These Are Historic Times

Profound social and economic changes are underway in the United States, with unclear outcomes on numerous fronts. We face a chaotic swirl of competing narratives that will one day resolve into some sort of generally-accepted history. Hopefully, this future history of our present day will be mostly accurate, but we must not assume that outcome. After all, the dominant narrative of the Gold Rush is deeply flawed.

The actual, mostly forgotten events of Sacramento’s early days have many parallels to the present turmoil: A corrupt nexus between business and government, an uprising against that corruption, attacks on the press and immigrants, a manipulative actor pulling the strings of vigilante militias – they all happened here in Sacramento.

These suppressed episodes from our city’s early days provide us a stark warning of what might come as President Trump desperately clings to power. Worse, Sacramento’s forgotten turmoil suggests that Trump’s lies could become widely accepted as truth, perhaps for generations.

The nation faces many crises, but looming over them all is a profound assault on truth. Trump’s attacks on journalism, his calls for “patriotic” revisionism and his bald lies about even the most recent events present an additional crisis of memory. We face a national madness in which many citizens’ understanding of events is decoupled from reality – a profoundly dangerous situation.

On the other hand, by now discerning how history was once corrupted to suit a corrupt elite, we may better avoid repeating such corruption on a much larger scale. An understanding of Sacramento’s past – as it actually occurred – may help us break free of a present in which scoundrels hold entirely too much power over the nation as a whole.

Over the coming months, Sacramento reaches the 170th anniversaries of an important and challenging series of local events. These events don’t square with the dominant narrative that has been accepted as the generally true history of our city. While many of the specific details of the establishment history may be accurate, our overall understanding of those details is severely flawed.  

Sacramento’s Lost History

To see how badly history can be distorted, we need look no further than the conflict that erupted into the 1850 “Squatters’ Riot” and continued through the 1851 Committees of Vigilance. The establishment history of this long crisis was apparently written to suit the tastes and sanitize the legacies of unscrupulous speculators – including organized vigilantes who incited murder by huge lynch mobs as well as attacks on the press.

The trouble really heated up in the summer of 1850. Popular resistance was growing to a wave of evictions that were facilitated by a corrupt city government, which supported titles based on Sutter’s false claim of a Mexican land grant. The Sacramento Settlers’ Association held huge meetings and made explicitly revolutionary appeals, openly challenging the city’s government with handbills posted around town.

On August 14, the uprising escalated into the bloodshed known as the Squatters’ Riot. Eight Sacramentans were killed, including the assessor and sheriff. The mayor was gravely wounded and fled to San Francisco, where he died a few months later. Order was reportedly restored through the arrival of military forces and organization of local militia, but a fever of rumors predicted that miners would soon march on the city – the New York Globe reported that “Sacramento City had been reduced to ashes.” Meanwhile, the city’s real estate bubble had popped, taking down several banking houses and sparking a financial panic. This collapse severely disrupted the commercial system, which was largely based on merchants using inflated land investments as collateral for shipments of goods.

The insurgent Settler’s Association – the so-called squatters – were supposedly defeated in the August clashes. But September’s newspapers were filled with stories of collapsing banking houses and reassurances against a growing financial panic. These ominous stories came against a backdrop of highly suspicious land auctions and workers organizing – successfully! – for raises. The circumstances strongly suggest a teetering system of land speculation, under pressure from some degree of continued unrest among working people. Revolution was brewing.

Later that fall, Association leaders James McClatchy and Dr. Charles Robinson launched a newspaper – the Settlers and Miners Tribune. One of their first articles, “Squatterism,” was a clear continuation of their work leading the Settlers’ Association – and explicit challenge to the speculators’ damaged land claims. Their office overlooked the intersection of 4th & J, where the “riot” erupted only weeks earlier. The county attorney shared the building and advertised in the paper, giving his address as “the Tribune Building.” Publishing this newspaper was not the action of someone who had just lost a fight. Indeed, the Tribune claimed a Settler victory; it once published a provocative statement responding to the Globe’s false report, that the city would indeed have been raided and burned by miners “had not the speculators stopped their outrages.” (Nov. 14, 1850, p. 2)

The existence of the Tribune does not fit well into the establishment narrative about the riot’s aftermath. Stranger still, McClatchy would later serve as Sacramento’s sheriff and then as a respected newspaper publisher. His name is still one of the most prominent in California journalism. How does the dominant historical narrative continue to overlook the massive contradiction of an insurgent turned law officer turned publisher? How would McClatchy’s later career have been possible if the squatters had actually been run out of town?

In any case, while McClatchy and Robinson were printing a weekly paper that challenged the local authorities’ claim of control, Robinson also mounted a bid to represent Sacramento City in the first state assembly. Despite initially being wounded in the gunfight – and charged with murder – he won the office seems to have had some legislative success leading the Settlers’ bloc in the Assembly. This would also be very unlikely if the squatters had indeed been crushed.

None of this makes sense, unless the most serious conflict in our community’s history ended differently than we’ve been led to believe.

The Plot Thickens

And then Robinson mysteriously disappeared from Sacramento City. He apparently went home to Massachusetts, where he would later be recruited to lead the Abolitionist settlement of Lawrence, Kansas. In 1854, he was a leader in the mostly nonviolent struggle called “Bleeding Kansas,” which gave an important early win in the conflict that would become the Civil War. His 1892 memoir, The Kansas Conflict, includes an entire chapter on Sacramento. He once again claimed victory here, saying that the evictions ended after the uprising they provoked.

But let us return to 1850: The city reeled from the collapse of the real estate bubble, which was built on titles that were derived from Sutter’s false claim to a Mexican land grant at Sacramento. Control of the city seems to have been contested, with the threat of violence looming. Then cholera killed hundreds of people. It was a hard fall.

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).

The San Francisco Committees of Vigilance are a relatively well-explored (if obscure) topic of historic inquiry, and a few historians have addressed the lynchings that occurred in Sacramento during 1851. However, I have yet to find an account that seriously considers the dark reality that a regional cabal – instigated by Sam Brannan and drawn from the cream of the business community – overturned the legal system and hanged men who were accused sometimes only of mere theft or assault.

When the first hanging occurred in Sacramento, it was after days of mob activity in San Francisco, with none other than Brannan playing a key role in whipping up the crowds. Although the Vigilantes’ first victim, Frederick Rowe, apparently committed a brutal murder, his hanging was no spontaneous act of passion, but the culmination of a wave of political violence: The headline in the Transcipt read “Lynch law at last!!” What’s more, the second lynching in August was followed by a hanging of the governor in effigy. Although later observers like Josiah Royce have conflated the Vigilance Committees with the archetypal Wild West hamlet struggling against lawlessness, the real Vigilantes were an elite organization that subverted the established force of law. They worked regionally to whip up frenzied mobs against the hated immigrants of the day (Australians, believe it or not).

False History

Whatever happened in 1851 has been obscured by numerous gaps in the historic record. Newspapers are missing. Assessor’s map books are missing. And these critical primary sources are missing at a time when secondary sources – our city’s first histories – are seriously problematic.

Sacramento seems to have developed a taboo against discussion of the events of early 1851. This is shown clearly by two early histories that use the same wildly inaccurate words to describe the period: An 1855 history by Barber and Baker recalls that, “The winter passed away almost unnoticed under the genial influences of business and pleasure.” Their account does briefly describe the lynchings, but not before reminding the reader that these unpleasant episodes are barely worth mentioning, as 1851 “was marked by no very great or interesting event.” (19-20)

Barber and Baker clearly plagiarized an 1853 history by John Morse, who wrote, “The winter passed away almost unnoticed, save by its genial influences, and never were realized more delightful comminglings of business and pleasure.” (37) Morse knew very well that the winter of 1851 had been anything but delightful. He must have been keeping a close eye on the city. After all, he launched the Sacramento Union in that dark season, and his newspaper is our only regular local record of events after the disappearance of the city’s first two major publications: The Placer Times and the Sacramento Transcript mysteriously merged in June.

We know little about the Times Transcript merger because of gaps in the accessible collections held by the State Library and other institutions. Although the two papers seem to have had a hot rivalry, the Transcript did report when the Times’ editor, Livingston, was severely beaten in April for something he printed (in an issue now missing along with all others after the previous June, during the escalation toward the Riot; the Transcript itself went missing from the archival collections days before the merger). The Union had little to say beyond wishing the new combined paper well.

Meanwhile, other newspapers were reporting that something was off with Sacramento journalism – at the time of the events in question. Around this time, the San Francisco Daily Alta reported that, “A Vigilance Committee of 213 signers has been found in Sacramento… The Sacramento papers contain very litte (sic) news.” (June 28, 1851).

So not only are we missing important documentation, but we have evidence strongly suggesting that the initial Sacramento-based documentation was known to be flawed at the time it was reported. Morse was becoming a leading source of Sacramento news just as the Committees of Vigilance were getting organized, during a period that he clearly falsified in his 1853 history. Morse apparently tried to swap out a true history and replace it with lies.

However, the Union was not really the only surviving chronicle. One additional newspaper helps flesh out the picture: The Daily Index, which regularly printed passionate warnings against the vigilantes during its short run in the spring of 1851, was not available in any local archives until very recently. In 2017 I was able to locate 21 issues of the paper in New York. These speicmens confirmed the activities of the Vigilantes, and reported that at least some in Sacramento were condemning mob rule and facing threats for doing so.

Let us not miss the point: A dissident newspaper was removed from the historic record, which in any event contains large gaps at key moments of Sacramento’s early days. We must therefore question the entire historic narrative of the early 1850s. And we must repair the damage, beginning with a search for missing newspapers. Important voices have been silenced and we need to know what they said about this period.

But the amnesia didn’t stop with the Gold Rush. We have also forgotten the “homestead associations” of 1869. These followed the previous year’s forgotten real estate crisis, a legal free-for-all known as the “Ejectment Suits,” perpetrated by shadowy and powerful figures including General Lucius Foote. It is hard to know what became of these cases, as the collection of County Assessor’s map books held by the Center for Sacramento History are missing all volumes prior to 1870. Extensive research has uncovered no organized visual representation of who owned what during the county’s first two decades.

The revision was not yet over, however. Hubert Howe Bancroft, that historic giant who appears in footnotes of most historic writing, dropped his own doozy of a citation in his encyclopedic 1886 History of California, vol. 6. Bancroft’s writers produced a dismissive half-page on the Squatters’ Riot – a garbled pile of nonsense that any schoolchild of the day should have questioned. This account mixed the Settlers’ enemies and allies, inventing a mythical California-Missouri border from which the squatters supposedly arrived.

And then, lest we wonder if this absurd scrambling of history was an honest mistake, Bancroft provides a 6½-page footnote. This “note” is a lavishly detailed, relatively accurate, richly sourced account that is one of the best overviews of the Settlers’ movement that I have found. And this account demolishes the nonsense that it supposedly serves as a citation. Whoever put the book together wanted the truth to get out.

Setting the Record Straight

If so deeply flawed, why was this whole false narrative accepted? Well, it seems that powerful people wanted the story told in a way that covered up some of their more unsavory moves. This should remind us of more recent scoundrels with hands on the levers of power.

The general forgetfulness surrounding critical historic events of 170 years ago should be deeply alarming to all thoughtful Sacramentans: A corrupt elite seized control of governments as tools for evicting settlers who wouldn’t pay into their land racket, cracked down on dissidents and the media, and then wrote a false history to suit its agenda. Heroes were forgotten, or remembered as vaguely idealistic. Villains were given a free pass or remembered for their poetry.

The scoundrels got away with it.

Their false account has left us with romanticized notions of Sam Brannan and his crowd as rogues and rascals who took advantage of a generally wild West. In reality, they confronted in the Settlers a movement of well-intentioned idealists, who presented a serious challenge to the speculators and offered a vision of a more just California – at least for white people. The resistance to the corrupt order that ultimately ruled early California was badly distorted and mainly forgotten.

If the coming election season goes poorly, we can only imagine the damage that Trump will do. Today’s resistance to a government captured by crooks may also be swept under the historic rug. And it might be another 170 years before we can recover the truth.

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