Growing up in California conferred a bit of an advantage in that one could be aware of all the other layers behind the glitzy modern TV and Hollywood, West Coast/Left Coast, surfing safari/Haight-Ashbury layer that everyone with an awareness level above that of a mollusk knows. But peel that layer back, and there is another layer; the pre-World-War II layer, of Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles, of sleepy little towns buried in orange groves, Hollywood Boulevard a dirt track and Beverley Hills a wilderness; go back another couple of layers, and you arrive at a place that always seems to have had a dreaming, evanescent feel about it to me; California in the first half of the 19th century, a sleepy little backwater at the far end of the known world, a six-month to a year-long journey from practically anywhere else on the planet loosely defined as “civilization.”

In many ways, that California marked the high tide-line of the Spanish empire in the New World: when the great tide of the conquistadores washed out of the Iberian peninsula in the fifteenth century looking for gold, honor, glory and land, and roared across the Atlantic Ocean, sweeping Mexico and most of South America in consecutive mighty tides, seeping into the trackless wastes of what is now the American Southwest. That tide  eventually lapped gently at the far northern coast, and  crested in the 18th century, dropping  a linked chain of twenty-one missions, four presidios or military garrisons* and three small pueblos**, one of which failed almost immediately. Mostly on the coast, or near to it, this was the framework on which hung the charming, but ultimately fragile society of Spanish (later Mexican) colonial society in what was called Alta, or Upper California.

It was a rural society, of enormous holdings, or ranchos, presided over by an aristocracy of landowners who had been granted their vast holdings by the king, or the civil government, who ran cattle or sheep on their holdings which were worked at by native Indians. The great holdings produced hides, wool and tallow, and their owners lived lives of comfort, if no very great luxury, and from all accounts were openhandedly generous, amazingly hospitable, devout – perhaps a little touchy about personal insult and apt to fight duels over it, but that could said of most men of the 18th and early 19th centuries. The climate was a temperate and kindly one, especially in comparison with much of the rest of that continent, winters being mild, and summers fair. The missions, which in addition to the care of souls had an eye towards self-sufficiency, did a little more in the way of farming than the rancheros; with great orchards of olives and citrus, and vineyards.

Far from the eye and control of central authority, they managed a fair degree of self-sufficiency; the scattering of structures from that era which survived to the 20th century set a kind of architectural tone to the whole area. Stucco and tile, courtyards, miradors and balconies, which looked back to cathedrals in Spain and Moorish castles in Grenada were adapted in adobe and brick, copied in stucco, and hung with church bells brought with great effort from the Old Country. Richard Henry Dana’s classic Two Years Before the Mast  is an eye-witness account of the trade in hides with the rancheros, in the 1830ies, and Gwen Bristow’s novel The Jubilee Trail  offers an accessible description of what it looked like in the 1840ies, as well as the difficulties involved in even traveling to such a distant fringe of the world. The immortal Zorro movies and TV show is set in this milieu, which is probably where most people know of this little, long-gone world.

The Spanish empire slowly lost its grip, and independent Mexico fought a rear-guard action for a while. I think they succeeded for a fair number of years, keeping their pleasant and gracious outpost, because of its very isolation, but other national powers waxed as Spain waned. The British had Canada to the north, and trade interests in the Pacific Northwest, the Russians had Alaska and even a tiny foot-hold at Fort Ross, on the coast of present-day Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. There was even a vaguely Swiss interest in Alta California, due to the presence of John Augustus Sutter, who founded an agricultural establishment where Sacramento is now – which inadvertently brought and end to the gracious life of the rancheros. The Spanish who ransacked Mexico and South America looking for gold, even sending a fruitless expedition far into the present-day American Southwest, eventually gave up looking for gold on the fringes of their empire. It is the purest sort of irony that gold in greater quantities than they had ever dreamed of was found, initially discovered during construction of a millrace for a saw-mill that Sutter had contracted to build at Coloma in the foothills, as he needed lumber for his various entrepreneurial projects.

*San Jose, El Puebla Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles sobre El Rio Porcinuncula, and Branciforte

**San Diego, Monterray, San Francisco, Santa Barbara

The shooting of James King – political murder disguised as a justifiable response to a personal insult – inflamed the city of San Francisco immediately. King, shot in the chest but still clinging to life was taken to his house. Meanwhile, an enormous mob gathered at the police station, and the police realized almost at once that the accused James Casey could not be kept secure. He was removed under guard to the county jail. The indignant mob was not appeased, not even when the mayor of San Francisco attempted to address the crowd, pleading for them to disperse and assuring them that the law would run its proper course and justice would be done. The crowd jeered, “What about Richardson? Where is the law in Cora’s case?” The mayor hastily retreated, as the square – already guarded by armed marshals, soon filled with armed soldiers. The angry mob dispersed, still frustrated and furious. No doubt everyone in authority in the city breathed a sigh of relief, confident that this matter would blow over. After all, they controlled the political apparatus of the city, at least one newspaper, as well as the adjudicators and enforcers of the law … little comprehending that this shooting represented the last, the very last straw.

Several days later, a small advertisement appeared on the front pages of several morning papers: “The members of the Vigilance Committee in good standing will please meet at number 105 ½ Sacramento Street, this day, Thursday, fifteenth instant, at nine o’clock A.M. By order of the Committee of Thirteen.”

The effect on the general public was electrifying. Crowds descended on the building at the designated address – a three-story hall which had been built for the short-lived local chapter of the Know-Nothings. The Vigilance Committee of five years before, which seemed to have been an age ago, so quickly had the city grown, had been brutally efficient in sorting out the criminal gang called the “Hounds.” And now, many members of the original committee – who had whipped and housebroken the Hounds – were taking up responsibility again. The image of a ‘vigilante’ most usually implies a disorganized mob; lawless, mindlessly violent, easily steered but ultimately uncontrollable. The Vigilance Committee was something much, much worse than that.

They were organized, they were in earnest, they would not compromise … and they would not back down.

And they proved to be very, very efficient. Immediate support for the Committee was overwhelming. A dozen members of the original committee reconstituted themselves, chose a leader and an executive committee, and began enlisting members. The line to enroll in the Committee was day-long: eventually there would be 6,000 – all of them vetted and vouched for, sworn to secrecy. Two thousand of the first-enrolled were assigned to military-styled companies of a hundred. The organization had to move operations to another building – swiftly fortified and eventually called Fort Gunnybags.

Almost immediately, the established political machine – which termed itself without irony as the “Law and Order Party” – demanded that the Governor of California call out the militia against this citizens’ insurrection. The Governor came hustling from Sacramento and requested an interview with the head of the Vigilance Committee, one William Tell Coleman. Coleman was polite, but firm; insisting that the Committee proposed no insurrection against civil authority – they merely wished to see that established laws were enforced. The Governor was mollified; he would not call out the state militia – but he was not yet aware that the Committee intended to take Charles Cora and James Casey into custody, give them a fair trial and administer such punishment as would be dictated by the verdict.

Which operation was carried out, with military precision and efficiency, on the following day, which was a Sunday morning. Of course, rumors and speculation ran wild, all over town that something was about to happen at the county jail building where Casey was being held. It couldn’t be denied that the Law and Order party might have been spoiling for a fight. Spectators gathered on the rooftops, at the windows of buildings around the square, and on every eminence which offered a view. Their patience was rewarded: a column of marching men – in civilian clothes, but carrying rifles with fixed bayonets appeared at the end of a street which emptied into the square – then another column, from another converging street. Then a third column, joined by a fourth: they marched into the square and took their places in regular ranks four-deep all around the square.  An observer, a Southerner remarked to a friend, “When you see those damned psalm-singing Yankees turn out of their churches, shoulder their guns and march away of a Sunday, you may know that hell is going to crack shortly.”

But there was more. The silent ranks of men stood, waiting … waiting for a command which came presently. From out of a side street came a body of sixty men – drawing a field gun by means of a long rope. The cannon was wheeled into the middle of the square, aimed at the front door of the jail. Slowly and deliberately, it was charged with powder and shot, while another man lit a slow-burning match and stood at attention. And there they all waited silently … until a Vigilante on horseback rode into the square, and up to the door of the jail. He leaned down, rapped on the door with the butt of his riding whip and passed a note to someone within the jail … Silence descended on the square, on the men standing at attention by the cannon, on those in ranks around the edge of the square, and watching from rooftop and window. An eerie silence, broken only by the sound of carriage wheels.

(To be continued, yet again. It’s an exciting story, isn’t it? And I’m not making anything up.)

When gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in 1848, it seemed as if most of the world rushed in to California – which, until then had been a sparsely-settled outpost of Mexico, dreaming the decades away. The climate was enchantingly mild, Mediterranean – warm enough for groves of olive trees and citrus to thrive, and the old missions crumbled away as if nothing had or would ever change. The old, proud Californio families with names like Verdugo, Vasquez, Pico and Vallejo kept vast cattle herds and lived in extensive but rather Spartan-plain estates. There were a few handfuls of American settlers who had come overland, or by sea; they tended to what little trade there was, and an energetic and slightly shady Swiss entrepreneur named Johann Sutter had a vast agricultural and establishment centered around a fortified holding in present-day Sacramento. It was on his property, and in the course of building a saw-mill that gold was discovered. And change came upon the enchanted land  – and the place called Yerba Buena turned almost overnight from a hamlet of eight hundred souls on the shore of San Francisco Bay into a ramshackle metropolis of 25,000 and more in the space of two years.

The responsible citizens had once before resorted to a Committee of Vigilance, in response to a riot instigated by a criminal element known as the ‘Hounds’ in 1851. The Hounds were housebroken, following a judicious culling of the most notorious ring-leaders – either hung or exiled, but it was only a temporary solution. Five years, a couple of devastating fires, and who-knows-how-many thousand hopeful Argonauts later, the situation in San Francisco had degenerated to a point beyond the toleration of responsible and civic-minded citizens … again.

And this time, it was more than just a situation of sober citizens faced with obstreperous criminals – by 1856 it was a collective of sober citizens arrayed against a corrupt, criminal-allied, and crony-capitalist big-city machine. Several decades after the event, popular historian Stewart E. White wrote, “The elections of those days would have been a joke had they not been so tragically significant… the polls were guarded by bullies who did not hesitate at command to manhandle any decent citizen indicated by the local leaders. Such men were openly hired for the purposes of intimidation. Votes could be bought in the open market. ‘Floaters’ were shamelessly imported into districts that might prove doubtful; and, if things looked close, the election inspectors and the judges could be relied on to make things come out all right in the final count…” White also noted, “With the proper officials in charge of the executive end of the government and with a trained crew of lawyers making their own rules as they went along, almost any crime of violence, corruption, theft, or the higher grades of finance could be committed with absolute impunity…” White contributed a lot of the corruption to an influx of what he called low-grade Southerners, who were apt to use what he called ‘pseudo-chivalry’ in response to personal or political criticism, ‘battering down opposition by the simple expedient of claiming that he had been insulted.’

In the midst of all this, there were business reversals; a local and trusted financial and express firm failed. Its assets were taken over in what was suspected to be shady means which benefitted – of course – certain businessmen closely associated with the local machine. A crusading newspaper editor, James King of William and his Daily Evening Bulletin riveted and titillated the reading public as thoroughly as he angered those whom he targeted. King criticized various pillars of the city, in editorials and in straight news stories. He pulled no punches; he named names, explained methods and connections. About the same time a gambler, Charles Cora, shot and killed a well-known and well-liked US Marshal named William Richardson who was unarmed at the time. This was an unprovoked, cold-blooded shooting. Conviction seemed almost certain, although Cora was a good friend – a very good friend of both the local sheriff and the keeper of the jail, where he waited trial in considerable luxury and comfort. No expense was spared in Cora’s defense – and when the case came to trial, the jury couldn’t come to a decision and Cora was released. The law-abiding element in town seethed.

Several months later, King wrote another sizzling editorial – this one concerning an appointee to the position in the federal customs house. The appointee was the choice of one James P. Casey – a member of the board of county supervisors, and also a member in good standing of the political establishment. This, no doubt accounted for the curious circumstance of being elected to the board despite the fact that he didn’t live in the district, had not been on the ticket, nor been a candidate … and no one could be found who voted for him. Doubtless, Casey was already in King’s sights – for besides disparaging the customs-house appointee, King also noted that Casey had previously been an inmate in Sing-Sing. Casey accounted himself affronted, and paid a visit to the Daily Evening Bulletin offices to demand an apology – which was not forthcoming. After some hours drinking and fuming, Casey left the bar and waited just across the street for King to pass on his way home. At about 5 PM, King left the newspaper office, and as he passed by on his way home, Casey shot him. King fell, mortally wounded – while Casey’s friends hustled him off to safety in a nearby police station lock-up.

(to be continued)

03. February 2012 · Comments Off on Committee of Vigilance · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

California in the Gold Rush era was by all accounts a wild and woolly place for a good few years after discovery of gold, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Until that moment in 1848 when John Marshall found gold in a mill-race under construction at Coloma, California had dreamed away the decades as first a Spanish and then a Mexican colony, remote from practically everything, lightly settled, and with a small economy based on cattle ranching – not for beef, in those days before refrigeration and the railway, but rather for their hides.  Yerba Buena, which would soon be renamed San Francisco was a sleepy little village of at most about 800 residents.

But in the blink of an eye, historically speaking, everything changed. The world rushed in, both in a matter of speaking and literally. By 1851 some estimates put 25,000 people in and around San Francisco; those seeking gold and those seeking to make a living in various ways from those seeking gold. For a few mad months and years, even otherwise respectable and responsible citizens were more interested in gold than in attending to civic affairs. This was not at first much of a problem. Most gold-seekers, or Argonauts  as they were called, were basically inclined to be law-abiding – even in the absence of heavy law-enforcing authorities.

But there was a minority amongst them who were not so inclined. In the absence of  enthusiastic law enforcement, or even any law enforcement at all, they settled down to enjoy that happy (to them) situation to the fullest, forming a loosely-knit gang called the Hounds, which mainly targeted the non-Anglo, Hispanic miners and merchants, principally Mexicans and Chileans for bullying and general extortion.  When a riot by the Hounds resulted in the destruction a part of town called Chiletown on the slopes of Telegraph Hill, a coalition of businessmen headed by long-time resident Sam Brannon concluded that up with this situation they would not put. They established a tribunal to housebreak the Hounds, arresting and punishing or exiling the gang leaders. Almost as an afterthought they also established a police department, charging a recently arrived Argonaut named Malachi Fallon with establishing a police department. Fallon had some tenuous connection with police business in New York City, in that he had been a prison-keep at the Toombs. On the strength of that sketchy resume, he went to work, establishing a force of about thirty constables operating from a single flimsy building.

Thirty police officers pitted against a shifting population of over 25,000 did about what could have been expected; at best, well-intentioned but ineffectual. Given that most of those 25,000 were young males, from a hundred different nations, hungry for adventure, riches and strong drink, touchy about personal honor and mostly well-armed – Malachi Fallon’s little band would have had as much luck emptying the Bay with a teacup as they did of keeping order. When crime eventually began to surge again, it was whispered that the police force was in cahoots with the criminal elements. Whether it was corruption or incompetence, the solid and law-abiding citizens were long out of patience by 1856 and not feeling inclined to debate the difference. Another committee of vigilance was formed,  and when all the shouting was done, San Francisco had a reputation for being a place where lawbreaking was not tolerated. For long, anyway. And so it was, all across the West, especially in the mining towns, in the early years,  when towns sprang up like mushrooms, practically overnight.

The people who lived in them would have law, and security of their homes, their persons and their possessions. They would demand it of the governments they instituted for themselves. And if those governments could, or would not deliver it, for whatever reason, the citizens would go and deliver it for themselves, however ham-fistedly.