Lynch mobs part of area’s history

Special to The TribuneJuly 13, 2013 

During the first two weeks of June, 1858 six men went to their deaths by hanging on a makeshift gallows adjacent to what is now San Luis Obispo’s   Mission Plaza.

Lynch mobs are among the ugliest aspects of human history. In California, throughout the 1850's, extrajudicial violence was often carried out under the rubric of “Committees of Vigilance” or “Vigilantism.” It was argued that rampant lawlessness in the towns and cities of the Gold Rush era demanded action.  Groups of men, occasionally joined by a few women,  came together to “straighten matters out” at a gunpoint and the end of a rope.

All too frequently the “targets” of the numerous “Vigilante” groups between Dunsmuir and Yreka in the North and San Diego in the South were people of color, Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese and African Americans.
The most significant exception to this were the “Sidney Ducks,” escaped Australian convicts who were hanged by the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance in 1851.

In San Luis Obispo, six Californios were hung.  A local gang leader, Pío Linares, was shot in a battle on the John Wilson Ranch in the Los Osos Valley.   It would seem that our Vigilance Committee fits into the racist pattern of so many others.

A 2013 study published by the prestigious Oxford University Press raises some questions.

In Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928, William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb assert that “the Vigilance Committee of San Luis Obispo contained many Mexicans. Before the committee disbanded, fully sixty-two of the 148 vigilantes were of Mexican descent.”

The authors also are clearly impressed by the “unparalleled records of the committee’s inner workings, including reward notices, transcribed testimonies of witnesses, confessions and final statements of the accused, voluminous minutes recorded by the vigilantes, and documents testifying to the judgments rendered by the committee.”

These documents had been copied by journalist Myron Angel and printed mostly verbatim in his 1883 “History of San Luis Obispo County.” They were microfilmed in 1956.  But the originals were feared to have been lost in a flooding of the basement of the 1904 Carnegie Library, now the History Center, during the rain-filled winter of 1980.

There was an old safe in the janitorial room. The combination had been long lost and its steel and concrete door defied local locksmiths. The combination had been lost.  Jim Dempster from Atascadero, then a metallurgy student, called me at Cal Poly. His father had told him about the safe. 

Jim loved old locks and the process of opening them. He said if I would provide him with a drill motor and a masonry bit he would open our safe.  My home workshop drill motor and $4 bit from Hannah’s Hardware on Garden Street and a lot of talent on Jim’s part opened the old legal safe in about three minutes.

The Vigilante Papers and the precious William Rich Hutton 1851 surveys of the Santa Manuela and Nipomo Ranchos, along with many other documents, were discovered to be in perfect condition.

The documents tell the story of how there were only two signers of Mexican heritage when the committee was first formed.  Following the execution of Joaquin Valenzuela, the committee began raising funds for rewards, publishing and posting reward notices in Spanish, for bullets, powder and percussion caps, etc.  “All horse runners,” that is mounted bandits, were warned to leave the county within twenty-one days.  Letters in Spanish were sent to four named individuals inviting them to leave the county.

Romauldo Pacheco had been raised and educated by his stepfather, Capt. John Wilson.  Pacheco had little trouble in persuading his fellow Californios that the lawlessness that led to the vigilantes’ actions hurt them as well.

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.

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