As mining communities sprang up, so did the first mining codes, as miners realized the necessity of having law and order so that they might work their claims in peace. Most mining codes were remarkably alike. They allowed the miner to stake a claim (the size varied from district to district) that he could occupy so long as he worked it six days a week. If he abandoned it, or failed to work it, someone might evict him and possess his claim. A claim did not entail the ownership of the land, but merely the right to occupy and exploit it. Indeed, all of the land in California was property of the federal government, as California in 1849 was still an unorganized territory. Under the still-active Ordinance of 1785, the miners owed the federal government one third of the minerals they took off the land. However, in 1866 Congress passed an act acknowledging the 49ers, and legitimizing their exploitation of public land.
Generally each camp elected an official, usually referred to by the Spanish term alcade, who was responsible for enforcing claims. He kept records of all the claims in the area, and settled disputes between miners over contested claims. Overall, the mining codes were remarkably effective in regulating the unbridled greed of the gold seekers, and maintaining at least a semblance of order in the mining camps.
Less impressive was the system of criminal justice. The annals of the gold rush are filled with infamous tales of lynching and vigilantism. Initially, such acts were committed in part because there were no organized courts available, they continued out of sheer habit.
Vigilantes were frequently careless and sometimes vicious in their justice. In 1851, a mob in Downieville hanged a woman named Juanita (some sources claim her name was Josefa) after she stabbed a man to death, obstinately in self-defense. Juanita was given an extralegal trial in which a witness for the defense was banished upon pain of death. With the verdict a foregone conclusion, Juanita was hanged from a wooden bridge. In 1855, John Barclay was lynched by a mob after he shot a man whom he believed was threatening his wife. Only the prosecutor was allowed to speak at his improvised trial, and Barclay was hanged ignominiously, taking over a half-hour to slowly strangle.
Not all vigilantes were rough-hewn miners. Indeed, the most famous were a collection of San Francisco businessmen who in 1851 organized themselves into the Vigilance Committee, hoping to curb the rampant crime of their city. The Vigilance Committee began as a mere mob incited by Sam Brannan to lynch two men accused of assault and robbery. A young William Tell Coleman, already a prosperous merchant, convinced the crowd to organize into a citizen's tribunal and try the accused. The jury was hung, and the suspects were returned to the city jail. Shortly afterwards however, the fifth great San Francisco fire ravaged the city, leading some to suspect that it had been ignited by the criminal element, in order to loot in the ensuing confusion. The business community thus officially organized the Committee of Vigilance. Their first official act was to lynch a petty thief named John Jenkins, who had stolen a merchant's safe. Over the next three months, they hanged four men and exiled over 28 under pain of death. The Committee also turned 15 prisoners over to the regular authorities. Then satisfied with their extra-legal justice, they disbanded, believing they had cowered criminal to the point that the municipal authorities could deal with the rest.
Two sensational murders in 1855 caused the reorganization of the Vigilance Committee. The first was the killing of the popular newspaper editor James King of William by James Casey, who was deranged with rage after King of William revealed that he was a convict from New York. The second was the death of General William Richardson, after he pulled a pistol against gambler Charles Cora. The two were scuffling after Richardson insulted Cora's mistress. Cora beat Richardson to the draw, although it appears he acted in self-defense. Both Casey and Cora were imprisoned in the jail, guarded by 150 deputies. The reconstituted vigilance committee however, headed by William T. Coleman demanded that they be summarily tried and executed, and threatened to act if the state would not. The governor traveled down to San Francisco to try to reason with the Vigilantes, who promised not to seize the two suspects. However, the vigilantes had been arming and drilling themselves, and had constructed a crude fortifications they dubbed "Fort Gunnybags." Two days after the governor departed they felt confident enough to storm the jail and forcefully take custody of the prisoners. They tried them extra-legally, using procedures that somewhat resembled that of a regular court. They unanimously voted to hang Casey, and condemned Cora by a bare majority.
Governor Johnson was meanwhile furious, as the Vigilantes had reneged on their word. He declared them to be in a state of rebellion, and commissioned Lieut. William Tecumseh Sherman to command a militia forces to restore order in San Francisco. Meanwhile, the Mayor of San Francisco formed a new "Law and Order" Party of concerned citizens to counter the Vigilantes.
Popular support for the Vigilantes was high, and militia turnout was subsequently low and Sherman had no means to arm them. Frustrated, Sherman resigned. He was then the president of a San Francisco bank, and he realized he could ill-afford to alienate the merchant elite of the city, the majority of whom were either members of the Vigilance Committee or supported its goals.
Meanwhile, the Vigilance Committee intercepted a shipment of 113 muskets sent from the federal arsenal in Benicia to the state militia. The Vigilantes attempted to arrest a militiaman to prevent him from testifying to their piracy. However, Chief Justice Terry, a prominent Law and Order man whom was receiving the testimony, intervened, pulling a Bowie knife and stabbing a Vigilante. Terry was arrested, but it proved the undoing of the Committee. He conducted a vigorous defense before their tribunal, and was convicted of assault, and then released as the unnerved members quarreled amongst themselves. It had been a mistake to tangle with the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. The Vigilantes thus voted to disband, doing so on August 18th after a parade of some 6000 men. The Second Vigilance Committee had executed four men, and banished over 30.
Go to Minorities During the Gold Rush