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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

Government and Law

Illustration XI: View of the procession in celebration of the Admission of California, October 29, 1850. Crossing the Plaza of San Francisco. J. Prendergast, del.; on stone by Coquardon; lith. of Zakreski & Hartman. LC-USZ62-763

It was August 1848 before the United States Senate ratified the treaty ending the Mexican War and recognizing the transfer of California to American hands. Local Army commanders, "Forty-eighters," and Hispanic rancheros all waited anxiously for details of the form of territorial government California would enjoy. When no news arrived, local residents took matters in their own hands, with mass meetings as early as December 1848 debating California's political future. As tens of thousands of "Forty-Niners" joined the rush, the need became more pressing. Congress and the President did nothing, and in September 1849, forty-eight delegates met in Monterey to draw up a state constitution. The document was closely modeled on the constitutions of Iowa and New York, the home states of many members of the convention, and it made California a "free" state from which slavery would be excluded. The frame of government was ratified by popular vote on November 13, and state officials were chosen the same day. While Eastern Congressmen and Representatives argued over whether and how to admit this new free state, Californians got on with the business of finding gold and making money.

In the mining camps, the miners themselves were responsible for local affairs. In only a few years, they worked out rules governing the discovery and exploitation of mineral resources that were later incorporated into state and federal statutes. As for criminal law, miners and local townspeople were equally efficient in dealing out their own form of justice. As towns sprang up near the camps, newly appointed officials were appointed to impose order.

Illustration XII: "Judge Lynch," California Vigilants, 1848. Painting by Stanley Berkely. Copyright 1905, by John D. Morris & Company. LC-USZ62-51822. #51846

Back East, established forces of morality and order like the major Protestant churches were concerned about the society to which the states of the Atlantic seaboard and Midwest were sending their young men and women. Sensing that California would be in desperate need of moral guidance, "home mission" boards of these churches sent clergyman west to minister to the souls of miners, saloonkeepers, peddlers, and merchants in California's booming towns and cities and isolated mining camps.

Finally, on September 9, 1850, President Fillmore signed the bill that gave California statehood. However, state government did not automatically bring law and order to California. In San Francisco, local citizens became so impatient with the inability or unwillingness of local officers to enforce the law that they formed a "Vigilance Committee" in 1851. By the time that the committee disbanded at the end of September, they had hanged four men, handed fifteen over to the police for trials, and whipped or deported twenty-nine more. The San Francisco experience inspired vigilance committees in other towns and mining camps. The apparent reforms brought by the 1851 San Francisco vigilantes were short-lived, and when the city's marshals and one of its newspaper editors were shot down in 1856, the second San Francisco Vigilance Committee was formed, this time even seizing arms from the local state militia.