Gold rush justice

During the era of Mexican rule the office of Alcalde was a mixture of judge and mayor, and this tradition continued in the early days of the gold rush and in many cases the powers of the office were greatly expanded by some of the most colorful characters of the era. The peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of these men were readily apparent even in the more settled areas where there was some semblance of law, but in the more remote towns where there was no law at all a gold rush Alcalde could cut a wide swath. In 1849 when William B. Almond was hearing a case in his San Francisco court and one attorney, clearly a disciple of Blackstone, called his opponent an ‘oscillating Tarquin’ Almond fined the poor man two ounces of gold and had him jailed until he paid up. The honorable Alcalde would not abide cussin’ in his court, or so he said.

Gold rush justice

In Sonora R. S. Ham seems to have assumed the position of Alcalde without an election but tried to make rulings that were in line with popular opinion. When a particularly unpopular young cook was accused of theft the poor man was confined and Ham would likely have hanged him, but the cook did have at least one influential friend. Charles Bassett, the most influential man in town and once a shipmate of the accused, determined to help him. Since the relationship between Bassett and Ham was strained at that time, Bassett had no choice but to call a meeting of the miners and induce them to elect another man as Alcalde. Ham was ousted and James Fraser of Sonorita Gulch became the new magistrate. Fraser then tried the cook with intelligence and fairness and, when he found there was reasonable doubt, the man was released.

Sonora CA 1852 by George H. Goddard

Later, after an American gambler named Atkins had gotten into a set-to with a number of Irishmen at Big Bar on Sullivan’s Creek and taken a licking from them, he went to his cabin, grabbed his rifle and killed a man named Boyd who had been at the fight but had actually been trying to help Atkins. There was a great clamor to hang Atkins outright, but the case was taken before Fraser and a jury. There the gambler was found guilty of murder, fined five hundred dollars and ordered to leave town at once. The sentence so angered a friend of the victim that he announced he was willing to kill Alcalde Fraser if all he had to do was pay five hundred dollars and leave town. As it was, Fraser soon after prudently took a job as the sheriff of Siskiyou County, far to the north of Sonora.

1852 Columbia

In the nearby town of Columbia, which had six thousand residents and a hundred and forty-three faro banks in spring of 1850, Major Sullivan, a man reputed to swindle everyone with whom he had dealings, was elected Alcalde. In one of his first cases a Mexican accused of stealing was found guilty and fined three ounces of gold while the accuser was fined one ounce for troubling the court with the complaint. In another case a man brought suit over a mule. He proved the mule was his and the defendant was ordered to return the mule, pay a one ounce fine and three ounce court cost. But when it was found that the defendant didn’t have the money and couldn’t get it, Sullivan ordered the plaintiff to pay the fine and cost since the court couldn’t be expected to sit without remuneration.


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