Vigilante Justice


By early 1849 the press of San Francisco and the area was urging that something drastic be done. The Placer Times of May 5 attributed the rapid increase in crime to the fact that society was “held together without other law than had suggested itself in times of emergency.” The Alta of San Francisco had pointed out on January 4 the grave dangers of lynch law, which, it said, was “worthy only of barbarians.” Yet a few months later, as the crime wave mounted, the Alta was calling for direct action against crime as essential to law and order. By that time most San Franciscans apparently agreed, but the more sober of them hoped that when direct action by the people came, it could be managed with reason and restraint.


When California became United States territory in 1846, there was not even a hamlet called San Francisco. Only a village of a few frame shanties named Yerba Buena was squeezed between a cove in the bay and the sand and chaparral of the hills behind. The village was growing, but in late 1847 its population was only 439, of which eighty-three were under ten years old. When a young lieutenant in the United States Army named William Tecumseh Sherman first visited it in July of that year, he wrote that the only road was “nothing but a path from the mission into the town, deep and heavy with drift sand.”

Yerba Buena became San Francisco, but in 1848 it was still a village of some eight hundred on the edge of an “almost treeless peninsula” amid “a mountainous wilderness of low shrubbery, of drifting sand and of steep hill-slopes.” But late that year the Gold Rush began, and before the end of 1849 some forty thousand immigrants had landed at San Francisco port, and about thirty thousand more had come into the area overland. Another three or four thousand seamen deserted their ships to seek their fortunes at the mines. On July 1 there were 526 ships in the port of San Francisco, and another hundred large square-riggers elsewhere in the bay and river. Many of these craft would never leave the bay, as their crews deserted and no new hands could be secured.

By late 1849 San Francisco could boast of more saloons than permanent dwellings, and every saloon with any pretensions was also a gambling establishment. The most prosperous of these were the center of the town’s social life, open twenty-four hours a day. Professional gamblers paid high rents just to place their tables in the big saloons. The best hotel in the city was the Palmer House, but its function as a place to sleep was incidental. Bayard Taylor, the poet and journalist from the East, who was there at the time, wrote that it rented for $110,000 a year, of which amount the gamblers paid $60,000 for their first-floor establishments.

Everyone gambled and, at that time, gambled in public. Judges and clergymen placed their bets at the same tables with gold miners, ranchers, crooks, and ex-convicts. Men fresh from the gold fields would place their entire pannings on a single turn of the wheel or pack of cards. The spirit of the gaming tables carried over into most of the city’s business houses, where all but a few would risk their entire capital on some extravagant venture.

As for the strips of land between the rows of buildings, to call them streets was to flatter them. Even the hog-wallow that was Pennsylvania Avenue in the early days of the national capital was a fine solid surface compared to the main streets of San Francisco in 1849. In dry weather they were rough and dirty stretches of loose sand and dried mud, but during the long rainy season they were bottomless sloughs. There were no streetlights, gutters, or sewers, and men carried lanterns as well as pistols at night.

The expanding population created a shortage of every kind of goods, most of which had to come by ship around Cape Horn. As prosperity grew, luxury goods, especially of the flashy kind, were in demand at exorbitant prices, which went on mounting as millions of dollars’ worth of pure gold poured into the city every month. Miners who had come into the city to celebrate their winnings did not quibble over prices; “men talked of dollars as others talked of dimes.” Fifty cents was the minimum tip, and a good mechanic made not less than thirty dollars a day. A private box at the theater cost fifty dollars; a good meal was five dollars; cheap boots cost thirty dollars, and good ones a hundred dollars.

And now, to add to these troubles and extravagances, a gang of young ruffians was making itself a serious menace. Citizens began to barricade their doors and windows at night, to stay off the streets after dark, and to hope that theirs would not be the house or office or outbuilding to be entered or set on fire that night.

It was through that varied collection of people, and in the tense atmosphere of that garish town, that Sam Brannan picked his way that bright July day, the morning after the Hounds’ worst riot, looking for the alcalde.