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Blood Feud in the Kern River Country

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: October 18, 2006 
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In 1892 a deadly California feud erupted in the rugged Kern River country of the lower Sierra Nevada. The cause of the hostilities was simple enough — a dispute over a gold mining claim. Before the disagreement was settled, two men had served prison terms for a crime they hadn't committed, one man was a permanent fugitive from justice, four men were dead and one survivor was the defendant in one of the most sensational murder trials in the history of Kern County.

Some 28 years earlier, gold had been discovered near the Kern River. As a result of that 1864 strike, William Walker and his growing family had migrated into the Kern River country from California's mother lode region. Walker liked his new home and remained there for the rest of his life. By 1880 the 51-year-old Walker and his 38-year-old wife, Mary, had seven children — James, 19; Thomas, 17; Benjamin, 15; William, 13; Newton, 8; Hal, 6; and Mary, 3. The family was well regarded in the mountain community.

The Kern River country was also the home of another family of early arrivals in the area, the Burtons. In 1880 that family consisted of Sarah Burton, a 45-year-old widow, and six children — James, 22; Luther, 20; Laura, 19; Fletcher, 17; David, 16; and A.V., 15. Like the Walkers, the Burtons were considered solid citizens.

In 1883, though, James and Fletcher Burton had a brush with the law. On October 12, Morris Jacoby and two companions transported some gold bullion belonging to the Big Blue mine by wagon to the Southern Pacific rail stop at Caliente. While on the road, they were stopped by two armed and masked bandits who demanded their cargo. Jacoby advised the outlaws that the gold they demanded had been shipped the week before in another conveyance. The would-be bandits believed Jacoby and disappeared into the nearby brush.

The masks did not keep Jacoby from identifying the bandits as James and Fletcher Burton. On October 18, he accompanied Kern County Sheriff William Bower into the Kern River country to arrest the brothers. Jacoby and Bower were successful, placing James and Fletcher Burton in the Kern County jail in Bakersfield on charges of attempted robbery.

While being questioned by law enforcement officers, the Burton boys confessed to the crime but revealed that John Spratt had planned and directed the holdup. Spratt was promptly arrested and held for court action. If the Burtons would turn evidence for the state, they would be granted immunity from prosecution. Indeed, in January 1884, during Spratt's robbery trial, James and Fletcher Burton testified against their former leader. Convicted and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin, Spratt swore before witnesses that if he lived to get out of prison, he would kill James and Fletcher Burton for their treachery. The charges against the Burton brothers were dismissed as promised, and they went home.

In 1886 brothers William and Charles Gibson moved into the area from Missouri. William purchased a farm in Hot Springs Valley, and Charles helped him work the land. The brothers also prospected the nearby hills for gold. They enjoyed good community relations and became friends with both the Burton and Walker families. The Gibsons also made friends with Edgar Allison, whose farm was close by. When the brothers became established on their California farm, they sent to Missouri for their sister Addie. After her arrival in the Kern River country, Addie eventually married David Burton.

In early 1892, the Gibson brothers entered into a mining venture with the Burton brothers. Apparently all of them contributed money to the venture, but David Burton and Charles Gibson did the preliminary work. They investigated an old mine works that had been in a mountain landslide. Working up the mountainside, they located an exposed vein that they felt deserved further exploration. Below a ledge of decomposed quartz they found gold, and further work on the site by Fletcher and Luther Burton suggested that the payoff would be high.

On March 19, 1892, William Gibson, for reasons unexplained, filed a mine location claim in his own name with Andrew Brown, a Kernville resident who apparently was connected to the Kern County recorder's office in Bakersfield. Brown was supposed to send the notice to that office, but Gibson had not marked the claim boundaries nor had he posted a notice on the property as was required by law. In the meantime, the Burton brothers continued to work the claim without the Gibson brothers' involvement.

A quarrel then developed between the Gibsons and the Burtons over the mine's ownership, and each side made public threats against the other. In order to secure the mine for themselves, the Burton brothers took possession of a nearby abandoned cabin, with Fletcher Burton occupying it to keep close watch on the claim.

As time went by, the quarrel over the mine became more strained. One day, Luther Burton, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Beverly Robinson, started for Bakersfield in a horse-drawn vehicle. Burton intended to record the work done on the mine and to seek legal counsel about steps he should take to preserve his title. While he was en route on the Hot Springs Valley road, Burton and the Robinsons met William and Charles Gibson, who were riding in a buggy and were armed with rifles. Both parties stopped, and angry words followed between the Gibson brothers and Burton. As the argument grew more heated, Mrs. Robinson began to cry. Ignoring her, one of the Gibson brothers said to Burton: "Here are two guns. Let the lady drive on. You take one gun and I will take the other and we will fight it out and settle the whole thing right here." Luther Burton rejected the challenge and drove on. The Gibson brothers overtook the buggy and told him they were going "to put Fletcher Burton off of that mine." The Gibsons then went their way, and Luther Burton and the Robinsons continued on to Bakersfield.

During the evening of November 20, 1892, William and Charles Gibson visited the Walker family home. Later that same night, James Burton stood at the bar in Cesario Leon's Kernville saloon when a shot from outside a window tore into Burton's right arm. The bullet plowed around Burton's back and exited his body from the left side. While his assailant escaped in the dark, Burton writhed on the saloon floor in pain and gasped, "Bill Gibson must've shot me." Although Burton's wound was thought to be fatal at first, he soon recovered.

Officers investigated the shooting. Justice of the Peace J.W. Sumner of Kernville suggested that the assault might have had something to do with the quarrel over the mine, in which case somebody might have tried to shoot Fletcher Burton, too. Sumner dispatched local miner John Manning to the mine, to see about Fletcher. On his way, Manning stopped at the Walker house, where he told those inside what had happened to James Burton that night and of his current mission. The Gibson brothers, realizing that they would be suspects in the shooting of James Burton, left the Walker house and disappeared.

Manning found Fletcher Burton's body in the cabin by the mine and immediately returned to Kernville, where he reported to Justice Sumner that Fletcher Burton was "shot to pieces." Because the Gibson brothers had threatened the Burton boys, the Gibsons were the prime suspects. Although a manhunt was launched, the Gibsons slipped through it and went to Bakersfield, where they surrendered to sheriff's deputies. They were held in jail pending investigation for murder.

The evidence against the Gibson brothers was circumstantial but compelling — their threats against the Burton boys and a fired rifle shell found at the murder scene a week after investigating officers and the coroner's jury inspected the ground. Although they were the prime suspects for the wounding of James Burton and the killing of Fletcher Burton, William and Charles Gibson were not the only ones considered for the crimes.

Officers and others recalled how John Spratt had threatened in January 1884 to kill the Burtons for testifying against him in his robbery trial. Spratt had been discharged from prison on July 20, 1890, and James and Fletcher Burton had become uneasy upon learning that Spratt had returned to Kern County. Spratt, though, had not contacted them. Spratt became a stronger suspect when James Walker and John Gibson told officers that they saw the ex-con near Fletcher Burton's cabin on the day Fletcher was shot. Lawmen interviewed Spratt, who admitted being in the area but denied the shootings. He was not arrested, for lack of evidence.

Another suspect for the shootings was James Walker's younger brother Benjamin. Several days before Fletcher Burton was killed and James Burton wounded, Ben Walker had had a dispute with the brothers and had threatened to kill them all. Further, witnesses reported seeing Ben Walker, armed with a rifle, riding his horse near Fletcher Burton's cabin on the day Fletcher was shot. After the Gibson brothers were arrested, Walker had left the area, and his whereabouts were unknown.

The authorities filed murder charges against the Gibsons. The brothers pleaded not guilty to the charges in all phases of the court proceedings. Their joint trial was long and hard-fought by the attorneys on both sides, but on May 12, 1893, the Gibsons were found guilty and sentenced to life in San Quentin. William and Charles Gibson entered the prison on April 27, 1895, after losing their case's appeal.

In the meantime, Edgar Allison, a Gibson partisan, was certain the convicted brothers were innocent and had been framed for the murder of Fletcher Burton. He voiced his views loud and often in the Kern River country, which led him into several arguments with James Burton, who insisted the Gibsons were guilty of murdering his brother.

Shortly after 5 p.m. on May 13, 1893, Allison and James Burton inadvertently met on a trail near Kernville. According to Allison, as the men passed each other Burton shifted his rifle toward Allison, who grabbed the gun. As the men wrestled for possession of the rifle, each drew his six-shooter. Allison fired three shots into Burton's body, killing the man quickly. After walking to Kernville, Allison surrendered to Justice of the Peace Sumner.

James Burton's six-shooter was found drawn from its holster, which supported the shooter's version of the shooting, but Allison was still arrested and charged with murder. The prosecutor argued that Allison had run into Burton on the trail and had shot without warning. Allison pleaded not guilty. During Allison's Superior Court trial, John Burke testified that he saw the two men meet on the trail and wrestle before the shooting, though he hadn't known their names at the time. Other witnesses testified that they heard Burton and Allison make death threats against each other. Allison told the court that he shot Burton in self-defense, and the jury believed him, voting for acquittal. Allison left the courtroom a free man and returned to the Kern River country.

After the James Burton killing, the feud over the mine slipped into remission. Sarah Burton moved to Los Angeles with her daughters; Luther Burton went to Tonopah, Nev., where he reportedly did quite well in mining ventures. Although David Burton remained in the Kern River country, he was regarded as a good citizen, prosperous and law-abiding. He ignored the Walker boys and Allison, and they ignored him. An uneasy peace prevailed.

During this time, it became apparent to many that Ben Walker was most likely the one who had killed Fletcher Burton and wounded James Burton. As a result, Ben Walker became a fugitive from justice, but he was never apprehended. The convictions of the Gibson brothers now seemed like miscarriages of justice, and two petitions from Kern County were submitted to California Governor James H. Budd asking him to pardon the prisoners. The first petition was from the Kern River country and had 150 signatures on it. The second petition was primarily from Bakersfield. The signatures included those of prominent county officers and several attorneys, most notably J.W. Ahern, the prosecuting attorney who secured the Gibson brothers' conviction. While none of the signatories believed the Gibson brothers to be guilty, they didn't all agree on who had done the shootings. Their affidavits show that some of them believed that John Spratt had murdered Fletcher Burton, but more of them believed that Benjamin Walker was the killer. Others made no accusations. A few citizens wrote letters protesting a pardon.

No new evidence was provided in the petition affidavits, but the arguments presented were compelling. On December 24, 1893, Governor Budd commuted the Gibson brothers' life sentences to time served, and they were released from prison. Instead of returning immediately to the Kern River country, they took up residence in Porterville, a small town in nearby Tulare County.

As the years passed, David Burton apparently brooded over the deaths of his brothers and could no longer ignore the Walker brothers. Perhaps he believed that Ben Walker had murdered Fletcher Burton and had attempted to kill James Burton. But Ben was long gone. David's hatred seemed to center on Newt Walker, who had little or nothing to do with the feud or the 1892 shootings of Fletcher and James Burton. In early 1905, David Burton imported a gunman, George Bagsby, to even the score. Bagsby boasted of his mission, and the Walker family naturally became watchful.

In April of that year, Newt and his father, William, went to Bakersfield by stagecoach. On their way home on the 23rd, they stopped at the village of Havilah. Before departing the coach, they saw David Burton and George Bagsby on the street. The elder Walker wanted to leave town immediately to avoid trouble, but Newt was hungry and wanted to eat first.

Newt and his father were eating in Gus Miller's store when Burton and Bagsby came in and began harassing them. The Walkers did not respond. William Walker continued to read a newspaper. Bagsby eventually leaned over William's shoulder as if to read the paper. Burton and Bagsby were clearly trying to provoke Newt into making a hostile move so that they could shoot him. William didn't have any trouble convincing his son to leave this time. The Walkers left the store and headed up the street.

Burton and Bagsby followed, taunting Newt. After the younger Walker still did not respond, Bagsby shouted, "We want you!" as he seemed to reach for the pistol he carried in his belt. As Newt whirled around to face Burton and Bagsby, he drew his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson double-action revolver from its holster and fired two shots at Bagsby. Both shots struck Bagsby in the chest. Although he didn't fall, Bagsby was mortally wounded. Newt Walker then fired two accurate shots at David Burton, who died instantly. Newt wasn't done; he fired two more shots at Bagsby, who was finally tumbling over. One shot grazed Bagsby's arm and the sixth shot missed. As Newt walked away, Bagsby managed to fire two shots at him, but both missed. Newt reloaded his revolver, but did not shoot again. Bagsby died in the street.

Newt then walked up to his father, who had played no role in the shooting, and commented that Burton and Bagsby were dead. Newt said he would surrender to proper authority but not at that moment. He shook hands with William and vanished into the nearby brush. No gun was found on or near the body of David Burton, but several cartridges that fit .32- and .38-caliber pistols were in his pockets.

A manhunt was soon launched, but Newt Walker couldn't be found that day. Kern County Sheriff John Kelly led the search for the fugitive the next day, but had no better luck. In the meantime, the county coroner conducted an inquest into the deaths of Burton and Bagsby. After taking testimony, the jury determined that the two men died from gunshot wounds inflicted by Newt Walker. The jury did not find the killings to be murder.

Newt sent word through a friend to Sheriff Kelly that he would surrender to that lawman — no one else. Kelly replied by directing the fugitive to meet him at the Isabella stagecoach depot at 8 o'clock the next evening. Newt Walker did so, and the surrender was completed without a hitch.

Kelly placed Walker in the Kern County jail to await court action. Even though Walker maintained his innocence from the moment of his arrest, District Attorney J.P.W. Laird was confident of a conviction because Newt had gunned down an unarmed man, David Burton. Laird filed two counts of murder but only prosecuted the case that involved Burton.

Newt Walker's trial began the first week of June. The courtroom was packed daily with newspaper reporters and curious onlookers. Attorneys on both sides fought hard, and the tension in the courtroom was electrifying.

The prosecution alleged Walker had shot down both victims without provocation and without warning and that his hatred for David Burton from the earlier feud was his motive for the murders. Further, the prosecution stated that Bagsby did not draw his gun until after Newt had started shooting. The defense countered that the feud had nothing to do with Walker's shooting of Burton and Bagsby and that Walker had acted in self-defense.

Witnesses for the prosecution testified that Burton and Bagsby were in Gus Miller's store at the same time as Newt and William Walker but did not taunt or provoke the Walkers. They also said Burton did not appear to be armed. The witnesses further stated that Burton and Bagsby walked up the street behind the Walkers but did not initiate trouble.

Defense witnesses testified that Burton did have a pistol while in Miller's store and that he and Bagsby tried to provoke Newt Walker. The witnesses also reported seeing Burton and Bagsby follow Newt and his father up the street but that they were not close enough to hear what was said.

None of the witnesses saw the actual shooting; they only heard the shots. When they looked, they saw Burton and Bagsby on the ground and Newt Walker walking away from them, reloading his pistol. At least one witness saw Bagsby shoot at Walker.

Newt Walker took the witness stand in his own defense, and his testimony was sensational. He said at the moment of the shooting he believed Burton was armed and that Burton and Bagsby intended to kill him. Walker went on to say that he fired at Bagsby first because Bagsby was drawing a pistol before Walker had touched his own gun. After shooting Bagsby, Walker shot Burton to prevent him from drawing his pistol.

At that point, the prosecutor claimed it was impossible for someone to draw a revolver against a man who was already drawing a gun and beat him to the shot, then redirect his fire in time to prevent a second man from even touching a gun. Defense council disagreed and suggested to the court that Walker demonstrate how he accomplished the feat. The court concurred with the suggestion.

Stand-ins were placed in the courtroom in positions where Burton and Bagsby had been in on the street when shot. Walker, wearing his empty six-shooter in his holster, stood with his back to the stand-ins. He glanced at them several times as he had done on the street. Suddenly, he whirled about to face them. As he turned, he drew his revolver and snapped the trigger two times at one stand-in, two times at the other stand-in and two more times at the first stand-in. The newspaper reporters, courtroom spectators, court personnel and members of the jury were astonished at the speed of Walker's draw and the rapidity of his trigger pull. His demonstrated skill with his weapon was very convincing. In the end, the jury believed Newt Walker and returned a verdict of not guilty. Walker thanked each jury member.

During the trial, David Burton's widow was a daily spectator in the courtroom. After the jury's verdict, she made her way to Newt Walker and congratulated him on the outcome. When interviewed by a newspaper reporter, she said: "When you write up the trial today, you may say I was for the prosecution. Isn't that romantic?" Newt's father heard the jury's good news in the sheriff's office, where he had chosen to wait rather than in the courtroom.

When court reconvened the following morning to consider the murder of George Bagsby, District Attorney Baird moved to dismiss the case. He said if he couldn't convict Walker of murdering an unarmed man, he certainly couldn't convict him of murder for killing an armed one. The charge against Newt Walker was dismissed, and he left the courtroom a free man. The Gibson-Burton-Walker feud was over.


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One Response to “Blood Feud in the Kern River Country”


  1. 1
    Albert gonzales says:

    Good reading,hate to say that it happen,but i like it,outlaws don't get all the fun all the times,but i like the story..



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