Criminal Annals, Part 37 – The Placer Times: The ‘Celestials’

Continuing with the May 13, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” on page two there is an interesting article from the San Francisco newspaper, “Alta California,” relating to the Chinese immigrants, who are often looked down upon by the Americans and others and believed by some to be cunningly dangerous.

The article refers to them as “celestials,” a term for Chinese immigrants used in the Old West, and elsewhere, derived from their status as subjects of the “Son of Heaven” (the Chinese Emperor). The term is no longer in common use and is rarely heard outside of western movies.
“Nankeens” refers to their trousers, which were made from “nankeen,” a hand woven, cotton cloth that was usually a brownish yellow in color. Their “pigtails” or “queues” were a mark of political enslavement to the Manchu dynasty, and a curiosity to the Americans. There was a belief among many that if the pigtail was cut off, the person’s soul could not go to heaven, thus, threats to cut off the pigtail were taken seriously. The pigtail was abolished in China in 1911 when the Manchu dynasty was overthrown in favor of the Republic.

“CELESTIAL. – It seems a little singular to an ‘outside barbarian,’ to see the Celestials in our streets carrying on various branches of industry. We have a great deal of respect for the Chinese, with their nankeens and their pigtails and are pleased to find them of so quiet, peaceable and industrious dispositions. We know of no class of citizens who conduct themselves more becomingly and are gratified to know that they meet with success. Several of the Chinese who kept restaurants were burned out at the last fire, but they have again commenced operations. In passing down Jackson street yesterday we saw our celestial friend Ahi, industriously employed in putting up a spacious frame covered with blue nankeen. He was surrounded by a crowd of Chinamen all working away, sawing, planing, hammering, nailing, and busying themselves in the most delightful manner, all in their native costume. – [Alta Cal. 11th.”

On page three of the May 15, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times” there are two articles regarding criminal acts. The first one relates to a crime at Benicia, and the other is a very small article regarding a problem encountered by miners returning from California, which is also a warning to those heading back east.

“ROBBERY AND ARREST. – Six rascals went on board a ship at Benicia while the Captain and other officers were on shore, drew knives and pistols upon the steward who was in charge, robbed him of $3,000 or $4,000, stole a whale boat and put off. An officer came up here [Sacramento] and notified Capt. [C. N.]Cunningham, who has had his efficient and indefatigable aid on the watch, and on Monday morning two of the thieves were arrested on their arrival and confined on board the Strafford [one of several ships used as a jail], whence they will be returned to Benicia for trial. The other four are hourly expected, having shipped to work up a schooner to this port.

“Our Marshal and Mr. Tutt are thoroughly organizing their department. Mr. [Jeremiah] Root has been appointed Captain of the Watch, and we may hope soon to enjoy all the security of a well regulated police system.”

“RETURNED CALIFORNIANS. – Mr. John Grigsby and D. F. McClellan were robbed on board the Ne Plus Ultra of $11,400, while the boat was at the levee in New Orleans. They had just exchanged their dust for coin. The loss has left them almost destitute.”

Note: “Ne Plus Ultra” is a Latin phrase meaning no more beyond, often used to mean the most perfect example of something. An ideal name for a boat, or anything else for that matter.

The question of people squatting on public lands and other people questioning their right to be there has reached the newly elected legislature of California.
Many of those arriving in California, after trying their hand at gold mining, have decided to find land for development or agricultural purposes and have taken possession of public lands.
The legislature has carefully avoided the issue of the Spanish and Mexican land grants, which are still being worked out by the federal government and have set up a method to defend title to claimed lands not being used for mining purposes.
Since the public lands belong to the United States, and not the State of California, one wonders what authority the legislature has and if this even further complicates this serious problem of questionable land ownership, which has resulted in untold serious fights and numerous deaths.

“The People of the State of California, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:
“Section 1. Any person now occupying and settled upon, or who may hereafter occupy and settle upon any of the public lands belonging to the United States, unoccupied, except upon land containing mines of any of the precious metals, may commence and maintain any action for interference with, or injuries done to his possession of said land, against any person or persons so interfering with or injuring such land, or such possession.
“Sec. 2. On the trail of any such cause, the possession or possessory right of the plaintiff shall be considered as extending to the boundaries embraced by the claim of such plaintiff, so as to enable him to have and maintain any action as aforesaid, which being compelled to prove an actual enclosure: Provided, that such ‘claim’ shall not exceed in any case one hundred and sixty acres of land.
“Sec. 3. Every such claim, to entitle the holder to maintain any action as aforesaid, shall be marked out, so that the boundaries thereof may be readily traced, and the extent of such ‘claim’ easily known, and no person shall be entitled to maintain any such action for possession of, or injury to, any claim, unless he occupy the same, or shall have made improvements thereon, to the value of one hundred dollars.
“Sec. 4. The neglect to occupy or cultivate such ‘claim’ for the period of three months, shall be considered such an abandonment as to preclude the claimant from maintaining any action as hereinbefore mentioned.
“Sec. 5. Any person or persons claiming the right of possession to land under this act, shall have the right to defend said possession and the claim thereto, and all the rights and privileges given them by this Act.

JOHN BIGLER, Speaker of the Assembly. JOHN M’DOUGAL, Lieutenant-Governor and President of the Senate. Approved, April 11th, 1850.”


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