Statehood: the Sheriffs of the District of San Francisco
California became a State as a result of the Mexican American War, 1846-1848. Americans had been moving into the Mexican territory of California, called Alta California, for several years and had established a ship landing and unloading operation inside San Francisco Bay at a settlement called Yerba Buena. Although there were tensions between both governments over the new territory, Yerba Buena operated under Mexican law.
On July 9, 1846, the American warship Portsmouth landed on the San Francisco shoreline and marched soldiers to the town square. Navy Captain John Berrien Montgomery and US Marine Second Lieutenant Henry Bulls Watson raised the American flag, ordered a twenty-one gun salute, and declared the land to be part of the United States.
Yerba Buena was under a form of Mexican government which divided California into districts. Commodore John Sloat, the highest ranking American military official on the west coast, ordered that the Mexican system of government continue until the war was concluded (see Sloat's Proclamation). However, on August 14, 1846, the military also appointed US Navy Lieutenant Washington Bartlett to be Alcalde (mayor) for the developing district of San Francisco. The Alcalde served both as the ranking municipal administrator and as a judicial officer. In other words, the Alcalde was both the mayor and a judge.
In one of his first acts as Alcalde, Bartlett appointed Erastus A. Burnham to be sheriff and constable of the district. Amazingly, Bartlett’s original hand written order appointing Sheriff Burnham has been preserved and is part of the University of California's Bancroft Library collection of historical documents (see Bartlett's August 14,1846 order).
A month later, on September 15th, a local election was held and Bartlett was officially elected Alcalde. On January 30, 1847, Alcalde Bartlett published a proclamation that the name "San Francisco" was to be used henceforth on all official communications, thus assigning the name "Yerba Buena" to the dustbin of history.
AN ORDINANCE WHEREAS, the local name of Yerba Buena, as applied to the
settlement or town of San Francisco, is unknown beyond the district; and
has been applied from the local name of the cove, on which the town is
built: Therefore, to prevent confusion and mistakes in public documents,
and that the town may have the advantage of the name given on the public
IT IS HEREBY ORDAINED, that the name of SAN FRANCISCO shall hereafter be used in all official communications and public documents, or records appertaining to the town.
Washington Bartlett, Chief magistrate
January 30, 1847
Over the course of the next two years the structure and leadership of San Francisco's government changed many times. Local American residents were anxious to establish their own government, independent from military or Mexican rule. The locals held several elections, all of which were declared void by the military authorities.
Finally in September 1847, the military leaders sanctioned a town election, resulting in a town council, with the military-backed George Hyde as Alcalde. Later that month, the council resolved “that there shall be elected two constables who shall constitute the chief police of the town.” The term “constable” and “sheriff” seem to have been used interchangeably in those days. The term “elect” in this context did not refer to a popular election, but rather was an authorization for the Town Council to select two individuals for the positions. The duties of the constables were also delineated by the Town Council. (California Star, 10-7-1847) The constables primarily existed to serve the justice of the peace, to serve legal process and to carry out court orders, although they were also to “strictly enforce and obey every law, ordinance and resolution passed by the council.”
Two of the early constables were W. S. Thorp and Henry Smith, appointed by the council on October 11, 1847. A short time later, Thomas Kittleman, an ally of entrepreneur and journalist Sam Brannan, was selected to replace both Thorp and Smith. Kittleman seems to have held the position by himself until October 1848, when the Town Council approved a second constable position. The early days of the gold rush had begun and it is surmised that Constable Kittleman “had joined the rush with the rest of the town government.” Historian Kevin Mullen speculates that the new constable of San Francisco was probably William Landers.
In May of 1847, after the end of the Mexican-American War, Richard Mason was named Military Governor of California. On August 7, 1848, Mason announced the ratification of a peace treaty between the United States and Mexico, officially establishing California as a territory of the United States.
The next appointed Sheriff who appears in the local newspapers is Williams Landers. In an official notice, dated October 20, 1848, Alcalde Thaddeus Leavenworth directed “William Landers, Sheriff of this District”, to “make diligent search and by all lawful means” bring fugitive Peter Raymond before the Alcalde. Raymond was wanted for murder. This official notice appears several times on the front page of Sam Brannan's newspaper, The California Star, including in the very last issue of The Star on December 23, 1848.
Apart from possibly being one of the first pre-statehood sheriffs over San Francisco, William Landers played a key role in the first recorded murder in San Francisco under American rule.
Landers came to San Francisco as part of the Jonathan Stevenson’s New York Volunteer military unit in March of 1847, soon after the Mexican-American War commenced. Many prominent and infamous early San Franciscans were part of this regiment. By the time the Stevenson unit arrived in California, there was little for them to do, other than to be prepared to fight back any possible insurrection by local Mexicans. They had a lot of time on their hands.
On November 14, 1847, Landers was drinking with buddies at Illig’s bar on the Barbary Coast section of town. He announced that he could “whip any son of a bitch in the house” and proceeded to get punched out by a sailor who either took offense or merely answered the challenge. Outside the bar, Landers, looking for revenge, took a rifle from a man named McKenzie Beverly, a military pal of Landers’. Before Landers could use the rifle, the sailor took the rifle away from Landers without a shot being fired.
McKenzie Beverly, who had lost a perfectly good rifle in this mess, acquired another rifle from someone else and fired into the bar where he thought the sailor was drinking. An innocent bystander was killed. Beverly was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He promptly escaped from the local “guard house”. Rewards for his arrest were posted in the local paper, with the reward being offered by military officials, not the locals, suggesting the limited law enforcement role of the constables.
Between the end of December 1847 and February 1848, San Franciscans held three more elections, attempting to create a local government. At one point there were three different town councils existing at the same time, each claiming to be the sole legitimate authority. Sometime during this period a man named John Pulis became one of the City's constables.
In February 1848, Sheriff Pulis was embroiled in a controversy involving the jail, the council & the Alcalde. The town council had sent a committee of two members to inspect the “calaboose.” This “jail” was a converted school house which did a poor job of containing anyone bent on escape. Sheriff Pulis showed the committee around, and their subsequent report was a blistering indictment of the jail conditions. The California Alta newspaper reported the council members’ findings, including that they found it “the most awful and filthy den, perhaps ever beheld by any human being, and consequently dangerous to the health of persons therein.” The committee recommended that the three prisoners held in the calaboose be removed to a nearby military ship.
Alcalde Thaddeus Leavenworth was furious with the report, the council members and the Sheriff. He ordered the Sheriff to “take the bodies” of the two councilmen “ and forthwith bring before me.” Alcalde Leavenworth was also the Chief Magistrate of the district. Pulis brought the two to the Alcalde’s office where a spirited argument ensued, culminating with councilman Everhart walking out and Sheriff Pulis trailing behind under orders to arrest him again. Everhart appealed to a gathered crowd for protection, which they provided. Mr. Everhart was allowed to go to The Public Institute, erected in 1847 on the west side of Portsmouth Plaza, and eventually allowed to return to home a free man. Cooler heads eventually prevailed and the matter was left as a lingering disagreement.
In the election of February 21, 1849, local voters decided to create a District government and elect a Legislative Assembly for the District. After this election, the new Legislative Assembly abolished the position of Alcalde. Alcalde Leavenworth refused to resign or to turn over the town records. The military territorial government, who considered the new Legislative Assembly to be illegal and its election void, supported Leavenworth’s position. The locals held another election on May 11, 1849, expanding the number in the Legislative Assembly and, due to some impropriety in the February election, again electing individuals to the district offices of Sheriff, Register, and Treasurer. John C. Pulis easily triumphed in his quest to be elected Sheriff. He received 199 votes.
Like Sheriff Landers before him, Sheriff Pulis came to San Francisco as part of Stevenson’s New York Volunteers. Pulis had been a Sergeant in Company F of that military regiment. According to San Francisco historian Kevin Mullen, Pulis was also a member of the notorious “Hounds,” a loosely organized group of thugs who spent their time terrorizing non-Americans, particularly South Americans who had come to California looking for gold.
With Alcalde Leavenworth refusing to relinquish office, the new Chief Magistrate, Myron Norton, ordered Sheriff Pulis to seize the town records. On May 31, 1849, Sheriff Pulis went to Leavenworth’s office, accompanied by a posse of citizens, and seized all of the town records, over Leavenworth's objections .
Leavenworth left San Francisco immediately and traveled to Monterey to plead his case to the military Governor of California, General Bennett Riley. When Riley found out about the record seizure and the usurpation of the Alcalde’s powers, and he issued a Proclamation on June 4, 1849 declaring the new Legislative Assembly to be null and void. In his Proclamation, the Governor specifically condemned the conduct of “a person assuming the title of Sheriff” who did “with an armed party, violently enter the office of the 1st Alcalde of the District of San Francisco and there forcibly take and carry away the Public Records of said District.” Governor Riley declared the Legislative Assembly to be illegal and ordered a new, local election to be held on August 1st.
During the first weeks of June, Leavenworth sent his representative to the town Register and demanded the return of the city records. There was a standoff between Leavenworth’s people and a posse of about 50 citizens, which ended in a stalemate.
John Pulis died of cholera on December 5, 1850. He was 37 years old. San Francisco, Sacramento and several other areas suffered a cholera epidemic during the second half of 1850. Between 250 and 300 people in San Francisco died of cholera during this period. It was reported that the number of cholera deaths in Sacramento exceeded 1000.
In the August 1, 1849 election, John Geary was elected to be the 1st Alcalde. Other officers were also elected to a Town Council, as Delegates to the upcoming State Convention, and various other posts. The form of government was now called an “ayuntamiento.” Two weeks later, the Council appointed several municipal officers including a Sheriff, John E. Townes, and a Captain of Police, Malachi Fallon.
Townes and another Sheriff, Andrew Sublette, served for the next several months, until April 1850, when San Francisco became a city in the newly created State of California. Townes ran for San Francisco Sheriff as part of many local State-wide elections taking place following statehood, but was defeated by Texas Ranger John C. Hays. Malachi Fallon, the Chief of Police, also began a campaign for the office of Sheriff, but withdrew prior to his name making it to the ballot.
John Townes didn’t disappear, however. He remained active in civic affairs and played a role in the 1851 Committee of Vigilance. When that Committee took custody of two alleged criminals and placed them on trial, the Committee appointed Townes to serve as “Sheriff” to the Committee of Vigilance. (These first two prisoners of the Committee were victims of mistaken identity.) The Vigilance Committee jury could not agree on a verdict, voting 9-3 for conviction, so the two men were turned over to newly elected Sheriff John C. Hays and were tried in an authorized court. They were convicted and sentenced. One prisoner immediately escaped and the other suffered through yet another trial before being exonerated completely when the real criminal was properly identified.
Following the August election of the town Ayuntamiento, activities directed at the Sheriff continued. In the Ayuntamiento meeting of October 10, 1849, one of its members, Sam Brannan, gave a committee report regarding the procurement of a “suitable place of detention of the prisoners now confined in the School House.”
|The "calaboose" schoolhouse on Portsmouth Square||1849: The Euphemia replaced the calaboose as the City's jail|
At this meeting Brannan reported the purchase of a brig, “The Euphemia,” which would serve as the city’s new jail. Also in October, the local judiciary published a notice regarding “Tariff of Fees for Judiciary Offices,” including a long list of fees to be charged by the Sheriff. For serving a writ, the fee was two dollars; for impaneling a jury, four dollars; for keeping and maintaining a prisoner under guard or in prison, four dollars per day; and, for executing any person condemned to capital punishment, fifty dollars. This became a lucrative venture for the Sheriff, since the Sheriff received no salary but kept any fees collected after he paid for the expenses of running his agency.
It was not until
April of 1850 that San Francisco held its first county election as part of the
newly admitted State of California. Thankfully, this election was not declared void
by any of the involved parties. It was in that election that San Francisco
acquired its first officially elected county sheriff,
John Coffee Hays.
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