“We Have Amongst Us a Great Number of Thieves, Robbers, and Murderers”: The Killing of Antonio Ruiz by Deputy Constable William W. Jenkins, Los Angeles, 19 July 1856, Part Five

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the aftermath of the slaying of Antonio Ruiz, a Los Angeles resident, by deputized constable William W. Jenkins on 19 July 1856, including the gathering of Latinos on Fort Moore Hill above the Plaza Church and an incident in which Marshal William C. Getman was shot and wounded as some of those persons rode down into the Plaza, a mass meeting was held at the Montgomery House, a saloon, billiard parlor and bowling alley on Main Street near the Plaza and which was then owned by future mayor Damien Marchessault.

The Montgomery, which appears to have opened in 1854, was previously the site of public meetings, including for the angered crowd determined to dispense justice against David Brown after the legal execution of Felipe Alvitre in January 1855. That August, Marchessault took possession of the place, which was owned by M.M. Domingo when it mostly burned to the ground three months later before being reopened at the end of November.

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856. Thanks to attorney and historian Paul Bryan Gray for making available his copies of the paper.

Another prominent gathering there was in mid-May 1856 when rumors of the theft of cattle and the killing of ten Anglos by Yokut Indians reached the Angel City. Though these reports as part of what was known as the Tule River War were inaccurate, such well-known Angelenos as attorney and judge Jonathan R. Scott, lawyer Columbus Sims, Marshal Getman, former district attorney William C. Ferrell, and Major Walter H. Harvey—who’d led attacks on native people in that area several years before before moving to Los Angeles— were present. The Los Angeles Star, however, was less than impressed with the what it judged to be a lukewarm response to the situation in Tulare County.

In January 1857, following the massacre in what is now Irvine in Orange County of the posse led by Sheriff James Barton as they searched for the Flores-Daniel gang and with levels of tension and fear far surpassing that after the Ruiz killing, militias gathered in front of the Montgomery before they were sent out for patrols and searches looking for gang members. Later that year, Marchessault opened a restaurant at the Montgomery, which was subsequently used to host Democratic Party gatherings and was a polling place for elections. It was open as late as 1873 and, a decade later, the structure was razed, with the Los Angeles Times noting that the walls and floors were rat-infested.

El Clamor Público, 26 July 1856.

In its description of the Junta del Pueblo, or Town Meeting, El Clamor Público, established by the remarkable teenager, Francisco P. Ramirez, reported that the gathering was held “in order to take measures to prevent the perpetration of crimes and to organize among themselves for the defense of the city.” On a motion from an unnamed member of the assemblage, Myron Norton, referred to in previous parts of this post, was named president while Henry N. Alexander, a member of the Los Angeles Rangers, was chosen as secretary. Norton was paraphrased as saying that the object of the meeting was that “good citizens had been summoned to unite to promote public tranquility.” This was a vigilance committee, twenty years after the first in Los Angeles was formed at Jonathan Temple’s house and two months after the second San Francisco vigilance committee was established.

Speaking to the Latinos present at the convocation was Don Andrés Pico, who led the Mounted Californians on a 70-mile search for Fernando Carriaga, the ringleader of the “mob” on Fort Moore Hill and who was captured on the road leading from town to Mission San Gabriel. Pico, whose similar intensive efforts after the Barton massacre included the lynching of several suspected Flores-Daniel gang members and likely helped secure him a seat in the California Assembly where his bill to create a new southern California state called Colorado was passed and forwarded to Congress before the Civil War intervened, was called, with applause, to explain in Spanish what the meeting concerned.

Los Angeles Star, 26 July 1856.

Sims then motioned for the creation a commission to create resolutions that explained the sentiments of those gathered and seventeen men were selected, including prominent Californios Pico, Juan Padilla, future sheriff Tomás Sánchez (elected at the same time as Pico and who served for eight years), and former common (city) council member and future state treasurer Antonio F. Coronel. A few Europeans were represented, these being Jewish merchant Jacob Elias and vintner Jean Louis Sainsevain painter and future photographer Henri Penelon, the latter two born in France. The much larger American contingent included Sims, Norton, County Clerk John W. Shore, merchant Francis Mellus, El Monte hotel owner Ira Thompson, Dr. John S. Griffin, and the prominent rancher Abel Stearns.

After another motion, the meeting was suspended for an hour so that the commission could draft the resolutions and, at 1 p.m., the gathering was called back to order. A preamble read,

Whereas, this Meeting is well convinced by severe experience that we have amongst us a great number of thieves, robbers, and murderers, who have stolen our property, murdered our citizens, and from whom we are in hourly danger of our lives: Therefore,

Resolved, That a Committee of Twenty citizens be appointed to inquire into and hear of any and all persons making complaint or accusation into the character, conduct and occupation of all disorderly and suspicious persons, and that upon the order of such Committee the said persons may be released, or sent out of the country, and that the military formed from the people for purpose and preventing and restraining the disgraceful violations of law and order in this community, hold themselves in readiness under the order of the Committee to carry out its directions

Resolved, That we the people are adverse to the shedding of blood, and desire to avoid such necessity; and we pledge our lives and honors that we will not take way the life of any man unless he is found resisting the proper authority . . . or in some other way disturbing or threatening the public peace by demonstrations with arms.

Resolved, That all persons found assembled in the county of Los Angeles, or on the roads and highways, with arms, unless they belong to some military company, shall be arrested and disarmed, unless they an give a satisfactory account of themselves [with the militias “under the general control and direction of the Sheriff”.]

The twenty men named to this committee included some of those who were on the resolutions commission, including Mellus, Stearns, Sánchez, Griffin, Edward Hunter, Coronel, Sainsevain, and Elias. They were joined by such prominent figures in the region as former District Court judge Agustín Olvera, County Judge William G. Dryden, future mayor Cristobal Aguilar, recent mayor Stephen C. Foster, future California governor John G. Downey, Marchessault, Justice of the Peace Joseph S. Mallard, former mayor John G. Nichols and former mayor and future state senator Benjamin D. Wilson.

Statutes of California, Sixth Session of the Legislature (Sacramento: B.B. Redding, State Printer,) 1855, p. 217..

As noted in the last part of this post, El Clamor expressed its concern over the very broad powers and authority to be given to this committee, though it did note that they comprised some of the best-known citizens of Los Angeles County. It is also worth noting that the state legislature passed, on 30 April 1855, “An Act to Punish Vagrants, Vagabonds, and Dangerous and Suspicious Persons.” While there is no known example of enforcement in the county, the law, which exempted “Digger Indians,” called for a county jail term of up to 90 days for violators (who failed to find work within ten days), including beggars, “lewd and dissolute persons who live in and about houses of Ill-Fame,” and “common prostitutes and common drunkards.”

Then, the second section specifically stipulated that “all persons who are commonly known as ‘Greasers’ or the issue of Spanish and Indian blood . . . and who go armed and are not known to be peaceable and quiet persons, and who can give no good account of themselves,” could be relieved of any weapons “and punished otherwise as provided in the foregoing section.” It should also be observed that this heinous statute was passed by a legislature dominated by xenophobic “Know Nothings” and the Star of 20 June 1855 condemned Assembly member S.B. Stevens of Calaveras County for introducing the bill with “a direct insult . . . to a large class of our citizens.” The paper continued that “we never heard the term ‘Greaser’ used by another other class than black-guards” and added,

Those who are located among the natives [Spanish-speaking Californios] of California have used all efforts to allay prejudice that have heretofore existed between the Anglo-Americans, and those of the Castillian [Spanish] race, and we can but fell [feel] chagrined when we see firebrands thrown in our way by such men as Mr. STEVENS . . .

The term is unjust as well as opprobrious, which every one can testify to, who has had any intercourse [communication] with the natives. It is not the particular color of the skin, in all cases, that makes the man of respectability, but it is his conduct in his dealings with his fellow men. We have for several years lived among the natives and have never found any cause to depreciate [deprecate] them or their conduct, on the contrary, we have found them high minded, honest and liberal . . . for many of them, who have large estates [ranchos], have been the dupes of the very class of men who are the most ready to apply to epithet of “Greaser” and have been, by them, swindled out of their property . . .

It is not magnanimous to keep alive animosity after you have vanquished your foe, and not gentlemanly to retain towards those of them, who have by conquest [in the Mexican-American War] become your fellow citizens. It is bad enough when individuals condescend to this meanness, but how much worse does it appear when it is spread on the journals of the legislature as a lasting, ineffaceable insult to the native population . . .

It [is] a disgrace on our statute books, and would again revive the mark of distinction that has heretofore been so destructible to the good understanding between the natives and the Americans.

Remarkable as this editorial was, it bears remembering that racism was rampant in Los Angeles among a great many Americans and Europeans towards Latinos and other people of color during this period and, of course, would continue to be so.

Star, 20 June 1855.

As for the meeting, there were also resolutions that it required a majority, or eleven representatives, of the committee for an expulsion, or ostracism as El Clamor expressed it, from the county; that 1000 copies of the resolutions, half in Spanish, were to be printed and distributed; and that a five-person committee of Padilla, Ignacio Coronel, Penelon, Stearns and Dr. James B. Winston “collect voluntary subscriptions for the purpose of aiding our citizens in carrying out and enforcing the foregoing resolutions.” The last piece of business was that “all parties who had not enrolled their names in Major Harvey’s company [the City Guards] be requested to come forward an enrol [sic] themselves for duty.”

Tomorrow, we return with part six, which focuses on material found in the scrapbooks of Judge Hayes, housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, including an affidavit by Judge Dryden, based on an unidentified Latino informant, of the purported threat posed by the persons gathered on Fort Moore Hill as well as Hayes reflections on what he called “The Great Mob.” Be sure to join us then!

2 thoughts

  1. Paul, thank you for this excellent series of articles on the killing of Antonio Ruiz. If possible, it would be great to hear more about the teenage editor of the El Clamor Publico in a future article. Although the paper only lasted 3 years, it would be interesting to know what he did with the rest of his life.

  2. Thanks, Arthur—the sixth and final part of the post has just been published and another multi-part post on the Jenkins trial will appear on or about 23 August, so look for that. As for Francisco P. Ramirez of El Clamor Público, he’ll certainly be discussed in the forthcoming post, but the best way to learn about this remarkable figure is to read Paul Bryan Gray’s outstanding biography, “A Clamor for Equality,” which you can get as low as $8 on eBay or Amazon.

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