Gold rush lawlessness

The men who were in gold country at the outset of mining were of a different class than those who came with the gold rush of 1849. Those men were a part of the old population of California. They had come as frontiersmen or in the service of the United States. Some were settlers who had arrived in growing numbers since the Bidwell-Bartleston party in 1841. Others were soldiers discharged from Stevenson’s regiment of New York volunteers or those who came with the Mormon battalion. Some of the native Californios did come to the mines but in general they were content to remain on their rancheros and enjoy the easy life they had lived raising cattle and horses.

Mormon Battalion by George M Ottinger

Late in 1848 men from Oregon began to arrive but they too were settlers and much like those already in California. Then there were the Mexican miners who came from Sonora or Sinola provinces and at first stayed generally to themselves and thus had little influence but also caused few problems. As a rule then the miners of 1848 were steady, hard-working men, honest, with a helpful nature, used to harsh labor and willing to suffer the extremely difficult conditions of the early mines. Many of these men were neighbors and friends and so they were willing to help one another. In the records of that early time there is little note of quarreling or discord. Crime and outlawry were almost unknown.

Sydney Ducks

But beginning in 1849 those adventurers who came to mine gold, often steady and upstanding men, found themselves in a harsh and difficult wilderness totally unlike the well established communities they had left. In the raw gold country there were no laws, no rules, no customs, no restraints of any kind. They had given up the life of a civilized man for one of hardship in terribly rough conditions. And along with them came professional gamblers and criminals whose aim was to prey on the honest gold miners.

SF fire Sept 1850 by Samuel Marryat

Among the good Irish and English who came to California from Australia were many hoodlums and felons sent to serve their prison terms in the British Colony and now recently released. Known as the Sidney Ducks they were accused of a number of robberies, murders and arsons in San Francisco that eventually led to the formation of the Committee of Vigilance. Some of these men were a part of the infamous group of thugs and dissatisfied Mexican War veterans known as the Hounds who attacked Mexican and Chilean miners. They began to demand protection money from San Francisco residents, then looted and burned stores and killed anyone who resisted. When they attacked a Spanish shantytown in July of 1849 the public finally became outraged. But before the majority of the Hounds could be rounded up they escaped into the vast frontier of the mining country where they continued their lawless ways.



  1. Hmmm. Some similarities with the Montana gold rushes of 1862-1866. No law, no community, and everyone was a stranger.

    • You’re right, Carol. No Law, no community, everyone a stranger, but don’t forget a lack of respectable women. The gals are always important, even when they aren’t there.

      Still, I wouldn’t doubt that some of the scumbags from California made it up to Montana if they lived long enough.

  2. I think a lot of the lawlessness came from men who found the easy pickings were over and they didn’t want to work for the meager rewards they would receive. They started to begrudge the miners who had made productive strikes and started to bully, steal and create problems throughout the region. They picked on foreigners and greenhorns, caused problems in small settlements where no there was no law and soon spread their lawlessness to the larger towns where many were met with people who wouldn’t put up with them or lawmen who put a clamp on their activities soon after their arrival.

    • Tom, you describe Billy Mulligan and his gang of thugs who operated near Sonora as the placer mines played out quite well. Mulligan went on the become San Francisco County’s jailer until the vigilantes deported him.

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