Portrait of the notorious Diamondfield Jack Davis.
One of the more controversial figures in Nevada history was a gunslinger/hustler known as “Diamondfield” Jack Davis.
Born Jackson Lee Davis in Virginia in about 1864, he is said to have come west to seek his fortune by mining in Idaho in the early 1890s.
He earned his nickname after following rumors of a diamond strike in southern Idaho — and is said to have jabbered so much about diamond fields that people began calling him “Diamondfield Jack.”
In 1895, the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Company — co-owner John Sparks was later elected governor of Nevada — hired Davis to keep sheepherders from moving their flocks into cattle grazing lands. Not surprisingly, this range war between the sheep men and the cattlemen quickly turned ugly.
The company instructed Davis to use whatever means he thought necessary to run off the sheepherders. This included shooting up sheep camps. Unfortunately, during one of his forays, he accidentally shot a herder named Bill Tolman.
Fearing that Tolman might die — and he would be hung — Davis fled south into Nevada to hide. While wandering around Northern Nevada, Davis often boasted about his shooting prowess and claimed he was paid $150 per month to kill sheepherders.
In 1896, Davis reappeared in southern Idaho, again working for Sparks-Harrell (Tolman, fortunately, did not die). In February, two other herders, John Wilson and Daniel Cummings, were found dead in their camp in the Shoshone basin area near Twin Falls, Idaho.
Davis was an immediate suspect since he was known to have been in the area at the time of the shootings, and he had bragged so much about killing sheepherders. Once again, he headed south, this time hoping to escape to Mexico.
However, while in Arizona, Davis became embroiled in a separate shooting incident and was arrested. While sitting in a territorial prison, he was extradited to Idaho, where he was put on trial for murder and convicted of killing the two sheep men. Following a sensational trial that was prominently featured in regional newspapers, Davis was sentenced to be hanged on June 4, 1897.
But Davis’ luck held out. Days before he was to be hung, two other men confessed to the killings. While the two were acquitted in spite of their confessions, they cast doubt on Davis’ guilt. Following several years of appeals, he was finally pardoned on Dec. 17, 1902.
At this point, Davis permanently relocated to Nevada. He gravitated to the Tonopah-Goldfield area, where rich silver and gold deposits had
been uncovered. He found work as a mine operator and hired gun, and within a short time had earned a small fortune.
Additionally, Davis established several mining camps near Goldfield, including one called Diamondfield.
As with most mining figures, Davis was constantly on the lookout for the next big strike so he plowed much of his money into new mining ventures, most of which proved unsuccessful. By the 1920s, he had lost his fortune and had drifted south into the growing community of Las Vegas.
Not much is known about Davis’ time in Las Vegas, although it’s said he was a fixture at some of the small bars in the downtown area and worked as a “shill” or barker for one of the downtown clubs.
In 1949, he was hit and killed when a Las Vegas taxi cab backed into him. He was buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Las Vegas (1500 Las Vegas Blvd. North).
Today, an impressive historical marker (Number 251) devoted to Davis can be found in front of the Cactus Pete’s Casino in Jackpot, Nevada, which is located on the Nevada-Idaho border, not too far from where he roamed as gunman for hire for the Sparks-Harrell Cattle Co.
Additionally, Davis’ story is well told in “Diamondfield: Finding the Real Jack Davis,” published in 2013 by Max Black and an earlier volume, “Diamondfield Jack: A Study in Frontier Justice,” by David H. Grover.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.