Steve Cottrell: Echoes from our past — Hamlet Davis, a mayor without a gavel |

Steve Cottrell: Echoes from our past — Hamlet Davis, a mayor without a gavel

By Steve Cottrell | Submitted to The Union


A Dec. 1 column in The Union by Bernie Zimmerman, chair of the Nevada County Historical Landmarks Commission, affirmed that Nevada City’s legal name since 1851 has been City of Nevada and that the town has been incorporated four times: 1851, 1854, 1856 and 1878. Bernie did his homework and his recent chronological account was rock solid.

Most history books claim that in the spring of 1851— following that first incorporation — Moses Hoyt (Hoit in some accounts) became Nevada City’s first directly elected mayor. Truth be told, however, the town’s first directly elected mayor was Hamlet Davis.

Unfortunately for Davis, he became Nevada City’s version of John Hanson — elected president of the United States in 1781, but under Articles of Confederation, not the Constitution; George Washington had that honor eight years later. For Davis, it was a case of Nevada City holding a municipal election before its incorporation had been certified.

In early February 1851, “An Act to Incorporate the City of Nevada” had been written and introduced by Nevada County’s first assemblyman, Stephen Field, and approved by the state Legislature. But Gov. John McDougal vetoed it, saying Field’s language was inconsistent with the California State Constitution.

The first Nevada City incorporation effort declared in its charter, “No person shall be entitled to vote at any city election who is not a male citizen of the United States, and who has not been a resident of the State six months previous to the election.” But the California Constitution of 1849 read, “Every white male citizen of the United States, and every white male citizen of Mexico who shall have elected to become a citizen of the United States under the treaty of peace exchanged and ratified at Querataro (then-capital of Mexico) on the 30th day of May, 1848, of the age of 21 years, who shall have been a resident of the State six months next preceding the election, and county or district in which he claims his vote thirty days, shall be entitled to vote.”

Nevada City as seen from Prospect Hill in 1851 when Hamlet Davis became the town’s first elected mayor, only to see the election voided when Gov. John McDougal vetoed the town’s first attempt at incorporation.
Courtesy California State Library

The conflicting language about voter eligibility prompted McDougal to veto Field’s bill and, in so doing, void the Nevada City election where Hamlet Davis won the mayorship, Moses Hoyt finished second and Joseph Chipman was third in a field of three.

Undeterred, Assemblyman Field wrote and introduced a revised incorporation bill on March 7, 1851, described by the Marysville Daily Herald as, “similar to the one vetoed by the Governor with the objectionable clause relating to residency altered in accordance with the veto.” Field’s revised version was quickly approved by the State Legislature and signed by McDougal.

With incorporation finally secured, a fresh election was held in April and Hoyt became Nevada City’s second directly elected mayor, although the first to actually hold a gavel and conduct city business. Davis was runner-up; Chipman chose not to run a second time.

Then, on October 17, 1851 — barely seven months after being elected — Mayor Hoyt opened a meeting of the common council (now called city council) by delivering bad news: Nevada City had $5,587.87 in assets, but $9,308.51 in debts. Soon, the deficit exceeded $6,500 and all efforts to contain the debt and bolster the city treasury failed.

Nevada City’s first incorporation lasted from March 13, 1851, to February 14, 1852 — a 320-day experiment in self-government that brought Hoyt’s stint as mayor to a premature end. The Nevada City pioneer died in North San Juan in 1867, best remembered for his toll road and bridge across the South Fork of the Yuba River, known as Hoyt’s Crossing.

Hamlet Davis, Nevada City’s first directly elected mayor, was a merchant, banker, express agent, theater operator, and more. In 1857 he moved to Dutch Flat and became a farmer, then, in 1868, opened a grocery store in Truckee. Twenty years later, Davis left Nevada County and settled in Kentucky, where he lived until his death in 1900.

As for Joseph Nathan Chipman, who finished third in the voided 1851 mayoral election, he returned home to Niles, Michigan, and later served as a state circuit court judge. When the Niles newspaper reported his death on Nov. 14, 1870, however, it claimed that after leaving Michigan in 1849 for the California goldfields, “he was there elected as the first Mayor of Nevada City.”

Yes, it seems Judge Chipman embellished a bit on his gold rush experience, because he was definitely not Nevada City’s first elected mayor. That distinction goes to Hamlet Davis — even if he never held a gavel or conducted a meeting.

Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at


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