Performing their duty: Great-granddaughter of slain sheriff pays her respects
When Sheriff David Fulton Douglass’ great-granddaughter Patti Brown visited her slain ancestor’s monument on Old Airport Road, she admits that she wasn’t quite sure how she’d feel about the visit.
After all, up until recently, Brown said that she knew relatively little about her ancestors from that time period, including her great-grandfather who was killed in 1896 and for whom the monument on Old Airport Road is dedicated.
But when she saw the monument to Douglass for the first time on Sunday, accompanied by her husband Frank Brown as well as several Nevada County sheriff’s officers, including Sheriff Shannon Moon, there was no doubt about the level of emotion Brown was feeling as she looked at the granite headstone dedicated to her ancestor, which sits in the midst of a heavily forested area just a few miles north of the Sheriff’s Office.
As Brown gazed at the stone, the group of people present fell silent, the stillness beset only by the rustle of deer nearby and the chirps of a few scrub jays in the trees above.
“It’s so beautiful. It’s so peaceful. What’s a beautiful setting,” Brown said, fighting back tears as she looked at the monument, no more than a few feet high, with a bronze plaque and a short tribute to Douglass.
The tribute reads: “On this post, Sheriff Douglass, a native son of the Golden West, gave his life July 26, 1896, bravely performing his duty. Alone he tracked a highwayman to this retreat and both fell in battle. It is believed that Douglass was pitted against two and that one escaped. The bodies lay parallel.”
Just yards away from Douglass’ tribute at the site is a much smaller stone set into the ground, with a simple statement carved across the front: “The bandit lay here.”
According to historian Steve Cottrell, the sheriff was killed by an unknown individual, after he had gone out by himself in pursuit of two dangerous highwaymen. Douglass went missing and was later found dead at the site of the monument on Old Airport Road — just several feet away from his body was one of the highwaymen, also dead.
Both men had been killed in a firefight — but the truth of what exactly had transpired in the forested area that would later become Old Airport Road was unknown. No one was arrested in connection with Douglass’ death, and there was no information on the identity of who authorities believed could be the third man present at the shootout who had killed the sheriff.
The incident remained a total mystery — until one day in 1961, that is.
Brown said she was 21 at the time, when she was approached at her home in the Bay Area by a much older man, whose name she can no longer recall.
This man asked for Brown’s grandfather, John Brown, who had just recently passed away. When informed, the old man expressed his condolences and told Brown he had come to make “restitution” for something he had done to her family — something that had happened a long time ago.
Brown now has reason to believe that this man, who she never saw again, was the killer of her great-grandfather. The supposed killer is believed to have only been 12 or 13 in 1896, but Brown believes that despite the passage of so many decades, this old man had carried the guilt of what he had done with him for his entire life — and he wanted to make it right when he visited her that day in 1961.
“He had to carry that with him all of his life,” Brown said of the supposed killer. “He must have been miserable.”
This curious visit remained largely unknown, until just earlier this year, when Brown said she became aware that it was going to the 125th anniversary of her great-grandfather’s death. Deciding that she wanted the story to be told in its entirety, Brown wrote a letter to the Nevada County Sheriff’s Office, inquiring as to if it was aware of the circumstances surrounding Douglass’ death.
Initially surprised by Brown’s letter, the Sheriff’s Office soon discovered the truth of her account about who her great-grandfather was — and the decision was made by the Sheriff’s Office to restore the somewhat rundown headstone on Old Airport Road, which had been erected in 1936 to commemorate the fallen sheriff.
And on Sunday, Moon, accompanied by sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Liller and Lt. Sean Scales, escorted Brown and her husband in person to the headstone, where for the first time, she saw the site of Douglass’ murder 125 years before.
In addition to escorting Brown to the site of the memorial, Moon presented Brown with an honor rarely bestowed on members of the public — a Sheriff’s Office “challenge” coin, with an outline of Nevada County on the front and the Sheriff’s Office’s official emblem on the back.
“This is a relatively new tradition in law enforcement departments,” Moon told Brown about the coin. “We don’t give these out to the public very often, but today’s about you, it’s not about us.”
“What your family sacrificed for the Sheriff’s Office is ingrained on our hearts and this is our way of saying thank you … Whenever you look at that coin, I want you to know how much your family still means to us.”
While expressing her grief openly at the site of her great-grandfather’s death, Brown said that the day will always be an overwhelmingly positive memory from her perspective. Not only does she feel a sense of closure about the matter, but Brown said that she is confident that her ancestor would be proud of what became of his family in subsequent generations. The sheriff’s great-granddaughter said she now knows that Douglass’ story will not be forgotten, but carried on and cherished.
“Our bloodline is gonna go on for years and years,” she said. “I have two children, four grandchildren, six great-grandchildren, and now this all makes me feel good that I found out about all of this.”
But the biggest reason why Brown said she wants to bring her ancestor’s story to the public eye is that she is hoping that any descendants of the sheriff’s killer will be able to hear her story and find some closure about this history as well. She wants them to know that the old man who visited her in 1961 did the right thing in the end — that he felt remorse, and wanted to make amends. In fact, she said it’s her hope that a surviving family member of the suspected killer will reach out to her or someone in her family — perhaps confirming the identity of their ancestor and forever ending the mystery of who killed Douglass that day in 1896.
“The main reason why I did this is because I wanted some relative of this other person, this third man, to see this story, to know that in the end, that he tried to apologize to my family,” Brown said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
Support Local Journalism
Support Local Journalism
Readers around Grass Valley and Nevada County make The Union’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.
Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.
Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.
Start a dialogue, stay on topic and be civil.
If you don't follow the rules, your comment may be deleted.
User Legend: Moderator Trusted User