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San Francisco Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856

Self-appointed law enforcement committees that were organized to maintain order in San Francisco, California, during the mid-nineteenth century.

As a result of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which concluded the Mexican War, the United States acquired a vast territory in the Southwest including California and New Mexico. After gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, thousands of gold hunters flocked into northern California. Many of the gold rush towns where the immigrants settled had been little more than villages before the gold rush and lacked the municipal institutions that were needed to cope with the rapidly expanding populations. As government and law enforcement became increasingly disorganized and chaotic, vigilance committees were formed in many towns. The San Francisco Vigilance Committees of 1851 and 1856 provide two of the most famous examples of vigilante activity.

Before gold was discovered in 1848, the population of San Francisco had been around 800 persons. By 1851, nearly 25,000 gold seekers had arrived, most of whom settled in or near the city. Crime quickly became a problem. In 1856, a Sacramento newspaper claimed that there had been 1400 murders in San Francisco in the previous six years and that only three murderers had been hanged.

In 1851, a group of citizens, including a large number of businesspersons, under the leadership of Sam Brannan, formed the first San Francisco Vigilance Committee. The city government had failed to curb GANGS of outlaws known as the "Regulators" or "Hounds," who preyed upon the inhabitants of the city and were suspected of having set a series of fires that had destroyed much of the city. The committee promptly sought out several of the alleged outlaws and sentenced them to death, deportation, or whipping.

In 1856, after a county supervisor named James P. Casey killed newspaper editor James King, the committee came back into existence under the leadership of William T. Coleman to combat lawlessness among the general population and corruption and mismanagement in the city government. The committee began by trying and executing Casey and Charles Cora, a notorious criminal. Next the committee barricaded the streets in an area where the crime rate was high and captured and punished all the criminals it could find within the barricades.

In the meantime, other citizens including a number of city officials and attorneys had formed the "Law and Order" faction to oppose the vigilantes. DAVID SMITH TERRY, a justice of the California Supreme Court, tried to prevent one of the vigilantes from arresting a certain Reuben Maloney on the ground that the committee had no legal authority to conduct arrests. A fight ensued in which Terry stabbed Sterling A. Hopkins, the vigilante. Although Terry was imprisoned for a few weeks, the vigilantes' attempt to put him on trial failed, and the committee disbanded a short time later. By that time, it had lost most of its supporters and its power had waned.

Although the committees declared that the safety of the public was their purpose, the committees ignored the principles of government on all levels. Their trials did not follow standard procedures, but used only a skeletal version of established legal practices.

Violence ensued when San Francisco Vigilance Committee members attempted to arrest Reuben Maloney in 1856. California Supreme Court justice David Smith Terry (top hat, center) stabbed to death vigilante Sterling A. Hopkins.


Gordan, John D., III. 1987. Authorized by No Law: The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856 and the United States Circuit Court for the Districts of California. San Francisco: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Historical Society.

Mullen, Kevin J. 1989. Let Justice Be Done: Crime and Politics in Early San Francisco. Reno: Univ. of Nevada Press.

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