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Gang Democracy and the Collapse of Government in San Francisco's Gold Rush Years

by Cecelia Holland

Vigilante Wars


In the Mexican War (1846–1848), the United States seized almost a million square miles of new territory, extending its western border to the Pacific. The cost was much more than the $18 million with which Washington compensated Mexico for the loss of one-third of its territory. The sudden expansion of the United States far outstripped the practical reach of the federal government and inflamed the tensions over slavery that had begun to tear the country apart.

In most of the new territory, wild and thinly populated by the well-adapted native people, the consequences were not immediate. In California, where the Gold Rush made everything crazy, the conquest launched a struggle for control that acted out the conflicting pressures that would soon plunge the entire nation into the bloodbath of the Civil War: the Constitution versus the will of the people.


Sam Brannan knew exactly what he was looking at, that January day in 1848, and he knew exactly what to do.

First he went up to John Marshall’s sawmill, on the American River, and talked to a few people there who showed him the glittering flakes and shiny pebbles they were picking out of the mill race. Next Brannan went off and bought up every shovel in California.

Then he went out into the plaza of the sleepy little hamlet only recently named San Francisco, filled his lungs, and shouted, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

Within minutes the rush was on. The village by the bay emptied; the few ships lying off the shore gave up their crews; soldiers deserted their posts; everyone raced off to the western slopes of the Sierra. Even the school emptied, students and teacher all, to find their fortunes in the hills. Sam Brannan went home and wrote a letter to the New York Herald announcing the discovery. Then he began to make money, not by mining but by supplying the miners and their dreams. Within months he was the first American millionaire.

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