by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The years following the American seizure of Mexican Alta California and the immediate tumult of the Gold Rush had profound consequences for Los Angeles, situated as a stopover for travelers on the southern route to the coast as well as being the center of a cattle empire of importance for feeding the multitudes who flocked to California during the late 1840s and early 1850s.
The economic benefit to the region was enormous, especially for holders of Spanish and Mexican era land grants, whose ranchos were stocked with large herds of cattle supplying fresh beef as they were marched “on the hoof” several weeks to the gold fields. For example, for William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple with their ranchos La Puente and La Merced providing ample room for thousands of stock, the rewards were ample.
There was, however, a downside, both in terms of lingering resentments between many Spanish-speaking residents and Americans and Europeans because of the war as well as tensions and attitudes amplified by the ferment of the Gold Rush, and the result frequently was a level and scale of violence that set the Angel City apart as a place of perdition.
There has been a great deal of exaggeration about just how violent Los Angeles was. Both Horace Bell, in his melodramatic Reminiscences of a Ranger, published in 1881, and the more circumspect Harris Newmark, in his 1916 memoir Sixty Years in Southern California, stated that murders in 1853 reached a staggering one per day (per Bell) and thirty a month (Newmark.)
A detailed analysis of homicides from 1827 to 2002 undertaken by the late sociologist Eric Monkonnen and a team of researchers, however, offers a more nuanced view, with some three dozen homicides documented in any one year during the Fifties, though the group relied on what could be found in newspapers and other published sources and it seems obvious that there were some homicides that went unreported. Then again, it is important to distinguish what is a homicide from a murder (and, for that matter, from suicide, accidental death, or mortality from other causes, such as self-defense.)
Even if there were a few dozen murders in 1853 instead of 360-365, that is still an astronomical rate of violence compared to anywhere else in the United States at the time. in a 2005 posthumous article in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Monkonnen wrote that an analysis of the violence in Los Angeles was such that, with patchwork results from research such as that done by him and his associated, “we can begin to understand how a beautiful and prosperous region can become tainted with vicious, lethal crime.” Moreover, he continued, “the facts are elusive, the theories and hypotheses unconnected and speculative, and the data difficult to compile.” In the end, he offered, his article “raises more questions than it answers.”
The rates of homicide per 100,000 residents, as shown in a chart, are stunning to see, especially for the 1850s era, compared to modern levels, and Monkonnen speculated that “no single explanation accounts for this extreme violence, but its persistence from the Mexican period through four decades of the American era hints that neither nation nor national culture alone accounts for murder rates.” He wondered if the stratospheric numbers from 1830 to 1860 were due to “the popularity of the newly invented revolver spreading into an already violent setting.”
It is true that the Colt company produced a six-shooter in 1849, just in time for the Gold Rush. This revolutionary instrument of violence came, in California, into the hands of predominantly young men, migrating to a post-war California with hardly any meaningful government, much less law enforcement systems, and mingling with other young men from different parts of the world (Central and South America, Asia, Australia, Europe, and the United States) in the fierce competition for gold and other valued prizes (land, women, gambling winnings, etc.) No wonder there was so much violence and death in this environment for which there well may be no other precedent in history.
Another element to note is that, for whites in California, in particular, the first half of 1853 included the remarkable phenomenon of Joaquín Murrieta, the semi-mythical bandido who was so pervasive in the minds of the state’s residents that there may have been as many as five gang leaders identified as being him. It was widely reported that the feared bandit chieftain, who may have been involved in the murder of former Indian fighter Joshua Bean (whose brother Roy became the so-called “Law West of the Pecos” in Texas) at San Gabriel in November 1852, was killed on 25 July by the California Rangers, led by Harry Love, though there is no way to know who was slain and then asserted to be the fearsome Joaquín.
This is some of the context, then, for tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection, the 25 August 1853 edition of the New York Tribune, a prominent newspaper co-founded by Horace Greeley, often credited with the famous slogan “Go West, young man,” though it was used before by an Indiana journalist and the unsuccessful Democratic Party candidate for president in 1872 (soon after which he died.) Like many newspapers in other parts of the country, the Tribune regularly reprinted reports from California and Los Angeles, with one recent example cited here from early 1855 involving the incredible drama surrounding the execution in the Angel City of Felipe Alvitre and subsequent lynching of Dave Brown.
The soiled and sordid reputation of the city was, therefore, often well broadcast through such reprints in papers in America and, sometimes, overseas, which is noted with this evening’s example. In its coverage of news from the west coast during July, the Tribune noted that,
The [Los Angeles] Star of the 16th says that Los Angeles County is in a state of insurrection, and threatened to be literally overrun by thieves and murderers unless they are suppressed by the populace. A meeting of citizens was held on the 15th, and a band of volunteers organized to take the field against the desperadoes. Benjamin D. Wilson, Esq., took command of the party. Another company had also been organized in a different part of the county to cooperate with them.
The immediate cause of the action on the part of the people seems to have been the murder of a gentleman in open day between Los Angeles and San Pedro . . .
While the Homestead does not have a copy in its collection of that issue of the Star, research done over two decades ago for a project that eventually included the museum’s four-year series of presentations called Curious Cases did turn up that issue and the article with the simple headline of “MURDER,” which was also reprinted in the Tribune.
The Star, launched in May 1851, began by stating “we have recorded many deeds of crime, but never so daring an outrage upon a community as was the murder of Mr. David Porter.” Said to be about 30 years of age and a native of Virginia trained as an attorney, although lately a cattle dealer in Texas before settling in California just over a year prior, Porter “came to this city . . . with the avowed purpose of purchasing cattle, but not meeting a trade to his mind,” he headed to San Pedro to catch a steamer. While waiting for the ship, however, “he seems to have changed his intention again, for he hired a vaquero, by the name of [Manuel] Vergara, and started back towards the city, in company with Dr. John B. Wilson [no relation to Benjamin, who came to Los Angeles with Workman, John Rowland and others from New Mexico in late 1841.]”
Porter and Wilson were unarmed, but Vergara carried a shotgun, so “when within about 4 miles of the city, Vergara, who had all the time kept behind, rode up to Mr. Porter, and shot him in the back, the ball pasing through the heart.” Wilson took off and Vergara gave chase for a short distance, but the doctor was able to get to town and raise the alarm, so that “the Sheriff [James R. Barton, killed in January 1857 while hunting a gang of murderers and thieves in what is now Irvine in Orange County] with a strong posse imemdiately started in pursuit of the murderer.” It was added that Barton was still on the hunt “but the country is so thoroughly aroused that the murderer can scarcely escape.” Yet, Vergara did elude his pursuers—at least for a time.
The Star added that Porter, who was buried in Los Angeles and likely in the old cemetery on Fort Moore Hill, had $400 in a belt on his person, but saddlebags were missing “which some people have supposed to contain a large sum of money.” It was reported that “during his sort stay in this city he favorably impressed our citizens by his gentlemanly demportment and intelligent conversation.” By contrast, the article ended “Vergara is a Mexican and a noted thief,” accused of stealing from a fellow Latino named Quintano [Quintana], but he “scaped from the officer who had him in charge.”
The Tribune elaborated that Vergara was said to be on the road to San Diego, likely through what is now Orange County and down the coast, and that “four citizens were in pursuit of him” with confidence expressed that he would be captured. Returning to the paper’s report about the “band of volunteers,” the 6 August edition of the Star, which would not have been available to the New York paper until after the 25th, had a long feature titled “Public Defence – – Los Angeles Rangers.” It began with the statement:
The people of this county have long felt the necessity of having among them an efficient military force, which could be brought out promptly in aid of the laws and for the protection of life and property. We are not only exposed to regular predatory visits from indians from the neighboring mountains, who come here to feed on cattle and carry off horses . . . we have seen an organized band of robbers, well mounted and well armed, traversing the country unmolested, sometimes making no concealment of their movements, supplying themselves with the best horses with impunity, until it is universally admitted that the roads are unsafe to travel, and a sense of utter insecurity prevails in house and field.
The account continued that “well disposed citizens” had to contend with conditions that “we believe exist in no other part of the United States,” namely, “the habitual concealment of offenders and the repugnance to give information to the authorities, of which a large class of our population is justly accused.” This thinly-veiled reference was to the Spanish-speaking citizenry, but no evidence was brought forward to buttress this claim, though it was pervasive among many whites.
In any case, the piece went on, “a remedy for this state of things will, we conceive, be found mainly in the organization of the ‘Los Angeles Rangers,” consisting of some one hundred volunteers, but of which about a quarter were considered “the active force, their horses to be furnished gratuitously [that is, free, rather than without a good reason!] by the rancheros, as a loan to the company.” Funds were to be raised by private sources as well as from the county, with any monies from the latter ($1000 was to be appropriated by the Board of Supervisors, formed the prior year with F.P.F. Temple as one of the inaugural members, with expectation of reimbursement by the state) to be remitted back if the Rangers were to cease to exist. Weapons were to be provided by the volunteers “until they shall be furnished by the state.”
The list of members was, not surprisingly, exclusive composed of white citizens, inclujding W.T.B. Sanford, business partner and brother-in-law of new arrival to the area, Phineas Banning, the later “Port Admiral” at Wilmington; Alexander W. Hope, a doctor who also a city council member, state senator and briefly the chief of a volunteer police department organized in 1851; John Quincy Adams Stanley, a long-time local; William C. Getman, a city marshal and Barton’s replacement as sheriff and who was killed in the line of duty in 1858; Thomas S. Hereford, Wilson’s brother-in-law, and “H. Bell,” who’d moved to Los Angeles the previous year and became the colorful chronicler of Reminiscenes of a Ranger. An election of officers was held on 1 August with Hope becoming Captain, Sanford the 3rd Lieutenant, and David W. Alexander, close friend of William Workman, business partner of Banning, and later a two time-sheriff (1856 and 1876-1877) of the county, as the treasurer and clerk.
The Tribune‘s mention of another company from elsewhere in the county refers partly to a loose confederation of residents of the town of El Monte, established the prior year and mainly composed of white Southerners with a decided animosity towards people of color and an eagerness to “assist the law” at the drop of a hat. Known generally as the “Monte Boys,” their prowess has been overstated, as amply demonstrated in the manhunt for the killers of Barton and his inadequate posse, because, when some of the Flores-Daniel gang were subsequenly caught and placed under guard by the Monte Boys, they escaped, only to be recaptured by Andrés Pico, former Californio general during the American invasion, who summarily executed the Latino gang members.
But, as elaborated upon by the London Chronicle of 9 September, also quoting from the Star of the 16th, there was a more heightened sense of urgency, with this passage proclaiming,
This country is in a state of insurrection—clearly and plainly so. A large gang of outlaws, many of them expelled for cime from the mines, are in open rebellion against the laws, and are daily committing the most daring murders and robberies. Good citizens should devise plans to defend themselves. One of two things must result; the orderly, industrious inhabitants must drive out this worthless scum of humanity, or they must give way before the pirates, and be driven out themselves .
This citation observed that Wilson had fifteen men under his leadership, while there were sixteen men organized at “the Monte” as well as about three dozen at San Bernardino, where Mormons established a town two years before, and ten “from the military fort at Jurupa,” an Army post that existed from 1852-1854 west of the Santa Ana River near Riverside.
There was also a quote from the edition of the Star from the 23rd that stated, “The company under Mr. B.D. Wilson returtned . . . with the exception of the party detached to pursue Vergara.” A couple of Latinos were detained and whipped, without due process, including Juan Valenzuela, “a person suspected [but not proved] of being cognisant [sic] of the whereabouts of Vergara.” Obviously, this was one of the problems of volunteer militias as extralegal methods were applied, as with vigilante popular tribunals and mobs, seemingly for any reason, but it was claimed that “undoubtedly much good has been accomplished’ because themeans justified the ends as “the county is now comparatively tranquil.”
Notably, a photocopy of the insurrection article from the Star on the 16th is not entirely reproduced verbatim in the Chronicle. For example, there is the missing and memorable line of “let good citizens combine and drive the rascals into the sea.” Moreover, the meeting at the El Dorado Hotel that led to Wilson’s appointment had four resolutions, including one which stated that the “Mounted Police Force” would have power for “arresting all suspicious persons . . . and ridding the community of the same in such manner as may be advisable. Another warned that those believed to be harboring criminals could “be punished with the greatest severity.”
A third gave “the whole vagrant class” three days to leave the county after “taking down their names and description” or be subjected to expulsion “at all hazards.” Finally, this state of affairs was to exist “until the peace and security of the community are perfectly established.” Obviously, there are many issues here with regard to constitutional protections of search and seizure and due process matters!
The Rangers, meanwhile, were almost certainly more prominent and effective in Bell’s obviously self-interested memoir than in reality and lasted but a few years. Volunteer militias, a regular feature of American life since the 1630s and specifically mentioned in the Second Amendment to the Constitution, remained very popular until the Civil War, though they were more often social clubs than well-trained and drilled military units, as was painfully obvious when the Civil War took place. After that conflict, National Guard units in each state supplanted militias, of which Los Angeles had many of through the 1870s.
The news of Porter’s murder was retold in other newspapers in America and the United Kingdom, as was the followup in late September/early October that, as expresed in the [Boston] New England Farmer of 1 October:
The murderers and thieves who have so long infested the State have been faring somewht badly of late. A number of them have been brought to summary account, and forfeited their lives for their crimes. Among them, Vergara, who murdered Mr. Porter, near Los Angelos [sic], some weeks since, was lately killed at the military camp on the Colorado.
Again, the information is very sparse and it is not known whether the Rangers, or some other militia/vigilante cohort, caught up with Vergara or, if the suspect was shot by Army personnel at Fort Yuma. The main issue is how poorly managed, albeit under extraordinary circumstances (minimal funding and support and public sympathy with extralegal measures, for example), the criminal justice administration system as in Los Angeles County during a period of truly staggering violence.