The Legend of Rattlesnake Dick Separating the Story from the History

There once was a young man named Richard Barter who came to Placer County around 1854 and engaged in mining at Rattlesnake Bar. A series of circumstances and events unfolded over the course of several years whereupon Richard Barter became known as the outlaw, Rattlesnake Dick. While his exploits came to a sudden end in 1859 with his death after a shootout near Auburn, the legend of Rattlesnake Dick found its way into popular culture and he became known as “The Pirate of the Placers.”

Looking at the few sources of information that do exist, as well as Rattlesnake Dick’s appearance in popular culture, we will investigate the truth behind the legend and explore the real story of Richard Barter’s life and death.

Since there are no photos of Barter, we’ve used graphics from the comic books that bear his name and imagined likeness.

Richard Barter

Miner Turned Outlaw

In the spring of 1854, Barter was arrested at Rattlesnake Bar (AKA “Rattlesnake Flat” at the time) on suspicion of stealing clothing from a store.

Records in the Placer County Court of Sessions Case No. 100 document the trial in which two of his companions, Charles Barter and George Flowers, were subpoenaed as witnesses.

In the end, the clothing turned up and Barter was found not guilty.

Richard Barter reappeared on record in the Sacramento Daily Union in 1854.

Sacramento Daily Union December 13, 1854

The short entry recorded The People vs. Richard Barter for grand larceny in Sacramento, a guilty verdict, and a punishment of one year’s imprisonment in the State Prison. His alleged crime had been stealing a horse, which is documented in the Sacramento County Court of Sessions Case No. 457.

San Quentin Intake Ledger
San Quentin Intake Ledger Close-Up

Like most accounts of Barter throughout the years, the newspaper particulars are scarce. However, the accompanying prison records provide some details to Barter’s person. The prison register lists Barter as a 20-year-old with a light complexion, hazel eyes, and auburn hair. His self-professed nativity was Irish.

Legend has it that evidence of his innocence led to Barter’s early release from San Quentin and that this wrongful incarceration is what supposedly turned him to a life of crime and transformation into ‘Rattlesnake Dick.’ However, in reality it appears Barter served the full term of his sentence and was not acquitted of this crime, after all.

After his release from San Quentin, Barter was charged with murder and jailed in Butte County in 1856.

He quickly escaped from jail, a talent he became well known for, and continued skirting the law.

The April 29, 1857 edition of the Sacramento Daily Union attempted to sum up several years of Barter’s criminal wrongdoings while again, he was on trial for grand larceny for stealing a horse.

Sacramento Daily Union April 29, 1857

Perhaps by luck or true innocence, Barter was found not guilty and transported to Butte County for the alleged 1856 murder. However, lack of evidence provided Barter his freedom.

The final chapter of Barter’s life, which solidified his place as a legendary outlaw in Placer County history, took place on July 11, 1859. This event, a shootout between himself, his comrade, and Placer County law enforcement, was detailed in the Placer Herald.

Placer Herald July 16, 1859
William Crutcher

In the end, Deputy Sheriff William Crutcher and Under Sheriff George Johnston were injured while George M. Martin, the Deputy Tax Collector, was killed in the fray.

The two highwaymen fled the scene, with Dick believed to have been struck by a bullet. The next day, Barter’s body was found along the road a mile from the shootout. He had been shot through the body but had also received a bullet through his head.

The following depiction of his body only cemented Barter’s place as a legendary outlaw:

“He had a on a pair of kid gloves, in the right of which was a slip of paper on which was scrawled with a pencil the follow: “Rattlesnake Dick dies, but never surrenders as all true Britons do.” On the reverse side of the same paper was written: “If J. Boggs is dead I am satisfied.” There was also found upon the person of Dick another letter; as we perused it, it sent a thrill of sorrow to our very heart, to think that such a thing could be allied to the Christian lady who penned it.”

Sheriff Boggs

The newspaper proceeded to recount the letter from Barter’s “affectionate and anxious sister” in Sweet Home, Oregon, who begged him to follow the “path of rectitude” and find penance.

The end of Barter’s life, which was likely not more than 26 years, reads like a dime novel. "He was buried in the East Street Cemetery in Auburn in a coffin which cost the County $10.

Grave sites at this location were later disinterred and remains moved to the Auburn City Cemetery in the 1890s. The headstone for Rattlesnake Dick was placed in the Auburn City Cemetery in the 1960s to mark the site where he may rest, today.



Fourteen years after Barter's death, a 1873 2-part mini-series in the San Francisco Daily Morning Call would claim that Rattlesnake Dick, “The Pirate of the Placers,” was the son of an English Colonel, born in Quebec, who left his loving sister in Oregon and traveled to California with two companions in 1850.

The newspaper dramatically claimed that Barter wished to lead a morally upright life, but his imprisonment cast a shadow upon his reputation he couldn’t outrun, so he sought a life of crime to earn the respect he could never find in polite society.

Details of his crimes and imprisonments were combined and intermixed. He was given credit as a gang leader and mastermind of an infamous Express robbery that really happened in the Trinity Mountains, however no documents have been uncovered to actually tie him to this crime.

New details were added, describing him as the “paragon of manly beauty.” Gone were the hazel eyes and auburn hair listed on his prison register. Barter now had black hair and flashing black eyes that “Betrayed every passion that animated his eyes.”

The final installation of the story made for a romantic legend; an anti-hero dogged by relentless lawman. However, Barter’s life, and rise to infamy, was more complicated, and less dramatic, than later accounts would lead you to believe.

When the Official History of Placer County was written in 1882, much of the mini-series from the Morning Call was repeated verbatim, and the legend of Rattlesnake Dick became widely accepted as fact.

By the 1940s, the western genre was hugely popular in America. Will Rogers, The Lone Ranger, and John Wayne joined countless heroes and outlaws on televisions, radios, and bookshelves. The postwar expansion of comic books saw publishers picking up real life characters, such as Rattlesnake Dick, and making their lives into sensationalized stories. This handsome, reluctant anti-hero was used across various publishers.

Facts, like his imprisonment, jailbreaks, and death, were mixed with the more dramatic stories that were popularized in the late 1800s and comingled with crimes committed by others. This created the perfect Western outlaw for the masses. Today, the lack of sources, and the repetition of these myths, has made it hard to separate fact from fiction when dealing with this legendary Placer resident.

Click on the links below to read the comic book versions of the story.

The link below is for a song "The Pirate of the Placers" by the local band Stardust Cowboys.