Eras In SFSD History

Before California Statehood 1846-1850

California became a State as a result of the Mexican-American War, 1846-1848.  A massive 525,000 square miles of territory above Mexico was ceded to the victorious United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago on February 2, 1848 (the US also paid Mexico $15 million). Called the Mexican Cession, Americans had already been moving into the territory for a number of years, specifically concentrated in northern California and the port of San Francisco.

The enormous swath of territory the United States won from Mexico in 1848 was the third largest land acquisiton in United States history. The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 (827,000 sq. miles) and the purchase of Alaska in 1867 from Russia (586,000 sq. miles) were the largest. [Click map to enlarge.]

In the area which Mexico had named "Alta California", emigrating American, German, and Irish settlers had established ship landing and unloading operations around San Francisco Bay at a settlement called Yerba Buena. Although there were tensions between the Mexican and American governments over the new territory even before the war, Yerba Buena operated strictly under Mexican law.

The Mexican War began in April of 1846 and 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.

Read Commodore Sloat's Proclamation to all Californians here. 

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, Alcalde Washington Bartlett was both the mayor of the city and a judge.

Washington A. Bartlett (1816-February 6, 1865) was both a bi-lingual Spanish speaker and trained in legal matters. Bartlett had a rocky career in the US Navy, a midshipman in 1833 and rising in rank but later being rejected for service at the start of the Civil War. He made early maps of the new city of San Francisco, naming Montgomery Street for his commanding officer.

In one of his first acts as Alcalde, Washington Bartlett appointed Erastus A. Burnham to be sheriff and constable of the district of San Francisco.

Amazingly, Bartlett's nearly 175 year-old original handwritten order appointing Sheriff Burnham has been preserved and is part of the University of California's Bancroft Library collection of historical documents.

See Washington Bartlett's actual August 14, 1846 order here.

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 consigning 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 map;

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 two constables should be elected who would act as 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.

The San Francisco waterfront in 1849. Many arriving ships were anchored near the City's wharfs and abandoned by their crews who struck out for the Sierra foothills during the Gold Rush (1848-1855). As San Francisco expanded, dozens of large Gold Rush-era ships were simply covered with dirt and debris and streets were paved over them.

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 William Landers. In an official notice dated October 20, 1848, Alcalde Thaddeus Leavenworth directed William Landers, Sheriff of the District, to make a 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 Illigs 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 was looking for revenge and took a rifle from a man named McKenzie Beverly, who was a military pal of Landers. Before Landers could use the rifle, the sailor took the weapon away from Landers without a shot being fired.

McKenzie Beverly, after losing 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 in various attempts 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 made of plank wood 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 committee's report, with the members of the town council, and with the Sheriff. He ordered the Sheriff to arrest the two councilmen on the committee and bring them before to his office. 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 then 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.

The May 11, 1849 "make-up" election to correct the February 21, 1849 election certified John C. Pulis as Sheriff. 

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 his office 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 once again elected 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.

The "calaboose" schoolhouse on Portsmouth Square. This wooden schoolhouse was appropriated as San Francisco's first jail, although its security level left much to be desired.
San Francisco's first two Hall of Justice buildings were constructed just across Kearny Street from Portsmouth Square, which was the City's historical center for over 100 years.

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, 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.

Sheriff John Pulis died of cholera on December 5, 1850. He was 37 years old.  San Francisco, Sacramento and several other regional areas suffered outbreaks of cholera epidemics during the second half of 1850. Between 250 and 300 people died in San Francisco of cholera during this period. It was reported that the number of cholera deaths in Sacramento exceeded 1,000.

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.

In 1849 a brig named The Euphemia was purchased to replace the Portsmouth Square calaboose with bigger and more secure holding rooms for prisoners. The vessel was anchored just off Battery Street behind another brig named The Apollo, which had been converted into the Apollo Saloon.
During the construction of the Federal Reserve Bank in 1921 at the corner of Battery and Sacramento Streets, workmen discovered the hulk of The Euphemia 30 feet below Battery Street. The Apollo was unearthed in 1925.

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 of Vigilance turned out to be 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 involving the Sheriff's Department 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.

At that meeting Sam Brannan reported the purchase of the brig The Euphemia for $3,500 which would serve as the city's new jail. Curiously, it was purchased from Yerba Buena town council member William Heath Davis. Another $523.80 was used to buy 50 sets of balls and chains to restrain prisoners on the new floating county jail.

Also in October 1849 the local judiciary published a list of 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 source of income for the Sheriff since the he received no salary but was allowed to keep any fees collected after he paid for the expenses of running his agency.

John Coffee Hays, San Francisco's first elected Sheriff after statehood.

On April 1st of 1850 California was admitted to the Union as the 31st State. And on that date San Francisco, and many other counties throughout the State, held its first official election for all county offices.

Amazingly, despite the crucible of San Francisco politics, this election was not challenged by any of the involved political parties or community activists, or declared void by any legal entity.

When the votes were counted San Francisco had its first officially elected county sheriff-- legendary former Texas Ranger John Coffee Hays.

Sources include: the Alta and the Star newspapers; UC Berkeley Bancroft Library archived correspondence and other documents; "The Annals of San Francisco" (Soule, Gihon & Nisbet); "The Thirty-first Star" (James A. B. Scherer); and "Let Justice Be Done" (Kevin Mullen)