Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Billy Tainter Story

“I was called this afternoon about one o’clock to a Maiden Lady about 35 years of age...She was attacked with vomiting and purging about two hours previous, which still continued with slight spasms... was able to walk about the room, found her extremities cold, pulse very small, great blueness about the neck and under the eyes, skin generally shriveled particularly on the hands and feet, with a cold moisture over the body… vomiting and purging ceased, slight occasional spasms of the extremities. Having no doubt that it was a case of Spasmodic Cholera, I called in Drs. Adams, Bigelow, and Wood, who concurred with me in the same opinion.”

Such were the words of a physician in Boston, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1832. Into this milieu Billy Tainter was born. It’s a wonder he survived infancy in those surroundings, but Billy grew to be strong, athletic, young man, a proficient swimmer, also able to sit a horse with ease. Already a go-getter as a teen, he found his way to California in the same year, 1848, that gold was discovered. A decade later he had moved on to the fledgling county of Mendocino.

By 1860 Billy had immersed himself in the politics of the day in a country divided. The four-year-old Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln as a candidate for President of the United States. The Democratic Party split, nearly along the same lines that would divide the Union and Confederacy the following spring. Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas, who had bested Lincoln in the Illinois U.S. Senate race of 1858. Southern Democrats nominated the sitting Vice-President, John Breckenridge of Kentucky. As students of early Mendocino County recall, a good deal of the early populace of this county stemmed from border states like Missouri. It may surprise some to find that Boston born Billy Tainter and prominent residents of the town of Mendocino like Jerome Ford, a Mainer, newspaperman William Heeser, and Captain David Lansing, along with inland leaders like Samuel Baechtel and A.E. Sherwood backed Breckenridge’s candidacy. 

All things in context; the issue that split the Democrats of Mendocino County, and indeed much of northern California, was not slavery, but whether or not a large bulkhead would be constructed at San Francisco Bay to enhance shipping. The issue proved so strong here that a candidate was labeled as a “bulkheader” more often in the press than anything relating to slavery. This isn’t written to diminish the obvious overriding effect of slavery in the history of this country, rather to remind readers that politics is if not local at least regional, and the economic issues surrounding the Bulkhead Bill in the California legislature at the time swayed allegiances as much as anything else. The Bulkhead Bill proved a hugely controversial bill. It was promoted and supported by San Francisco’s capitalists. It would have placed the city’s waterfront in the hands of private companies within monopolies. The legislation passed through the state assembly and senate in the spring of 1860 only to be vetoed by Governor John Downey. Throughout the remainder of 1860, merchants and the majority of the general public feared the big money interests of San Francisco would pressure the legislature to override the veto. The entrenched national leaders of the Democratic Party, like Senator Douglas, had provided wholehearted or at least tacit approval of the Bulkhead Bill. 

The group that Tainter et al represented authored a September, 1860, resolution describing their impression of the other half of the Democratic Party: “That we will no longer submit to the dictation and control of those corrupt and designing politicians, who have heretofore ruled the Democratic party in this County with a rod of iron, and who have made the word Democrat synonymous with fraud and corruption, and that we invite all good Democrats to co-operate with us in driving these vampires from our ranks, and in electing men who will represent, and not misrepresent, the people... 

With the support of many of the same men who polled for Breckenridge in 1860, Billy Tainter was elected Mendocino County’s Sheriff in 1861. Billy had not yet reached the age of thirty. That same year he married Mary Agnes MaLauchlin, known to those close to her as Mollie.

In the waning days of 1861, J.B. Hargraves and his son, Charles, shot and killed a character named “Three-fingered Jack” near the mouth of the Navarro River. “Three-fingered Jack,” otherwise known as William Atkinson, had questioned the Hargraves ownership of a tract of land. Sheriff Tainter effected the arrest of both Hargraves, father and son, without incident. 

In the early decades of Mendocino County, the sheriff not only apprehended lawbreakers, he was responsible for collecting property taxes from coast to inland. Each autumn the sheriff made his rounds throughout the county, picking up the sums due in person or from a central point in towns. In 1862, tax collections were carried out with relatively few hitches. The fall of 1863, however, proved a rainy season. Streams were swollen more than usual. Scarcely a month after being narrowly re-elected sheriff, Billy Tainter set off on his tax collecting duties. In late October, mounted upon a horse in which he had supreme confidence and well acquainted with the vagaries of the waters near the mouth of Elk Creek, sheriff and equine entered that stream, intending to cross, but instead were swept under. The thirty-one-year-old lawman’s body was not discovered until the next day.

Our story does not end there, for Sheriff Tainter’s death occurred in the middle of the Civil War. Mendocino County may have been thousands of miles from Antietam or Gettysburg; however, sentiments ran high. By 1863, Billy Tainter, the “bulkhead” controversy of three years prior notwithstanding, gained the reputation of a Union man, a supporter of the northern side in the war between the states. A short while before his September re-election, an inland Mendocino County faction, commonly referred to as the Secesh (for secessionists) published circulars claiming the sheriff was a defaulter and otherwise defaming the manner in which he ran his office. A few days after the election a Grand Jury report stated, “We have examined the Sheriff’s office and find the books and papers all correct and neatly kept; that Sheriff Tainter and his deputies are entitled to much credit for the manner in which the duties of the office are discharged, reports from interested parties to the contrary notwithstanding.”

Upon the death of Billy Tainter, the county coroner took possession of the office. On Halloween Day, 1863, the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors appointed Lew Warden (also spelled “Worden” in numerous accounts), who had lost the September election by only a handful of votes, to fill the unexpired term. The coroner refused to surrender the office in downtown Ukiah until Warden and some of his friends took possession with guns drawn.

Tainter had won that September election primarily on the strength of what was called “the soldier’s vote,” absentee ballots cast by Union soldiers on the battlefields far from home. By January, 1864, the dispute over Warden’s ascension to county sheriff reached the state legislature. A Sacramento valley newspaper described part of the situation. A disagreement “in the Senate between the Union and Copperhead elements, occurred today on the passage of the bill providing for an election in Mendocino county to fill the vacancy of Sheriff, caused by the drowning of Wm. H. Tainter, the Sheriff elect... Notwithstanding this [election], the secesh Supervisors of Mendocino ruled out the soldiers vote and ordered the certificate of election to be given to Worden.” That paper and others clearly define Warden as “the secesh” candidate.

Before the second week of January, 1864, was out the legislature passed a bill ordering a special election for mid February. The secesh, or Copperhead, elements within the Assembly and Senate voiced disapproval of the bill, largely because their man, Warden, currently held the literal office in Ukiah, but only a few actually voted against the action. 

Depending on what paper you read, the outcome of the impending election set emotions on edge. The Petaluma Argus commented on their local legislator and the coming trip to the ballot by their neighboring county voters. “The representative of the traitors and copperheads of Sonoma, in the Senate, took high old Constitutional grounds against the bill... [T]he people of that county [Mendocino] will now have an opportunity of electing a capable Union man.”

As irony would have it, Lew Warden won the special election, and rather handily. The Sonoma Democrat wrote, “With much pleasure we announce that Lew Worden was elected Sheriff of Mendocino county at the special election... Despite the strenuous efforts of all the dark lantern Leaguers to the contrary, the people of Mendocino, by a majority of 200. have decided that he shall be their Sheriff… Copperheads must be increasing rapidly up that way.” The actual margin was 635 votes for Warden and 453 for his opponent, Charles Barlow. 

Remember J.B. Hargraves, once arrested for a killing by Sheriff Tainter? By the end of the Civil War, Hargraves (written in various accounts as Hardgraves or Hargrave), once a butcher in Mendocino City and by the end of the war a supplier of beef to the mills in Navarro and Albion, was at it again. Apparently, another disagreement over property rights led to him shooting and mortally wounding a Mr. Adams of Sonoma County. The shooting took place along the Navarro River. Multiple newspapers of the time reported that Hargraves also shot and killed Sheriff Warden and one of his deputies when they tracked him down to make an arrest. No such subsequent fatalities occurred. Sheriff Warden and his deputy captured Hargraves without any harm befalling the lawmen.

Lew Warden would remain sheriff for several years. One of his claims to fame was the hiring of Jeremiah “Doc” Standley as a part time deputy sheriff. 

(See Warden’s employment of young Standley elsewhere in the AVA archives and at

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *