Gold Rush History, Vigilantes: Problem or Solution?

By Bob Holton June 15, 2009 12:57

One of the greatest challenges of being a ’49er was putting up with frontier California’s corrupt and incompetent justice system. From 1849 to 1856, the law was for sale from the governor who issued the pardons —  and did so in alarming fashion — down to the local jail keeper in charge of the keys to the lockup.

Meanwhile, our Golden State was overrun with miserable wretches from all corners of the globe. Murderers, horse thieves, claim jumpers and raiders of sluice boxes presented a conundrum of world-class proportions.

The courts were a mockery of justice. In Sonora, a brutal killer was fined $100 by a judge in 1849 and given the choice of leaving town or being hanged. He left, naturally, and showed up later as the sheriff of Siskiyou County.

Upon finding a mule thief guilty, but discovering he had no money, Sonora’s first justice of the peace, Richard Barry, let the accused go free and ordered his accuser (the town sheriff) to pay the fine and court costs.

About this time a drunken miner raped and murdered a young woman in a Sonora fandango house, but he was let go on grounds of “self defense.”

The state of affairs was absurd, and mob rule was clearly not the answer. The hanging of John Barclay in 1855 is one of the Mother Lode’s worst examples of lynch law gone bad. In this notorious case an exasperated mob stormed the Columbia jail, knocked out the sheriff and strung up their prisoner without a fair trial.

They forgot to tie Barclay’s hands before launching him into eternity, so he seized hold of the rope and held on with a grasp of desperation. A horrible scene ensued for nearly 10 minutes as he struggled for his life at the end of the rope. All the while the crowd grew increasingly frenzied and wild.

An entire book could be filled with horrific accounts of frontier injustice. In 1856 it was reported that an innocent prospector met his destiny outside of Chinese Camp when he encountered a rope-carrying crowd of miners. The unlucky man had with him a mule that the miners suspected was stolen. This led to great excitement and within minutes the poor soul was swinging gently in the breeze from a nearby oak tree.

Later that evening in the Washington Saloon, one of the boys casually mentioned that the prospector had said something about a bill of sale on his person. It would prove his innocence, he had claimed. So the next morning the curious miners dug him up and found the aforementioned receipt in his coat pocket.

When vigilance committees first appear in Tuolumne County, they were surprisingly organized, professional, fair-minded groups made up of respectable citizens. One could say they were “merciful” compared to their lynch-mob counterparts.

Today we often confuse “vigilantes” with “lynch mobs.” Learned historians even get the two mixed up. While the latter demanded nothing less than death, Sonora’s first committee of 1851 executed not a single person, according to H. O. Lang’s “History of Tuolumne County” published in 1882.

Instead, it administered the following punishments: An American thief was banished from the southern mines under penalty of death if he returned. A Frenchman was banished for passing counterfeit coins. A Mexican gold washer caught in the act of stealing was whipped with 25 lashes on his bare back. Two other men, both counterfeiters, were also given 25 lashes each.

A horse thief had his head partially shaved and was sent on his way under penalty of death if he returned. Later that year, a mule thief received 75 lashes, had his head shaved and was warned to never return to the county. Another man was given 50 lashes, had his head shaved and was run out of the foothills for stealing a pistol.

This was all quite lovely, but where were the hardcore murderers? Are we to suppose they fled to higher ground when Sonora’s original vigilantes were active?

By the way, a few years later a man was tarred and feathered by the Copperopolis Citizens’ Committee, then marched down the street in broad daylight for everyone to see. His crime? Speaking badly of the town’s citizenry.

San Francisco’s notorious vigilance committee of 1851 executed only four out of 90 cases. It was not unusual for vigilantes to find their prisoners innocent and set them free after careful review of the facts.

The presence of citizens’ watch groups temporarily lowered violent crime according to popular belief, and it probably did, unless we buy into the following theory expressed by a Sonora newspaper on August 9, 1856.

“The Union Democrat has all along contended that the existence of a Vigilance Committee in our midst, and a sufferance of its outrageous acts, has been a vast deal more injurious to the moral and social well-being of society at large than the evils which are sought to be eradicated by and through such an organization. The state of society, not only in this city, but throughout the length and breadth of California since these committees have been in existence, fully proves the correctness of our position. Here in Sonora, within the last two days, there have been two shootings (non-fatal) on our public streets, and there have been double the number of bloody fights, murders, riots, high-handed outrages and crimes committed within the two months the Committee has been in existence, than during any similar period of time.”

Perhaps that editor was on to something, but vigilance committees enforced a rule of law that the law itself could not or would not enforce. Most of these volunteer organizations were out of business by 1857 as local governments became more responsible and free of corruption.

Bob Holton, 73, of Cedar Ridge has researched and written about the Gold Rush era since the late 1950s, when he worked as a cub reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “Gold Rush history is world history,” says Holton, who delights in sharing “breaking news from 150 years ago.”

© 2009, Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Bob Holton June 15, 2009 12:57
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