Read All About It: News from Los Angeles in the “New York Tribune,” 26 February 1855

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted in earlier posts in the “Read All About It” series, the New York Tribune was one of the best-known and most-read newspapers in America during the middle part of the 19th century and it was published by one of America’s more famous personages, Horace Greeley (1811-1872).

Greeley, who started the paper in 1841, is perhaps recognized mainly for his phrase “Go West, young man,” which he did not coin, but did popularize in his encouragement for western migration and settlement.  He was also the Democratic nominee for president in 1872, though he lost badly to incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant and died just a few weeks after the election.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings is the 25 February 1855 edition of the Tribune, with particular attention given to news published in the paper from Los Angeles.  There is much else, naturally, in the paper, including news from New York City, national affairs, and international reports.

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For example, one of the more notable items from the latter was an update on the Crimean War fought in that area off the Black Sea between Russia and an alliance of England, France, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia.  Though the paper averred that it was easier for a barbaric Russia to transport men and materiel hundreds of miles to the Crimea rather than the allied nations, especially England and France, traveling much further, the war did conclude with an allied victory.

Mentioned in the article was the Battle of Balaklava, which inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famed poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  Sardinia entered the war about a month before the publication of the article and, several months later, in September, a French victory over the Russians led to a retreat by the latter.  By early 1856, Russia asked for terms and treaty was signed.  Another important element of the war was the work done by nurse Florence Nightingale to improve battlefield medical treatment in the face of woeful conditions on both sides.

With national news, a bitter editorial was made by the paper against the Fugitive Slave Law, which was enacted with the Compromise of 1850 that allowed for the admission of California as a free state (its unique geographical position defied the Mason-Dixon Line arrangement for bringing in alternating free and slave states in the Missouri Compromise thirty years earlier.)

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With the Fugitive Slave Law, there were provisions for the arrest and return of runaway slaves who managed to flee a slave state and wind up in a free state or territory.  With Greeley and the Tribune strongly on the abolitionist side of the matter, it is not surprising that it took the position that the law was unconstitutional, though the situation with slavery worsened in the next several years leading directly to the onset of the Civil War.

Another interesting item was the publication of statistics from the annual report of the State Department on immigration in the year 1854.  It was stated that some 450,000 people entered the country, more than three-quarters of them doing so in New York, with Louisiana, specifically New Orleans, being the entry point for just over 50,000 persons.  California tallied just above 14,000 migrants.  In terms of gender, about 60% of immigrants were male.

As for country of origin, well over 40% of them came from Germany and another large proportion, just under 40%, were from Ireland.  Political and economic upheaval in the former and horrific famine in the latter were among the major driving forces for migration from those two parts of Europe.  England had the third highest total at over 43,000, but this was under 10% of the total.  At just over 13,000, the fourth and fifth highest totals were from France and China, the latter being almost exclusively in California and the west coast.

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There were also figures provided for the occupation of immigrants, though about half were unstated.  Farmers and laborers, not surprisingly, comprised the largest number of those who did have an occupation provided and these totaled about 87,000 and 82,000, respectively.  Mechanics made up over 30,000 of the migrants, with merchants being about half that number.  It was added that, from September 1843 to the end of 1854, there were nearly 3.2 million immigrants to America.

The mid 1850s saw, largely as a response to immigration along with other issues, a steep rise in “nativism” as exemplified in the American Party, or the Know-Nothings.  Not only were these people virulently anti-immigrant, they were also anti-Catholic given the large migration of the Irish (sometimes called the “Black Europeans” because of the poverty of the Emerald Isle).

While nothing was said in the article, which lampooned the nativists by stating that “Hindoo conspirators” were among the bogeymen identified as threats to America’s political and economic interests, there was a large presence of Know-Nothings in California’s state government, including its governor, J. Neely Johnson, other officers, and many legislators.

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Timely, too, was a piece about legislation in the House of Representatives to reduce tariffs in three major classes, one of which was liquor and to be cut from 100% to 80%.  Another comprising such articles as wine, tobacco, cut glass, preserved fruit, fancy wood, certain game and spices was to be reduced from 40% to 32%.  A much broader category of goods was to be cut from 30% to 24% and there were other smaller categories with smaller tariffs also to be reduced.

General news from California included the report that nearly $1.2 million in gold arrived in New York on a steamship from the Caribbean side of Panama, after being transferred from a ship on the Pacific side of the Isthmus via a newly completed railroad.   This was despite other reporting that a “dullness in business” lingered, largely because “very little [gold] dust is coming in from the mountains, and the prospect of an immediate increase is not very flattering.”

In fact, the staggering initial phase of placer mining after the astounding discovery of hold seven years before was all but over so that “every interest in the State is at present exceedingly depressed” and “such hard times were never known before in California.”  Farmers were also eager anticipating some winter rains, there having been almost none to date.

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There was also a great amount of detail about a terrible explosion of the boilers on the steamship Pearl at Sacramento that claimed some sixty lives, including many Chinese passengers.

As for the “From the South” column, reports came from Los Angeles papers up through a month prior to the publication of the Tribune issue.  There was something of a minor gold rush on the Kern River east of present Bakersfield at the southern extremity of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and a report of some $15-30 a day being realized by some miners.  It was added that “teams are leaving Los Angeles daily for the river, and a line of stages will be put on the route by the 1st February.”

In the City of Angels, some serious deviltry was at work at the news included the report that:

Mayor [Stephen Clark] Foster, it will be remembered, resigned his position, in fulfillment of a pledge previously given, the head the people to execute the murderers Brown and Alvitre, in case at attempt should be made to cheat justice of her dues by the strategy of the lawyers.

The matter of Brown and Alvitre was briefly addressed in a post here five years ago, but the short summary is that the two men were arrested in fall 1854 for murders committed in Los Angeles and between El Monte and the Homestead, respectively.  Because there had been a spate of homicides and only one capital conviction in the several years prior, vigilante activity developed in frustration with the perceived inefficiencies of the law.

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When a mass meeting was held about Brown, who’d been in legal trouble quite often before, Foster attended and, mounting a table, promised to resign as mayor and lead a lynching party if justice was not served.  Though Brown, with his trial under such pressure, was convicted and sentenced to hang, a stay of execution was granted pending an appeal at a new venue in Santa Barbara because of palpable public prejudice in Los Angeles.

Meanwhile, Alvitre, whose case was not as publicly spirited as that of Brown, was also convicted of murder and housed in jail awaiting his execution.  His attorneys also sought a stay and new trial, but, evidently, that was not received by the governor in time and Alvitre was sent out to be hung as sentenced a little before mid-January.  Baying for blood, the mob that gathered outside the jail yard where the hanging took place stormed the jail, seized Brown, and lynched him just after Alvitre was legally executed.

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As promised, Foster resigned to join the lynch mob, but while “an election to fill the vacancy was to be held in Los Angeles on the 25th” it turned out that “Foster had no opposition [so] he was doubtless unanimously reelected.”  This reads as if no one wanted to run because it was universally believed that Foster did the right thing and should be rewarded by being returned to the mayoralty.

Other news included the building of another public school, the first coming just the prior year; the killing of a massive wild boar by David W. Alexander, a close friend of William Workman; a crime spree in the Mormon town of San Bernardino; and a massive herding of 18,000 sheep by “J.F. Chavis” from New Mexico to Los Angeles along a southern route via the Gila River.  This might actually have been Julián A. Chavez, who was from New Mexico and is best known now as the namesake of Chavez Ravine where Dodger Stadium is situated.

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This issue of the New York Tribune is, of course, particularly notable for its reprinting of Los Angeles news, including the Alvitre and Brown executions and the remarkable circumstances involving Mayor Foster.  It also, however, has great material from international and national news and the valuable statistical data on immigration as nativist sentiment was on the rise.

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