Criminal Annals, Part 16 – The Placer Times: The Constitutional Convention and Slavery

vol1no21p1 headThe September 29, 1849 edition of the “Placer Times” printed this small story regarding a hanging in San Francisco. As can been seen, the establishment of civil law is progressing as judges are appointed and a legal process created.

“Joseph Daniel, tired and found guilty of the murder of Peter Pettit, at San Francisco, was sentenced on Wednesday, 19th inst. by Judge Geary, to be hung on the 28th October next. Upon hearing his awful doom the prisoner’s terror and despair knew no control, and when removed from Court was scarcely able to stand.”

[Note: Although the story says “to be hung,” the proper word is “hanged.” Pictures are hung, people are hanged.]

The October 6, 1849 issue of the Placer Times has an advertisement showing that in spite of the rough times, people were still honest.

“Notice – The person who left a sum of money in gold dust at the store of J. Harris & Co., K street, is requested to call at the same place, prove property, pay expense of advertising and remove the deposit. C T H Palmer”

As was noted earlier, at this time in California’s history, the Constitutional Convention was taking place in Monterey. They would produce a document that would be presented to the voters and ratified by them in October of 1849. Article I, Section 18 of the Constitution would read:

“Neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crimes, shall ever be tolerated in this State.” However, during their deliberations the members of the Constitutional Convention would propose other verbiage. The same October 6 issue of the Placer Times includes a story regarding one proposal which did not make it into the final document.

“The Convention – We have the proceedings of this body up to the 21st ult. The Convention is progressing slowly with the business before it. We notice nothing of much importance to our readers save the passage of the following section passed on committee of the whole in regard to slavery:

“39. The Legislature shall, at its first session, pass such laws as will effectually prohibit free persons of color from immigrating to and settling in this state, and to effectually prevent the owners of slaves from bringing them into this state for the purpose of setting them free.”

One of very few comments regarding problems along the trail with the Native Americans appears in the October 13 edition of the Placer Times:

“A party of California emigrants from Marion, Ohio, were attacked by Indians on the Platte River, June 2. One of the company was shot through the leg – no one else injured.”

Although many other similar incidents went unreported for various reasons, there must have been more given the number of people headed to California overland. To provide a perspective on that subject, the same October 13 edition of the Placer Times reprints a letter from an eastern newspaper.

The Pioneer Line mentioned in the story was one of several commercial companies that were formed to provide an alternative to the trip to California by covered wagon. According to advertisements of the period, the Pioneer Line charged $200 a person from Independence, Missouri to San Francisco, claiming the trip would take 55 to 60 days. Each passenger was allowed 100 pounds of baggage, anything over that was 20 cents per pound extra. The passengers, all men on the first groups, were carried in light weight wagons (carriages the company called them) that held six and were each pulled by a team of four mules. The baggage and supplies were carried in large wagons with flotation devices on them so they could ford streams and rivers.

At this point, June 10, 1849, they were not being very successful in meeting their schedule and there was a real possibility of a riot or worse.

“The following extract from a letter in the St. Louis Republican gives an idea of the way the overland emigrants are coming on:

“Fort Kearney, Indian Ter. [later Nebraska] June 10.

“Dear sirs: The cry is still them come – 5,095 wagons at sun down last night had moved past this place toward the golden regions of California, and about 1000 more I think are still behind. The fever [cholera] however in many cases has completely subsided, and in others a few more doses of rain will put them in a fair way of recovery. A few are daily turning back and many more would follow suit did they not stand in fear of the ridicule that is most sure to await them upon reaching home….

“The Pioneer Line of ‘fast’ coaches reached here on the 8th – advertised to go through in 70 or 100 days, I forget which – the end of one month finds them but 300 miles on the road [the total trip was about 2000 miles]. The passengers were loud in denouncing all ‘fast’ lines and the Pioneer Line in particular. A stormy feeling of discontent prevailed throughout the entire company, owing entirely to the want of sufficient transportation, and the chances are strongly in favor of a general explosion. The devil himself would find it difficult to give satisfaction to an incongruous crowd of 120 persons drawn from all parts of the world and thrown together for the first time as is the case in the Pioneer Line. There are to be found lawyers, doctors, divines, gentlemen of leisure, clerks, speculators, etc. etc. tumbled in together and obliged to stand guard, cook victuals, bring wood and water, wash dishes, and haul wagons out of mud holes.”

Finally, in the same issue of the Placer Times is another story regarding guns and accidents, followed by an editorial statement:

“Another Death by Firearms – A young many name Jesse Poulson, aged about 35, belonging to the New Brunswick and California Mining and Trading Co. that arrived in the bark Isabel from New York, shattered his arm badly on Monday by the accidental discharge of his gun, and before surgical aid could be obtained bled to death. We move that a committee by appointed to dump everything in the shape of firearms into the river.”


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