General Foote’s Historic Interruption

General Foote’s Historic Interruption

The story of Sacramento’s early years is a heady blend of fact and fiction, filled with many colorful characters. Great stories abound – tales of gold and railroads, land speculation and raw political power. Some are truer than others.

As the city of Sacramento and the state of California were taking form, there were several important events connected to land ownership, whose details and meaning are now mostly lost. A fresh look at old material – including maps and newspapers – shows how the city grew on land with clouded title.

While Johann Augustus Sutter and Samuel Brannan are regarded as city builders, their real estate maneuvers actually undermined the growth of a successful community here. Sacramento’s title issues caused decades of serious conflict beginning with the bloody “Squatters’ Riot” of 1850, whose fatalities included several public officials.

One obscure yet important event was the Ejectment Suits of 1868: In one of Sacramento’s most traumatic chapters, thousands of residents – literally most of the population – were sued during the spring of 1868.

Within this sordid story of greed lies the well-hidden tale of General Lucius Harwood Foote. He appears to have been a key villain whose name is unknown to modern Sacramento. However, we should remember Foote as a judge who attempted to seize the land of nearly 100 fellow Sacramentans.

Unfortunately, Foote’s role has been erased from history.

A Sanitized Career

How did Foote escape notice? Despite his central role in one of Sacramento’s worst crises, his legacy appears to have been consistently revised to omit any mention of what he was doing at the time of the crisis. I’ve examined five of Foote’s biographies from the decades following this incident, and each one says exactly nothing about the years between 1866 and 1871.

A comparable omission might be the biographies of Dwight Eisenhower skipping the 1940s.

This mysterious break in Foote’s career is especially striking given his subsequent role as the adjutant general of the California National Guard. Taking his biographies at face value, Foote got this plum position on the implausible basis of serving as Sacramento’s port collector, more than half a decade earlier.

As we’ll see, the half-decade gap in his resume did not indicate a shortage of work. This was an interesting time the legal trade, and it turns out that Foote was busy.

Although his biographies all fail to account for these important years, one omission is of particular interest: History of the Bench and Bar in California is a who’s-who of the legal profession, and Foote was important enough to warrant a listing in the 1901 edition. His profile politely failed to mention Foote’s unmentionable years. But here the profiles was designed in a way that highlights its own omission.Foote in BnB

The profile opens with a mention of Foote’s “uninterrupted good fortune” and then proceeds to describe his career sequentially, one position after another.

Each item is formatted to call attention to each individual year, rather than ranges of years. It skips straight from 1864 to 1872.

Not only that, the dates are written strangely: “1862-63-64” to “1872-73-74-75.” Bench and Bar profiles usually indicated date ranges in the more common method (e.g. 1862-64 or 1872-75). In most entries there was no pretense of covering every year of the subjects’ career. This entry is different. The author is begging us to ask: What was Foote doing during these tumultuous times in the city where he started his legal career?

Foote’s Interruption

Among other things, Foote sued scores of his fellow Sacramentans – in most cases ordinary residents. Foote’s suits made up a significant portion of the mind-boggling total of more than 700 filed against thousands of people that April. Most of the population was in court that year.

This battle royale overwhelmed the city’s legal system in the weeks following William Muldrow’s shocking attack on Sacramento’s property holders (which I described in the previous post).

The Ejectment Suites were listed in full by the Sacramento Union (5/2/1868), in a stunning layout that took up the entire front page and nearly all of the back page – a quarter of that edition’s print space. This editorial decision hints at the unique impact of the crisis.

Foote only filed a couple dozen suits included in the Union’s great list, and his contribution is buried in the dense and massive layout. However, it turns out that Foote also “incited” at least two individuals to file additional suits. So ultimately, he was believed to be behind nearly one-fifth of the total number of cases.

Foote apparently conveyed titles to others, who then filed their own suits. One such conveyance was to Eli Mayo, who was among Sacramento’s wealthiest men. He filed 101 suits (over 14% of the total count) and had the dubious honor of appearing first in the great list, and seems to have had a particular attraction to public property (suing the city might have been a step too far, even for Foote). One of Mayo’s suits was for the block now occupied by Memorial Auditorium, which he also attempted to fence off in 1870. Another of Mayo’s suits, for the city park at 21st and C, was still before the California Supreme Court in 1875.

Foote was also behind many suits that were filed in San Francisco, where any Sacramento resident landowner’s defense would require significant travel and expense – each trip took much of a day by steamboat. There, suits were filed in the name of Foote’s father, an Illinois-based minister who is now buried in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery.

The Footes were in the news until at least the following year – and not just locally. A full 18 months after the suits erupted, the Union reprinted a report from the San Francisco Bulletin:

Some eight or ten of these suits are set for trial at the present term of the Court…These suits involve directly the title to a considerable portion of the unoccupied lands of Sacramento, and the principles on which they are decided will have an important bearing upon several other titles equal or greater in extent. The people of Sacramento are therefore deeply interested in these trials and will await the result with anxiety. (10/30/1869)

Remember, these words were written five years after the U.S. Supreme Court supposedly resolved Sacramento’s land issues in 1864, and nearly two decades after the “Squatters Riot” brought bloody revolt to the streets of Sacramento.

A Rogue Among Rogues

During 1868, the city was besieged by land grabbers seeking wealth through litigation. The city was full of villains, but the community apparently singled out Judge Foote. He was perceived as a rogue among rogues in a city exhausted by nearly two decades of land speculation.

The collective distaste for Foote is revealed by a resolution passed at one of many meetings held by defendants in the Ejectment Suits.

The nature of these meeting is worth a moment of reflection, even if only tangentially related to Foote: In response to the suits, the people of Sacramento created a network of defense committees to work against the 10 most prolific plantiffs (including Foote). These committees also looked for opportunities to consolidate their efforts with each other, in order to more effectively fight off the attack on their properties.

Throughout that spring, many such gatherings took place in overflowing venues including the court’s chambers. Through these committees, defendants attempted to coordinate their defense, paying legal fees on the basis of property values.

About a month into the crisis, one of these committees passed a resolution:

Resolved, that we the citizens, taxpayers and voters of the city of Sacramento do hereby express our disapproval of the conduct of L. H. Foote, and do hereby request him to resign the judicial office he seeks to prostitute to his own base personal ends. (Union 5/19/1868)

And there it is: During the interruption Foote held exactly the sort of position that one might expect to be listed in the Bench and Bar entry: His “judicial office” was Police Court Judge for Sacramento, from 1865-69.

The condemnation of Foote passed by a wide margin. Those opposed to the resolution were concerned primarily with process issues; they objected that this was a meeting about Muldrow, who led the pack of plantiffs and inspired the most immediate organized resistance.

Even so, Foote’s corruption was apparently not subject to debate – at least not in this gathering of people facing the legal theft of their land. And whatever the truth of their vague allegations, Foote was clearly a figure of extreme controversy.

So why is Sacramento almost entirely ignorant of a character who apparently did so much damage to property and community? How was Foote’s abuse of authority trimmed from history?

Foote’s Third Act

His reputation was quickly rehabilitated. Within a couple of years after this sordid affair, he was appointed commander of the California National Guard.

Think about that for a moment: Rather than being held to account for his apparent misdeeds during an unmentionable period of his career, he was granted control of the state’s militia!

Later, he attended the 1876 Republican national convention. Then he was granted an ambassadorship, rounding out his career with a couple of diplomatic posts, including one in which he apparently helped suppress a revolt in Korea.

He had quite a career – good and bad – but none of this is a part of Foote’s legacy. His obituary in the Union was written by a fellow judge, but it emphasized Foote’s “literary talent” and downplayed his legal and political career. (6/8/1913)

Far more importantly, Foote has been protected from historical scrutiny in at least one public historical institution: Most of the Foote-related materials held by the State Library are his poems. Dozens of them are on file.

Some of Foote’s more palatable exploits are also included in the state’s index, including clips about his military appointment. But even these are hidden behind the primary reference card leading to his biographical file, which seems to have mis-classified him.

Like Foote’s biographies, the library’s record throws us off the trail of a tremendously powerful and corrupt man, hiding his true importance.

In the end, General Lucius H. Foote, who did still-untold damage to Sacramento, was boiled down to a single, innocuous label:


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