The Squatters’ Side of the Story

Over the past year, my research has led me to a growing suspicion that Sacramento’s conventional historic narrative is in dire need of correction regarding the city’s early land struggles. And now I’ve found an early effort to make this very correction, written over a century ago. What’s more, this account was written by a credible author who was personally present on August 14, 1850 – the day that Sacramento erupted in gunfire during the so-called “Squatters’ Riot.”

Dr. Charles Robinson claims not only that the supposed forces of law and order fired the first shot, but that the Sacramento Settlers’ Association – a group he led, generally known as the “squatters” – prevailed in their uprising against the corrupt speculators who controlled Sacramento’s government and land.

Although both of these claims first struck me as outlandish, pieces of the puzzle have started falling into place as I compare these claims to other accounts. If Robinson is correct, it has dramatic implications for our understanding of Sacramento’s land struggles, which continued throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

As we approach the 166th anniversary of the “riot,” I’ll be presenting further information about these recent findings and their impact on my hypothesis of historic revision. First, let’s look at the author and his two startling claims.

Who Was Doctor Robinson?

Robinson came to Sacramento as the physician for a company of pioneers from Boston, led the so-called squatters movement, and later served as one of Sacramento’s representatives in the first State Assembly.

However, he is best known as the first governor of Kansas. During the 1850s he served as a leader of the Abolitionist effort to settle the city of Lawrence, which I’ve described elsewhere. However, it appears that his participation in Sacramento’s unrest positioned him to play his central role in “Bleeding Kansas” – a precursor to the Civil War that tipped the balance in favor of the North by ensuring that Kansas remained free of slavery after statehood.

Robinson made a dramatic historical impact on the national level, and his time in Sacramento was formative for both him and the struggle that he led in Kansas during the 1850s. Unfortunately, his name is nearly unknown in Sacramento, where a movement he led inadvertently sparked the city’s deadliest episode.

Oddly enough, my recent research breakthrough came in a recent visit to the Massachusetts Historical Society. I had hoped to find scraps of correspondence that might hint at his thinking. Instead, I found a detailed account of exactly what he thought about how Sacramento influenced Kansas.

I’ve previously noted an assortment of “anomalies” that together suggest a wholesale revision of history surrounding Johann Augustus Sutter’s false claim to the land of Sacramento, the settlers’ uprising that Sutter’s claim provoked, and the decades of legal struggles that followed the conflict. I have come to believe that an intentionally false account was manufactured by Sacramento’s elites and accepted by a community that was exhausted by years struggle. This misinformation served to cover up the difficult fact that an important uprising with national implications was crushed and then written out of history, dismissed as a mere “riot.”

Robinson’s book The Kansas Conflict was published in 1892, long after he had retired from politics and shortly before his death. He was no doubt concerned with his legacy at this point in life, and his repeated election to public office is no guarantee of an honest or accurate account of events long past. We should not take his claims as fact.

However, his claims do match up with earlier accounts, while also highlighting inconsistencies in the conventional historical narrative.

Robinson’s first-person account of events surrounding the Squatters’ Riot (strangely told in the third person) supports my hypothesis that a central element of Sacramento’s early history sits on a foundation of false claims made by those sympathetic to one party in the conflict.

Who Fired First at 4th and J?

The Kansas Conflict includes an entire chapter on Sacramento’s uprising, in which Robinson claims,

This outline is the more important as it will serve to give the squatters’ side of the most exciting conflict in the history of California, which has never been given by one of their number, although published and republished, iterated and reiterated indefinitely by their opponents. (p. 27)

What Robinson brings to the table is an assertion that I had not even suspected: During the confrontation known as the Squatters’ Riot, the mayor’s forces fired first:

The squatters had but just turned the corner of J street and Fourth, when a shout was raised and the mayor, sheriff and their adherents opened fire, doubtless contemplating a stampede of the army of fifteen. But on the instant (squatter militia leader) Maloney gave the order to face about and fire. (p. 51)

This claim is tremendously important, as the origin of the first shot fired – in the heart of the city – indicates who was responsible for escalating the conflict into violence: A struggle previously engaged through primarily legal means (if we assume the city government and its actions to be legitimate), had suddenly become a military struggle. A movement that had been attempting to organize a cooperative legal response to land-grabbers was drawn into violence that led to the death of eight Sacramentans including the assessor, the sheriff and eventually the mayor.

Robinson therefore indicates that some key early events have been suppressed or distorted to obscure the true nature of this city as a center of revolutionary struggle. Events of national importance occurred here, stretching over at least two decades of struggle against corrupt speculators who sought to consolidate their wealth and power at the expense of American ideals of liberty, justice and equality.

Who Won the Struggle for Sacramento?

Robinson repeatedly quotes one of the better-known historical accounts of the uprising: an article in an written by renowned social philosopher Josiah Royce. Robinson especially highlights Royce’s statement that shows that even in an opponent’s account there was recognition that something fishy was going on in the immediate aftermath of the bloodshed.

In “The Squatter Riot of ’50 in Sacramento” (Overland Monthly, September 1885), Royce wrote,

A tacit consent to drop the subject was soon noticeable in the community. Men said that the law must be enforced and meanwhile determined to speak no ill of the dead. There was a decided sense, also, of common guilt. The community had sinned and suffered. (p. 245)

Robinson then claims that people ceased to speak about it primarily because their struggle for land rights ended in success:

The platform of the squatters from first to last was protection to the occupant of land in possession of the same till title should be shown, and when all opposition to this possession ceased the war was over. As soon as all attempts ceased to get possession of land under forcible entry and detainer laws, and bogus acts of bogus city councils, there was nothing more to be done. The squatters had obtained all they ever demanded. (p. 57)

Before reading Robinson’s account, I had believed that a major revision of the 1850 history was undertaken primarily during the 1880s, by Royce as well as in H.H. Bancroft’s History of California, (which contains a bizarre 6 ½ page footnote that proves that at least some historians understood the falsehood of the story they were telling). I suspected that after a generation of trouble, people were willing to sacrifice a little historical accuracy in order to move on with a stable system of land ownership; it seemed as though the victorious speculators wrote history and the community meekly went along.

But this new discovery indicates that the cover-up of Sacramento’s land struggle originated close to the event, as a defensive move by the speculators who had ruled Sacramento’s early years. The speculators apparently lost this battle, but as shown by the later antics of Lewis Sanders and William Muldrow – to say nothing of the community’s panicked response to said antics – the war was far from over.

Now What?

After 1850 Sacramento’s land ownership may have settled into the relatively benign state that Robinson describes, but tremendous damage had been done to the legitimacy of land titles generally – making the community vulnerable to the likes of Sanders and Muldrow. This ongoing conflict, largely unmentioned in Sacramento histories despite its second climax in the legal chaos of the 1868 Ejectment Suits, eventually led the people of this city to accept a history that is obviously false.

The task now before modern historians is to look through the original accounts, in newspapers and letters, to determine what actually happened here in 1850 and afterward. We must start from a point of no assumptions.

It may be hard to believe that a central element of Sacramento’s history is fundamentally inaccurate. But the commonly understood story of early Sacramento’s land struggles is clearly full of contradictions, and these now must be addressed.

I’ll soon compare the proponents of each account to illustrate more reason to doubt the conventional tale.

3 thoughts on “The Squatters’ Side of the Story

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