The roots of gold rush law

On the last Sunday in May, 1849 at Ford’s Bar on the Middle Fork of the American River two men got into a drunken fight. One struck the other with a crowbar so hard that he knocked him into the stream then jumped in himself and the two men grappled again in the water. The ruckus attracted their friends who, instead of separating the combatants, picked sides and squared off themselves. Soon knives were drawn and the whole set-to looked as if it would soon become bloody. Then a miner named Graham, a man of unusual strength and energy, grabbed a musket, later reported to be empty, and threatened to shoot the first man to continue the fight. And since Graham looked like a man who meant what he said, he succeeded in restoring peace.

A Question of Title from a Peep at Washoe

It was then that some of the more sedate and orderly of the residents of the camp proposed that steps should be taken to prevent the recurrence of such a disgraceful scene, and to clean up the reputation Ford’s Bar had gained as the roughest place on the river. A meeting of the miners was called and a few simple rules calculated to ensure the peace and quiet of the camp were enacted. Graham was chosen as Alcalde, a Spanish term for a civil position that was a combination of mayor and judge, and a burly Missouri miner was named as sheriff.

The very next day this new arrangement was put to the test when a miner, said to be a tinker by trade, swam the river to the main store of the area where he bought four bottles of brandy. These he tied around his neck so that he could swim back across the stream to his campsite, but perhaps because of the added burden of the brandy he was overpowered by the current and washed into an eddy where he felt obliged to rid himself of the bottles around his neck. His partner, a man with a reputation as a bully, began to abuse him for the loss of the spirits and a fight broke out between the men. The bully pulled a knife while the tinker grabbed another empty bottle and there was some loss of blood on both sides before they were duly arrested.

The confluence of the Middle and North Forks of the American

A trial was held before Alcalde Graham and a jury of three men, as provided in the new code from the day before. The tinker was acquitted because he had been attacked and there was no law against using a bottle as a weapon, but the bully was convicted of drawing a knife, an offense that was expressly forbidden at the recent meeting. Graham then sentenced the bully to a fine of twelve dollars to cover court cost and banished him from Ford’s Bar under threat of a severe flogging. The next morning the bully was seen climbing the mountain that bounded the river in search of a healthier home. Later it was reported that he had gotten into a quarrel near Mormon’s Island and been shot.

Miners in the Sierras, photo Ad Meskens

Almost all of the mining settlements installed someone like Alcade Graham during the winter of 1849 and 1850 to preside over trials and legal proceedings. With no regular law in effect and an unsettled state of the country around him, the Alcade exercised great authority that could at times be arbitrary, but he could only hold office as long as he pleased the community and this did limit the excess of his power. In general, the Alcalde was treated with respect and in most of the camps, where a man of good character held the office, the security and protection of life, property and personal rights was as good in the gold mines as anywhere in the world.



  1. Are you a GPAA member? Have you considered writing articles for Gold Prospector magazine? Your work would be perfect!

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