The Trump presidency has seen a growing wave of anti-immigrant sentiment – and occasional violence – coupled with escalating attacks on the press. These alarming trends have drawn comparisons to Nazi Germany, but we might look closer to home for another precedent: Sacramento in 1851 saw an orchestrated outbreak of violence by lynch mobs numbering in the thousands. Worse, the true story connecting early Sacramento’s most dramatic episodes has been forgotten. This disconnection is apparently due (at least partly) to attacks on journalism that included at least one brutal assault and the removal of hundreds of newspapers – editions at least three publications – from the historic record.
Gold Rush California was a tumultuous place, and it is sometimes mis-remembered as totally lawless. Such a state of affairs is often viewed as the natural result of a scrum of rugged individualists each competing for his (or rarely her) fortune. However, two well-known instances of organized violence stand out. Both involve clashes between two organized political forces – described by Mark Eifler as Settlers and Speculators. When viewed in the context of the region’s escalating economic and political conflict in 1850-51, we can see darker – and more currently relevant – forces at play.
A growing body of long-hidden evidence reveals the true nature of Sacramento’s early land struggles as the rise and suppression of a revolutionary movement. Uncomfortable connections are emerging between the August 1850 “Squatters’ Riot” – which resulted in eight deaths after a gunbattle broke out at 4th & J Streets – and the hanging of Frederick Roe – which took place a few blocks away, six months later.
The latter outbreak of violence set the precedent for a series of lynchings in Sacramento and San Francisco, which now seem at least partly intended to suppress dissent and distract from the elite’s ongoing real estate shenanigans. The Settlers were ascendant in the state’s new legislature, and the Speculators responded with unconventional tactics – including attacks on immigrants and the free press.
Silencing the Media
The most recent and clear evidence of an historic cover-up comes from my retrieval this year of the Daily Index. This newspaper was edited by Joseph Winans and H.B. Livingston during the critical winter of 1851. Wright’s 1880 History of Sacramento County described it as “a paper of rare literary ability, of vigor of expression, and of great originality,” but also noted that “taking a position against the act of a vigilance committee in hanging a gambler, it lost ground, and died decently March 17, 1851, having lived three months.” (p. 193)
The Index was not only run out of business for taking an unpopular view; it was run out of history. This brave publication does not appear in the primary modern research collections beyond isolated single specimens held by the Bancroft Library, State Library and Center for Sacramento History. And these specimens are from dates prior to the events that led to the paper’s principled stand and demise.
Oddly enough, most surviving specimens of the Index are held by the New York Historical Society. I have yet to find a citation of the Index in any history of Sacramento, which suggests that the paper went missing shortly after the events it chronicled. They apparently sat undisturbed – with one interruption in the 1920s – in a collection of papers from California.
But now, a portion of this collection has been retrieved. The six full and partial issues now returned to Sacramento provide ample evidence that this publication stood up in a threatening environment, and laid the blame for lynch law on Samuel Brannan (who is blandly remembered as California’s first millionaire). The Index reveals his culpability in the creation of Committees of Vigilance, which lynched immigrants and unleashed a reign of terror in 1851 and again in 1856.
It could be that the Index was wrong about Brannan. Perhaps it was removed from history due to its libelous claims. But even if that were so, it would still be remarkable and highly unusual for this paper alone to be censored in such a way. Journalistic standards of the day were somewhat more relaxed than those of our own era, and newspapers were filled with all sorts of allegations; it seems unlikely that the Index was alone in its degree of libel to be struck from the record.
Further doubt is cast on this explanation by the sudden disappearance of two of Sacramento’s other earliest newspapers, each of which feature complete collections for their first years, and then abruptly cease during particularly controversial episodes of the city’s youth. As will be shown below, the apparently intentional removal of the Placer Times and later the Sacramento Transcript – the community’s first and second newspapers – suggests some sort of broader effort to eliminate part of the journalistic record during a period of extraordinary controversy and political impact.
Although numerous books and papers have addressed the San Francisco Committees of Vigilance of 1851 and 1856, histories generally overlook or minimize the Sacramento lynchings of 1851. One of the very few surviving exceptions is a 1978 “Golden Notes” pamphlet published by the Sacramento County Historical Society. Sacramento Vigilantes August 1851 focuses on our city’s second major lynch mob incident, which included the hanging of three men including one given a stay of execution by the state’s governor (whose effigy was hanged and burned that same day). Roe’s hanging is mentioned only briefly.
When the Sacramento lynchings have been mentioned, authors have usually failed to note connections to the tremendous land conflicts that were then roiling California. Nancy Taniguchi’s excellent new book, Dirty Deeds, clearly draws this connection for 1856 San Francisco, but the earlier events in Sacramento are once again largely omitted
A partial exception can be found in the research of Mark Eifler, whose 2002 book Gold Rush Capitalists features a chapter on Roe’s death. Eifler seems to acknowledge something is missing, through his comparison of Sacramento’s two most dramatic violent outbreaks: He notes that the Transcript’s reporting was “nearly the only evidence” of the day, and seems to imply that this struck him as odd:
“Though Sacramento residents wrote of the Squatters’ Riot in letters, journals, pamphlets and memoirs,” he wrote, “they remained silent on their thoughts or feelings about the death of Frederick Roe.”
But Sacramentans were not simply silent. They were silenced.
The Return of the Index
The Index escaped an apparent wave of censorship through the acts of a San Francisco postmaster named Jacob Bailey Moore, whose son was serving as the acting librarian for the New York Historical Society. In all, 21 issues made their way to NYHS.
And there they sat, for more than 165 years. They were untouched for nearly half of this long time. According to the NYHS quarterly journal (July 1931, p. 43) the Moore papers “remained in their wrappers for seventy-five years.”
So California’s history was apparently written and then revised without the benefit of a dissenting view on the origins of California mob rule, which evolved into the 1856 overthrow of San Francisco’s government, and collapse of state and federal control in that city. An 1875 history published by the Union contains further references to disappeared papers, at least two of which were edited by James McClatchy. I’ll address these later disappearances in future writing, as every act of research seems to unravel some new thread of an increasingly shocking story.
The known history of Sacramento’s first mass lynching was based primarily on the perspective of the Transcript, which announced the hanging of Roe with a screaming headline of “LYNCH LAW AT LAST!!” This wording reveals that this tragedy was anticipated in some form.
What’s more, the paper’s editorial comments approved of the killing:
Our laws, our courts, our prisons, our legal forms are created by the people to restrain an ordinary condition of crime in a community. But there can be no doubt that there are times, especially in new countries, when crime becomes excessive and overtops the power of courts and legal forms. Then the question rises should not the administration of justice return to the people that they may lop off the excessive state of crime until it becomes commensurate with the power of the regularly constituted tribunals – until legal forms, &c., will be effective again.
This commentary was followed by a highly detailed but rather uncritical description of the day’s events. And then, as noted by Eifler, there was little further discussion of the matter.
Perhaps the Transcript reflected the dominant opinion in the community. A crowd of thousands was reportedly involved. However, many or most witnesses could have been simply gawkers or horrified bystanders. Attendance should not be considered endorsement, and we now know that at least one of Sacramento City’s newspapers came out strongly against the event.
Breaking the Silence
The Index’s editorial comments, so long obscured, included the following condemnation, in which I highlight two important comments:
Without the form, without the color of law; upon the statements, (not the testimony,) of witnesses, examined in the heat of excitement and not under oath, with a coolness and premeditation that excludes the plea of action while the blood was hot, yet with a recklessness that that forbids the conclusion of a reflecting judgment; has a human being been hurled into eternity by the act of his fellow man. Doubtless this awful tragedy will put, at least a temporary stop to the assassinations and assaults, with mortal purpose, with have of late been rife among us. But will it not produce other consequences more disastrous still!…
The right of to-day will be the wrong of to-morrow. What evil influences may grow from this disastrous precedent. Already have men ventured to declare that law is non-existent, and that the people are to govern themselves hereafter, by the dictation of the mass, while others have not scrupled to threaten the denouncers of yesterday’s proceedings, with a like visitation of the vengeance of the public will. We calmly ask which is the more alarming, the evil which this execution sought to cure, or that which it threatens to create? The fury of the mob, goaded to excesses by the fanatical appeals and the consciousness of power, is always more dangerous than an inefficient administration of the laws of force. (2/26/1851)
First, this violence was “premeditated.” Unlike the stereotypical Wild West lynching – erupting out of organic rage at some particularly outrageous offense – this event occurred “at last” (as the Transcript’s headline put it), following some form of agitation. Indeed, the Index column began, “The long agony is over.”
So whose premeditation was behind this long agony? As I’ve reported, the timing of the mobs in 1851 shows signs coordination between Sacramento and San Francisco. In the days before Roe’s hanging, San Francisco was beset by huge crowds, which unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow due process for two Australians accused of robbery and assault.
Other reports from San Francisco listed a variety of speakers attempting to influence these mobs in various directions. However, the Index took pains to single out one speaker. The edition that was on the streets February 25, the day of Roe’s lynching, included the following report of “great excitement at San Francisco.”
A handbill was circulated throughout the city on Saturday afternoon, calling on the citizens to resort to Lynch Law…and accordingly an immense concourse assembled on the Plaza, where they were addressed by S. BRANNON, Esq., who urged upon the people to take the law into their own hands. (2/25/1851)
The Index thus pointed a finger squarely, IN ALL CAPS (but strangely misspelled), at the man whose ruthless greed had already caused Sacramento so much suffering through his creation and manipulation of a puppet government, which had protected his corrupt land scheme – now known as the Grid – and evicted numerous legitimate settlers on the basis of the fraudulent Sutter land claim. Brannan had already set in motion the land struggles that had sparked the Sacramento uprising in 1850. Now he had conjured up the specter of mob violence, which would haunt California’s largest cities for years to come.
A dangerous new element thus entered the already volatile conflict over land, and the Index was not afraid to point a finger.
This brings us to the second observation: Even on the first day of Sacramento’s mob rule, opponents were threatened with “the vengeance of the public will.” That is, dissent could result in death. Nevertheless, the Index went on record.
It is still difficult to say what happened after February 26. Unfortunately most post-lynching copies of the Index are still missing. But the few that have returned to light reveal at least one further case in which the paper condemned rising vigilantism. Within two weeks came the following report of two accused horse thieves executed along the nearby Cosumnes River:
The tragical scenes through which we have just passed have been re-enacted a few miles to the east of us, and the lives of two more human beings have been suddenly taken in order to avenge the wrongs committed upon their fellowman…They were arrested at 10 o’clock on the charge of stealing; they were punished by death at 12 o’clock for the crime of stealing. They were convicted on little evidence, and were hung for a crime which is not considered a capital one, by any statutory provision.
The first scene in this exciting chapter was enacted at the Bay, but fortunately no lives were sacrificed; the excitement extending to this city, one was immolated upon the altar in order to appease the public fury, and now we have two more, condemned to a punishment the greatest which man can inflict, for a less offence and upon less testimony than the last. Where will this deplorable state of things end! – Who in community can be safe if to gratify personal malice a man should see fit to arouse public indignation against his enemy for any imaginary wrong he may have received. We have good laws, let us not disregard them and trample them under our feet, lest scenes more awful than those we have lately been obliged to chronicle, shall again set these laws at defiance. (3/10/1851, emphasis in original)
This lynching, however rash, does appear to have been more of a stereotypical instance of frontier “justice.” So it may be unfair to lay this new tragedy at Brannan’s feet. However, my point here is not that the Index was always fair or correct. Rather, it was an important dissenting voice whose suppression has impoverished our understanding of events that are central to the formation of California’s social order, and which unfortunately have much to teach us in our modern era of immigrant scapegoats, attacks on the press, and deteriorating government legitimacy.
A week after the hanging of those unnamed horse thieves, the Index was gone. Its last issue was apparently March 17, 1851.
With this rebel paper out of the way, the rule of “Judge Lynch” continued, spreading throughout the spring and summer. However, that paper was not the only media outlet in need of control by Sacramento’s Vigilantes. The Daily Union was launched in the weeks after Roe’s lynching, and seems to have been kept to heel.
However, there are signs that Sacramento’s more established papers may have eventually turned against mob rule, which could explain the following conspicuous interruptions of their archives:
The Placer Times – Sacramento City’s first newspaper – began publishing on April 28, 1849, with a promise: “Having espoused the interests of the mining community, (we) will be ever found ready to cherish and defend them.” The California Digital Newspaper Collection (as well as the State Library) hold nearly complete collections of this paper – at least until its abrupt disappearance after June 7, 1850. Incidentally, this date was during the escalation toward the August 14-15 “Squatters’ Riot,” when the interests of the mining community led to revolt against Brannan’s merchant establishment, whose interests were based in a practice called “mining the miners.”
After the Times’ June disappearance, the paper of record became the Sacramento Transcript, which had launched April 1, 1850. Judging from frequent disparaging mentions of the Times in the Transcript (which continue after the Times’ disappearance from the archives), the two publications were fierce rivals.
Although accessible issues of the Transcript shows little sign of doubt in the wisdom of lynch law, something may have shifted in June, immediately before the establishment of the formal Committee of Vigilance in Brannan’s San Francisco warehouse. The last available Transcript issue was printed a few days before a message printed in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California called for a “war of extermination” against Australians, the immigrants who would bear the brunt of lynch law in that city.
There is other evidence of something amiss in Sacramento journalism. By June 28, the Alta reported the discovery of a Sacramento Committee of Vigilance with 213 members, described as similar to its better-known older sibling. The report concluded with an odd statement: “The Sacramento papers contain very little news.”
It is unclear whether the Alta’s comment expressed complaint or satisfaction, but that publication may have played some role in the disappearance of the Times and Transcript. According to Marianne Leach’s Newspaper Holdings of the California State Library (p. 300) the merged Times and Transcript was moved to San Francisco in June of 1852. It was then absorbed by the Alta in December of 1855, just before San Francisco’s second (and worse) wave of vigilante rule.
The Alta would serve as a cheerleader for the 1856 Vigilantes. And having absorbed the former Sacramento papers, it presumably would have been in control of the primary archive of those tributary publications. This centralization of missing publications adds to the circumstantial evidence of an assault on the press and its records, but how can we know whether threats or attacks took place at the time?
It turns out that at least one journalist was physically attacked.
Other Media Suppression
As noted above, the Index was reporting threats on the first day of this frightening new era of lynch law: “Already have men ventured to declare that law is non-existent, and that the people are to govern themselves hereafter, by the dictation of the mass, while others have not scrupled to threaten the denouncers of yesterday’s proceedings, with a like visitation of the vengeance of the public will.” (2/26/1851)
And these were apparently not idle threats. On April 15, J.E. Lawrence, a Times editor, was severely beaten as he was passing a bar called the Branch, which had apparently been the nexus for previous violence. His assailant was not identified beyond his favored drinking establishment, which seems to have had a curious ability to stay out of the news despite being the source of at least some lawless behavior.
And as noted earlier, issues of the Times dated later than June of 1850 are missing. So we don’t know what Lawrence actually wrote. It must have been juicy, though. The Transcript reported that Lawrence was threatened with death if he did not leave town the next day. Although it attributed this violence to the very thugs who necessitated lynch law, the call for justice was vague. In any case, there was no lynching of the perpetrators.
Nor was there any further attention to the case in accessible newspapers, despite the Transcript’s call for support of the press in the matter. Instead, there is a strange sign that whatever was happening at the Branch was unspeakable: The next week, the Branch was back in the news, but for a relatively minor offense.
Campbell & Harringon, late proprietors of the “Branch”, were brought before Judge Bullock yesterday, on a charge of selling liquors on Saturday night without a license. It was proven by a witness introduced by the defendants, that they had, previous to the selling of the liquor on Saturday, sold out all interest in the Branch. The witness further testified that he was the purchaser, thereby unwittingly criminating himself and rendering himself the subject of prosecution. (Union 4/22/1851)
This is obvious nonsense, starting with the namelessness of the “witness,” who was most likely under duress. But this brief seems to be the lone reference to an establishment that had been the site of the brutal beating and threatened murder of a journalist, just days earlier. An administrative hearing was held indicating that responsibility for the Branch had passed to some anonymous person. This seems to be the end of the story, as far as the historic record is concerned. The journalists of Sacramento apparently lost interest in an establishment involved with brutalizing and threatening the murder of one of their own, whose newspapers from that time are now missing.
This is, to say the least, highly suspicious.
(8/12 UPDATE: I have discovered additional coverage of the attack on Lawrence – as well as information about the Branch’s proprietors – and will be providing a new report soon.)
Following a Cold Trail
So what the hell was going on in Sacramento during the first half of 1851? The Alta’s cryptic comment of June 28, that “the Sacramento Papers contain very little news,” is increasingly ominous.
At this point there is little to do beyond poring over the last few weeks of available Transcript issues for references that escaped the CDNC’s word search capabilities. The Daily Union may also have some light to shed, although that paper seems to have shown little interest in probing the power behind “Judge Lynch.”
But all is not lost. There may also be further clues tucked away in a collection of Times or Transcript issues that I have not yet discovered.
Other clues are most likely found in other issues of the Index still held by the New York Historical Society (along with other missing papers). I am currently exploring how else we might retrieve the content of this essential dissenting voice, and would be grateful for help in the following two forms:
First, I would like to know if there is anyone available in New York to visit the NYHS library and pore over (and possibly photograph) the other surviving issues of the Index. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. also holds two issues following the lynching, which may have additional information.
Second, if anyone is aware of a collection of old newspapers that might have been left out of the CDNC and State Library Collections, we may find other surviving accounts that were at some point removed from the most accessible collections.
The revelation of the Index and its apparent suppression raise numerous serious questions about the history of Sacramento, as commonly understood. It is unclear who made this assault on the free press starting in 1851, but we must find out.
It is rather difficult to quickly undo the damage done to our historic record, or to identify the exact perpetrators of that damage. However, it should be obvious by now that some sort of intentional cover-up was conducted, resulting in the removal of key elements from Sacramento’s history.
Today’s growing wave of threats – and attacks – on immigrants and religious minorities, as well as the press and political opponents, demands that we find the truth of what happened in Sacramento. If we fail to understand our own history, we are at greater risk of repeating it.