Gold Rush Stranglers

During 1851, the leading merchants of San Francisco unleashed a reign of terror known as the Committee of Vigilance. This cabal hanged four individuals, whipped one and deported 14 – according to their own records (pp 826-7). These Vigilantes mostly targeted Australian immigrants, who were stereotyped as criminals at the time.

This was a political operation that exploited prejudice through exaggerated threats; these lynchings took place over a six-month period before the September elections. The organization laid the groundwork for a second Committee of Vigilance, which reconvened in 1856 to pursue alleged “ballot stuffers” and other political targets. The Vigilance organization apparently infected San Francisco’s power structure, with long-term results.

This should serve as a warning in our own era of rising vigilante sentiment. There are parallels between 1851 and the escalating rhetoric questioning the soundness of the 2016 presidential election – which has often deployed anti-immigrant sentiments. So further study is urgently needed to better understand the precedent for orchestrated mob rule in our society, and how an important part of that history has been suppressed. The movement’s impact – and its origins – extend far beyond San Francisco, and Sacramento apparently played a central role.

To understand where our society might be going, we must know where we’ve already been. It is time to reckon with Sacramento’s role in the Vigilance of 1851.

What We Know and What We Don’t Know

The San Francisco Committees of Vigilance have been the subject of numerous books and papers. The record of their dark deeds – although obscured by time – is still mostly intact. However, the role that Vigilance played in Sacramento was well hidden. This city’s own lynchings only rarely appear in histories, and those accounts overlook these mobs’ connections to each other, and to the mobs of San Francisco.

The omission is unfortunate, as a holistic examination of the Committees of Vigilance points toward a challenging new understanding of California history: The abuse of immigrant scapegoats paved the way for an illegal seizure of power that was never reversed. We have not learned the lessons of a successful coup d’etat whose power spread far beyond San Francisco and lasted well beyond the 1850s.

The lynchings of 1851 are among Sacramento’s least-understood historic episodes. These were not the city’s only lynch mobs, but this series’ connections to each other and to events in San Francisco cast a sharp light on dark political forces. The Confluence research you are about to read has only begun to unearth the truth about Sacramento’s turmoil, but the nearly simultaneous timing between San Francisco and Sacramento lynch mobs strongly suggest a coordinated inter-city effort to deploy mob violence as a tool of political control.

Lynch mobs of the lawless West are generally seen as spontaneous responses to especially offensive crimes committed in the absence of the law. We tend to imagine dozens or perhaps a hundred people gathered in some dusty one-street hamlet. However, the large crowds of 1851 – often reported to number in the thousands – actually gathered in established cities. What’s more, these mobs were apparently incited by an organized regional elite that was losing control.

The notorious speculator Samuel Brannan – who might remind us of a certain modern-day political figure – played a major role. Most notably, Brannan hosted the meetings that launched the San Francisco Committee. Given Brannan’s central role in the creation of Sacramento’s land scheme and government, as well as his ongoing speculation in Sacramento, the pattern of synchronized lynch mobs is unlikely to be a coincidence. California’s two main cities, in many ways, functioned as a single economic and political system, funneling goods and people from the ocean to the gold fields, extracting wealth for the benefit of an interlocking elite. Brannan was at or near the center of this system.

Although this introductory research cannot yet yield conclusive statements about how and why lynch mobs really erupted in the tumultuous year of 1851, we must consider an unpleasant explanation: Faced with numerous challenges to their rule and unable to defeat their adversaries directly, Brannan and his fellow speculators clung to power by whipping up anti-immigrant hysteria. And even though the elite’s mobs killed only a few marginal individuals, the show of force helped to hold off the many challenges to their power.

While the San Francisco Committee is better known, Sacramento had its own Committee. In fact, the Vigilantes’ first kill occurred in Sacramento, where the threat to the establishment had originated. The Sacramento lynchings began with the hanging of a murderer named Frederick Roe in February and ended with the execution in August of a trio of thieves known as Thompson, Gibson and Robinson. The latter incident occurred just before the election, and was coupled with the governor’s lynching in effigy.

The Roots of Vigilance

In 1851 the Speculators who had bought into Brannan’s crooked Sacramento land scheme were on the defensive. Six months before the deployment of lynch law, Sacramento had been rocked by the “Squatters’ Riot” – better seen as the climax of a revolutionary uprising. Eight people died of gunshots on August 14-15, 1850, including the sheriff and assessor. Mayor Hardin Bigelow was gravely wounded and departed town to die of cholera in San Francisco some months later.

In the wake of the uprising, numerous banking and real estate ventures failed. The newspapers in both cities were full of auction notices and “assignments” of property – analogous to modern bankruptcy. Meanwhile, Brannan’s adversaries were doing rather well. The squatter agenda was ascendant as the Speculators’ real estate bubble collapsed.

Meanwhile, the Sacramento Settlers’ Association had evolved from a legal defense fund into a potent political force: Association leader Dr. Charles Robinson served in the first State Assembly, where he led a successful “Settlers’ and Miners” bloc; he was later elected the first governor of Kansas. John Madden, whose eviction from 2nd and O streets sparked the armed phase of the uprising, withdrew his own Assembly candidacy after both the Democratic and Whig parties publicly expressed willingness to take up the Settler cause in the legislature. [Note: Many links in this report connect to articles found in the California Digital Newspaper Collection – in some cases the item of reference is only part of the article highlighted, and some scrolling and zooming may be necessary. These articles are all worth a read.]

Locally, another Settler leader named James McClatchy ran (unsuccessfully) for Sacramento mayor as he co-edited the Settlers’ and Miners’ Tribune. County attorney John McKune moved his office into the Tribune Building at 4th and J streets, a sort of Settler headquarters that overlooked the site of the uprising’s opening shots.

By the start of 1851, the Speculators must have sensed that legal methods would not ultimately resolve Sacramento’s land issues in their favor. Even worse, “squatter trouble” was spreading and intensifying, now threatening even legitimate titles. A key development came on February 3, 1851, when the Daily Alta reported a violent confrontation in San Francisco; Capt. Joseph Folsom had to fire upon squatters building on his waterfront property.

Within weeks, severe unrest erupted in San Francisco. Mobs attempted to lynch James Stuart and J. Wildred – two Australians accused of theft and believed to be notorious bandits. Large mobs repeatedly threatened the jail and courthouse, although it is unclear whether their actions were being orchestrated at this point, as no formal organization existed.

Mob Rule Comes to Sacramento

After a week of thwarted attempts to hang Stuart and Wildred, the action abruptly shifted to Sacramento. There, on February 25, Frederick Roe – a 20-year-old from England – was involved in a gambling dispute that escalated into a brutal beating. When a bystander tried to intervene, Roe shot him, in broad daylight on a crowded street.

Roe’s immigrant identity seems to have played only a minor role in accounts of the day. His crime certainly fits our modern stereotype of what might inspire a frontier lynch mob to form. However, it is possible that his English accent raised suspicion that he was a “Sydney duck” – the most hated and feared of Gold Rush immigrants, due to the presence of British penal colonies there.

In any case, Roe seems to have walked into a trap that had been set – news coverage suggests that someone was waiting for just the right rascal to string up. The very morning of Roe’s lynching at 6th & K, the Transcript had enthusiastically reported “Great Excitement at San Francisco” with “The citizens, at last rising determined upon Lynch Law” for Stuart’s and Wildred’s the lesser crimes of theft and battery.

And the next day’s headline in the Sacramento Transcript seems to reveal that Roe’s fate was the result of ongoing agitation to subvert the legal system:

Immense Excitement!


What happened to Roe was going to happen to someone, sooner or later.

The Vigilantes Get Organized

After the death of Roe, things settled down for a couple of months. Then, amidst local elections in early May, a fire destroyed a large portion of San Francisco. This disaster was blamed on Australian “incendiaries” who supposedly set the fire as a cover for looting the city, despite initial reports of the blaze’s accidental origin in a highly flammable paint shop.

Then, after a month of wild rumors and panic at every whiff of smoke, on June 8 the Alta published and endorsed an anonymous author’s “Propositions for Public Safety,”

to establish a committee of safety, whose business it shall be to board, or cause to be boarded, every vessel coming from Sydney, and inform the passengers that they will not be allowed to land, unless they can satisfy this committee that they are respectable men…if they come on shore after being notified, they do so at the peril of their lives, and let any one transgressing this order be shot down without mercy. (Alta 6/8/1851)

The author went on to call for a “war of extermination” against Australians in which a force should spread out through the city and “shoot down like dogs” any “who have the hardihood to remain.”

This call for blood, signed with the name “Justice,” seems to have been well received. By June 10 the Committee of Vigilance had established its constitution in meetings at Brannan’s warehouse. The group boasted a starting membership of 103 of the city’s leading men. And within hours of the Committee’s official birth, John Jenkins, an Australian with awful timing, was caught making off with a safe and beaten upon arrest. He was hanged that same night in a chaotic scene that very nearly erupted into warfare.

Meanwhile in Sacramento, the Daily Union of May 9 reported a “Committee of Eleven” had formed at a large meeting just after the San Francisco fire, dividing the city into districts for volunteer patrols. The next day’s paper included a report of a “city guard” patrolling every block, as well as an exaggerated account of “Stockton in Ashes” to further agitate the community.

By June 28, a brief report in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California reported the discovery of a Sacramento Committee of Vigilance with 213 members, described as similar to its better-known older sibling. Oddly, it concluded, “The Sacramento papers contain very little news.”

Unfortunately, whatever little news was reported is now mostly missing. Aside from the Union, there are few surviving specimens of Sacramento newspapers printed during the rise of the Vigilantes. Although complete collections exist for the first year of both of Sacramento’s most prominent early papers, each abruptly disappear as events in the city became more dramatic: The continuous collections of the Sacramento Transcript end during the first week in June, just days before the “Propositions” were presented to San Francisco; the pro-miner Placer Times had already disappeared a year earlier, during the escalation toward the Squatters’ Riot.

It is suspicious that so little news survives from such a newsworthy time, especially since one might expect more recent issues to have a better chance of survival. The missing editions do not indicate breaks in publication. Nor do they reflect the ephemeral nature of many Gold Rush publications; both papers continued publishing until their merger on June 16, moved to San Francisco a year later, and merged with the Alta in 1855, continuing until 1891.

These lost issues may survive somewhere, but they are not in the usual places in which newspapers are found by researchers. Their absence may partly account for why Sacramento’s Vigilance has escaped historic notice. Future Confluence research will explore the state of the Vigilance-era journalistic record, and examine whether the sudden end of complete collections indicates an intentional destruction of contemporary reports, perhaps connected to other anomalies in Sacramento’s historic record.

Debunking the “Wild West” Excuse

The stereotypical Wild West lynch mob operated in lawless where courts had not yet been established zones – new settlements and mining camps, for instance. But these mobs were something else. The connections between Sacramento and San Francisco, suggested by the synchronized mobs of February and June of 1851, became harder to ignore as the summer wore on and the Vigilance organization improved. Mob rule continued to erupt almost simultaneously in both cities, indicating coordinated agitation rather than organic community responses to particularly outrageous local crimes. Crimes and lynchings were sometimes separated by months.

After the San Francisco Committee’s formation in June, much of the summer passed in relative calm. But when “excitement” did occur, it tended to occur in both cities – usually within a day or two. For example, in San Francisco James Stuart was finally hanged for his February crime on July 11 – two days after a gang of robbers in Sacramento faced a lynch mob that sentenced each of the accused to as many as 75 lashes, but then (temporarily) handed them back to legal authorities.

While damage was indeed done to the rule of law by events in the late 1840s (including the Bear Flag Revolt and the United States’ failure to accept California as a state during the Gold Rush population boom), there were nevertheless functioning legal systems in both cities. San Francisco had relatively stable courts for generations before the rise of the Vigilantes, under both Spain and Mexico; these courts carried over after statehood, with some adaptation. Sacramento had some form of courts and professional law enforcement for over a decade, and had operated a prison ship for more than a year. In any case, both cities were capable of numerous evictions of settlers who claimed land by preemption rather than through purchase from the speculators. So any selective failure of enforcement seems more a matter of will than ability.

As events in Sacramento would show, the Vigilantes sought to undermine outgoing Democratic governor John McDougall. He was an Irish Catholic, subject to some of the same suspicions aimed at many of the lynching victims (indeed, his religion and ethnicity would be specifically targeted by the 1856 Committee). The year’s final wave of lynch law peaked shortly before the gubernatorial election of September 3, 1851. This outbreak would include a shocking symbolic message.

Lynching the Law

On August 21, the San Francisco Committee attempted to lynch Australians Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie. The police held off the initial attempt, and the action moved back to Sacramento. The trio of thieves arrested in July – Robinson, Gibson and Thompson, all British immigrants – were due to hang despite Robinson’s reprieve from governor McDougall. Although the three were convicted in a court of law, their execution must still be considered a lynching because a mob overrode the actions of government.

The role of Sacramento officials is essential to understanding the events of that day. The governor’s inability to intervene was apparently due to some combination of complicity and cowardice on the part of the mayor and sheriff. It was reported that “Mayor (James) Hardenbergh appeared and requested to know if he was to be exonerated from all blame and freed from all responsibility on leaving the prisoners in the Sheriff’s hands.”

Sheriff Ben McCullough later read the governor’s reprieve as the crowd cried out for a hanging and surged threateningly. He then handed Gibson and Thompson over for transport to the scaffold erected at 4th and O. He also ordered his guards to return Robinson to a prison ship on the river, but the mob intervened.

After Gibson and Thompson were hanged, “The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the Station House in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the same thrilling cry, ‘Hang the rascal.’”

Then, “the sheriff having performed his duties efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.” That is, the last veneer of legal order gave way under pressure from the mob. Robinson was hanged, against state law, while the local government looked the other way.

But this was not the day’s final insult to the rule of law. That evening, the governor was hanged and burned in effigy outside the Orleans Hotel – the usual meeting place for Sacramento Vigilantes. This was a potent message to McDougall as well as his successor.

Later that weekend the Committee once again attacked the San Francisco jail. This time they succeeded in their “rescue” attempt, extracting Whittaker and McKenzie during church services and lynching them that afternoon.

What Happened Next?

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance is generally thought to have disbanded after lynching Whittaker and McKenzie. However, the visible organization of 1851 is better understood as the foundation for later power grabs. It lay quietly beneath the power structure. A study of later Vigilance is beyond the scope of the present writing, but a brief examination will help understand the impact of the first Commitee.

The Vigilantes reconvened in 1856 with increased strength and greater political focus, essentially rendering the city and state governments powerless to enforce the law. From their fortified headquarters “Fort Gunnybags,” they would demand the surrender of prisoners at cannon-point. Another four men were lynched, including James Casey, the killer of a pro-Vigilance newspaper editor, James King of William.

As chairman of both San Francisco committees, William Tell Coleman, later recalled of 1856,

The next important work was the action to be taken with regards to notorious ballot-box stuffers and other desperate characters…Evidence was collected and orders were soon given for the arrest of these men wherever they could be found in the State. They were tried, convicted, sentenced and deported. [“San Francisco Vigilance Committees,” Century Magazine, 43 (November 1891), 133-150]

But 1856 was not the end of the story either. That much is clear from the conclusion of the second Committee’s chief adversary, the great Civil War hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman – who was then the head of California’s outgunned militia. He wrote, regarding the supposed adjournment: “The Committee thereby took a new lease of life, and afterward had full sway in San Francisco, until it gradually subsided, and merged into a political party.” (The Overland Monthly, 12, February 1874, 105-116)

Sure enough, shortly after Sherman’s writing, the Vigilantes returned in July of 1877, when the so-called Committee of Safety violently suppressed anti-Chinese race riots, using a militia known as the Pickhandle Brigade. This Committee was under the leadership of none other than William Coleman. It appears that the old Committees’ executive body had assumed a lower profile and continued to exert control behind the scenes for more than two decades. It re-emerged when its interests – such as a cheap workforce of Chinese immigrants – were threatened.

Sacramento’s Vigilance aftermath is even murkier, and much more research is needed to sort out how this city’s Committee truly ended, or whether it also blended into the power structure with ongoing effects. Confluence research into later events suggests the latter.

The legal turmoil connected to Sacramento’s original land title issues continued for at least two decades, with some degree of corruption evident in the legal system up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Sacramento remained turbulent for at least two decades – until the 1868 Ejectment Suits resulted in a legal free-for-all instigated by a rogue’s gallery that included at least one prominent judge.

It is difficult to believe that such important events were lost to history. However, that seems to be the case – as elaborated by a report of “anomalies” uncovered for the Sacramento County Historic Society. The Vigilance of 1851 is a key piece of this puzzle, as it provides clues for how Sacramento could be pushed to accept a historic revision that was – at least in some cases – obviously false. The apparent use of mob rule provides one plausible explanation, and its role will be the subject of future Confluence research.

2 thoughts on “Gold Rush Stranglers

  1. […] The winter was even worse. Starting in February of 1851, the Committees of Vigilance conducted four lynchings in Sacramento as well as at least one attack on the press. Their reign of terror prevented at least several major events from being accurately committed to the collective memory (as I’ve explored extensively in previous posts). […]


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