Hang Trees



Holcomb Valley, San Bernardino, 2006



Survey Practices and Landscape Photography Across the Globe

Edited by Erin Hyde Nolan and Sophie Junge

Searching for California Hang Trees


Ken Gonzales-Day

It might sound strange to say that the work did not begin as a project about lynching. It was a project about place and the people who inhabited it. It was also a response to real-life vigilantes who began to appear along the U.S./Mexico border as a result of the anti-immigration rhetoric that was being promoted by then-President, George W. Bush in the early 2000s. Their armed presence reminded me of those who had unjustly targeted Mexicans, Californios, Latin Americans, and Latinx communities across much of the Southwest throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. [1]

Over the next six years, I scrolled through countless rolls of microfilm (before digitization), read dozens of historical accounts of the “frontier”, and perused old newspapers like the Los Angeles Star and the Daily Alta California.  It was during this period that I began to identify individual cases of lynching in California. I documented over 350 of these cases and discovered that sixty-four percent of lynching victims were BIPOC with thirty-seven percent identified as Latinx (Chilean, Mexican, or Mexican  ), 11.5 % Native American, over 8% Chinese, and just over 2% black.[2]  Thirty-three percent of the cases involved the lynching of whites from Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States. Six percent were unidentified.

While I was still conducting the research and assembling the case list, I found myself increasingly traumatized by the research. Scholars doubted the accuracy of my claims. Fellow artists questioned my practice. One day, I was sitting in a viewing station reading microfilm in a regional history archive when I broke down while reading about a particularly brutal killing and found myself unable to.

I realized that the case had taken place a short distance from where I was and decided to get in my car and go look for the site.  I was quite certain that I did not have enough information to find the exact spot but I wanted to go see, to witness for myself, the land on which these acts had occurred.

The first thing I did once I returned home was to log on to eBay and look for a camera. I did not want just any camera. I wanted the kind of large format camera that was used by artists like Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and others who crystalized the notion of the American West as empty and untouched. I found an old wooden Deardorff 8x10 view camera and learned how to use it. Part of the idea was to imagine a new kind of landscape photography that would somehow capture the idea, that the land was a site filled with the histories of people, of Indigenous peoples, of Californios, of early immigrants, and migrations of all kinds, even once the physical traces were  The photographs were shot on Fuji color film and then drum scanned. The choice of color film was intended to signal a break from the past and to locate the images within the time in which they were made.[3]

Nearly all of the historic hang trees in California were cut down or destroyed in the aftermath of the lynchings themselves. If they were not razed to the ground, many of California’s oaks have been impacted by both real estate development and by Sudden Oak Death, a disease caused by a fungus-like plant pathogen that has contributed to widespread dieback across the state. Driving up and down the state to look for these locations I later came to see my project as a call -- to witness. I wanted to visit every site no matter the race of the victim. Once I was at a location I would consider the details of the case and try to imagine the impact of any alleged crime on the families and communities that were impacted.    I saw the trees as witnesses and imagined the lynch mobs passing under their limbs. When I got home my pockets were sometimes filled with acorns I brought from the sites and I stuck them in the ground around my house. They were smooth to the touch and helped me keep the memory of the places I had visited.

I never conceptualized the project as a documentary photography project but rather as an embodied act. A performative gesture that included my body, the land, the camera, and the final image -- even when the land was covered with asphalt and pavement. It was a new kind of landscape photography because it had to imagine a new kind of audience.

The resulting series stands in for an overlooked and forgotten history. For me, photography was a performative act --a witnessing through image-making. The images were taken in the city and county where the events occurred. Some of the locations have local or state historical markers, such as the hanging tree in Holcomb Valley (N 34 15.898 x W 116 55.276) [4] or Second   (California Landmark No. 460).

In About a Hundred Yards from the Road, I went looking for Panoche Pass in San Benito County where a group of Rangers, led by Captain Love, were said to have chased and killed Joaquim Murrieta and Three-Fingered Jack. The pass was described in various early accounts and is a short drive from the place where the Arroyo de Catuna state historical marker No. 344 is placed. For me, the old road seemed to provide a glimpse back in time and was informed by accounts that described an elaborate chase through grassy hills, horse trials, and secret hideouts.

In Nightfall   (Figure 1), I photographed a single tree in Griffith Park to stand in for many cases across Los Angeles County because the trees and makeshift gallows have long since disappeared. The image was taken around midnight in keeping with the history of so many lynching cases. The flash was meant to foreground the impact of flash photography in shaping the spectacle of death depicted in lynching postcards and newspaper coverage in the first decades of the twentieth century. This particular image was commissioned by LAXART in 2007 and was presented as a billboard in Los Angeles. Commuters stuck in rush hour traffic could see it out of the corner of their eye as they crawled along Interstate 10, one of the nation’s busiest highways. The tree was intended to stand in for California’s missing history of lynching and its impact on BIPOC, Latinx, and other immigrant communities.

It is my hope that the absence inferred in this work may one day be seen as contributing to social justice movements, adding to the history of our nation, and marking a new chapter in how we see images of the land, not just as symbolic or metaphorical representations of existing power relations, but as a critical response to the social construction of the Western landscape as justification for Manifest Destiny and settler colonialism.

[1] In researching the project, I became aware of a number of important publications on vigilantism and lynching. The first was Popular Tribunals, vol. 1 & II (1887) by Hubert Howe Bancroft which looked at California’s early days, and the second was Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000) by James Allen, Hilton Als, Leon F. Litwack, and John Lewis, which introduced me to the idea that the lynching photograph was a part of a legacy of terror that served to reenforce racial subordination and segregation against blacks nationwide.

[2] Ken Gonzales-Day, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006), p. 206.

[3] Processing color sheet film has since become increasingly difficult and I have mostly shot digitally since 2014.

[4] source: https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC13RP8_hangmans-tree?guid=94ceadf7-ddbb-4c84-acc8-aaa6d5d91e0e  (02/28/2021)



Archival text from this page (2015 +):

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 assembling 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), in 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 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 jailhouse, a ghost town, or a city square. All of the photos were taken in the city and county where the events occurred. Several, of the trees, were, well documented, such as the hanging tree in Holcomb Valley. In other cases, there was 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.