Doug Noble

Criminal Annals, Part 38 – The Placer Times: Watchmen and Gold Coins

There being very little artificial light in early Sacramento during the night, the possibility of a crime or disruption of the peace occurring was high. Thus, the recently established city government took steps to help its citizens and protect the peace. On page three of the May 22, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” there is a notice of the establishment of a “Night Watch,” for the safety of the people of Sacramento, a portion of which is repeated here.

“AN ORDINANCE establishing a Watch for the safety and good order of the City of Sacramento.

“Section 1. Be it ordained, that there shall be appointed by the Marshal of the City and the Captain of the Watch ten able-bodied, sober and discreet men to constitute the Night Watch of the City of Sacramento. From the hour of seven in the evening until sunrise in the morning one half at least of said Watch shall be constantly on duty, unless sickness or some other cause of like character should render it impracticable for such a portion of the Watch to be on duty. That during the time any Watchman is on duty he shall have power, and it shall be his duty to prevent the commission of any breach of the peace, to suppress riots and all disorderly assemblages, to arrest and take into custody any person found committing any act injurious to the quiet and good order of the city, or to the person or property of any citizen; and also to arrest and take into custody all vagrants or suspicious persons whose appearance and conduct many seem to justify their being called to account for their manner of living.

“Sec. 2. Be it further ordained, that upon the arrest of any person under the provisions of the first section of this ordinance, such person so arrested shall be taken to the watch house, or such place as may be provided for such purpose, and delivered to the Captain of the Watch, who shall be informed by the person who may have made such arrest, of the occasion and circumstances under which such arrest has been made. And it is also further provided, that in no case shall any Watchman or any officer having in any manner any charge of such Watch receive from any person arrested or about to be arrested, or charged with any offence, any sum of money or any thing of value, either ass a present or as a fine, or in any other manner whatsoever.

Sec. 3. Be it further ordained, that at the earliest possible period after the arrest of any person as aforesaid, the Captain of the Watch shall report said arrest to the Marshal of the City, who shall take immediate custody of such offender, and report the arrest, the occasion of the same, the name of the party arrested, &c. to the City Attorney, in order that such offender may be brought before the Recorder for examination.”

After several more sections regarding the fine points of the process it notes in Section 7. that for any neglect or violation of duty by these “able-bodied, sober and discreet” watchmen, a fine of up to five hundred dollars and ten days in jail can be imposed. Section 8. adds that each watchman shall receive a monthly salary of one hundred and fifty dollars.

One of the biggest problems facing the miners in early California was disposing of the gold once they found it. Often the nuggets were saved and dust was just used as cash, a “pinch” at a time. It was carried around in a small leather bag called a “poke” and offered up to pay bills.
If a miner wanted to sell his gold, he had to use a speculator who would purchase it for less than its real value and make arrangements to have it shipped to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, PA, where it would be assayed, melted and then cast into bars.

There were also a number of private mints making coins in California that often had less gold than the stated value (gold dust was valued at $16 per ounce, but a one ounce U.S. gold coin was worth $20). One of these private mints was F. D. Kohler and Co., which was sold to Baldwin & Co. in April of 1850.

After being petitioned by the citizens of California, the legislature of the “State of California” decided what was happening was not a good idea in many ways and in May of 1850 established the Office of the State Assayer.

The May 22 edition of the Placer Times published the new law in its entirety and then added a comment explaining the action in simple words.

“TO MINERS. – The foregoing law affords a remedy for an evil the mining community had long been subject to, in having their gold to pass into the hands of speculator at more than two dollars less than its value. – The State Assayer melts the dusts of the miner into bars or ingots, tests its fineness, and stamps it with the same value as would the United States Mint The dust current in this market is intrinsically worth above $18 – it assays at an average from $17 90 to $18 20 per ounce. Besides, but the Act creating the office, all stamped bars or ingots are received for all public dues throughout the State, at the same value as government coin.

“The Governor has appointed O. P. Sutton, Director, and F. D. Kohler [yes, the former private mint owner], Assayer. Their office is at San Francisco, on south side of Portsmouth Square.

“Under the provisions of the Act, a branch office will likely soon be opened at Sacramento City, and also one at Stockton.”
The State Assay Office of California was the only mint in the country to operate under the authority of a state, since the U.S. Constitution forbid the coining of money by states in 1789.

The California State Assayer refined and assayed gold dust and cast into ingots weighing a minimum of two troy ounces, ingots not being mentioned in the Constitution as being illegal and nobody seemed to care anyway. On these pieces he stamped the state name, value, weight and fineness of the ingot. Their value ranged from $36.55 to $150.00. The $50 “slugs” were probably the most common.

In late 1850 the California State Assayer’s office became the United States Assay Office, which issued United States coins noting that they were certified by the California Office and in 1854, the U.S. Mint in San Francisco was established, replacing it.

Most of the privately minted gold coins and early California gold coins were later melted down by the San Francisco Mint.


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.”


Criminal Annals, Part 36 – The Placer Times: Unique or Improbable?

Continuing with the May 3, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” on page three there is a short series of articles which were obviously picked up from other newspapers. Although they are really not a part of any criminal activity, they are a bit “unique” and, in some cases, maybe even improbable.

“The schr. [schooner] Enterprise, Capt. Vandyke, cleared at New Orleans on the 20th Feb. for San Francisco. She is only 5 and 62-100 tons burden and carries seven men. The E. will proceed to Chagres [Atlantic Panama port], from which place she will be hauled across the Isthmus, launched in the Pacific and pursue her voyage.”

“The schr. Teolinda left Panama 4th December for this port, having been purchased there by a company, at a cost of $12,000. After a four month’s cruize [archaic], she put into San Diego in distress, and was sold there for the sum of $450. Two of the passengers have arrived at this port. [Alt. Cal. 27th”

“A balloon to carry three thousand people is said to be in process of erection in Paris, and to be propelled on the bird-wing principle.”

“It is stated that Mr. Fessenden, of Boston, has invented a pocket-filter, by means of which the traveler may suck up pure water from the ponds and streams, or even the puddles, which he may encounter on his way.”

Unfortunately, there are no existing copies of the Monday, May 6, 1850 edition of the Placer Times available, so continuing on to the May 8 edition, on page three are found two stories regarding crime in the Sacramento area.

“BOLD ROBBERIES. – On Monday afternoon several of the lodging rooms over the auction store of J. B. Starr & Co. were opened by some thieving rascals, who broke into a number of trunks and carried off all their valuable contents. The same night, a trunk was broken open in one of the rooms, but the thief was not lucky enough to find the ore in it, before (for some reason best know to himself) he vamosed. We have frequently cautioned the public against the depredations of these scoundrels, as they become more numerous it is requisite to keep one’s eye peeled all the time. There are two ore three genteel swindlers operating about town, whose names we shall publish the moment we are a little better satisfied of their intentions.

“STILL ANOTHER. – The third victim to the bogus operations presented himself yesterday. – Two hundred and twenty-four dollars was the amount of his misplaced confidence.”
In the next column is another mention of problems between the Indians and the miners.

“INDIAN OUTRAGE. – We have learned from a letter dated near Barnes’ Bar, on the North Fork [American River], some further particulars of the death of Mr. Joseph G. Stone. He was conversing with two other men beside a camp fire, in from of Mr. Richard Smythe’s tent, when he was instantly killed by two arrows piercing his heart. The Indians fled immediately down the river to within half a mile of the Oregon Bar, where they stole a quantity of provisions, and shot a man from the west – one arrow entering the calf of his right leg and the other his left thigh; not dangerously, however. They committed other depredations on their way. After the funeral of Mr. Stone a party of forty-five put off after the Indians, but we are not advised of their success. Mr. Stone is supposed to be from Cambridge, near Boston, and it is the desire of his friends that this intelligence may reach his family.”

At the bottom of page four of the same edition are two lines of interest to single men in California:

“Woo gently. It is not fashionable for
young ladies to take ardent spirits.”

In the May 8 and May 10 editions of the newspaper are two notices of stolen property.
“ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS REWARD. Lost or stolen on the 24th ult., from the Steamer Senator, a russet leather travelling trunk containing a gold watch, jewelry, two Chinese shawls, a quantity of lady’s wearing apparel, &c. The above reward will be paid on delivery of the trunk and contents to Mr. McKnight at the Sutter House.”

“$50 REWARD. Stolen from the steamer Senator on Wednesday morning, May 8, a large black leather Trunk, containing gentlemen and ladies’ wearing apparel. The trunk had no mark upon it. The above reward will be paid by returning it to HENRY B. LYMAN, at the Mansion House.”

At this point in time, ships are arriving in San Francisco by the dozens each day, carrying supplies and a significant amount of lumber, bricks and other building supplies. Many of these are from ports in Maine and Massachusetts and have travelled for around six months to reach California. Since they also bring the newspapers the Placer Times is very full of east coast news and a minimum amount of local news.
Continually advertised on the front page of each edition are opportunities to buy shares in wonderfully described new cities that have been layed out. They include: Plumas City “10 miles above Nicolaus and 5 from Elizaville on high ground above the Feather River,” Featherton City “15 to 20 miles above Marysville” and El Dorado City, which is apparently also near Marysville.

Like many towns of that era, it appears that all of them flourished for a short time and then vanished, probably with the investor’s money.
The May 13 edition has a small article on page two regarding the problems of leaving money lying around.

“POCKETS. – Two gentlemen were relieved of their funds on Friday night, at the Sutter House. The amount was but $200, but enough to caution them and others against leaving money about on chairs, and in other exposed situations, depending upon the poor security of a lock and key. A noted hotel thief is in town, known and watched.”


Criminal Annals, Part 35 – The Placer Times: More on the Foreign Miner’s Tax

Continuing with the May 1, 1850 edition of the “Placer Times,” on page three there is a short article regarding the very questionable “Foreign Miners Tax,” which requires all but Americans to pay a monthly tax or leave their claims.

“COLLECTORS OF TAXES FROM FOREIGN MINERS. – Major Dickey, who has lately arrived here from San Jose, where he has attended the sessions of the Legislature during the winter as the reporter of the Alta California, gives us the following list of appointments by the Governor:

“Capt. H. M. Naglee, San Francisco County; W. A. Baker, Sacramento County; Riley Gregg, Yuba County; Benj. McCullough, Mariposa County; Gen. L. A. Besançon, Touolumne [sic] County; Col. Gift, El Dorado County; W. B Almond, Calaveras County; T. B. Van Buren, San Joaquin County; W. H. Richardson, Sutter County; J. F. Ankeny, Shasta County; Capt. A. W. Adams, Butte County.”

Colonel Gift does not seem to appear in any of the books regarding El Dorado County, or even in the 1850 Federal Census. However, another person in the list, Captain Henry Morris Naglee, was a major figure in early California.

In 1849 officials of the City of San Francisco requested the military governor, Brigadier General Bennett Riley, to aid them in combating a criminal element that had been growing since gold was discovered in 1848. General Riley complied with the request and formed the California Militia, which he called the First California Guard, and which later became the California National Guard. Riley appointed Naglee as its first commander.

Naglee owned property near San Jose, where he raised cattle and also grapes to make brandy. He is known by some as the “Father of California’s brandy industry.” He would later become a general in the Civil War. In 1864, disillusioned with the progress of the war, he resigned his commission and returned to his farm and vineyards in California where he died in 1886 at the age of 71.

Page three of the same issue continues with an article regarding a growing and serious problem in California, squatters on the lands earlier granted to people by the Spanish and Mexican governments.

As a bit of history, it was originally agreed that with the ceding of California to the United States, Spanish and Mexican land grants would be recognized. However, when Congress approved the treaty, that provision was removed. Thus, many people believed that all land was public and available to anyone claiming it.

To iron out the confusion over land ownership in California, Congress passed “An Act to Ascertain and Settle Private Land Claims in the State of California” in 1851. This legislation established the California Land Commission, which had responsibility for adjudicating the validity of claims to Spanish and Mexican land grants. The law placed the burden of proof on the claimant.

Because it provided for appeals of the Commission’s decisions to the Federal courts, titles to these claims were often tied up in expensive litigation for years. In the mean time, there were many violent and bloody clashes between squatters and the claimants to the land grants.

“The subjoined from the N. Y. American Sun show that squatterism is appreciated in the East:

“From all accounts there are likely to be serous collisions between the new settlers and the old landholders of California. Squatters have already commenced inroads upon the estates of Capt. Sutter and others, claiming to have as good a right as he to lands conquered by the United States. Capt. Sutter, and many other persons, hold large tracts of land by virtue of Mexican titles – titles perfectly sufficient to protect the owners under the rule of Mexico. The new comers, or a portion of them, assume that these titles are no longer valid, that the United States dissolved them by her conquest, and made the whole territory public. This lawless, agrarian doctrine is naturally espoused by those who have no land, and who prefer squatting upon improved ground, to taking wild land and improving it for themselves.

“Unless the United States Government settles this question of Mexican titles soon, the worst consequences will follow. There can be nothing more absurd and wicked than the doctrine that conquest impairs the title of the conquered, individually, to their property. The United States is bound to protect those residents of California, or any other conquered territory, in all their property rights at the time of conquest. Any other course than this would be robbery of the Norman stamp. It is high time the United States placed some restriction upon speculation in public lands, but to tolerate the lawless partition of property already secured by individuals, according to the laws and customs of civilized nations, would be a graceless outrage.”

In 1850 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had before it a case involving a partnership between two men regarding mining gold in California and who owned it. It is unclear whether both of them went to California or if one of them went while the other stayed home.

“CALIFORNIA GOLD DIGGERS – Important Decision. – Judge Rogers, of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, made a decision recently, which is likely to have some slight influence on the operations of the silent partner business in the gold digging line. An application was made to the court, by Mr. J. A. Lessig, of Philadelphia, for an injunction to restrain one Patrick McLangton from disposing of some $20,000 worth of gold dust. The plaintiff alleged that he and Patrick entered into partnership, for the purpose of digging gold in California, and that the proceeds, amounting to the above sum, had been taken possession of by the said Patrick, without the slightest attempt on his part to divide the spoils. The gold dust was at the United States Mint, in that city, and an injunction was prayed, to prevent the defendant from taking it from that place. The court decided that the refusal of a partner to account, is no ground of injunction; and that, even if there was a partnership, the plaintiff not having labored towards that end, and the wole fund having been acquired by the defendant, it was not partnership property. The injunction was refused.”