The Fourth of July celebration held in Downieville, California, in 1851 was a festive event that included a parade, a picnic, and patriotic speeches from numerous politicians. Proud members of the Democratic County Convention spoke to the cheering crowd of more than five thousand people, primarily gold miners, about freedom and the idea that all are considered equal.
The celebration was accentuated with gambling at all the local saloons and the consumption of alcohol, available in large barrels lining the streets. When residents weren’t listening to orators wax nostalgic, many happy and drunk souls gathered at Jack Craycroft’s Saloon to watch a dark-eyed beauty named Juanita deal cards.
Juanita was from Sonora, Mexico, and engaged to the saloon’s bartender, but that did not stop amorous miners from attempting to get close to her. Fred Cannon, a well-liked Scotsman who lived in town, frequently propositioned Juanita. On the Fourth of July in 1851, he took her usual rejection particularly hard and threatened to have his way with her regardless.
When Juanita finished work that evening, she went straight home. The streets were still busy with rowdy patriots who weren’t willing to stop celebrating. Fred Cannon was among the men on the thoroughfare who were drinking and firing their guns in the air. After more than a few beers, Fred decided to take the celebration to Juanita’s house.
Juanita was preparing for bed when Fred pounded on the front of her home and suddenly burst in, knocking the door off the hinges. She yelled at the drunken man to get out. Before leaving, Fred cursed at her and threw some of her things on the floor. The following morning Juanita confronted Fred about his behavior and demanded he fix her door. He refused, insisting that the door was flimsy and was in danger of falling off the frame prior to his involvement. Juanita was enraged by his response, and the two argued bitterly. When Fred cursed at her this time, she pulled a knife on him and stabbed him in the chest.
Fred’s friends surrounded the woman, calling her a harlot and a murderer. They demanded that she be hanged outright. Many of the townspeople insisted on trying her first, however. After a quick and biased hearing, Juanita was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. The fearless woman held her head up as she was led to the spot where she would be put to death. She refused a blindfold, and when asked if she had any final words about the crime for which she was accused, she simply nodded her head. She boldly stated that she was not sorry and that she would “do it again if so provoked.”
Juanita was the first woman to be hanged in the state of California. She was buried in the same grave as Fred Cannon. The pair was moved from the site six months later when gold was discovered where they laid. Their remains were relocated to the Downieville Cemetery. Time and the elements have erased the name of the infamous Juanita from the marker that stands over her grave.