Remembering Negro Hill

This past weekend I was honored to offer the following comments at the Juneteenth celebration organized at Black Miners Bar (ex-Negro Bar) by FOLFAN, California State Parks and the Tuskegee Airmen. The research mentioned is this paper, which is being refashioned into a chapter in an upcoming book on lost communities of the Sacramento area. The book is due out next spring, and is being written with my co-presenter Eric Webb as well as two colleagues at the Sacramento Public Library.

As we remember the great policy moment of June 19, 1865, let’s also remember what happened before and after it: People were organizing for their own freedom, as well as that of family members and friends – here along the American River, as well as in the South. I want to share a bit about a forgotten Black town, called Negro Hill. What happened there, and why is it important today?

The political freedom finalized in Texas by military order was essential step toward Black liberation. But as we learned from the Jim Crow era, legal freedom was not enough by itself. Economic bondage often reproduced the same arrangements of slavery, so economic freedom must also be pursued. Gaining property of one’s own would have been key to any liberation strategy, and gold strikes represented an unprecedented and unrivaled infusion of wealth into communities like Negro Hill.

Black farmers and miners acquired land in various locations around the Gold Country. And they almost always lost that land, through a variety of dirty tricks played by a white-dominated land ownership system. They also sometimes lost through bad luck, of course, but the dice were loaded against them. The real estate market was crazy back then. And African Americans had little protection in that notorious Wild West, where a wide array of predators sought to separate smallholders from their properties. Black settlers got special attention from the speculators who ran these towns. And that attention was not to their advantage.

What most people don’t understand is that it wasn’t just individual Black pioneers that lost property in California. Black landowners apparently suffered collective, community-scale, land losses. And that hints at the power of what they were up to, and what they were up against. Despite generations of racist policy that have deterred Black land acquisitions, African Americans seem to have managed to piece together full-blown towns with significant (if not majority) Black populations. And then these towns repeatedly failed. We must ask why.

Black community loss was apparently most common during the early decades of California statehood, damaging the prospects of Black Californians in a way that the state’s government bears more direct responsibility than for the grave harms of slavery. While we think of slavery as being something that happened in distant lands, an important response to slavery played out not far from here in the Gold Country.

I want to talk today about something that happened mostly before Emancipation. However, the revisionism that I’m trying to reverse here is very much a product of the following century of nationally institutionalized racism. We must challenge this false narrative that has been passed down by white supremacist history, and appreciate the ambitious and innovative achievements of those who were trying to build a free Black society before and after Emancipation.

The Black Gold Rush

Lots of places around here had names like Negro Bar and Negro Hill. And lots of white historians like to think these places took these names because there were some Black guys mining there once, perhaps digging out on the edges of the strike. Maybe they stuck around for a while. Probably they were chased off as soon as they uncovered anything remotely rich.

Maybe that happened. But then what white town is then going to change its name to celebrate the very people it ran off? The story sort of falls apart, doesn’t it?

More likely, I would argue, these “Negro” sites were settlements where a lot of Black people lived. I did a bit of research on one of these sites, and it seems to support this claim: Just upstream of here, about three miles up the river lay Negro Hill, which was home to hundreds of people for much of a decade. Many if not most of these people were African Americans, and many if not most of the town’s institutions and businesses were probably started, owned and operated by Black people. This went on for years. This was not a few Black miners “camping” for a bit. Rather, a large number of African American entrepreneurs and builders created a relatively durable community.

And Negro Hill was not alone. There were maybe a half dozen Negro Hills, scattered the length and breadth of the Mother Lode. And of course there was Negro Bar and a variety of other sites with names suggesting significant Black communities. I’ve only examined one such community in detail, but what I’ve found suggests the need to revisit the others.

Picturing Negro Hill

The Negro Hill in question is the one closest to us here. This community grew on the north bank of the southern fork of the American River, which was called Kum Mayo by the indigenous Nisenan People. The Nisenan likely had a village here, most likely near a tributary stream across the river at Mormon Island. That south side was the busy side of the river, where (mostly white) people were doing all sorts of crazy stuff on their way to the Gold. That white-led chaos was ironically playing out on land originally granted by Mexico to William Liedesdorff, whose mother had African blood brought by European invaders to the Caribbean.

The town of Negro Hill was actually at the bottom of the hill – now near the bottom of Folsom Lake, well below the high water mark of an area called “the peninsula.” This was a large wedge of land, stretching about six miles north, halfway to Auburn. A broad sloping ridge was relatively isolated between the two main forks of the American River, mostly surrounded by steep canyons. This ridge grew progressively more rugged on its northern end, forming a sort of natural fortress. This was a geographic container in which African Americans could achieve a level of development that would have been more difficult elsewhere in Gold Rush California.

To uncover what was actually happening at Negro Hill, I conducted a series of searches of the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC).  This search was not conclusive, and prone to error due to two reasons: First, text recognition software has its limits with the fuzzy type of old newspapers, so some mentions of Negro Hill were likely missed. And second, sometimes people put stuff in newspapers that was not true.

Even so, I found strong evidence of African American miners all over the place. But racist revisionism bleached out the story. For example, the California Historical society laid down an orthodoxy that had no room for Black settlements like Negro Hill. This orthodoxy can be seen in the California Historical Society meeting of 1948, a few years before the site was flooded out by Folsom Dam. The guest speaker was Rev. John W. Winkley, a traveling preacher with a passion for old Gold Rush towns. His meander through dozens of mining camps was briefly summarized in the society’s journal, as was typical for speakers at the meetings. Winkley’s findings were recounted without critique, except for one prominent rebuttal inserted near the beginning of his talk. Here’s how the summary began:

In the American River country, the speaker has carefully explored the ruins of such towns as Mormon Island; Prairie City on Alder’s Creek, whose only relics are wooden grave makers; Little Negro Hill, the site of which seems an incongruity to us and its story a hoax…

So what did Rev. Winkley say, right near the beginning of his talk? What hoax needed to be nipped in the bud? Unfortunately I’ve been unable to find anything further. But here’s what we can tell from newspapers of the day: Negro Hill had people, businesses, infrastructure, investment, transportation and crime. Negro Hill was a bona fide Gold Rush town, established in 1849 and reportedly the site of significant mineral wealth. Negro Hill was home to several hundred people for much of a decade, peaking in the mid-1850s. There was enough traffic to and from town to warrant weekly and even daily stage routes, as far as Chico. This community had enough energy to build a ditch that was still watering Negro Hill, right up until the day it was submerged in Folsom Lake.

Follow the Water

Water was key to the success of Negro Hill – it would have been needed to wash gold out of the gravels. But getting it up the hill required the difficult and ambitious construction of a ditch across miles of daunting terrain. This ditch tapped into the river upstream, at the same retention pond used by the Natoma Company to tighten its stranglehold on land south of the river. In contrast, the Negro Hill ditch seems to have helped protect local Black autonomy.

The first sign of such effort can be found in 1853, when a convention of ditch companies met in Sacramento; the Salmon Falls and Negro Hill Canal Co. was represented by Orlando Jennings, and reportedly capitalized at $25,000.

Jennings and a partner named Fraser later served as a model to other communities. These ditch innovators were later cited as being involved in another proposed ditch on the Yuba River – suggesting that the latter effort had better chances of success from their endorsement and involvement. Negro Hill was not a hoax. It was a model to copy.

The Bell Murder

Jennings and Fraser may not have ever lived here, but one known resident is also worth remembering. Henry Bell was murdered in March of 1855. A news report recalled that, “He was a peaceable man, and was stabbed without the slightest provocation.”

Now, I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic story. White folks tend to ignore communities of color until something goes wrong, and this is definitely one of those cases. However, the second of two news descriptions of this tragedy captured a glimpse of an important everyday scene unfolding at a saloon called Tracy’s House.

Monday evening last, there were present in a house or drinking saloon, kept by a negro named Jackson, four whites and three or four negroes, when a gang of rowdies came in drunk and noisy; after some words, one of them seized a bench, which was pulled away from him by one of his own party; in a moment he again seized and threw it at some negroes who were standing behind a table. At the same time, a negro by the name of Henry Bell, was stabbed between the sixth and seventh ribs, by one of the rowdies.

This crime ironically captured the peaceful routine at Tracy’s. This remarkable account, read carefully, reveals a bar run by and patronized by African Americans – as well as at least a handful of whites on at least one occasion. Furthermore, the report seems to identify three separate African American parties in addition to the barkeeper. Tracy’s was thus an African American establishment in a town with at least a large minority of African Americans. For such a bar to continue as a going concern, it would need some combination of customers who were either African American themselves, or comfortable routinely buying drinks from an African American and consuming them in an integrated crowd.

Let that sink in for a minute. It’s like every “Old West” saloon you’ve ever seen in the movies. Except a lot of the faces have changed. And this saloon is not a mirage. It was part of a living, breathing Black community with shops and hotels and a school. Try to hold that image. Negro Hill was a real place, with a real history.

The Williams Omission

But strangely, the history of Negro Hill does not include a famous fugitive slave named James Williams. His autobiographical account of his time in Gold Rush California often included great detail. But he did not say much about Negro Hill, even though he went straight there after arrival in California, and apparently stayed for six months.

It is curious that Williams did not think this place was interesting enough to recall; a fugitive slave and Underground Railroad worker would presumably find half a year in an African American mining town worthy of description. Even stranger, he complains that he “made nothing but my board” – during the boom times of May 1851. Yet when he left he was leading a well-equipped group: “I packed my rocker that we washed the gold with, my prospect-pan and my pick and shovel, and led the way.” There is clearly a gap in his narrative.

Williams’ omission is even stranger when we consider the likely connection between Negro Hill and a strategy of economic liberation from slavery. Historian Tina Alexander first opened my eyes to organizing efforts like the Colored Citizens’ Conventions. These were first held in 1855, and repeated in 1856 and 1865 – they spanned the decade before Emancipation, and have much to teach us about the liberation strategies of the time. Even my introductory research into these historic meetings has revealed hints of cooperative organizing – the last convention’s proceedings recorded a recommendation for “the forming of joint stock companies for farming and other purposes,” noting that “the individuals generally made more money than those who worked separately.”

Also, let us keep in mind that Negro Hill is right across the river from Mormon Island. Now those folks knew how to squeeze shared wealth out of a harsh land. The Mormons as a whole certainly have some racial issues. Some enslaved people. Some brought those enslaved people to California. It is entirely possible that some Mormons enslaved people within sight of Negro Hill. Still, other Mormons probably had more enlightened views on the mater. In any case, it seems likely that there was some degree of cross-pollination across the river. And given the overarching project of leveraging mineral wealth into freedom, it’s hard to see how the residents of Negro Hill could have missed the value of the Mormon model.

What Happened?

We are told that Black people can’t hold on to wealth. If Negro Hill existed, its loss is just part of a larger predictable pattern that conveniently supports a racist view of California history. This dominant narrative is false. At best it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it is important to keep in mind here because it has helped prevent Americans from understanding of what Black people were doing here during the Gold Rush.

So what did happen to Negro Hill? Several towns disappeared from the land, and from history, literally wiped off the map and forgotten.  And Negro Hill seems to fall into this larger pattern. As I’ve learned about the string of towns that rose and fell along the American River, the story has mostly been that of white settlers taking land from other white settlers. But here’s the question that has haunted me all along: If mostly white communities were suffering from this level of disappearance, what was happening to the Black settlers?

Probably well-connected speculators could have swiped their land without even leaving much of a paper trail to be obscured later. They could have just marched on in and dared the owners to take them to court. Black people couldn’t even testify back then.

And the taking wasn’t limited to ruthless white speculators in the heat of the Gold Rush. The government was involved too, for at least a century. Coloma, where it all started, was left to the Blacks and Chinese when the county seat moved up to the “dry diggings” at Placerville. Jonathan Burgess and his siblings are doing some very important family history work, which seems to point strongly at the state happily taking their land for a historic park but then omitting them from its interpretative framework.

I don’t yet have an answer for the specific actions that separated the residents of Negro Hill from their land. But clearly we have a situation where a town existed, and then it ceased to exist. And when a white pastor raised questions about it a century later, he was put right back in line.

Probably most Black people left Negro Hill for reasons that were legal and economic. But then somebody brought it up a century later and the History Authorities basically gave it a big “nope.” We weren’t going to talk about that any more. Rev. Winkley was a great speaker, but that part of what he said was wrong. Forget it.

So that raises some questions, doesn’t it?

Even with the silencing of Rev. Winkley, there were surely stories floating around, telling the story of Negro Hill and all the other Black Gold Rush communities. Let’s find them, and weave them together. We need to transform our image of the people who walked the dusty streets of the Gold Rush.

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.

The Land Below Sacramento

Sacramento’s notoriously flat terrain actually hides a complex landscape of high and dry land, interwoven with low and wet land. Although “City of the Plain” appears featureless at first glance, a volatile alluvial fan dominates Sacramento’s perch on the banks of its namesake river. A restless smaller branch, presently called the American, jumped its banks most winters and found entirely new channels during the greatest floods. Its meanderings built up layers of mud, gravel and hardpan from below the modern sea level.

My expertise is not where any particular species lived. I’m not sure exactly what sort of ecological niches existed in which spots, although I do know where a lot of vernal pools and salt flats, creeks and sloughs used to be. I can’t tell you how many sycamores or tule elk used to live here. I’m just here to tell you that a vast legion of creatures was lost in the process of building this city.

Whatever you believe about who or what created the world, the land on which we are walking is a desecrated work of art. Don’t get me wrong: The whole earth is holy, but the Sacramento landscape is really sublime.

The shifting rivers created a complex web of wet and dry land, where plants adjusted to varying annual moisture. A given spot might sit under water for weeks in one year, then experience only light rainfall the next. A few dozen feet away would be an entirely different situation. Everything depended on overflow – how often and how strongly the rivers jumped their banks.

The land under Sacramento was once home to hordes of wildlife that are difficult for us moderns to imagine. The closest thing is probably the morning departure at one of the valley’s wildlife refuges, when huge swarms of migrating birds take to the air. If you haven’t ever made the pilgrimage to glimpse these restored remnants of the primordial valley, please do.

Sacramento’s dynamic confluence provided an abundant and challenging place for humans to live, prompting creative approaches to raising the terrain – by the Nisenan people as well as the Settlers who displaced them. The Nisenan built earthworks to gain precious elevation. They lived in a string of villages, including Pujune, Sekumne, Yalesumne and Kadema. The Settlers carelessly traced streets across the wetlands, later forcing the physical raising of the city core. Even so, Sacramento City was an extraordinarily bad place for a settlement, and frequent floods made its survival an ongoing matter of debate. This city was built on a bad gamble and could not tolerate competition. And so even Settler communities were wiped off the map: Sutterville, Boston, Brighton, Norristown and Hoboken had to go, along with the Russian Embarcadero, Calle de los Americanos and the original confluence waterfront –now a strip of forlorn and forgotten ruins north of Old Sacramento.

Sacramento City itself was plagued by frequent severe flooding, title issues and unrest that peaked with the August 1850 Squatters Riot and continued for at least two decades. It was quickly clear that this was no place to put a city. Nevertheless, sunk costs demanded the continuation of this foolish enterprise, and forgetting that there were other ways to live here. Relics of these alternate arrangements hint at a more intelligent relationship with a dynamic landscape, and a more resilient future.

This interactive map peels away the last two centuries of change, and seeks to unveil this place called Sacramento – a complex interplay of land and water that has been largely obliterated. It is a work in progress, and attempts to represent imprecise things with crisp lines. Please take it with a grain of salt, but recognize that the features depicted are real. You can see the land below Sacramento, in person, in a variety of places – such as the river channel that is hidden in plain sight at 39th St. Light Rail Stop, 40th & H, or Folsom & 52nd. Future maps will explore the placement of early settlements – mostly forgotten – and hopefully help spur conversation about how Sacramento looks, and how it could exist in a more sensitive and resilient way.

“Almost Like a Fiction”

Evidence has emerged that Sacramento City’s lost twin, Boston, was more than a paper town! Thanks to the sharp eye of librarian James Scott, we know that an 1880s newspaper article revealed apparent eyewitness accounts of significant development north of the American River during the Gold Rush. This appears to confirm elements of a Confluence report published in June, most notably that the site of Boston was an important crossroads if not a suitable townsite.

“Almost Like a Fiction”

On June 18, 1886 the Sacramento Record-Union published a story called “The City of Boston: A Pioneer Rival to Sacramento.” Most of the column was dedicated to reprinting Edward Gould Buffum’s 1850 description.

I previously considered Buffum’s account too far-fetched to be more than exaggeration – perhaps made by someone with some sort of financial stake in a potentially lucrative real estate scheme.

However, this new discovery appends a shocking conclusion to Buffum’s account:

The above reads almost like a fiction to many, but its truthfulness is vouched for by pioneers, who remember the long rows of white tents in the “Western Hub” in 1849-50. The site is now owned by Cox & Clark; is uninhabitable for several months in the year; is what is commonly called the overflow; is where two young men were drowned while out boating some months ago. What has become of the twelve-foot banks, above high water, the magnificent groves, the fertile lands free from overflow? Go ask the hydraulic miner.

This is not conclusive, of course. An unnamed journalist speaking to unnamed “pioneers” leaves much room for exaggeration or falsehood regarding the “long rows of white tents.” Keep in mind that this writing comes from an era of great historic creativity, in which an alcoholic Swiss immigrant named Johann Augustus was transformed into the dashing “Captain John” Sutter, and Sacramento’s Settlers’ uprising was scrambled into a mere riot launched by confused rogues.

A single report that old-timers recall Boston’s existence is not by itself proof of Boston’s existence. Nonetheless, another breadcrumb has appeared in the dust.

Finding a New Center

Now, let’s consider the moniker “Western Hub.” Calling this location a “hub” casts the entire Sacramento area into a new perspective: That is, this peninsula at the confluence was of central importance.

For more detail on the geographic reasons why Boston made more sense as a point of arrival to the goldfields, please refer to the previous report. In brief, the western side of the Sacramento River (now Yolo County) was attractive high ground, but was surrounded by nothing but tules – it led nowhere. The south bank of the American Fork was an embarcadero for Sutter’s Fort, deeply entangled with his numerous land claim issues – useful but complicated. And the actual grid of Sacramento City, at least initially, was a sort of a swampy suburb in which hapless newcomers found themselves bogged down in an escalating conflict around Sutter’s false title.

If “Western Hub” was indeed a common term for the lost city, it was Boston that seems to have been at the crossroads long claimed by Sacramento.

In any case, it seems that Boston’s once-contested land had by 1886 settled into a role as a private route connecting the vast rangelands of the Cox & Clark company, which stretched many miles north on the 1885 county map. The lower portion of the Boston site was under different ownership at this time, but it seems that whatever turmoil rocked Boston in the early days had subsided as Sacramento City consolidated its hold on the confluence. Little remains today, except for an assortment of property lines that follow Boston’s old grid.

How Long Did Boston Last?

As for the Union-Record’s closing comment on hydraulic mining, it may not be fair to blame that industry – even though it did tremendous and well-documented damage to communities with flood-prone sites like Boston’s, by filling river channels with debris washed down from the mines that washed away mountainsides. Even if we accept that a substantial settlement existed during the Gold Rush, there is still little to indicate that it lasted for long enough for hydraulic mining to worsen its lot.

The only known contemporaneous account of Boston was a report of flooding in April of 1851, which apparently was a non-event in usually flood-prone Sacramento City. The Daily Union reported that, “The only building in the city of Boston was several inches deep in water, and if the rise becomes much greater, and if the house were built with bricks and mortar instead of stakes and canvas, it would certainly be washed away.”

If accurate, this brief apparently indicates that “the city of Boston” was no longer a going concern; its site was apparently at an even lower location than its surviving rival, and therefore Boston faced a greater flood threat. Yet this brief mention is written in a way that suggests reference to someplace familiar to readers. At one point, presumably, that lone building had company. And even after the flood of 1850, someone was still holding on in Boston.

The nature of the last building in Boston is somewhat confusing here: The writer seems to have indicated stakes and canvas, but it makes little sense to claim that the house would already have washed away if it were made of bricks and mortar. Obviously, the opposite is true, as a tent would fail before a more permanent structure. It also seems likely that someone who built a brick and mortar structure would have sufficient sunk costs to hold out after the tent-dwelling townsfolk had departed for higher ground. This apparent error all suggests at least one permanent structure was built in Sacramento’s pioneer rival.

This still begs the question of why the Sacramento City newspapers were silent on the struggling neighbors, until what seems to be Boston’s last gasp.

The trail to Boston remains maddeningly faint, but now we have two data points indicating that it was a significant settlement in 1849-50, and that someone called it home until at least the following spring. And even more striking, it seems that decades later people still remembered the place. Considering the extent to which early Sacramento history has been doctored to support the narrative of the early land speculators, the disappearance of Boston must be taken seriously as another case of revision that obscures the truth of Sacramento’s origins.



The Lost City of Boston

One of Sacramento history’s best-hidden stories is the tale of our city’s missing sibling: During the Gold Rush, a site called Boston lay just north of the American River’s confluence with the Sacramento River – then located roughly at the new Railyards Boulevard. Boston appears to have been founded around the same time as Sacramento City, and at least two surviving maps show the two urban grids as being comparable in size and substance – and both much larger than anything else in the area.

However, while Sacramento City grew rapidly and matured into a major metropolis, Boston was soon abandoned. During the 1860s, its land was divided by the northward rerouting of the American River. Afterwards, Boston’s southern portion was gradually absorbed into what became Sacramento’s industrial zone, while its northern reaches remained largely undeveloped until much of it became parkland a century later.

Boston was apparently a “paper city” that existed primarily to fleece investors unfortunate enough to buy land amongst the shifting channels at the confluence of two major rivers. Its most visible footprint can be found on an 1850 navigational chart by Cadwalader Ringgold. It turns out that Ringgold was also Boston’s surveyor, so he had a conflict of interest in depicting the place as a competitor to Sacramento City. Ringgold went on to great success in Sacramento speculation, buying and selling large tracts of land. On the other hand, little or nothing seems to have been built along Boston’s streets.

Boston was perhaps a better site than the one that grew in the swamplands between Johann Sutter’s embarcadero and fort (despite his objections and his lack of legitimate title). Boston certainly could not have been any worse a site than Sacramento City, which sprawled across the wetlands south of the American River. Boston’s location actually provided a better connection between the navigable Sacramento River and overland routes from the East and to the mines.

But Boston was not just a better location in the abstract – a close inspection of modern property lines reveals that the lost history of Boston echoes to the present day. Its absence explains gaps in Sacramento’s eventual development, and is in turn explained by the false revisionist history that we accept as true.

The Missing City

The failure of Boston helps to explain the large urban wilderness that is now Discovery Park, located on high ground that once included the central Nisenan village of Pujune. We would expect this area to have developed in ways similar to what is found downtown or in West Sacramento.

During the Gold Rush, the Sacramento area was the heart of a volatile economic and social system – and a relatively stable landing spot for one of the most dramatic movements of human beings in world history. We can understand that movement better if we look beyond the successful settlements and examine the schemes that didn’t quite make it.

Boston was – like Sacramento City and Washington (now West Sacramento) – one of a trio of settlements perched on the points where two key rivers came together. This urban triplet was the heart of California’s economy, a primary distribution center for goods flowing from San Francisco to a constantly shifting network of settlements formed in pursuit of the latest cry of “Gold!”

The confluence was home to one of very few persistent settlements of fortune-seekers. Here, one could get rich selling just about anything to those who chased after the latest strike, and who could build or abandon a town of thousands in days. Given the ongoing value of land around the confluence, it does not make sense that there would be no settlement north of the “American Fork” that flowed in from the Sierra Nevada.

At Boston, those arriving from the East or headed back to the northern mines would have avoided the final additional crossing of the American River, which faced those passing through Sacramento City. Later, the Boston site would have been a better terminus for the transcontinental railroad, and then for additional railways that reached the San Francisco Bay. Indeed some remnants of Boston connect to the railyards that were eventually built in the decades after the land scheme’s collapse.

And as land routes developed, crossings of the Sacramento River would have been easier upstream of the added flow from its volatile tributary. Boston was an obvious place for a city, and yet nothing seems to have developed there.

The Lost City’s Boundaries

Boston’s layout was described in Edward Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), which depicted it as a viable planned town,

with large public squares, and reservations for school-houses, churches, and public buildings. One of the peculiar advantages of Boston is that, being located on the northern bank of the American Fork, it is not necessary in proceeding to the gold mines to cross that river, which is exceedingly high and rapid at some seasons of the year…Lots are selling rapidly at from $200 to $1000 each and before many months, the city of Boston on the golden banks of the Rio Sacramento will rival its New England namesake in business and importance.

His prediction proved wildly optimistic – perhaps because the lots closest to the confluence were on low and flood-prone land.

However, Buffum offered a key clue that allows reconstruction of Boston’s footprint: He described its grid as being made up of blocks measuring 240 by 320 feet, which matches the rectangular pattern in Ringgold’s chart inset – of “the cities of Sacramento and Boston” – depicting a large city encompassing more than 100 city blocks stretching more than a mile up both rivers.

Boston Overview
This screenshot links to the Confluence interactive map, showing many of Boston’s old streets and how they fit into the modern world.

To illustrate Boston’s large expanse Confluence has produced an interactive map showing a grid of the planned streets of Boston superimposed on today’s city. Crucially, this old grid lines up with a small but significant number of modern features. This alignment suggests that the parcels originally created for Boston survived in some form, and that a portion of this paper city survived up to the present day:

  • A new roadway at the edge of the Railyards redevelopment seems to be an unintentional reconstruction of what was once Boston’s southernmost intersections.
  • The old PG&E power plant lies on a set of parcels that closely matches Boston’s grid, taking up most of two old city blocks.
  • The former Rusty Duck parking lot may have once been a waterfront street facing the long-lost curve in the American River.

None of this is conclusive evidence that Boston ever got beyond its initial land sales by Ringgold and his partners. I’ve so far found no evidence that Sacramento City’s lost sibling ever existed as a functional community. Yet there are hints that this was not merely the fault of Boston’s residents – perhaps Sacramento City’s promoters actively killed off this competing town, leaving only scattered legal traces.

The Road to Oblivion        

Although the Boston survey left numerous marks on the legal landscape north of the American River, this failed scheme strangely never seems to have been a topic of conversation among its southern neighbors; Boston was rarely – if ever – mentioned in Sacramento City newspapers of the early 1850s.

Whether Boston was merely a paper town that existed to cheat settlers and speculators, or whether it struggled for a while before collapsing, there seems to have been a general understanding that Boston was not part of Sacramento’s history.

There may yet be undiscovered references to Boston. Over the years, a huge number of real estate transactions, lawsuits and other exchanges have no doubt taken place on land that was once Boston; any one of these stories might have prompted someone to do a little historical research. Unfortunately, such references are so many needles in a haystack. “Boston” is a particularly challenging term for digital searches, as the vast majority of returns are in reference to the city in Massachusetts.

Perhaps Boston just wasn’t very interesting, but that seems unlikely. Its site appears in the 1854 map of Sacramento City as a rough area of waterways, trees and rocks. A similar depiction appeared in the 1873 Gray’s Atlas map. These maps both seem designed to convince people that there was no such town, which would have been unnecessary if there actually had been no such town.

Whatever the details of its demise, it is now clear that Boston was more than just marks on a map. Although much remains unclear, Boston now joins the gallery of gaps in Sacramento’s history. It is yet another missing link in the broken chain connecting us to our origins as a city of struggle between settlers and speculators.

Who Killed Boston?

There must have been people wanting to settle on the land occupied by Boston, but something prevented the founding of a sustainable community. The Boston land offering may have been a scam selling junk land, doomed to failure. But it is simply not plausible that nobody ever wanted to live on the northern bank of the lower American River.

It is certainly possible that Boston failed due to simple mismanagement. Perhaps its landowners were simply unable to come up with a coherent system of governance that was needed to address the urgent threat of flooding. Perhaps the infant town was simply wiped out by the flood of 1850, which also inundated even the highest parts of Sacramento City.

In any case, we might expect the success or failure of a neighboring town to be of interest to early Sacramentans, who faced similar challenges. At the very least, there should have been warnings to avoid buying land in Boston, and reports of its hapless victims’ suffering. Yet the (surviving copies of) newspapers were apparently silent on the fate of Sacramento City’s northern twin.

The absence of any early settlement at Boston’s excellent location suggests that development was impeded by something. The relative absence of stories about Boston’s failure suggests that development was impeded by someone.

Who would do such a thing? And why?

Things are not as they seem in the River City, and Boston is only one of several lost communities. Nowadays, the Sacramento area’s original Indigenous and European settlement sites – including a pair of modest street systems at key crossings of the American River – are largely abandoned wastelands. Meanwhile, Sutter’s preferred urban site downstream of Sacramento City is today an indistinct expanse of suburban development, with only faint traces of that failed city’s old grid.

The quiet burial of Boston seems to be part of a larger project of historical suppression, which was concocted over decades to enrich and then redeem the crooked speculators who built the city across the American River. This same project has provided Sacramento with a scrambled narrative full of deeply flawed maps, villains made into heroes and heroes made into fools.

Setting the record straight is a key part of the mission of Confluence Tours, and the recovery of Boston’s history will be an ongoing part of the effort.

The Missing Index

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.

Other Voices

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.

Broadway: Above and Below Ground

This interactive map shows tour stops and additional context for a tour presented by Confluence’s Andrew McLeod and Sacramento County Historical Society board member Eric Bradner, February 19 and May 6, 2017. The tour and map explore the original southern boundary of Sacramento City.

For interactive version, click here

This seam between real estate schemes envisioned city lots to the north and farm parcels to the south. But while the Grid became a familiar term for our city’s heart, the “Ten Acre Tracts” have faded into obscurity. This low swampland faded into a neglected industrial zone between the river and cemetery, home to residents of the Alder Grove public housing project but increasingly empty in recent decades.

Now, the area is seeing some of the same dynamics of gentrification found elsewhere, most notably the recent demolition of the old Setzer lumber complex and the rise of the Mill housing development. But, like most attempts to redevelop our city, it has moved in fits and starts, yielding an area that is still a work in progress.

Confluence Map Gallery

On December 11, 2016, I presented Confluence: A Natural History of Sacramento as part of the Sacramento Public Library’s series 95H20. That presentation shared glimpses of many maps to explore why our city sits in a flood basin instead of on the relatively high banks of the American River. Although these riverbanks were the best place to settle, they are now mainly recreational assets and underdeveloped industrial wasteland (with patchy residential redevelopment).

Some of the maps used in this presentation are held by the California State Library and the Center for Sacramento History; members of the public are welcome to view them on site but Confluence does not have permission to reproduce them.

Fortunately, many maps from the presentation are available online in some fashion, and to provide you with an easy way to view some key depictions of early Sacramento, I’ve assembled an annotated gallery through hyperlinks. Many of these images are extremely high-resolution and will allow you to view even the smallest features and labels. I’ve gained some important insight from these images, and trust that others will notice many new details that I missed. Please comment below if you catch anything particularly interesting.

The Big Picture

These maps show the larger context of the Sacramento area, illustrating that we live in a strange land where the rivers flow higher than the surrounding earth!

The 1849 Riley survey map is one of the earliest overviews of the region, and provides a sense of the wetlands of Sacramento. It shows a bit of the area’s early transportation network, including primitive versions of the routes now served by US-50 and CA-99. Note the absence of anything resembling I-5 or I-80, except for the “Benecia Road impassible during rainy season” (which is supplemented by a much longer “Road round the Tule”).

This topographic map by Jesus Alvarez indicates two areas where riverbanks are the high ground. The Sacramento River near Colusa is the meandering light green (higher) wedge just south of the Sutter Buttes, with darker green (lower) flood basins on both sides. The American River’s raised banks are faintly visible just east of the letter “V” in “valley.” The same flood basins and elevated river channels are also visible on this 1887 map of topography and irrigation, which was not included in the presentation but provides a fascinating high-resolution overview of the valley’s topography and late-19th century agriculture.

The Vioget map of Nueva Helvetia illustrates how land along the rivers was all that was seen as worthy of claiming or mapping. Everything else was just “tule” – thickets of aquatic rushes. There are many versions of this intensely political map of Johann Augustus Sutter’s claim, including one posted at the Sacramento History Museum. Some of these versions include the false lines of latitude that incorrectly indicate that Sutter’s grant extended to the Sacramento area, which eventually made it into the 1864 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that finally validated Sutter’s claim (sort of).

The California State Library has a collection of versions of the Vioget depiction and related maps. This collection also includes the 1859 Doherty swampland survey of Sacramento, which was featured in the presentation but is apparently not available online.

Uncovering the Confluence

I have developed an interactive map of “Older Sac”, which perched on bluffs along the former course of the American River, with two pre-grid settlements overlaid on what is presently found there.

My presentation repeatedly deployed images generated from a GIS (geographic information system) depicting a “bare earth LIDAR” survey – an airborne laser calibrated to strip away surface structures and detect the elevation of the underlying soil. This data is not presently viewable in an interactive form, but hopefully that will change soon, as I believe this data can provide profound insights when various historic maps are overlaid.

Meanwhile, here are two images from the GIS, including an overlay of the original Sacramento City plan, which is thus revealed as a scheme to sell swampland to unsuspecting immigrants.

This LIDAR image shows artificial forms including the dump and levees as well as the elevated streets of downtown. It also shows the prehistoric channel of the American River, and more recent sloughs, winding through what is now East Sac.

The original city plan is overlaid on the LIDAR image, illustrating how most of the Grid was lower elevation (green) while the now-neglected American River banks are somewhat higher (yellow). Note differences between the channels of the Gold Rush and modern American River courses.

The original 1850 city plan overlaid above is strangely difficult to find online, although this website does provide a low-res version.

The 1854 city map, which shows both Older Sac and the old confluence, does not seem to be available online. However, it appears in a recent video featuring the Center for Sacramento History’s Marcia Eymann. I have some differences of interpretation with Eymann, including her description of the whole area as “marshy swampland” – in fact the Sacramento City grid was in the swamp, while the railroad’s development isolated and eventually destroyed the old settlement site on the elevated confluence riverbanks. Even so, the video has some great photographs and is worth watching.

A map of Sacramento’s underlying geology, including the ancient East Sac river course, can be found in the Cultural Resources chapter of this Railyards Project environmental impact report (following p. 4.4-7) This section of the report provides some useful context but seems to underestimate the archaeological potential of the former settlement site where the American River once joined the Sacramento.

The George H. Baker birdseye of 1857 Sacramento shows China Slough along I Street, as well as the southern wetlands that were eventually converted into neighborhoods. R Street was the city’s real southern boundary at this point, and the most prominent landmarks visible beyond the tracks of the original railroad are sloughs including what eventually became the pond in Southside Park.

The Augustus Koch birdseye depicts Sacramento in 1870, with the Railyards depicted just north (left) of China Slough. While most other land north of the B St. tracks and levee is shown as empty (which I do not believe was accurate), a small residential area is clearly visible in the lower left corner of the image.

A map titled “Rutte, Muldrow and Smith” by G.H. Goddard (1857) shows some of the sloughs that drained through northern East Sacramento and the McKinley Park pond. It features “Muldrow’s Gardens” which now comprises the former city landfill and the new McKinley Village development.

Lost Sister Cities

Many sought to cash in on the Gold Rush by “mining the miners” through the creation of “paper towns” in which land was surveyed and sold despite being unsuitable for habitation. The grid of Sacramento City was not the only large-scale attempt to commodify marginal land, but it was the only one to survive east of the Sacramento River.

Sutterville was a rival town favored by Sacramento’s supposed founder, but eventually crushed by maneuverings of Sam Brannan and others, who manipulated Sutter’s son Augustus into the land scheme that we now know as “the Grid.” These speculators ran roughshod over the elder Sutter’s desire to keep some space between a booming city and his faltering agricultural empire. (Read more about the troubled legacy of the Sutters’ disastrous real estate efforts, briefly, here.)

The original Sutterville plan called for a city that was at one point envisioned as nearly 2/3 the size of Sacramento City; surviving maps are unfortunately unavailable online. The original 1847 plan is even harder to find, as I have not yet located a copy anywhere in Sacramento. Ironically, the best depiction of the area’s first attempt at city building appears the official 1911 map of the county, which depicted the old Sutterville grid as it disappeared beneath early development of what we now know as Land Park (see below for more on this map).

Unlike out-of-the-way Sutterville, a paper town called Boston was close to Sacramento City, and managed to squeeze onto several maps. One such map, reportedly from 1848, is still something of a mystery. I’ve been provided with an image that is also included as one of three fragments at this website. If anyone knows the original source, please let me know.

In any case, the navigational chart showing the route to “Sacramento and Boston” clearly depicts another city between downtown and the Garden Highway. This chart was that day’s equivalent of the Rand McNally road atlas (or perhaps Google Maps), and it turns out that its creator, Cadwalader Ringgold was also the surveyor of the Boston scheme, which he presented as an equal to Sacramento City. This document is an important case study of the conflict of interest that appears in many early maps of Sacramento, which often served to promote or undermine the various conflicting land claims.

The 1873 Gray’s Atlas map shows a number of old American River watercourses, including the old channel and confluence. It depicts the Boston site as ponds, channels and brush, as though to emphasize that this place is uninhabited and uninhabitable (in contrast to the blank areas that surround the rest of the city. Similar treatment is given to the Boston site in the 1854 map referenced above.

However, this official 1911 map of the county shows a large parcel just north of the Old Channel on the east bank of the Sacramento, marked “A.M. Mull,” which may have been a remnant of Boston – it is perhaps equivalent to 12 of that town’s blocks, which were described in Edward Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850). This fascinating map also depicts the old layout of Sutterville, as well as the site of Calle de los Americanos on the American River near 16th St., despite those both apparently being superseded by later development. The confluence settlement that I call “Older Sac” is conspicuously and strangely blank, despite that area surviving to at least 1895, when a remnant appears on the Sanborn maps (available here to Sacramento Library patrons).

I have begun to reconstruct the old Boston city grid, using clues from Buffum and elsewhere, and I’ve discovered that there are numerous remnants of the city depicted in Ringggold’s chart, ranging from an intersection at the edge of the Railyards project to the path of the bike trail between Discovery Park and a large gravel quarry.

Continuing Discovery

This list is based on a relatively cursory series of search engine inputs, and I assume (and hope) that I’ve missed something. If you are aware of any other maps that I’ve missed, online or otherwise, please send an email to tours (at) sactoconfluence (dot) com. I’ll especially welcome corrections regarding availability of maps that I used in the presentation but was unable to find. Thank you!

I hope this collection provides a good complement to the library talk. Although incomplete, the maps that are available online provide an easy way to look more deeply at what flashed by during that whirlwind tour of the Confluence. Enjoy!



A Natural (and Unnatural) History

This is a summary of the ground I’ll be covering at an upcoming talk for the Sacramento Public Library. It’ll be held at the Ella K. McClatchy branch, 2112 22nd St. at 1pm on Sunday Dec. 11.

Sacramento grew out of a natural basin, into which annual rains flowed to form an inland sea. The native Ninesan people once lived on the dry patches formed by the rivers’ banks, reaping the spectacular bounty of the wetlands while moving out of the way when waters rose. It is an odd place for a city, and would seem like the worst place to build under normal circumstances. However, Sacramento’s development was anything but normal, driven by extraordinary speculation and intense land struggles that sometimes turned violent.

Sacramento is not flat. Our “City of the Plains” lacks dramatic hills or river valleys, but it is far from featureless. Seasonal floods once cast great importance on small differences in elevation built over eons by Sacramento’s shifting waters, which sometimes flow higher than the city streets, and other times pulse with the faraway ocean’s tides. Situated within a maze of historic and prehistoric river channels, Sacramento lies at – or perhaps we should say “in” – the confluence of two major rivers.

Bare earth LIDAR image of the Sacramento area, showing the flood basin and ancient channel of the American River, which winds through East Sac and Oak Park. Levees, landfills, elevated freeways and the raised downtown are also visible.

The story of this city and these rivers illustrate the tension between California’s Gold Rush origins and the struggle to build a large permanent settlement on land that was naturally submerged swamplands for part of every year. The development decisions of the 19th Century continue to reverberate in a community that has stayed (mostly) dry only through the desperate raising of downtown, as well as construction of massive levees and dams.

The speculative grid of “Sacramento City” eclipsed earlier settlements, and created a highly ironic development pattern: A city that was created on bottomlands to provide access to the American River’s gold has now almost entirely turned its back on that waterfront, reducing downtown’s northern portion to an industrial backwater and literally burying our earliest historic sites: The riverbank where Johann Augustus Sutter first came ashore now sits dozens of feet under a former city landfill, more than a quarter of a mile from the closest water. And the original settlement at the rivers’ confluence lies under the Railyards, with potentially sensitive archaeological sites in the path of redevelopment.

It may be too late to reconnect the River City to the unruly American River. Its natural banks are higher than the surrounding lands, and prone to dramatic overflow – and worse, generations of misuse have left the former riversides isolated and badly damaged. However, we can still learn from the shortsighted decisions, driven by the quest for individual profit, which locked our community into an unhealthy relationship with the waters that gave it birth. Sacramento’s long-neglected first waterfront provides a challenging long-term development challenge, in which we might strike out in a new direction over the coming generations, gaining a second chance of eventually creating a waterfront based on the community’s needs instead of speculative profit.

An interactive map of the American River waterfront, past and present, is available here.

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.