Gold rush lawyers

Tuolumne County Courthouse

The reason the vigilance committee of Sonora did not go further and inflict more punishment on criminals than it did in 1851 was not because of the promise of greater efficiency by the courts, for no person actually made such a commitment. There is no indication that the problems with the courts were caused by judges who were in any way derelict in their duty. But, while there was little settled law and few legal precedents in the gold country, most judges did lack the long study of the law and the practical experiences that are considered a necessity for anyone in their position. Standing before them were a number of very sharp, practiced attorneys who had braved the journey west and showed up in Sonora and other well populated mining centers. They were able to raise technicalities and other difficulties that, though they could seem simple at the onset, were enough to perplex and often mislead the minds of the most adept of the new judiciary.

The lawyer

The ease with which some lawyers could thus make trouble and the inability of the miners to understand that their presence was not the cause of the troubles but rather an effect of them that resulted in many mountain camps adopting resolutions designed to drive the attorneys out of the mines, designating them as enemies of the human race. And there was no doubt the lawyers were often successful in thwarting justice, but the idea some old miners had that there had been no need of laws until the lawyers came and their belief that there had been little crime in the country until the district courts, with all their delays and technicalities, took the place of the miner’s courts were more a result of ignorance and prejudice than fact. It would seem that the lawyers in the California gold country were not so much the enemy but that the legal system was badly out of kilter and in need of a major adjustment.



  1. That sounds vastly different from the experience of Montana lawyers and the Vigilantes of Montana, at least in the first phase of Idaho/Montana Territorial development. After Montana Ty. was separated from Idaho Territory, a chief justice was appointed, but the hangings persisted infrequently throughout the 1870’s, whenever people felt the courts had not done the job right.

    Your blog is interesting as always, John. Keep up the good work!

    • From what I’ve learned of Montana from you, Carol, the vigilantism was caused mostly by corruption. In the gold rush towns of California it was because the justice system simply couldn’t get the job done, at least in the beginning, but in San Francisco it was a completely different story. Corruption, bribes, payoffs were all rampant. Gamblers and crooks were in bed with the politicians. Criminals sneered at the law, knowing they would never be made to pay for their crimes. The first incarnation of the Committee of Vigilance cleared out the crooks but not the politicians. They had to do it again and the second time they stayed until the job was done.

  2. Your blog is very interesting, I just know and understand about justice and the law that often occur in areas of gold mining as you write.

    Aldo miners

  3. I really like what you write and at least this is a lesson for law enforcement in the mining area

  4. Interesting article. Did the gold rush lawyers come West to stake claims of their own, or to represent claim holders in disputes?

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