How Judge Roy Bean Came to California

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Judge Roy Bean

Before there was a legend there was the man: Roy Bean. Before Roy Bean was a judge in Texas he wandered the frontier and landed in California.

Phantley Roy Bean, Jr. was born in Shelby County, Kentucky, probably in 1825. The exact date is unknown.

Phantley Roy Bean, Jr. Roy was the youngest of four sons and a daughter born to the frontier marriage of Phantley Roy, Sr. and the widowed Anna Henderson Gore. The children were given a frontier education and could read, write and do arithmetic. The family must have instilled a pride in civic duty as three of the Bean boys served in public office.

Roy Bean Sets Off in Life

In 1841, at about the time of his probable sixteenth birthday, Roy Bean set off on an adventure many young men of his era engaged in; riding a flat boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

A raft of logs with a rough split plank deck that might carry a load of whiskey, tallow, tobacco lard or hides. In New Orleans the cargo and the lumber would be sold. Roy Bean, in search of his fortune, joined a party of slave traders riding a flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans where their cargo of slaves would bring a higher price.

Roy made money “driving Negroes like cattle to New Orleans to sell them.”

While trading slaves Bean got into trouble and fled New Orleans for Kentucky. He wandered the frontier; trapping, hunting, trading or working as a teamster. He may have wandered as far north as Canada. Eventually he wandered to the Southwest.

Roy Bean in the Mexican War

Roy Bean claimed to have driven an ammunition wagon for General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican War in 1846, and to have met and mingled with a muster list of officers including Grant, Kearney and Lee. He may have served in some auxiliary or support capacity as Roy Bean is not on known payroll records or muster rolls nor has he been found to be mentioned in any official or personal correspondence.

Roy Bean Kills a Man in Mexico and Sparks a Riot

In 1848, following the Mexican American War Sam Bean and Roy Bean joined a trading wagon train to Chihuahua, Mexico. The brothers established and operated a trading post. Then Roy killed a Mexican in a gunfight. Roy is reported to have accused the Mexican of stealing a cow. The Mexican is sometimes described as a “gunslinger.”

There are reports the Mexican responded to the accusations of his thievery by boasting of his plans to, “kill a Gringo.” Roy Bean was known to gamble and there may have been gambling losses involved. Roy Bean was gaining a reputation as a duelist and a point of honor may have been in contention. The Mexican or Roy Bean may, or, may not, have been attempting an armed robbery of each other or one of their acquaintances.

The killing of a Mexican by an American tapped into the deep wells of anger and the boiling pools of resentment over the American invasion and occupation of the capitol Mexico City by General Winfield Scott and the subsequent forced selling of over one half of Mexico’s territory to America.

A riot erupted; a lynch mob formed and drove all of the Americans in Chihuahua to flee, with the Bean brothers in the lead, to the mining town of Jesus Maria in Sonora, Mexico.

Tales of the “murderous Yankee” Roy Bean preceded the refugees.

A riot erupted in Jesus Maria and the Americans living in Jesus Maria were driven out of town by the mob. Roy Bean and the rest of the American refugees from Chihuahua were greeted by an armed lynch mob.

Roy Bean crossed the border from Mexico to the newly American acquisition of California in the spring of 1849. Sam Bean stayed in Mexico and married Petra Kirker whose father made a living selling Apache scalps to the Mexican government.

Sources:

  1. Roy Bean Law West of the Pecos, C. L. Sonnichsen, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln
  2. Judge Roy Bean Country, Jack Skiles, Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock
  3. Six Gun Sound, Sven Crongeyer 2006 Linden Publishing, Fresno
  4. Wild West Characters, Dale Pierce, 1978, Golden West Publishers, Phoenix
  5. Lee, R. The History Guy; The Mexican-American War.