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.