the mobs and vigilantes that passed beneath their “green-leafed gallows.”1
To watch the PBS segment from Lost LA click here.
1 Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, The Shirley letters: From the California Mines, 1851-52.