Vigilance Committee of 1856 : LUSENET : San Francisco History : One Thread

I am writing a paper on the motivations behind the formation of the Vigilance Committees of the 1850's, specifically the later one. My research is leading me towards an organized "merchant/businessman's revolt" and away from anti-immigrant sentiment. It seems there is a ton of reference out there. Any thoughts on an area to narrow into? P.S. I'm ecstatic at finding this website.

-- Meegan Murphy Gilmore (, November 08, 1998


At the time of the gold rush, San Francisco had a very small police force, which included just one constable and six conservators. When thousands of people came to the area seeking their fortunes, these law enforcement officers became quickly overwhelmed. Various gangs sprang up to prey on the populace, often starting fires to distract the locals while they robbed residences and poeple. Looting, brawls, murder and robbery became commonplace by these gangs, which included the Hounds and the Sydney Ducks. On July 15, 1849, Alcalde Thaddeus Leavenworth authorized the formation of a volunteer police force, which consisted of about 230 men (a precursor to the first vigilance committee, but things continued to escalate as more and more poeple poured into the area. Then on July 9, 1851, a group of locals formed a vigilance committee to try and curb the violence, arresting wrongdoers, and forming mock trials, a number of which resulted in public hangings. The first vigilance committee proved to be effective (although a lot of poeple opposed the methods being used) and the committee disbanded two months later. Within a few years however, crime had escalated out of control, and in 1856, the second vigilance committee was formed, and included several thousand men, banishing or hanging all known criminals. As far as my research shows, the anti- immigrant sentiment prevelant in San Francisco was not related to the two vigilance committees. These committees were formed by citizens who were simply fed up with rampant crime.

-- Robert Summers (, December 08, 1998.

Recommended reading, if you haven't already done so:

The long-considered classic of the subject: "Committee of Vigilance" by George R. Stewart, which presents the traditional perspective of a general business/public uprising against a crime-ridden San Francisco whose government was inable to cope with,...

which is nicely balanced by a reading of "Let Justice Be Done" by Kevin J. Mullen, a more recent revisionist reinterpretation of the period.

It is also worth noting that there are significant and historically important differences between the two Vigilante Committees of the 1800s....

-- Chris Dichtel (, February 01, 1999.

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