Mussel Slough Incident

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MUSSEL SLOUGH INCIDENT. Known locally as the Mussel Slough tragedy, an outbreak of gunfire in 1880, seven miles northwest of Hanford, California, brought to a head a long controversy between settlers on railroad lands and the Southern Pacific Company. In the end, seven men were killed.

In 1866, Congress voted to give the Southern Pacific Company a huge land grant in California to help subsidize a rail line. If the company met the terms and built the line, then it could sell the odd-numbered sections in the grant to cover costs. Southern Pacific encouraged settlement of the grant lands with promotional pamphlets that promised the land would eventually sell for $2.50 to $5.00 an acre, without additional charges for improvements. These prices were close enough to government rates to convince people to settle the arid Mussel Slough district beginning in the late 1860s. Within a few years the cooperative efforts of hundreds of families helped irrigate thousands of acres, and in 1880 the area boasted a population of four thousand people centered around the towns of Hanford, Grangeville, and Lemoore. By then, however, land ownership in the district was hotly contested.

In the mid-1870s, Southern Pacific stunned settlers by announcing that it would charge market value, $20 to $35 an acre, for homestead lands within the district. The prices were well above those stated in the pamphlets and above what the company charged in other areas. Hundreds of families who had already improved the land were told they could either pay the established prices or vacate. At first the settlers responded nonviolently by petitioning Congress to enact a law to force the railroads to sell the land at the government rate of $2.50 an acre. They also argued that the railroad should forfeit the land because it had violated its contract terms by not completing an agreed-upon rail line. When these efforts failed, six hundred Mussel Slough residents formed the Settlers' League on 12 April 1878. Although initially nonviolent, the league's approach shifted after Southern Pacific brought suit against settlers living on lands in odd-numbered sections. Beginning in November 1878, masked vigilantes rode through the district at night, intimidating residents who sided with the railroad.

Tensions peaked in spring 1880, when Southern Pacific brought suits of ejectment against twenty-three members of the Settlers' League. The league responded with heightened vigilance and posted warnings against the purchase of railroad lands. On 11 May 1880, Southern Pacific took advantage of the settlers' preoccupation with a league-sponsored picnic and sent the U.S. marshal Alonzo Poole, the land appraiser Walter Clark, and the residents Walter Crow and Mills Hartt to dispossess several settlers. The four met a group of league members in a wheat field near Hanford. Although the railroad men were heavily armed, they were severely outnumbered. Within minutes an argument erupted, followed by a sudden burst of gunfire. The source of the first shots was unclear, but in the end Hartt and five settlers were killed. Crow initially escaped but was caught and killed by an unknown gunman later in the day, thus bringing the death toll to seven. After the tragedy, tensions relaxed significantly. Some settlers purchased the lands they occupied, but many did not. In 1886 the Mussel Slough area was renamed Lucerne Valley.


Brown, James Lorin. The Mussel Slough Tragedy. n.p., 1958.

Brown, Richard Maxwell. No Duty to Retreat: Violence and Values in American History and Society. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.

Conlogue, William. "Farmers' Rhetoric of Defense: California Settlers versus the Southern Pacific Railroad." California History 78, no. 1 (1999): 40–55, 73–76.

Jennifer L.Bertolet

See alsoCalifornia ; Railroads .