Vigilantes Of California

By Emerson Hough in 1905


Gold panning in the American West

Gold panning in the American West

The world will never see another California. Great gold stampedes there may be, but under conditions far different from those of 1849. Transportation has been so developed; travel has become so swift and easy, that no section can now long remain segregated from the rest of the world. There is no corner of the earth which may not now be reached with a swiftness impossible in the days of the great rush to the Pacific Coast. The whole structure of civilization, itself based upon transportation, goes swiftly forward with that transportation, and the tent of the miner or adventurer finds immediately erected by its side the temple of the law.

It was not thus in those early days of our Western history. The law was left far behind by geography and wilderness travel. Thousands of honest men pressed on across the plains and mountains inflamed, it is true, by the madness of the lust for gold, but carrying at the outset no wish to escape from the watchfulness of the law. With them, went equal numbers of those eager to escape all restraints of society and law, men intending never to aid in the uprearing of the social system in new wild lands.

Both these elements, the law-loving and the law-hating, as they advanced farther and farther from the staid world which they had known, noticed the development of a strange phenomenon: that law, which they had left behind them, waned in importance with each passing day. The standards of the old home changed, even as customs changed. A week’s journey from the settlements showed the argonaut a new world. A month hedged it about to itself, alone, apart, with ideas and values of its own and independent of all others. A year sufficed to leave that world as distinct as though it occupied a planet all its own. For that world the divine fire of the law must be re-discovered, evolved, nay, evoked fresh from chaos even as the savage calls forth fire from the dry and sapless twigs of the wilderness.

In the gold country all ideas and principles were based upon new conditions. Precedents did not exist. Man had gone savage again, and it was the beginning. Yet this savage, willing to live as a savage in a land which was one vast encampment, was the Anglo-Saxon savage, and therefore carried with him that chief trait of the American character, the principle that what a man earns—not what he steals, but what he earns—is his and his alone. This principle sowed in ground forbidding and unpromising was the seed of the law out of which has sprung the growth of a mighty civilization fit to be called an empire of its own. The growth and development of law under such conditions offered phenomena not recorded in the history of any other land or time.

In the first place, and even while in transit, men organized for the purpose of self-protection, and in this necessary act, law-abiding and criminal elements united. After arriving at the scenes of the gold fields, such organization was forgotten; even the parties that had banded together in the Eastern states as partners rarely kept together for a month after reaching the region where luck, hazard and opportunity, inextricably blended, appealed to each man to act for himself and with small reference to others. The first organizations of the mining camps were those of the criminal element. They were presently met by the organization of the law and order men. Hard upon the miners’ law came the regularly organized legal machinery of the older states, modified by local conditions, and irretrievably blended with a politics more corrupt than any known before or since. Men were busy in picking up raw gold from the earth, and they paid small attention to courts and government. The law became an unbridled instrument of evil. Judges of the courts openly confiscated the property of their enemies, or sentenced them with no reference to the principles of justice, with as great disregard for life and liberty as was ever known in the Revolutionary days of France. Against this manner of government presently arose the organizations of the law-abiding, the justice-loving, and these took the law into their own stern hands. The executive officers of the law, the sheriffs and constables, were in league to kill and confiscate; and against these the new agency of the actual law made war, constituting themselves into an arm of essential government, and openly called themselves vigilantes.

Vigilantes hang a man from a tree

In turn, criminals used the cloak of the vigilantes to cover their own deeds of lawlessness and violence. The vigilantes purged themselves of the false members, and carried their own title of shameful conduct, the “stranglers,” with unconcern or pride. They grew in numbers, the love of justice their lodestone, until at one time they numbered more than five thousand in the city of San Francisco alone, and held that community in a grip of lawlessness, or law, as you shall choose to term it. They set at defiance the chief executive of the state, erected an armed castle of their own, seized upon the arms of the militia, defied the government of the United States and even the United States Army. They were, as you shall choose to call them, criminals, or great and noble men. Seek as you may today, you will never know the full roster of their names, although they made no concealment of their identity; and no one, to this day, has ever been able to determine who took the first step in their organization.

They began their labors in California at a time when there had been more than two thousand murders—five hundred in one year—and not five legal executions. Their task included the erection of a fit structure of the law, and, incidentally, the destruction of a corrupt and unworthy structure claiming the title of the law.

In this strange, swift panorama there is all the story of the social system, all the picture of the building of that temple of the law which, as Americans, we now revere, or, at times, still despise and desecrate. At first, the average gold seeker concerned himself little with law, because he intended to make his fortune quickly and then hasten back East to his former home; yet, as early as the winter of 1849, there was elected a legislature which met at San Jose, a Senate of sixteen members and an Assembly of thirty-six. In this election the new American vote was in evidence.

The miners had already tired of the semi-military phase of their government, and had met and adopted a state constitution. The legislature enacted 140 new laws in two months, and abolished all former laws; and then, satisfied with its labors, it left the enforcement of the laws, in the good old American fashion, to whomsoever might take an interest in the matter. This is our custom even today. Our great cities of the East are practically all governed, so far as they are governed at all, by civic leagues, civic federations, citizens’ leagues, business men’s associations—all protests at non-enforcement of the law. This protest in ’49 and on the Pacific Coast took a sterner form.