Josefa Segovia, also more commonly known as "Juanita", was a Mexican-American woman who was lynched in Downieville, California on July 5, 1851. She was found guilty of murdering a man, Frederick Cannon, who attempted to assault her. She is known to be the first and only woman to be lynched in California. Many discrepancies exist regarding the circumstances of her death. Josefa’s death has many connections and relevancy to the larger history of Latina/os in the United States because it shows how her racial status affected perception of her and how devalued the life of a Mexican American woman was. Josefa’s death highlights the discrimination and violence against Latinos in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Upon the end of the Mexican-American War, the discovery of gold in California, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, life for Mexicans in what had become the United States was changed completely. They lost their property, political power, and their culture was deemed worthless  They became segregated and did not have opportunities for advancement. This discrimination affected and applied to both rich and poor Mexicans. In Anglo journals and other media, Mexican women were depicted as flashy and morally deviant “sirens”. This is apparent in how Josefa’s story was presented in Anglo media. She was known as “Juanita” when stories came out about her death in complete disregard of who she was so much as to give her a stereotypical name for a Mexican woman rather than using her real name.
- 1 Early Life and Controversy about Her Name
- 2 Adult life
- 3 Social and Racial Environment for Latina/os in California
- 4 Assault
- 5 Effects and the Mexican-American Community During the Gold Rush
- 6 References
Early Life and Controversy about Her Name
Not much is known about the early life of Josefa Segovia. The date of her birth is unknown and she only became an important figure in history after she was lynched. If it had not been for her lynching, she would have no importance in history. Josefa Segovia’s true name has been a topic of great debate among historians and scholars. Before the Chicano Civil Rights Movement, most male scholars contended that Josefa had no recorded last name. For example, in Gordon Young’s Days of 49, he says that her name was “Juanita”. Bancroft also uses the name Juanita, although his use of it suggests that it is not the correct name. Throughout his account of the events at Downieville he refers to Segovia as either “The Mexican” or “the little woman” only assigning her a name during his description of her trial. This lack of any name for her for much of the account suggests that the name Juanita was simply chosen as a generic name for a Mexican woman. Historian Rodolpho F. Acuna claimed her name was Juana Loaiza citing an 1877 Schedule of Mexican Claims Against the United States that listed one Jose Maria Loiza as claiming damages for the lynching of his wife. Doubt is cast upon this name however, as it does not show up in the 1850 census, suggesting that the claim may have been fraudulent. It wasn’t until Martha Cotera, an influential activist of both the Chicano Movement and Chicana Feminist Movement, informed Chicano scholars in 1976 that her last name was Segovia. By giving “Juanita” a name, her story became more real and more important because the respect that was due to her was finally given by at least knowing her real name.
Irene I. Blea’s book U.S. Chicanas and Latinas in a Historical Context claims that Josefa was a Sonoran and of good character. She was about 26 years old at the time of her death. Kerry Segrave recounts Josefa Segovia's life in Downieville, California, also known as "The Forks" for its location at the north fork of the Yuba River. She lived with a Mexican gambler, José, in a small house on the main street of town. It is not completely clear if they were married or not.
Reputation in Downieville
Josefa was probably not married to José, but she did live with him. Therefore, she received a bad reputation. According to one account, Juanita (read Josefa) was slender and barely five feet tall. The same account states that Josefa was beautiful, vivacious and intelligent. Some say that she was not at all disliked in the mining camp in Downieville.
Social and Racial Environment for Latina/os in California
In 1835, Andrew Jackson tried to buy California for $3.5 million, but Mexico refused the offer. Ten years later, James K. Polk suggested annexing Texas, but also put California as a high priority on his list of territory to acquire. The US and Mexico went to war on May 13, 1846. Two years later on February 2, 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. What neither the U.S. or Mexico realized was that 9 days earlier, gold had been found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It is estimated that between 1848 and 1852, as many as 25,000 Mexicans migrated to California to mine. In the fall of 1848, as many as 3,000 Mexicans migrated to the mining regions. Often, they traveled as entire families. After hearing of the gold, thousands of American men borrowed money, mortgaged their homes, or spent their life savings to travel to California and take advantage of the opportunity to find gold. Because society at the time was based on a waged labor, the idea that a person could obtain wealth by finding gold became irresistible. By 1849, the population of non-native Californians grew to over 100,000. Two-thirds of this non-native population were Americans. Despite the fact that the work of mining was the hardest kind of labor, the promise of gold drew miners west every year.
In 1848, when the California Gold Rush began, the population of the state was a Mexican majority. However, this Mexican population fell to 15% by 1850 and to 4% by 1870. Northern California, where Downieville is located, received the majority of the Anglo migration during the beginning of the Gold Rush. The Mexican majority in 1848 allowed for many successes for early racial relations. For example, all state laws and regulations were to be translated into Spanish. This continued until the rapid establishment of a statewide Anglo majority, which left the Mexican-Americans politically powerless. The last major political event where Mexicans had any influence in California was the 1849 state constitutional convention because they were soon greatly outnumbered. Political influence first declined in the north where the gold mining areas attracted Anglo pioneers. By 1851, legislation contrary to the interests of Mexican-Americans began to be enacted. For example, property taxes in the six southern counties where most Mexicans resided were five times higher than the average 
Racial Prejudice and Violence
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed by the United States and Mexico to end the war, did not explicitly define the rights of Mexicans in the newly acquired territories of the U.S. However, it guaranteed them the same rights as U.S. citizens, but this guarantee was not upheld. Lynching in the United States of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans was common in the second half of the nineteenth century. In California, Mexicans only constituted a small portion of the population at this time which was not more than 15%. However, Latinos make up over one third of lynch mob victims between 1850 and 1895. Lynching was common since Mexicans were constantly accused of stealing gold or horses, and of killing or raping Anglo women  (more on this in the following sections). The last recorded instance of lynching in California is the 1892 murder of Francisco Torres, but lynching continued in Texas 
The fact that Josefa may have been pregnant when she was lynched shows that the defense of pregnancy would not have been respected. This is a small example of how Mexicans were viewed because the town of Downieville would not have seen any reason to have any more Mexicans in their community or their state.
Mexican women were classified as an inferior race, not just in California, and this therefore legitimized their execution by lynch mobs, and Josefa is just the first example of this. It is possible that had Josefa been an Anglo woman, she might have been praised for defending her honor against Cannon, but her racial status confirmed that she was the aggressor in the situation 
The Gold Rush
During the 1840s, many Americans started moving west into Texas, Oregon, and California. The Americans thought California was a great place for opportunity. Mexicans were considered lazy because they failed to take advantage of the natural resources of the Southwest. Members of the elite class of Mexicans in the newly acquired U.S. territories separated themselves from the markedly mestizo, or mixed race, Mexican lower classes. For the most part, Mexicans were considered a distinct and inferior racial other who did not fit into the U.S. binary classification of race, and because of their impurity and status as a hybrid of Anglo, Indian, Spanish, and African blood, they were pushed to the margins of whiteness. Because of this racial prejudice and economic discrimination, Mexican-Americans became physically separated from Anglos as they were forced to live in specific neighborhoods which became prime areas for the manifestation of poverty, disease and crime. The boundaries between Anglos and Mexicans contributed to the misunderstanding and suspicion between the two groups which increased the frequency of the racial stereotyping experienced by Mexicans. However, racial stereotypes were not the only factor that lead to mob violence against and lynching of Mexicans. Gender was also a factor as nine Mexicans were lynched by Anglos for alleged transgressions of sexual norms. Anglos viewed Mexican men as having effeminate qualities and were denied the attributes of honor, honesty, and loyalty. Therefore, Anglos accused Mexicans of crimes such as cheating at cards or cowardly acts of murder. For Mexican women, they were often romanticized in literature as uncommonly beautiful, sophisticated, and graceful. Therefore, sometimes Mexican women could be viewed as able to be morally brought up by an Anglo man. However, the stereotype of many Mexican women of lower classes was that they were the opposite of the stereotypical Anglo woman. Whereas the Anglo woman was chaste and pious, Mexican women were viewed as depraved and sexually promiscuous. During the Gold Rush, the popular stereotype of the Mexican prostitute gained much power in popular culture as a way for Anglos to assert that Mexican women in the mines, like Josefa, turned to prostitution due to their innate moral degeneracy rather than because of their lack of economic opportunity 
Racism was an important factor in unleashing violence against Mexicans, but another determining factor was economic competition. In the industries of the Southwest United States, Mexicans were viewed by Anglos as a lazy people who had failed to capitalize on the rich resources of the Southwest. It was the “manifest destiny” of the white man, predicated on false assumptions of superiority, to develop this economic potential of the region. Therefore, any Mexican challenge to this was considered unacceptable due to the proprietary rights of the Anglo pioneers.
The Foreign Miners’ Tax was introduced in California in 1850 with the goal of eliminating foreign competition, mainly Mexican but also from Chinese migrants, in the mining industry. The tax was designed to discourage immigration to the United States by removing the prospect of economic prosperity. The law required that all persons who were not native born or who had not become American citizens under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, to pay twenty dollars for licenses allowing them to mine. The law provided an exception for California’s Native Americans. The law was successful in getting Mexican miners to leave many mines for fear of their safety, and the tax fueled ethnic violence because it sanctioned the expulsion of miners who could not or would not pay. The next foreign miner tax of 1852 would target Asian miners 
Lifestyle options in the mining industry were limited, especially for Latinos. For women, the options were wife or prostitute, which made them a “good woman” or a “bad woman”. Basically, a woman’s reputation was determined by whether her sexual activities were sanctioned or not, which is how the apparently unmarried Josefa might have been negatively perceived 
July 4, 1851
Joe Cannon, also possibly Frank or Frederick, was a successful American miner in Downieville in the summer of 1851. On the night of July 4, 1851, Josefa's "husband", José, was gambling as usual in the local gambling and drinking house. That night, Cannon and his companions tried to enter Josefa and José's home. Many accounts say that Cannon actually broke the front door to the house. However, they failed and left to gather more people. It is assumed by many that they were going to rape Josefa, who might have already been pregnant. The crowd returned and forced its way inside the house. Josefa stabbed Cannon and killed him in the early morning hours of July 5. It should be noted that some accounts say that after Joe’s return the argument between him and Josefa started in the street whereupon she invited him in to her house for more discussion with the stabbing then taking place inside.
The American mining population in Downieville was enraged by Cannon's death. Josefa was put on trial the next day, and the jury consisted of Cannon's friends and companions while the rest of Downieville waited for the results. Supposedly, a physician, Dr. Cyrus D. Aiken, testified that Josefa was not in a fit condition to be hanged  Protests immediately followed the doctor’s testimony and he was forced from the stand and from the town. Moments later, Josefa was found guilty of the murder of Cannon. Also, Mr. Thayer, a lawyer from Nevada attempted to testify against the execution of Juanita but was beaten off the stand. Reportedly, he asked for a fair trial for Juanita to see if a murder had really been committed.
Death: July 5, 1851
For the lynching, a scaffold was constructed on the bridge over the Yuba River. The town came to stand on the banks of the river and watch her execution. It was an important event to lessen the anger of the townspeople over Cannon’s death. Josefa was lynched immediately following the trial, and some accounts say that her last words before she was lynched were "Adiós Señores". She is widely known to be the first and only woman lynched in California 
Effects and the Mexican-American Community During the Gold Rush
Media Coverage of "Juanita"
There are many conflicting stories and sources regarding Josefa’s death. Eyewitnesses produce differing accounts of the assault, the trial, the lynching, and of Josefa herself. At the time, media referred to Josefa simply as “Juanita”. The public is largely unaware of the lynching of Mexicans because, despite the recent rise in academic literature on lynching, scholars frequently tend to overlook anti-Mexican violence and lynching. There is no actual accurate count of how many Mexicans were lynched in the United States, so estimates must be the basis for studies of Mexican lynching victims  Opinion on the incident from 19th century authors differs. In “The Downieville Tragedy” found in an 1887 compilation of his works, author, editor, and compiler of local histories Hubert Howe Bancroft comes down firmly on the side of the vigilantes arguing that it was unlikely Joe Cannon was on the attack that day and that he was instead murdered. He begins the piece with a description of frontier chivalry, with normally violent men in the early West would refuse to harm women, children, and the elderly, and uses this as evidence that Joe would not have entered Josefa’s house to do harm. He then paints a picture of a hot tempered woman hitting her breaking point and committing murder.
In “The Downieville Tragedy” there is evidence that even at the time Anglo-American opinion was split on who represented the guilty party in the assault. Bancroft introduces a dissenting opinion in the form of an excerpt from the Sacramento Times and Transcript:
The act for which the victims suffered was entirely justifiable under the provocation. She had stabbed a man who had persisted in making a disturbance in her house and had greatly outraged her rights. The violent proceedings of an indignant and excited mob, led on by the enemies of the unfortunate woman, were a blot upon the history of the state. Had she committed a crime of really heinous character, a real American would have revolted at such a course as was pursued toward this friendless and unprotected foreigner. We had hoped the story was fabricated. As it is, the perpetrators have shown themselves and their race.
This presents a view opposite to that of Bancroft’s being written not long before his by another Anglo publisher.
Statistics of Mexican-Americans lynched during “Gold Rush”
The treatment of Mexican-Americans during the “Gold Rush” is a shameful part of U.S. history. Most of these lynchings occurred in Texas and parts of California, and were carried out by impromptu vigilance committees (i.e., Texas Rangers serving “justice” in Texas). Lynchings were frequent and most of them were of innocent Mexicans. Many lynchings were prompted by Mexicans falsely being accused of stealing gold or horses or of killing or raping Anglos.
In California, Mexicans represented over one third of the lynch mob victims between 1850 and 1895, when they were of less than 15 percent of the population. Between 1848 and 1928, at least 597 Mexicans were lynched in the United States. Lynching was a way for Anglos to consolidate their colonial control over the recently conquered American West and exert sovereignty over the region. The mob violence only contributed to the displacement of Mexicans, as well as Native Americans, from their land, denial of access to natural resources, political disfranchisement, and economic dependency on the Anglo capitalist system 
Current Debates about Her Death Today
Today, we think about Josefa’s death in an opposite way from how it was viewed in 1851. By giving her the name “Juanita”, it devalued her existence and the horrible events that occurred in Downieville, California. During the time of the lynchings, many whites stood as bystanders or were part of the vigilance committee. At “Juanita’s” lynching, there was only one person that protested against her wrongful persecution. As a result of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement and the Chicano Movement, the decades after the gold rush changed the way that Mexicans and Latinos were viewed in the United States. Hence, scholars have given "Juanita" a name and shown the importance of her lynching.
It is not only scholars who contribute to the construction of her memory, but "Juanita" also inspires the popular imaginary as it struggles to understand the nature of her death. According to psychic Lisa Steele, “The story I was told about the woman that was hung in Downieville was that she was a servant that allegedly killed a man by putting shards of glass in his food because she wanted to steal his gold. The town pinned the crime on her and told her that her punishment would be death by hanging. She was told to dress in her best attire and was hung on the bridge.
Some witnesses recalled Juanita saying before she died: “‘I would do the same again if I was so provoked.’”. This is one of many characteristics pointed out by some who are of the opinion that she must have been an aggressive woman. This has been used to advance the idea that those who lynched her may have been right that she had murdered Joe the miner when he was not actually threatening her safety. Another fact brought up to support this idea is that the townsfolk noted that she was quick to anger. Due to conflicting witness statements and vague details some modern commentators still fall on the side of Joe Cannon. This blog by J’Aime Rubio fills in missing details in much the same way as contemporary author Bancroft coming to the conclusion that Segovia had either acted violently without justification or had pushed Cannon to anger with her hot temper. This shows that while most current thoughts about the incident take race and gender status as strong indicators that the story given bythe vigilantes was most likely inaccurate some today still believe that their actions were justified.
Another interpretation of her death that recognized racial distinctions in the thoughts of her death was made by Preston Dillard, “So Miss Segovia MAY have been a saloon girl who was accused (but never convicted; important distinction) of a past crime, carried a knife and had a temper....these reasons sufficiently justify being lynched by a mob? If so, then half the women in Georgetown today would swing tomorrow. Miss Segovia deserved the fair trial she was deprived of never being able to not receive. (Think about that) Would you have left those comments justifying her murder if she had been a white woman?”.
Some people in the United States believe that Downieville, California is haunted by Josefa Segovia and her unborn child’s spirit. Many people of the community feel that her presence and emotions felt from her tragic incident can still be felt. According to Turlock Phantom League, it was the “‘The Worst Crime In Downieville’. They captured many orb photos that look like a big orb and attached with it, is a smaller orb. Note: This kind of orb is called a Mother/Baby Orb. How funny that Josefa was pregnant. Could this Mother/Baby Orb be the actual S.C.F. (Spiritual Containment Field) of Josefa and her unborn fetus? GHOST IDENTIFIED: JOSEFA ‘JUANITA’ SEGOVIA”. The fact that Josefa Segovia’s hanging was, although tragic, a unique part of history, could likely be the reason that the people of the community feel a connection with her.
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- Mora, Anthony. "Mexican Americans in the Nineteenth Century: The First “Latinos”." Introduction to Latina/o Studies. University of Michigan. Michigan, Ann Arbor. 16 Sep 2013. Lecture.
- Roberts, Paul. "Hanging Lady: Josepha of Downieville." Before It's News Inc., 11 08 2013. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <http://beforeitsnews.com/paranormal/2013/08/hanging-lady-josepha-of-downieville-2455410.html>
- Dillard, Preston. "Flowers Left for Josefa Segovia." Find A Grave. N.p., 24 Sep 2013. Web. 15 Nov. 2013. <http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=fls&FLid=68806064&FLgrid=26942566>
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