General Foote’s Historic Interruption

General Foote’s Historic Interruption

The story of Sacramento’s early years is a heady blend of fact and fiction, filled with many colorful characters. Great stories abound – tales of gold and railroads, land speculation and raw political power. Some are truer than others.

As the city of Sacramento and the state of California were taking form, there were several important events connected to land ownership, whose details and meaning are now mostly lost. A fresh look at old material – including maps and newspapers – shows how the city grew on land with clouded title.

While Johann Augustus Sutter and Samuel Brannan are regarded as city builders, their real estate maneuvers actually undermined the growth of a successful community here. Sacramento’s title issues caused decades of serious conflict beginning with the bloody “Squatters’ Riot” of 1850, whose fatalities included several public officials.

One obscure yet important event was the Ejectment Suits of 1868: In one of Sacramento’s most traumatic chapters, thousands of residents – literally most of the population – were sued during the spring of 1868.

Within this sordid story of greed lies the well-hidden tale of General Lucius Harwood Foote. He appears to have been a key villain whose name is unknown to modern Sacramento. However, we should remember Foote as a judge who attempted to seize the land of nearly 100 fellow Sacramentans.

Unfortunately, Foote’s role has been erased from history.

A Sanitized Career

How did Foote escape notice? Despite his central role in one of Sacramento’s worst crises, his legacy appears to have been consistently revised to omit any mention of what he was doing at the time of the crisis. I’ve examined five of Foote’s biographies from the decades following this incident, and each one says exactly nothing about the years between 1866 and 1871.

A comparable omission might be the biographies of Dwight Eisenhower skipping the 1940s.

This mysterious break in Foote’s career is especially striking given his subsequent role as the adjutant general of the California National Guard. Taking his biographies at face value, Foote got this plum position on the implausible basis of serving as Sacramento’s port collector, more than half a decade earlier.

As we’ll see, the half-decade gap in his resume did not indicate a shortage of work. This was an interesting time the legal trade, and it turns out that Foote was busy.

Although his biographies all fail to account for these important years, one omission is of particular interest: History of the Bench and Bar in California is a who’s-who of the legal profession, and Foote was important enough to warrant a listing in the 1901 edition. His profile politely failed to mention Foote’s unmentionable years. But here the profiles was designed in a way that highlights its own omission.Foote in BnB

The profile opens with a mention of Foote’s “uninterrupted good fortune” and then proceeds to describe his career sequentially, one position after another.

Each item is formatted to call attention to each individual year, rather than ranges of years. It skips straight from 1864 to 1872.

Not only that, the dates are written strangely: “1862-63-64” to “1872-73-74-75.” Bench and Bar profiles usually indicated date ranges in the more common method (e.g. 1862-64 or 1872-75). In most entries there was no pretense of covering every year of the subjects’ career. This entry is different. The author is begging us to ask: What was Foote doing during these tumultuous times in the city where he started his legal career?

Foote’s Interruption

Among other things, Foote sued scores of his fellow Sacramentans – in most cases ordinary residents. Foote’s suits made up a significant portion of the mind-boggling total of more than 700 filed against thousands of people that April. Most of the population was in court that year.

This battle royale overwhelmed the city’s legal system in the weeks following William Muldrow’s shocking attack on Sacramento’s property holders (which I described in the previous post).

The Ejectment Suites were listed in full by the Sacramento Union (5/2/1868), in a stunning layout that took up the entire front page and nearly all of the back page – a quarter of that edition’s print space. This editorial decision hints at the unique impact of the crisis.

Foote only filed a couple dozen suits included in the Union’s great list, and his contribution is buried in the dense and massive layout. However, it turns out that Foote also “incited” at least two individuals to file additional suits. So ultimately, he was believed to be behind nearly one-fifth of the total number of cases.

Foote apparently conveyed titles to others, who then filed their own suits. One such conveyance was to Eli Mayo, who was among Sacramento’s wealthiest men. He filed 101 suits (over 14% of the total count) and had the dubious honor of appearing first in the great list, and seems to have had a particular attraction to public property (suing the city might have been a step too far, even for Foote). One of Mayo’s suits was for the block now occupied by Memorial Auditorium, which he also attempted to fence off in 1870. Another of Mayo’s suits, for the city park at 21st and C, was still before the California Supreme Court in 1875.

Foote was also behind many suits that were filed in San Francisco, where any Sacramento resident landowner’s defense would require significant travel and expense – each trip took much of a day by steamboat. There, suits were filed in the name of Foote’s father, an Illinois-based minister who is now buried in Sacramento’s Old City Cemetery.

The Footes were in the news until at least the following year – and not just locally. A full 18 months after the suits erupted, the Union reprinted a report from the San Francisco Bulletin:

Some eight or ten of these suits are set for trial at the present term of the Court…These suits involve directly the title to a considerable portion of the unoccupied lands of Sacramento, and the principles on which they are decided will have an important bearing upon several other titles equal or greater in extent. The people of Sacramento are therefore deeply interested in these trials and will await the result with anxiety. (10/30/1869)

Remember, these words were written five years after the U.S. Supreme Court supposedly resolved Sacramento’s land issues in 1864, and nearly two decades after the “Squatters Riot” brought bloody revolt to the streets of Sacramento.

A Rogue Among Rogues

During 1868, the city was besieged by land grabbers seeking wealth through litigation. The city was full of villains, but the community apparently singled out Judge Foote. He was perceived as a rogue among rogues in a city exhausted by nearly two decades of land speculation.

The collective distaste for Foote is revealed by a resolution passed at one of many meetings held by defendants in the Ejectment Suits.

The nature of these meeting is worth a moment of reflection, even if only tangentially related to Foote: In response to the suits, the people of Sacramento created a network of defense committees to work against the 10 most prolific plantiffs (including Foote). These committees also looked for opportunities to consolidate their efforts with each other, in order to more effectively fight off the attack on their properties.

Throughout that spring, many such gatherings took place in overflowing venues including the court’s chambers. Through these committees, defendants attempted to coordinate their defense, paying legal fees on the basis of property values.

About a month into the crisis, one of these committees passed a resolution:

Resolved, that we the citizens, taxpayers and voters of the city of Sacramento do hereby express our disapproval of the conduct of L. H. Foote, and do hereby request him to resign the judicial office he seeks to prostitute to his own base personal ends. (Union 5/19/1868)

And there it is: During the interruption Foote held exactly the sort of position that one might expect to be listed in the Bench and Bar entry: His “judicial office” was Police Court Judge for Sacramento, from 1865-69.

The condemnation of Foote passed by a wide margin. Those opposed to the resolution were concerned primarily with process issues; they objected that this was a meeting about Muldrow, who led the pack of plantiffs and inspired the most immediate organized resistance.

Even so, Foote’s corruption was apparently not subject to debate – at least not in this gathering of people facing the legal theft of their land. And whatever the truth of their vague allegations, Foote was clearly a figure of extreme controversy.

So why is Sacramento almost entirely ignorant of a character who apparently did so much damage to property and community? How was Foote’s abuse of authority trimmed from history?

Foote’s Third Act

His reputation was quickly rehabilitated. Within a couple of years after this sordid affair, he was appointed commander of the California National Guard.

Think about that for a moment: Rather than being held to account for his apparent misdeeds during an unmentionable period of his career, he was granted control of the state’s militia!

Later, he attended the 1876 Republican national convention. Then he was granted an ambassadorship, rounding out his career with a couple of diplomatic posts, including one in which he apparently helped suppress a revolt in Korea.

He had quite a career – good and bad – but none of this is a part of Foote’s legacy. His obituary in the Union was written by a fellow judge, but it emphasized Foote’s “literary talent” and downplayed his legal and political career. (6/8/1913)

Far more importantly, Foote has been protected from historical scrutiny in at least one public historical institution: Most of the Foote-related materials held by the State Library are his poems. Dozens of them are on file.

Some of Foote’s more palatable exploits are also included in the state’s index, including clips about his military appointment. But even these are hidden behind the primary reference card leading to his biographical file, which seems to have mis-classified him.

Like Foote’s biographies, the library’s record throws us off the trail of a tremendously powerful and corrupt man, hiding his true importance.

In the end, General Lucius H. Foote, who did still-untold damage to Sacramento, was boiled down to a single, innocuous label:

“Poet.”

Betting on Sacramento: The Tale of Sanders and Muldrow

Newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s reveal that Sacramento’s formative years were full of obscure yet dramatic stories. These incidents were big news, even if we’ve never heard of them nowadays. Likewise, many colorful characters have been lost to history, including two key players from the tumultuous years following the upheaval of August 14-15, 1850.

This so-called “Squatters’ Riot” is at least familiar to Sacramento historians – if not the general public. However, it is still one of the city’s least-understood episodes despite having a high death toll that included elected officials: A pair of gun battles killed eight people including the city’s sheriff and assessor, while the mayor was wounded and died later in San Francisco.

This revolt, which erupted at the height of the Gold Rush, is generally portrayed as a single bloody incident. However, the two-day “riot” was only part of a much larger struggle against much worse trouble, and its bloodshed helped trigger the collapse of an economy that was based on land gambles.

Even so, Sacramento’s original industry – speculation, in forms ranging from gold panning to dice – continued, expanding into an impenetrable thicket of contradictory land claims. Land speculators engaged in round after round of wagers throughout the 1850s and 1860s, pitting various titles against various parcels and tracts. This speculation profoundly undermined local property rights – and values. The city became a great betting table on which titles changed hands like poker chips.

Ownership of Sacramento’s land became increasingly unclear. The resulting chaos was so severe that it effectively overruled the United States Supreme Court, whose 1864 U.S. v Sutter ruling seems to have had no lasting effect beyond casting a legal aura on Sacramento’s ongoing mayhem.

How is it possible that such turmoil is now unknown to most Sacramentans? The answer may lie in a legal free-for-all that exploded during the spring of 1868 – at which point things got so bad that the community may have been willing to simply forget the truth and move on.

Lurking behind this latter event – infamous in those days as “the ejectment suits” – are two unknown characters who inflicted particular damage on the city’s unstable real estate scheme. When one considers how this duo’s ruthless greed prolonged and worsened the land crisis, it is hard to believe that Sacramentans are not familiar with the names of Sanders and Muldrow.

A City Built on Mud

Sacramento’s system of land ownership rests on a foundation as soft and squishy as the physical bottomlands on which the city sits. The legal mess began with Sam Brannan’s crooked land scheme, which laid out Sacramento’s grid. This scheme divided up land falsely claimed by Johann Augustus Sutter, who supposedly lost his paperwork for a 76-square mile grant actually located near Marysville. Sutter’s Fort was actually a huge squat on public land, and it provoked a failed local revolution, later misnamed as a mere riot.

The trouble didn’t end with the suppression of this organized (and eventually armed) uprising. It wasn’t even resolved by the United States Supreme Court, which eventually declared Sacramento to be Sutter’s, despite clear and overwhelming evidence to the contrary as well as serious problems with the supporting evidence.

In any case, the court’s ruling utterly failed to resolve the matter. Sacramento’s land trouble stretched at least until 1868, when an astonishing wave of litigation overwhelmed the courts here. In the second half of April, roughly 700 “ejectment suits” were filed against thousands of residents, brought by about 140 purported Sacramento landowners (and parties). For perspective, the city had a total population of only about 16,000 souls at that time. Most of Sacramento was dragged into court.

Although not everyone with means participated in the grand gambles that upended Sacramento, it appears that bets were placed by people from across the social spectrum. The bettors included both scoundrels unknown to history and famous men who abused their power to build on already substantial wealth. (More on that in my next post!)

The troubles of 1868 were inaugurated by William Muldrow, whose wager involved unpaid loans to Sutter – bad debt that he had purchased. Muldrow is almost entirely absent from the historic record, despite his causing a lot of trouble for this town as he wrangled with Sutter’s trustee, Lewis Sanders, Jr.

Sanders and Muldrow appear to have divided up the town with some sort of gentleman’s agreement. A map kept at the California State Library recalls an event that seems to have been otherwise unrecorded: “the partition made between Sanders and Muldrow” between 1858 and 1860.

Sanders Muldrow partition
Original map available at California State Library

This map is of unknown provenance, but someone thought it was historic enough to enter the state’s collection. This tattered document is a rare relic of an important story that was almost successfully hidden from history. It is one of very few surviving artifacts from Sacramento’s darkest times.

Although the map’s partition makes no sense at first glance, the city was divided in ways that resonate with the pair’s roles in other events that unfolded around that time: the ejectment suits of 1868, as well as an earlier high-stakes bet.

Sanders’ Gamble

In 1857, Sanders shocked Sacramento by announcing an auction of large portions of the city’s land, including 400-yard sections of waterfront. His announcement in the Sacramento Union described this as being “for the purpose of satisfying and paying out of the proceeds of that portion held in trust, certain debts of Wm. Muldrow and others.” (1/21/1857)

Sanders Land
Grey areas correspond to land marked “Sanders” in the previous partition map, and located within original Sacramento City Limits.

Despite the absurdity of Sanders’ attempt to sell the land out from under the city, Sacramento stopped in its tracks. The Union reported, “The proceedings of Col. Sanders, as the Trustee for Gen. Sutter, are developing a strange condition of things in this city, as well as producing no small degree of excitement and indignation.” (2/7/1857)

The City itself filed suit to stop the sales, while the Union frantically churned out documentation and analysis of what was clearly the biggest news story of the winter. The auction was eventually postponed after several tumultuous weeks, because “the parties have not yet ascertained what lots they are, in their own estimation, entitled to sell.” (2/17/1857)

It seems that Sanders’ the auction was not held. His wild bet did not pay off. But he laid the groundwork for another decade of trouble.

Muldrow’s Suits

As severe as the impact of Sanders’ mischief may have been, Muldrow eventually outdid his old rival. One day, in April of 1868, he marched into the clerk’s office and filed 17 lawsuits.

These were no ordinary lawsuits. Muldrow reportedly caught 3,000 neighbors in his mind-boggling web of defendants.

Consider case #11994, which is the only file I’ve found at the Center for Sacramento History: Muldrow sued a couple dozen named individuals and estates, a John Doe, the City of Sacramento, and “all possessors of the hereinafter named property.” It then describes the land – streets and alleys included – bounded by Front, V, X and 31st Streets.

He claimed 60 entire city blocks. Not parcels. Blocks.

As mind-boggling as it might seem to launch a single lawsuit against everyone living on five dozen city blocks, this was typical for Muldrow. Several of his other suits each ensnared everyone living within other strips of the city, stretching from the waterfront to what is now Alhambra Boulevard – the land north of C, along with that between D and F, I and L (90 blocks!), P and R as well as S and U were also listed.

In all, Muldrow sued the residents of more than half of Sacramento’s entire central grid – 390 blocks! And this is not even counting his claim on the waterfront and public squares, as well as a vast number of parcels surrounding the city.

These huge swaths correspond to the markings on the partition map: With few exceptions, Muldrow sued for the strips of central city land that were not marked for Sanders’ in their partition map.

Sanders Land and Muldrow Suits
Red areas represent land claimed in 8 of Muldrow’s 17 ejectment suits. Grey areas of Sanders auction provided for reference.

Clerk’s Office “Rendered Lively”

One would hope that the community could simply disregard this duo’s ongoing legal shenanigans. But alas! It was not to be.

After Muldrow’s trip to the clerk’s office, hundreds of people started filing their own suits. The Sacramento Union tried frantically to keep track of a legal battle royale as it unfolded: On the second day of the crisis, it reported that, “The office of the County Clerk was rendered lively yesterday by the filing of an indefinite number of ejectment suits. Everybody seems inclined to bring suit against everybody else, for the recovery of whatever real estate they may happen to possess.” (4/16/1868)

Another day’s column concluded another long list of suits, along with a disclaimer: This report was “but a small proportion of the suits commenced yesterday, and it was expected that by midnight last night about two hundred more complaints would be filed.” (4/18/1868)

For several days, lines of would-be plantiffs stretched out the door, in a manner that the Union compared to election day. Then the paper appeared to give up on listing suits.

Then, the true severity of the situation was revealed by the Union’s May 2 edition, which devoted its front and back page to describing the suits in miniscule type. This was nearly a quarter of a daily paper’s print space, on pages usually devoted to ads!

This apparently unique act of journalism suggests that it must have been an incredibly tense time. Remember, this was all four years after the U.S. Supreme Court supposedly settled the bloody matter of Sutter’s land grants, which Sanders had stirred up in 1857. Muldrow was ripping open that can of worms, all over again.

Who Were These Guys?

The events of 1857 and 1868 paint a picture of a legal environment that was impervious even to the decree of the United States Supreme Court. It seems that two private citizens were able to destabilize the city with only moderate effort.

So who were Lewis Sanders, Jr. and William Muldrow?

I have not yet tracked down details, but we can find clues about the nature of these villains in another filer of suits, who is somewhat less obscure: General Lucius Harwood Foote.

Foote had an illustrious legal and diplomatic career. But there is a gap in his biographies. This interruption included 1868, at which point it turns out that he was a police court judge here in Sacramento. He seems to have severely abused his power by exploiting the city’s land title confusion.

Foote’s actions inspired ejectment suit defendants to call for his resignation – singling him out for condemnation from the rogues’ gallery that was besieging the city. His role in the crisis will be addressed in part two of this post. Coming soon…

 

Presentation: Anomalies

On November 25, 2015 I was the featured presenter for the Sacramento County Historical Society, on the pattern of anomalies that I’ve uncovered in Sacramento history.While I have since discovered even more issues with the historic record, this slide show provides a good starting point to familiarize yourself with some of the inconsistencies in the conventional history of Sacramento.

Here is a link to the presentation. Please scroll down.

The Ejectment Suits

Something profound happened here in the Spring of 1868. It utterly dominated the news.

What would possess a serious daily newspaper, the Sacramento Daily Union, to devote nearly one-quarter of its print space in the May 2 edition? What could possibly have been worth allocating the entire front page and almost 97% of the back page?

Lawsuits. An enormous and detailed list of lawsuits.

Something huge happened that April. I don’t know what it is yet, but I just found a big clue. On the same day the new Land Laws were printed out for readers, William Muldrow unleashed a rather phenomenal legal earthquake, which seems to have torn the community apart. (more on that soon)

It had been building for a couple of weeks. On April 17th came the announcement of Muldrow’s suits. Then for several days the lead story for the “City Intelligence” column (always on p.3 col.1) was the Ejectment Suits. More and more people piled on..

And then there was this enormous list covering the outside of the May 2 edition, to show the community how serious the problem was. It wasn’t enough to give a casual tally, like we expect today. They listed the whole mess, as well as they could. Keep in mind that this is before the days of large headlines and images to fluff up the paper. Tens of thousands of tiny letters had to be set.

My initial count indicates 143 plantiffs (with some overlap where individuals are listed multiple times with various co-plantiffs filed around 700 lawsuits, mainly during a two week period. Some of these suits were brought against very large numbers of people. For example

In at least some cases, the plaintiffs didn’t even seem to know who they were suing. Cases 12,437 and 12, 439-12,453 each sued “John Doe and 2 (others)” for 23 separate properties including an entire city block.

I cannot yet say how many property-holders were involved, and I calculate it would take many hours to tally them.

Researching this and laying it out took a tremendous amount of energy, to say nothing of the overwhelming burden put on the legal system’s employees. It appears that the Union tried valiantly to keep the community informed (in great detail!) before stepping back and trying to help the community grasp the immensity of what had just happened.

The legal system had no such luxury, and that may be why there seems to be a substantial amount of information missing. I think the people who ran the law were simply overwhelmed. I don’t quite understand this incident yet, but I’m working on it.

UPDATE 8/6: I just got a peek at the old legal ledgers and have started to unravel this knot. IT seems that Muldrow basically filed a bunch of suits, changed lawyers a few times, and then – get this – didn’t show up for court. Most of the suits were simply dismissed by June. However, at least some suits continued into May and June of 1870. Perhaps later, but that’s how far I got in the records.

So basically Muldrow seems to have tweaked the legal system with at least two years of after-effects. And while he seems to have lost every single one of his suits, others that apparently were inspired by him did continue. In any case, I found an 1878 newspaper reference to the incident, indicating that Muldrow’s mess had lasting effects. It isn’t fair to blame him for all of this, but in any case, the Union was still talking about his “blackmail” a decade later.

More to come…

Sacramento was Stolen

I recently had the pleasure of providing “something a little different” for the Sacramento GIS Users’ Group. This biannual gathering explores geographic information systems – the technology that underlies digital mapping including everything from the maps in newspapers to smartphone apps.

Bob Earle, my instructor for an introductory course in ArcGIS (which is a prominent and powerful GIS application), had been intrigued by my midterm and invited me to share my final project. So after we heard about sophisticated techniques to support the management of vineyards, sewers and municipal transparency, I let loose with a 150-year-old legal controversy regarding 15 square miles of central Sacramento.

The Sutter Case

The trouble all started with Johann Augustus Sutter’s claim to land that actually lay miles south of what he was granted by Mexico in 1841. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually endorsed his enormous squat in 1864, but they seemed to see their ruling as simply the least objectionable solution for an unsolvable problem.

I can’t blame the Court for punting. The Civil War was providing enough trouble already, and a legitimate ruling would have unleashed legal chaos in California. I think those justices did what they had to do with the information they were given.

Even so, they were wrong.

Here is the truth: Sacramento sits on land that was taken not only from the indigenous Ninesan people, but then again from the United States government and settlers who moved onto what they correctly believed to be public land. This second theft was enforced by the city government as well as vigilantes.

The Sacramento Settlers’ Association was organized to hire lawyers to protect against evictions, and reportedly boasted over 1,000 members. They tried to work within the system, but continued harrassment provoked bloodshed during August of 1850 as the Settlers’ patience ran out.

Two days of violence claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff and assessor. The mayor was shot off his horse, left office and later died in San Francisco. These so-called Squatter Riots triggered the collapse of the local economy and population, followed by many years of lawsuits.

Fourteen years later, the Court apparently attempted the final cover for Sutter’s land grab, bundling 15 square miles of valuable and contested territory into a parcel with the modest name of “Lot 1” (along with Lots 2, 3 and 4 surrounding Marysville). See map here.

Sutter’s purported holdings in Sacramento were legally not his, no matter how disruptive that truth might have been at the time. Sutter’s Fort was a squat. Sutter could not legally have given his son authority to sell the land under Sacramento City to Sam Brannan and his gang of speculators. The whole massive real estate scheme entangling everything between the American River and Broadway, the Sacramento River and Alhambra Boulevard – the core of Lot 1 and the heart of the modern city of Sacramento – was illegal.

The land on which Sacramento sits was stolen.

(Update 7/29/16: According to a recently-discovered set of accounts by Dr. Charles Robinson, who led the uprising against this theft, it appears that a significant number of “squatters” were able to hold onto their property in Sacramento. Much further research is needed to determine the details of which parcels were purchased from holders of the fraudulent title and which were obtained properly as homesteads.)

Unearthing the Bones

The theft was clear to many when it happened. Consider an 1851 editorial in the San Francisco Alta, after a District Court judge ruled on the case that eventually reached the nation’s highest court: “It might seem pedantic to pit our opinion against lawyers and judges of such high standing and position…But if that decision was in accordance with the law, why the less of such laws we have the better.”

The problem is less obvious now; we are all confused by deep layers of historical misinformation. I’ve found several anomalies that all point toward a concerted effort to revise history during the decades after 1850. These anomalies start to explain how Sacramento’s canonical history could be so badly at odds with what actually happened here, and I’ll explore them in other posts (like this one and this one).

Some of what I’ve discovered was hidden in plain sight, and required nothing more than a glance at a map held in the state archives: The Von Schmidt survey of 1859 (which the 1864 ruling approved) allots land approximately equaling the original 76 square miles Sutter was originally granted by Mexico nearly two decades prior – although these acres were much more valuable than Sutter’s original spread.

It looks good at first glance. There’s a table tallying the total acreage. The numbers for Lots 1 to 4 add up, more or less. But then there’s this weird little note below that about Lot 5: another 6,733 acres (10.5 square miles!) of prime riverfront that wasn’t included in the final tally. This extravagant bonus would be like getting one entire side of Interstate 80 between Sacramento and Auburn – and that was just the part not included in the total acreage!

By leaving this central connector out of the total acreage (to meet the requirement they faced to declare one contiguous land grant) it appears that the judges undermined their entire decision. Either the eastern bank of the Sacramento was part of Sutter’s land, therefore included in the total, or it was not. To avoid this reality would only perpetuate the uncertainty.

Now I’m no lawyer, and I can’t rule out some third state between legal and illegal land holdings. More research is needed to see what actually happened with those parcels. However, this stretch of riverbank is only the start of the trouble. If this phantom land grant was an effort to soothe contested cities, then we might expect the ruling to at least hold up around those cities.

And here’s where GIS mapping really gets useful: My favorite tool in ArcGIS (so far) is georeferencing – linking an image to a certain geographical area. I use it to superimpose maps from different years, illustrating some quirks in how land ownership and development have progressed over time.

A Bad Border

I’ve been curious about the southernmost portion of the Von Schmidt survey – a few square miles along the river downstream from Sacramento. The southern boundary of Sutter’s original land grant was a single measurement of latitude – 38° 49′ 32″ – and it actually lies well north of Sacramento despite various attempts to claim that it lies to our south. One of the most common rationales for the problem was a measurement error: A survey error simply resulted in the wrong line of latitude being recorded. Wherever it lay, the southern border of Sutter’s land was a nice simple line. So why does this odd dangling tract disrupt it?

A closer look at this border reveals that it is deeply flawed: Most of Lot 1’s perimeter follows the Sacramento and American Rivers, while most of the overland survey lines follow the familiar grid visible in much of rural America, made up of township/range and section boundaries (at six and one-mile intervals, respectively).

At its easternmost point, the border of Lot 1 departs the American River at what is now Howe Avenue (a section line), tracks south until it hits the boundary between townships 8 and 9, and thence eastward to the boundary of ranges 4 and 5, which is still physically clear as modern 24th Street. This would have been a very reasonable place to head southward. But as made very clear on the official map, the border continued another ½ mile (40 chains) before turning south.

Lot 1 southern boundary w 1885
One of my final project slides, based on a map available online at Library of Congress or the California State Archives. Click for detail!

Such a border was (and is) nonsense, as is clear from adding the court boundary to this 1885 county map. The north-south portion cuts right through the middle of a half-dozen properties along both sides of Freeport Boulevard, including the current sites of C.K. McClatchy High School and William Land Park.

The Court was of course free to approve a border wherever it chose, but their border logically should have followed existing property lines. After all, the ruling was specifically meant to resolve the ownership of particular properties.

Now, it’s not clear which of the properties shown existed in 1864. These “Sutterville Tracts” were part of ongoing legal battles involving Sutter’s trustee, Lewis Sanders, Jr. and one of Sutter’s creditors, William Muldrow. This struggle continued until at least 1868, when Muldrow launched 17 simultaneous lawsuits against the city and a great many individual landowners, in an effort to claim vast amounts of property (including, it seems, most of the central city). That all is well beyond the scope of this article, but illustrates a certain lack of closure from the 1864 ruling.

In any case, if the question before the Court was whether certain parcels had been properly bought and sold, then the answer in each case must have been either yes or no. I don’t see how part of a property could be originally Sutter’s land and another part not. Each property was presumably bought and sold in the same chain of transactions, barring some unlikely parcel-consolidation scenario for which I have found no evidence. Of course, the more I look at this history, the weirder it gets. I could be wrong.

But let’s set aside whether the survey’s split ownership makes any sense. We should find some sign of the ruling’s enforcement in the two decades between 1864 and 1885. Some or all of these unfortunate landowners should have lost a portion of their property, whether their title was based on a homesteading claim or a purchase from Brannan. They didn’t.

Instead, it seems that nothing at all happened along this border: The split properties all appear to remain intact in 1885 despite being officially divided by the U.S. Supreme Court. That was true then, and apparently remains true today despite many later subdivisions. Follow the line drawn by Von Schmidt and approved by the court, and you’ll find nothing at all to suggest a border. The range line along 24th Avenue provides a stark contrast.

The 1885 map suggests only one land action that followed the Supreme Court’s ruling: a subdivision that wrapped around the north end of this troublesome boundary. And oddly enough, this sketch of parcels does not even seem to match the streets that currently exist at that spot (nor does it appear in an 1889 map of the city, indicating that it was a speculative phantom). It appears that when someone actually attempted to follow the ruling, it was they whose scheme hit the wall of reality.

Meanwhile, a trio of nearby landholders reportedly renewed their patents in 1867. This suggests an increase in legal uncertainty in the vicinity, rather than any resolution. Sacramento’s legal troubles were far from over.

An Objectionable Charade

The Court offered a telling assessment of its own work: “We do not say that it is entirely free from objections, and from our examination of the evidence, we are satisfied that no survey or location of the tract, under the circumstances attending and surrounding the case, could be made that would be free from objection.”

But these words ring hollow: Such a cop-out ignores the obvious and less-objectionable range line that lay within a mere half-mile of their arbitrary, nonsensical and counterproductive boundary for Lot 1.

What does this all mean? As far as I can tell, the ruling was not just deeply flawed, but almost totally ineffectual and counterproductive. The Court’s decree was based on a false claim and multiple illegal actions, marred by obvious internal contradictions and in conflict with historical reality. The ruling was a catastrophic failure.

I can’t imagine how such a mess could have any lasting (positive) legal impact, but I’d love to hear a lawyer try to explain it.

From Sacramento to Bleeding Kansas: The Struggles of Doctor Robinson

May 21 marked the anniversary of the 1856 invasion of Lawrence, Kansas. This attack was a turning point in a conflict that was serious enough in its own right: Rival governments engaged in an escalating struggle that lasted nearly a decade. The territory’s bloody struggle over whether it would be a free or slave state – a key episode in America’s slide toward the Civil War – is known as “Bleeding Kansas.” It is a day of national importance.

But May 21 should be a moment of reflection especially for Sacramento, which played an essential role in setting the stage for Lawrence. Events in Sacramento during the California Gold Rush had honed the organizing skills of Dr. Charles L. Robinson of Massachusetts, who had played a central role in both tumultuous episodes.

The Sacking of Lawrence was a key moment of escalation at the hands of orchestrated mobs of “border ruffians” from Missouri. The Free State Hotel was destroyed, along with two abolitionist newspapers and many businesses and homes. Yet although attacked by a sheriff’s posse of 800 men – many intoxicated – the community in Lawrence presented a nonviolent response that limited the raiders to pillaging and destroying property. Despite tremendous physical damage to the town, there was only one fatality that day; one of the invaders was killed by falling masonry. Although their leaders had been captured, the people of Lawrence were still able to stand down in an organized way.

The attack on Lawrence was (almost) bloodless because its residents were organized, with Dr. Robinson heading the Committee of Safety.

The Lawrence committee had much in common with the Sacramento Settlers’ Association, which had sought to protect its members’ homesteads in a conflict that sparked the August 1850 uprising known as the Squatter Riots. Sacramento’s unrest grew in response to the city’s failure to provide for the health and sanitation needs of a booming community, as well as the city’s minimal legitimacy. Here the government favored land speculators like Sam Brannan, who purchased from Johann Augustus Sutter land that didn’t really belong to Sutter, and then sold it to many others, who profited in various ways from the massive influx of immigrants seeking their fortune.

This massive scheme encompassed five square miles that are now the heart of California’s state capitol. As the city government and various mobs evicted homesteaders from the Brannan land, the community’s outrage grew. More than 1,000 people reportedly joined the Settlers’ Association, which set up a rival surveyor and title office and openly encouraged residents to ignore law enforcement. Although Robinson apparently favored peaceful tactics, hotter heads prevailed and he lost control of a militia formed to prevent evictions. The resulting bloodshed claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff, assessor and mayor. Martial law was established and the economy and population collapsed.

Robinson was wounded in the fighting and thrown in jail, but won election from prison that fall to represent Sacramento in the first California State Assembly. Robinson later returned to New England, where he built a thriving medical practice until 1854. Then he was recruited to lead the New England Emigrant Aid Society, settling abolitionists in Kansas in order to prevent its adopting slavery and tipping the national balance of power toward the South.

Robinson was obviously chosen for his experiences in Sacramento rather than his bedside manner. Although there are many differences in detail, Robinson’s efforts in California and Kansas are part of the same struggle – for liberty and against oppression – using similar elements of extralegal democracy and mutual aid.

The adversaries were also similar. In Sacramento, Robinson faced a cabal of merchants led by Brannan, whose tactics were both legal and extralegal, including his mob of “destroying angels” who would tear down the homes of settlers who did not submit to the scheme.

In Kansas, Robinson’s enemy was even more powerful, and often enjoyed support from Washington. Wealthy supporters of slavery organized agitators from Missouri to repeatedly invade Kansas and engage in elections fraud. Although the ruffians shared few of the benefits of slavery (which mostly accrued to the wealthy landowners who were crowding out settlers on both sides of the slavery issue) they were stirred to action by a combination of propaganda and bribes of land, cash and booze.

So Kansas got its pro-slavery “Bogus Legislature.” The Free State opposition was banned, but then organized a rival government that was declared an insurrection by President Franklin Pierce, and despite growing threats of detention and violence. Robinson was elected governor of the insurgent state, but spent much of 1856 imprisoned after his arrest at Lawrence.

In the end, the border ruffians were overcome and Kansas got a legitimate government and statehood. Robinson was again elected governor.

Unfortunately, Sacramento has forgotten this great leader of popular struggle. He is nearly absent from the card catalogs and indexes of this city’s historical resources. I have not found any of his reflections on his time in California. However, both the Settlers’ Association and the fight for Free Kansas were rooted in the American revolutionary tradition. We might pick out some clues of his perspective from his words in a speech given on July 4, 1855:

“I seem to hear the millions of freemen, and the millions of bondsmen…the patriots…the spirits of the revolutionary heroes, and the voice of God, all saying to the people of Kansas, ‘Do your duty.’”

In Sacramento as well as Lawrence, the community lacked government protection, and was indeed threatened by government. So the people improvised an extralegal but democratic response.

Both rebellions were led by the same person using strategy and tactics developed in one arena and improved for better results in the second. But in Sacramento, Robinson is nearly unknown. The insurgency was crushed after Robinson’s nonviolent tactics were overwhelmed by others’ growing despair that working with the system would ever be rewarded.

As history is written by the victors, Robinson has been nearly eliminated from Sacramento’s memory. That’s unfortunate, as he was an extremely gifted leader of national historic importance.

Diving Into the Confluence

Sacramento is famous as a place where rivers flow together. The Confluence of the Sacramento with the American River obviously provides the city’s reason for being: Here the “Nile of the West” – a great navigable channel that flows to the Pacific – takes in another major stream that was the source of the gold that made that navigability so important.

The Confluence is also symbolic of the collision between two civilizations. One, represented by the Ninesan, Miwok and Patwin, lived for countless years in a vast fertile valley of almost inconceivable abundance. The newer civilization staked its claim on extraction and exploitation of a different wealth – the minerals that washed down from the mountains.

This was an important central destination for large ships bearing cargo from the United States via San Francisco. Here, goods could be unloaded and then shipped by land to the ever-changing array of mining camps that sprouted and spread from a point upstream from here. Sacramento’s location makes a lot of sense as a beachhead for commerce and extraction, but not much for long-term settlement.

Why Are We Here?

In Gold Rush Capitalists, Mark Eifler observes that some cities are not in the best location given the regional geography. He notes that both San Francisco and New York sit at what were then important military positions, but both faced major challenges as they changed from outposts to population centers; both have long since outgrown their peninsula or island. So great bridges and tunnels and bulkheads are built and eventually people lose sight of the location’s serious flaws.

But of course once a city center is established, it will not move easily due to sunk costs. Sacramento’s sunk costs – levees and the physical raising of downtown – put it in the path of two major rivers that overflowed for a significant portion of most winters; this was not so much a matter of unusual flooding events as a general tendency for the rivers to form a great seasonal wetland. Spectacular engineering has forced these rivers to behave – so far – in ways conducive to the land speculation on which our regional economy has been built.

It was no accident that Sacramento grew in such a troublesome location. The actions of a few greedy men put it here. Yet oddly enough, the confluence we all know at Discovery Park is as artificial as the city that was built here by the newcomers who bought land claimed by a Swiss swindler named Johann Augustus Sutter. And it should be noted that Sutter was a mercenary for Mexico whose name was pronounced “Sooter” (alias Captain “John” Sutter in the Americanized mythology of this place).

Sutter sought to build a private kingdom of Nueva Helvetia – New Switzerland – but his bungling overreach presented the opportunity for a wayward Mormon named Sam Brannan to exploit this wannabe monarch’s debt. Long story short, Brannan created a vast rectangle of parcels in the bottomlands, positioning himself and a couple dozen others for tremendous profit as the Gold Rush caused real estate prices to skyrocket by as much as 3200%. The end result is that California’s largest non-coastal city lies in what is probably its most perilous location, close to the lowest point of one of the planet’s greatest wetlands.

Perils of the Confluence

At the moment, we seem to have the rivers under control. But back at the start of 1850, everyone knew the Confluence was in charge.

Sacramento’s waterfront grew on a great sandbar. This should have been a red flag, if widespread debris in standing trees wasn’t warning enough. Even though this particular sandbar was durable and elevated enough to support a mature oak, it was nonetheless an ephemeral feature in geological terms. In the first winter of the Gold Rush, the booming population was driven by water onto this relative high ground.

The sandbar, in place for long enough for the life of a great oak, would have been among the first places to rise above the inland sea that formed every winter. It, and other dry spots, could have served as a staging ground for hunting, harvesting and trade during the lean months between the departure of the waters and the ripening of the fruit.

Rivers eventually change course on flatlands. They form natural levees that rise above the valley floor. And then they puncture them, draining out from their silt-filled channels. We might stop this process for a century, or maybe two. But ultimately river courses in our valley are temporary.

The American flows from a relatively young mountain range, bearing vast loads of sediment each winter and spring. Then it slows to a trickle each summer and fall. Our hydrological cleverness has slowed down this process, but ultimately it continues. This is a wild river, all the way to its mouth.

We like to think of our city as sitting at the confluence – a nice tidy spot with beaches and fishing spots and an old bridge for daredevil jumpers. But it is probably more accurate to view our city as growing from within the Confluence of these two mighty waterways.

During the days of Sutter and Brannan, the confluence was located just upstream from the I Street rail bridge. It stayed there until people redirected it in a major project inspired by the tremendous damage of the 1861-62 floods.

The Southern Pacific railyards were constructed by dumping gravel into what had been the active river channel. What’s more, our current train station was built upon an even older river channel, which formed a body of water called Sutter Lake, which had no doubt been a great attraction to the indigenous population. This wetland was an old channel silted in behind that great sandbar. But this river course never really went away.

A map of the great flood of 1861-62 hints at the peril faced by the young city. Sacramento’s levees (including one along R Street) routed the waters around the southeast side of the city, briefly forming an island before they collapsed and allowed the American to reclaim the Confluence.

Sutter Lake – also known as China Lake as Chinese immigrants gathered on its shores – was usually a quiet slough whose remnants can still be seen in the ponds both in McKinley Park and behind Sutter’s Fort. This channel retained its power as part of the confluence; it can be discerned on the map as a short dead-end channel pointed directly at the city’s northeast corner.

Rivers do not submit to dead-ends.

Looking deeper still at the landscape, a trio of ridges hint at even greater and older floods. The Confluence carved around the more resilient earth found just south of the old city cemetery on Broadway, Poverty Ridge in Midtown (which includes the hill on which Sutter built) and even out to Oak Hill in what is now East Sacramento. I grew up in the bottom of an ancient channel that follows 42nd Street, and I often noticed that our gutters flooded when it rained, more than the streets on either side of us. Now I know why.

Changing Course

It would be a much better world if we could truly grasp the injustice and suffering of other peoples, and do justice for innumerable past wrongs. Alas, we are tribal critters. But we still might hope for an improved sense of solidarity from grasping that our own ancestors were also screwed by the rapacious Gold Rush invasion from the East, this wave of supposedly European values of greed and treachery. European immigrants to this land have gotten both ends of the stick as well. And faced with injustice surrounding Sutter’s obviously bogus land claim, our city’s true founders organized.

At its peak Settlers’ Association had over 1000 members, and they very nearly overthrew the speculator-dominated first government of Sacramento City (for better or worse). Their consensus-based organizing, and their leaders including Dr. Charles Robinson, have been largely suppressed in our history.

My upcoming tour, “Squatterville,” will begin to excavate their importance.

We can never right the wrongs committed against the Ninesan, nor can we undo the foolish suppression of the Settlers’ Association. But we should remember that there was in fact a serious attempt at a third way between coexistence and exploitation.

By understanding the Confluence of history’s currents at we might seek to rebalance our modern blended community – which still includes an estimated 47,000 Native Americans – in ways that are more conducive to life in this place.

The Settlers were not apparently more enlightened with regards to treatment of the native people, but their movement was at least a sort of hybrid in terms of its exploitation. Perhaps it might be represented by the two rivers mixing together below the Confluence.

When the flow of history is forced into a limited channel, it will eventually break free. It does not matter how high we build our walls against the truth. At first glance Sacramento is a featureless flatland, but this whole place is shaped by the Confluence. We ignore the rivers and their legacy at our peril. They will sooner or later overcome our defenses.

Update, June 2: I just found an amazing old map of all the river channels in east Sacramento. It turns out the Confluence was even greater than I imagined. I’ll just add it here.

Rutte Muldrow Smith v2
Map available at California State Library

6 1/2 Page Footnote?!?

Buried in Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of California is a 6 1/2 Page Footnote that directly contradicts the text to which it refers. This “account” stands on its own as a valuable hidden history of the so-called Squatter Riots of August 1850 – a little-known but serious conflict that led to the deaths of Sacramento’s sheriff and assessor as well as six other citizens (the mayor was shot off his horse and left office to convalesce in San Francisco). Following this clash, the city was subjected to martial law and suffered from a collapse in both its economy and population, with up to 80 percent of its residents departing as real estate prices crashed and one bank after another failed. Dr. Charles Robinson, the leader of the Settler’s Association was elected to the first California legislature while in prison and went on to serve as the first governor of Kansas.

It’s odd that most residents are unaware that the city almost died at the hands of speculators, and those who led a local revolution are nearly unknown and all-but-absent from card catalogs in our libraries. I’ll soon be presenting information to support my suspicion that there was a large-scale revision of history to suppress the true story of California’s theft. Stay tuned!