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Josefa Segovia

Josefa Loazia, also more commonly known as "Juanita", was a Mexican-American woman who was executed by hanging 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 hanged in California.[1] 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 [2] They became segregated and did not have opportunities for advancement. This discrimination affected and applied to both rich and poor Mexicans.[2] In Anglo journals and other media, Mexican women were depicted as flashy and morally deviant "sirens".[2] This is apparent in how Josefa's story was presented in Anglo media. In complete disregard of her identity, she came to be known as "Juanita" after her death, a stereotypical name for a Mexican woman.


Early life and controversy about her nameEdit

Not much is known about the early life of Josefa Loaiza. The date of her birth is unknown.[3] 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".[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[1]

Adult lifeEdit


Irene I. Blea's book U.S. Chicanas and Latinas in a Historical Context claims that Josefa was a Sonoran and of good character.[3] She was about 26 years old at the time of her death.[3] 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.[7]

Reputation in DownievilleEdit

The hanging of Juanita in Downieville

Josefa was probably not married to José, but she did live with him. Therefore, she received a bad reputation.[3] According to one account, Juanita (read Josefa) was slender and barely five feet (1.5 m) tall.[4] 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.[4]

Downie relates the story in the following fashion. Juanita had accompanied her partner to Downieville from Mexico and both lived in an adobe house. Downie states, "Whether she was his wife or not makes no difference in this story." He further describes her figure as "richly developed and in strict proportions." Only her temper was "not well balanced." Celebrating the Fourth of July, Cannon and companions were returning from the dram shop at a late hour, with Cannon staggering from the influence of liquor. Along the way, he stumbled through the door of the adobe hut. His friends quickly pulled him back outside and they proceeded home. Mortified the next morning of his embarrassing blunder, he proceeded to the hut to offer an apology in Spanish. This did not go well with the Mexican couple, and Juanita grew angry. In a rage, she drew a knife and stabbed Cannon. Soon a "mob of infuriated men" gathered, ready to invoke the "miner's law" of a "Life for Life". Only a Mr. Thayer came to her defense, but to no avail as she was quickly tried and found guilty. A scaffold was erected and the "howling blood-thirsty mob...cried for vengeance" according to Downie. Downie states Juanita retold the story of the "unfortunate incident", how she had been "provoked" and if done so again would "repeat her act." She then took the rope, placed the noose around her neck, said "Adios Senors!" and "leaped from the scaffold into eternity." Downie concludes by stating "it was one of those blots that stained the early history of California." [8]

Social and racial environment for Latina/os in CaliforniaEdit

Map of California during the Gold Rush

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.[9] 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.[9] What neither the U.S. or Mexico realized was that 9 days earlier, gold had been found in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.[9] It is estimated that between 1848 and 1852, as many as 25,000 Mexicans migrated to California to mine.[10] In the fall of 1848, as many as 3,000 Mexicans migrated to the mining regions. Often, they traveled as entire families.[11] 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.[9] 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.[11]

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.[12] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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 [13]

Racial prejudice and violenceEdit

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.[13] Lynching in the United States of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans was common in the second half of the nineteenth century.[1] 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.[1] Lynching was common since Mexicans were constantly accused of stealing gold or horses, and of killing or raping Anglo women.[1] The last recorded instance of lynching in California is the 1892 murder of Francisco Torres, but lynching continued in Texas [1]

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.[3]

The Gold RushEdit

During the 1840s, many Americans started moving west into Texas, Oregon, and California.[11] The Americans thought California was a great place for opportunity.[9] Mexicans were considered lazy because they failed to take advantage of the natural resources of the Southwest.[10] 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.[13] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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.[10] 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 [10]


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.[10] 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.[10]

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.[12] 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.[14] 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.[10] The next foreign miner tax of 1852 would target Asian miners [14]

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".[3] 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 [3]


July 4, 1851Edit

Joe Cannon, also possibly Frank or Frederick, was a successful American miner in Downieville in the summer of 1851.[7] 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.[3] However, they failed and left to gather more people.[7] It is assumed by many that they were going to rape Josefa, who might have already been pregnant.[3] The crowd returned and forced its way inside the house. Josefa stabbed Cannon and killed him in the early morning hours of July 5.[7] 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.[15] Another version of these events may be found in a book by William Lewis Manly. His account states that "Juanita" was married and that she and her husband "kept a monte game for the delectation of the miners...but beyond this fact absolutely nothing was said against her character." In Manly's version, Cannon "got drunk one night and about midnight went to the house occupied by the Spanish woman and her husband and kicked the door down. Early the following morning he told his comrades that he was going to apologize to the woman for what he had done. He went alone to the house, and, while talking with the husband and wife, the woman suddenly drew a knife and stabbed Cannon to the heart. What had been said that provoked the deed was never known, further than that Juanita claimed she had been grossly insulted."[16]


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.[17] Supposedly, a physician, Dr. Cyrus D. Aiken, testified that Josefa was not in a fit condition to be hanged [4] 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.[4] Reportedly, he asked for a fair trial for Juanita to see if a murder had really been committed.[17]

Death: July 5, 1851Edit

For the lynching, a scaffold was constructed on the bridge over the Yuba River.[7] 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 hanged immediately following the trial, and some accounts say that her last words before she was executed were "Adiós Señores".[18] She is widely known to be the first woman to be executed by hanging in California [7] Mr. Manly wrote, "Juanita went calmly to her death. She wore a Panama hat, and after mounting the platform she removed it, tossed it to a friend in the crowd, whose nickname was 'Oregon,' with the remark, 'Adios, amigo.' Then she adjusted the noose to her own neck, raising her long, loose tresses carefully in order to fix the rope firmly in its place; and then, with a smile and wave of her hand to the bloodthirsty crowd present, she stepped calmly from the plank into eternity. Singularly enough, her body rests side by side, in the cemetery on the hill, with that of the man whose life she had taken." Mr. Manly's book is generally a first person account of his experiences migrating to California to mine for gold. Although he did mine for gold near Downieville in 1851, he, by his own account, was not in Downieville on the dates in question. He does not cite the source for his version of the events though it seems conceivable he heard eye-witness accounts.

Effects and the Mexican-American community during the Gold RushEdit

Media coverage of "Juanita"Edit

There are many conflicting stories and sources regarding Josefa's death. Eyewitnesses produce differing accounts of the assault, the trial, the hanging, 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.[10] 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 [10] 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.[5] 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.[5]

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 the Gold RushEdit

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.[1]

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.[10] 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 [10]

Current debates about her death todayEdit

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.[19] As a result of the Chicano Movement, the decades after the gold rush changed the way that Mexicans and Latinos were viewed in the United States.

Some witnesses recalled Juanita saying before she died: "'I would do the same again if I was so provoked.'".[6] 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.[6] This shows that while most current thoughts about the incident take race and gender status as strong indicators that the story given by the 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. (Think about that) Would you have left those comments justifying her murder if she had been a white woman?".


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Gutierrez, Margo, and Matt S. Meier. Encyclopedia of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. Greenwood, 2000. Print. p. 135-136.
  2. ^ a b c Navarro, Marysa, Gwendolyn Mink, and Gloria Steinem. The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History. Reprint Edition. Mariner Books , 1999. Print.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Blea, Irene I. U.S. Chicanas and Latinas Within a Global Context: Women of Color at the Fourth World Women's Conference. Praeger, 1997. 89-90. eBook.
  4. ^ a b c d e Young, Gordon. "Days of 49'." Popular Tribunals[Downieville, California] 1851, Volume 1 Pg. 417-557. Web. 4 Nov. 2013.
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  6. ^ a b c Rubio, J'Aime. "First Recorded Hanging of a Woman in California History." Dreaming Casually, 07 08 2013. Web. 12 Dec. 2013. <>
  7. ^ a b c d e f Segrave, Kerry. Lynchings of Women in the United States: The Recorded Cases, 1851-1946. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2010. 21-22. eBook. p. 21-22.
  8. ^ Downie, William (1971). Hunting for Gold. Palo Alto: American West Publishing Company. pp. 146–153. ISBN 0910118221. 
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  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Carrigan, William D., and Clive Webb. "The Lynching of Persons of Mexican Origin or Descent in the United States, 1848 To 1928." Journal of Social History. 37.2 (2003): n. page. Web.
  11. ^ a b c "Mexicans in the Gold Rush." PBS. PBS, 13 Sept. 2006. Web. 04 Dec. 2013. <>
  12. ^ a b c California Department of Parks and Recreation. California Department of Parks and Recreation, 1988. Print. <"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-10-22. Retrieved 2013-12-03. >.
  13. ^ a b c d Rosales, Francisco Arturo. Chicano! the History of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement. 2 Revised Edition. Arte Publico Press, 1997. 14. Print.
  14. ^ a b Neumann Caryn E.. "Foreign Miner Taxes." Immigration in America. N.p., 30 11 2011. Web. 3 Dec 2013. <"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2013-12-17. Retrieved 2013-12-04. >
  15. ^ "History of Mexican Americans in California" Historic Sites. Downieville, Sierra County 17 Nov. 2004. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.<"Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2012-10-30. Retrieved 2013-12-16. >
  16. ^ Manly, William (1949). "XIII". Death Valley in '49. Chapter XIII: Borden Publishing Co. p. 364. 
  17. ^ a b "Woman up in the west". Fairbanks Weekly News - Miner [Alaska], January 21, 1921, p. 15.
  18. ^ 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.