Searching For California Hang Trees billboard, Reno, NV. 2013
The images on this page are (click on image or on "images" at top of page) part of a series entitled, Searching for California's Hang Trees, also know as Hang Trees for short. They were taken over a ten year period while looking for lynching sites in California. In this image above you see one of three billboards installed in Reno, Nevada in 2013. Other billboards and mural installations have been installed in Los Angeles, San Diego, Dublin and Paris. The series extended across other distances as well, and in photographing these sites, I traveled to nearly every county in the state of California. In many of the images and the sites, no clear traces remain of these horrific events.
Searching for California's Hang Trees grew out of my research into the history of lynching in California. I began this project by trying to assemble the most complete record of lynching in California that I could, and I was particularly interested in discovering how nineteenth century conceptions of difference might have obscured the fact that, when taken collectively, Native Americans, African Americans, Chinese immigrants, and Latinos, fell victim to the mob's anger more often than persons of Anglo or European descent in the second half of the 19th century. The series serves as a physical testimony to my attempts to visit over 300 of the lynching sites in California. All of the images were taken with an old wooden Deardorff 8 x 10 camera, which speaks to the history of landscape photography in California and the legacies of violence associated with US expansion and manifest destiny.
Using historical records, I spent several years in archives searching microfilm and took multiple expeditions across California looking for clues to this little know history. As overwhelming as the undertaking was, I set out to look for, to witness, as many of the sites as I could - even knowing that many could never be found. The research and the case list of over 353 cases that I was able to document, was in no way complete, but it was the most complete list of cases published to date, and was the subject of my first monograph, Lynching in the West: 1850-1935 (Duke University Press, 2006), which you can find links to by clicking on published work at the top of the page.
The link to the lynching walking tour is for downtown Los Angeles and is also available above. The only historical marker on the tour is at the site of the Chinese Massacre and was privately funded. There is no marker or physical record of the many Latinos that were executed and also lynched in downtown Los Angeles. At the bottom of the walking tour page I have also included additional cases from the greater southern California region. A detailed history of many of these cases in included in my book. There are also essays and reviews on my work at the press page link above.
Here is a link to the installation that was done at the Pomona College Museum of Art. It is worth stating that this project has sought to extend awareness on the history of lynching in the United States and to recognize the many communities impacted by this history, and not to diminish or distract our attention from the impact of lynching on African American communities across the nation, but as a Mexican American I wanted to expand and address the ways that lynching impacted race relations in the west, and continues to impact our understanding of race and racial violence in this country today.