Searching for California’s Hang Trees grew out of my research into the history of lynching in California. I began this project by trying to assemble the most complete record of lynching in California that I could, and I was particularly interested in discovering how nineteenth century conceptions of difference might have obscured the fact that, when taken collectively, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Latinos, fell victim to the mob’s anger more often than persons of Anglo or European descent in the second half of the 19th century. The series serves as a physical testimony to my attempts to visit over 300 of the lynching sites in California.
More peformance than documentary, not all the trees pictured may be actual hanging trees, since many of the exact locations are unknown. However, they were taken in searching for the historic sites. A number of the trees or locations are documented, as in the Holcomb Valley tree which has a historical marker. The final tree on the page, shows the tree that was used in the filming of Run Up. Many of the exact locations were never recorded, but I went looking for them anyway, in some cases, finding the old jail house, or a landmark described in the accounts. In other cases, there were no evidence or proof, which to say that the photographic images might be said to give agency to the trees, many of which were recorded as being California Native Oaks and can live to be 400 years old. They are silent witnesses to the mobs and vigilantes that passed beneath their “green-leafed gallows.”1
1 Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, The Shirley letters: From the California Mines, 1851-52.