Vigilante Justice

PrintPrintEmailEmail MAKING A STATE

Before 1846 California was a vast, lightly settled, and loosely governed province of Mexico. In its widely separated valleys and along its mountainous seacoast there were a few ranches, trading settlements, and Catholic missions. Formal government was limited and elementary, and often the only official over a wide area was the alcalde, whose appointment was made or ratified by the remote government in Mexico City.

Americans had always vaguely coveted California, and enough had settled there to justify the maintenance of an American consul at Monterey. When the United States went to war with Mexico an American attempt to take over the great Mexican territory of California was attractive to expansionists and defensible as military strategy. Timing operations to the advices of Consul Larkin at Monterey, General Frémont scampered belligerently about central California with a handful of troops, and then Commodore Sloat put his Navy ship into Monterey Bay and declared all California to belong to the United States. After a few relatively bloodless marches and encounters, virtually all resistance ended.

In 1847 General Stephen Kearny was put in charge of the territory of California by the United States government, but his instructions stated that the federal Constitution had not been extended over the people of California, since Congress had taken no action. It had taken no action because federal legislation on California would have raised the question of free or slave territory in a Congress already close to disruption. So General Kearny announced that until changes could be made the existing laws would remain in effect, provided they harmonized with the American Constitution. Since few knew or could find out just what the existing laws were, it was not easy to determine their harmony. The alcaldes had governed chiefly by ear, with little reference to statutory law or record books, and their American successors were even more at sea. Mexican laws were not available in printed form, and working summaries of United States laws were equally unobtainable.

It was not only the problem of determining what the laws were, and whether a man had broken them, but of what to do with him if he had. Police were at first nonexistent, sheriffs few and far between, and justices of the peace might arrest a man but could not sentence him. There were no jails into which an accused man could be securely put.

The Americans resented any form of government that was not their own, and especially one as highly centralized and remotely controlled as the California military government. They wanted no ordering about by anybody. In 1849 the Californian voiced the general complaint against “military despotism” and also, paradoxically, against the inefficiency of the military government. And still the federal government failed to act. General Richard B. Mason, who had replaced General Kearny as governor, was distressed. As late as August 19, 1849, he reported to the attorney general in Washington: “For the past two years no civil government has existed here, save that controlled by the senior military or naval officer; and no civil officers exist in the country save the alcaldes appointed or confirmed by myself.”

But when Governor Mason tried to strengthen civil government by appointing local alcaldes, the Californian said that if communities could not elect their own alcaldes, then government by alcaldes would be worse than direct martial law. And when the governor issued a call for a state constitutional convention, the American citizens promptly questioned the right of the governor to do so. They wanted a convention, but not one called by the military authorities. Mason and his lieutenants must have thought these civilian Californians hard to please.

After vigorous assertions of their rights and their independence, the citizens of San Francisco decided to accede to the governor’s call and to make California a state as quickly as possible.

When the convention ended on October 13, 1849, these men had created a state constitution and formally presented themselves for admission to the Union.

Congress finally recognized the fait accompli and admitted California as a free state. President Fillmore signed the bill on September 9, 1850, and in San Francisco the citizens celebrated their statehood in lively western style.


While San Franciscans were taking the lead in making California a state, they were also creating a city government. It took them more than a year to do it, and before they had finished, they were at odds with the governor, the alcalde, and with themselves.

The first problem was to decide who might vote, and this was not easy. A requirement of more than a few months of continuous residence would eliminate most of the people of the city. Yet it would obviously not do to let every male over twenty-one, regardless of how brief a time he had been in San Francisco and how soon he intended to depart, vote for its city council. The uncertainty of land titles made any property qualification too complicated to attempt, and the absence of personal records made the question of American birth or citizenship an uncertain one. So it was decided that any man who would affirm by oath, even if through an interpreter, that he was an American citizen and had lived six months in California and thirty days in San Francisco County, could vote unless his oath were challenged. If it was challenged, the only recourse would be to charge the man with perjury.