An enigmatic engraving
I often come across intriguing objects as I digitise the collection. Recently, in a box containing 263 engravings, covering topics including migration, the wrecking of vessels and ambitious shipbuilding commissions, there was one object which stood out: An engraving, illustrated by Matt Morgan, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper (c 1872).
It appeared to be a depiction of the American ‘Lady Justice’, an allegorical personification of the moral force of judicial systems. Oddly, she was depicted here with neither her balanced scales nor the blindfold of impartiality. Standing beside her were a group of politicians, all cowering under her gaze as she pointed towards a historical event from six years earlier. The event, headed by the words ‘San Francisco 1856’, depicts a public lynching. I was instantly curious and so put my detective’s hat on: What was the historical precedent that influenced Matt Morgan’s choice of subject?
The Golden Gate and San Francisco 49ers
California was home to a diverse group of peoples and had a very colourful settlement history. From pre-Columbian times to 1846 the area of California and Alta California had been home to 70 distinct indigenous groups, Spanish, Portuguese, Mexicans and Americans. It had changed administration numerous times as a conquered state, territory of Mexico, republic and a Mexican concession, before becoming a ‘free state’ of the United States in 1850.
During the late 1840’s and early 1850’s thousands of people flocked into San Francisco Harbour. Vessels entered the harbour through a connecting strait originally called the ‘Boca del Puerto de San Francisco’ (mouth of the Port of San Francisco) by the Spanish. From the 1840’s onwards it came to be known by a different name: ‘The Golden Gate’. Although now a common phrase, it predated the discovery of gold and the wealth associated with the area. The fortuitously appropriate term was first used by John C Fermont in 1846 as it reminded him of the Golden Horn in Constantinople.[i]
But in 1848, gold was discovered in Sutter Creek, near Coloma in California. When the news spread abroad the resulting frenzy bought a dramatic influx of immigration from all corners of the globe including Latin America, Hawaii, China, Australia; more than half of which arrived by sea. While this movement of people started late in 1848, the main impact was felt in 1849, bequeathing the name ‘forty-niners’ to these immigrants and henceforth known as the San Francisco 49ers.
Prior to 1849, the population of California was estimated at approximately 15,000. By 1851, it reached had 250,000.[ii] San Francisco, with a population of 1,000, did not have the government nor infrastructure to accommodate the unexpected arrival of the 36, 000 immigrants that had drastically swelled its population by 1852. As the settlement grew, smaller scattered towns began to be established, and as they were often composed of distinct cultural groups, there were few that knew the law of the land, and the legal systems that had been in place pre-gold rush now failed to meet the needs of a rapidly growing society.[iii]
“The inroad of nearly a hundred thousand strangers, who were likewise strangers to each other, scattered among a dozen newly established towns, and over the various mining districts, and who themselves knew not the laws of the land, … produced a state of things which greatly favoured the increase of crime…The legal institutions and executive, that just before  had served the needs of a population of twenty or thirty thousand, now failed to secure safety to a quarter of a million.”[iv] – The Annals of San Francisco
The Sydney Ducks – A ‘Quacking’ Tale
Although numbers are not definitive, the California census of 1852 quite often lists the last place of residence, something with was not the usual practice across America.[v] Between April 1849 and May 1850, some 11,000 Australians arrived in California. Of these, it is estimated 7,500 were from Sydney.[vi] A balance of men and women,[vii] the former Sydney-siders were a combination of general fortune-seekers and ticket-of-leavers,[viii] who found the three-to-four month voyage from Sydney neither tedious nor too expensive for their chance at the gold fields.
There were some Australians that prospered in the California goldfields, sending for their wives and children; others were not and would elect to return to Australia for a chance at the new goldfields of Victoria.[ix] The Annals records this pattern continued for some time, with people travelling back and forth. Over 200 vessels sailed from Australia to California during 1849-1851, carrying not only passengers, but also prospecting and food supplies. The transport of these goods and the prolific movement of people facilitated high trade during the gold rush years. These waves of migration would not have been possible without various shipping companies such as Pacific Mail Steamship Company, the Black Ball Line and the Empire City Line of San Francisco.
The majority of Australians were often documented as thugs, scoundrels, thieves, aggressors, queue jumpers, and as ‘the most abandoned men and women.’[x] They dominated an area of San Francisco located near the base of Telegraph Hill, near the harbour in the area of Pacific and Broadway Street. Due to the concentration of those from Australia (as distinguished by their accents) the area became known as ‘Sydney Town’. The residents of Sydney Town, aka the ‘Sydney Ducks’, are alleged to have set up shady hotels and establishments by the dozen, which drew in wealthy patrons who were then robbed.
The association between the Australians in California and the moniker of ‘Ducks’ remains unclear, but it is the consistent term used, along with ‘Sidney Ducks’ and ‘Sydney Coves’. It could possibly be that ‘Ducks’ and ‘Cove’ were used to indicate a specific closed community whose residents had migratory patterns. In the eyes of the Annals authors, Sydney Town reflected the worst traits of society: lowly drinking, gambling, constant lewdness, lawlessness, assault and strife.[xi] The ‘Ducks’ actions were deemed brazen, however, due to the general laxed understanding of the law, along with corruption and bribery, courts and juries had very low conviction rates and were often seen to aid and abet the crime. [xii] The ‘Ducks’ were relatively safe and went unpunished for their blatant crimes.
“These Sydney Ducks lived and competed with a California population of mixed urban-rural background… Conflict was inevitable, and it is scarcely surprising that Americans unfairly maligned [slander, smeer, criticise] the Sydney Ducks as a group for the misdeeds of the criminal element.”[xiii] – The Sydney Ducks; A Demographic Analysis
Criminal activity was not confined to the Sydney Ducks, in the late 1840’s a group known as the ‘Hounds’ or ‘San Francisco Society of Regulators’ ran riot through prospecting communities. They were American veterans of the Mexican-American War, who in early 1848 drove mainly Mexican, Chinese and Spanish immigrants from the goldfields using physical assault and property damage.[xiv] Only by joint community action (of approximately 230 people) were members of the Hounds captured. Although captured by the community, the Hounds were tried and sentenced under the impartiality of a court of law.
A Criminal Duck
As part of a minority, the Australians experienced a degree of persecution and were easy targets for blame. Attitudes of nativism began surfacing, making the Americans particularly hostile and suspicious of foreigners[xv]. The Australians, with their distinct accents and daring nature, were easily identifiable and were regarded as ‘poachers in the Garden of Eden’.[xvi]
The majority of Australians who arrived at the goldfields were well intentioned. They worked hard, gained honest employment and worked towards establishing a new and better life. Many even prospered.[xvii] But six fires broke out in the city in 18 months, and seemingly no action was taken by authorities, the remainder of San Francisco looked for people to blame. Due to their less-than-stellar reputation, the natural suspects were the ex-British convicts, the Australians of Sydney Town, specifically those from New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land.[xviii]
A pattern had emerged whereby arson attacks never put Sydney Town at risk. It was heavily suspected that fires were being deliberately lit solely for the opportunity to plunder the homes and businesses of those absent fighting the fire. A protection racket also emerged, which shopkeepers would enter to ensure their stores wouldn’t burn or be plundered.[xix] While these actions were likely committed by a select few, they tainted the entire community. The Australians may well have been the rogue element that robbed and caused a menace to society, but it was also the corruption and a lack of government and law enforcement which had allowed things to escalate to such levels.
“Australians who were both honest and successful admitted that the worst people in San Francisco came from the colonies, and blamed their own countrymen for permitting such characters to emigrate.”[xx] – Jay Monaghan, Australians and the Gold Rush: California and Down Under, 1849 – 1854
1851: Vigilant Citizens and another ‘terrific lynching’
The situation in San Francisco had become intolerable. Not only did the spate of fires prompt hazardous living conditions, but business, homes and livelihoods were being plundered, resulting in the departure of many respectable citizens from San Francisco. It was felt that community action, similar to that taken against ‘The Hounds’ in 1848, was needed to deal with the arson and theft that was dominating the city.
“That the name of the association shall be the Committee of Vigilance, for the protection of lives and property of the citizens and residents of the city of San Francisco.”[xxi] – The Annals of San Francisco
The Committee of Vigilance was formed by the most respectable men in town on 9 June 1851 and originally counted of some 700 members. Concerned with civil crimes, the Committee viewed their task as a responsibility for both the civic and moral betterment of the city, as well as, to re-balance law and order while ensuring criminals were held accountable.[xxii] The Committee intended to capture criminals before they could be apprehended by corrupt law officials. Their aim was simply to rectify a wrong – they were not a political movement nor did they aspire to replace the judiciary long term.
One law in California, left over from the previous Mexican administration, helped regulate the type of people allowed into its boundaries and ‘forbade the immigration into California of such persons as had been convicted of crimes in other countries.’ [xxiii] However, this was either forgotten and/or difficult to enforce during the rapid population growth from the gold rush. This law was partially reinstated by the Committee of Vigilance and extended to cover even those harbouring people with criminal records. All received the same treatment: forcible expulsion irrespective of their investment into the state. This uncertainty, as well as the risk of branding from ‘distinct accent’, led many Australians to jump ship and flee San Francisco.
More drastic action was still needed to discourage crime, the Committee needed to set a precedent. The mob became ‘Judge Lynch’. Those accused of a crime were tried before a jury of the Vigilance Committee and if found unanimously guilty, were dealt their punishment. Four Sydney Ducks were publicly hung (lynched), fourteen were deported to Australia, another fourteen were informally ordered to leave California, fifteen were handed over to public authorities, one was whipped and forty-one were discharged.[xxiv] Two of the men lynched were ‘exceedingly bad characters’ and ex-convicts from Sydney.[xxv] The accused were not always guilty; arrests could be appealed to the Committee on the basis of mistaken identity, or simply by proving to be a ‘good citizen’.[xxvi] In order to keep all trials fair, the accused were always permitted to defend themselves, with evidence and witnesses needed for conviction.
One of the condemned, John Jenkins, who was often characterised as being the leader of the ‘Ducks’, was caught red-handed stealing a safe. He was found guilty by a fair trial and publicly hung on a street corner as an example to all. Following Jenkins, James Stuart was apprehended for the murder of Mr Moore, the Sheriff of Auburn, and the theft of Moore’s property. Initially, the wrong James Stuart was tried, found unanimously guilty, and hung – a case of mistaken identity. The real James Stuart was eventually captured and confessed his guilt. The error with the first James Stuart proves that the Committee was not infallible.
Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie were also arrested for an unparalleled amount of crime. Both men were associates of Stuart, implicated by him, they in-turn implicated others.[xxvii] For several days the police acted to protect these men from ‘their majesties the mob’. Californian Governor John McDougall attempted to stave the actions of the Committee by moving the prisoners to the county jail so that proper law proceedings may ensue; however, this further angered the Committee.[xxviii]
They broke the prisoners out and continued their own judicial proceedings. Being found guilty, Whittaker and McKenzie were also lynched. Arguably, the actions of the mob did not diverge from what would have been the practice of the courts, as grand larceny (the unlawful apprehension of another’s property) was punishable by death.
As crime diminished in the city, power was handed back to city officials. The Committee had proven their point: rouges and crime had no place in San Francisco. Criminals had been sent a warning from the wider community. News of the Vigilance Committee reached a global audience and met with public approval, especially in Australia where lawlessness was also feared to sprout due to the mass convergence on Australian goldfields. Publicised in newspapers from The Illustrated London, to The South Australian Register, the news was ‘sensational’.
“The moral effect of the action taken by the Committee of Vigilance in the city, has already been felt through the entire State. Were the Committee to disband to-day, with their work but half completed, the effect of what they have already done would be felt for the good of California in all future time.” – South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA), Saturday 13 September 1856.
1856: The Vigilance Committee is reborn with political motivations
Some of the closing statements on the 1851 Vigilance Committee include:
‘Let rogues beware! It is, however, to be sincerely hoped, that never again shall there need to be revived those terrible times of 1851.’[xxix] – The Annals of San Francisco
A humorous sentiment in hindsight, and rather optimistic. The Annals was first published in 1854, five years after the first Committee and San Francisco was again in a state socio-political unrest. This time, rather than civil crime, the Committee was in arms against political corruption. Fuelled by a lack of confidence in the capacity of the law and city officials, citizens reformed the Committee of Vigilance. Now numbering some 15,000 members, many of the leaders were the same as those from the 1851 Committee.
While the actions of the ‘Ducks’ paved the way for the formation of the first Committee, the only thing that connects the Australian group to the event in 1856 was the connection to the Committee of Vigilance. Similarly, a clear distinction between the two Committee’s is that the first was concerned with civic crime, whereas the second driven more-so by political injustice. This goes towards explaining why the engraving explicitly identifies San Francisco in 1856 rather than the precedent set by the events of 1851.
Further examples of the prevailing lawless state in 1856 followed including the killing of US Marshall William H Richardson, hung trials, bribery allegations and the exposure of criminal records and corruption amongst city officials. Some of these incidents led to the execution of four men under the second Committee of Vigilance. None of these men were Australian.
The engraving that started it all…
The engraving (ANMM Collection 00019630) shows how one humble object carries many layers of history and meaning. Engravings in this era were used as reportorial devices: helping readers visualise the daily life of other people, sometimes with a dramatic flair.[xxx]
The engraving dates to 1872, which was a year of political elections in the United States. The caricature on the left is easily identifiable as President Ulysses S Grant, and the other men are his fellow party members. Lady Justice stands at the centre, however, unlike most depictions, she is not blindfolded which implies a severe lack of objectivity and therefore represents a biased governance and judicial system. Also missing is the place of balance and punishment in law which is indicated by levelled scales and a down-facing sword. The engraving dominates the page, but at the bottom, there is a small amount of text;
“BEWARE! – Not only has the rule of this philocray become odious to the people, but so great is the indignation felt at the disregard of private rights, and lawless usurpation of power, that among law-abiding portions of the community a vigilance committee has been seriously proposed and discussed.” – New York World, Oct, 13, 1872
As the 1856 Vigilance Committee was more politically motivated, the allusion in this engraving is clear. It is a graphic reminder of the power of the people and serves as a warning to those in politics of corruption and acting against the benefit of the people. A reference to these events in any medium, as part of a political campaign, would have been an extremely powerful, emotive and explicit message. At times it may seem like a tenuous connection, but the aforementioned events hold relevance to the museum as a tangible link to the migratory patterns of the American and Australian gold rushes during this period.
Descendant of a Duck?
What would a blog mentioning convicts be without the author claiming to be a descendant from one? I have always been aware of my convict ancestry. However, it was not until I researched common occurring crimes resulting in convict transportation that I found the record of my fourth great-grandfather, William Price Wall, who had been convicted at the Old Bailey and transported for Pocket Picking aboard the Ocean in 1823. This information was already known by my family but what wasn’t known was that prior to moving to Bendigo in 1852, William and his family travelled to California and were there between 1850-1852, where it seems two of his sixteen children were born. I cannot help but wonder if ‘Sydney Duck’ should be added to my family history… although probably not with the same affection that many Australians hold toward their convict ancestors.
— Nicole Dahlberg, Digitisation Officer, Registration.
Explore our collection online.
- Burrill, Donald R. Servants of the Law: Judicial Politics of the California Frontie, 1849-89, University Press of America, 2010
- Cleland, Robert Glass. The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856: An Estimate of A Private Citizen, The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 31, No 4 (December 1949)
- Gressley, Gene M. The Gold Rush in Miniature, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol.30, No.4 (Winter, 1999)
- Gudde, Erwin G. California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (2004) University of California Press, London, England, 2010
- Hands, Phil. William Price Wall, November 2017. Accessed 11 February 2018
- Hunt, Rockwell D., The Committees of Vigilance of California, Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1920), University of California Press on behalf of the Historical Society of Southern California, pp 30-46
- LOFTY: The Trusted Marketplace, Very Rare 1856 San Francisco Committee of Vigilance Silver Medal. Accessed 21 April 2018
- McAllister, Peter. In gold-rush California, Aussie differs were unwelcome Boat People, February 2015. Accessed 24 January 2018
- Monaghan, Jay. Australians and the Gold Rush: California and Down Under, 1849 – 1854 (Berkely and Los Angeles, 1966)
- Soule, Frank. Gihon, John H. and Nisbet, MDJim, The annals of San Francisco; containing a summary of the history of California, and a complete history of its great city; to which are added, biographical memoirs of some prominent citizens, New York, Appleton, 1855
- Ricards, Sherman L. and Blackburn, George M. The Sydney Ducks: A Demographic Analysis, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, No.1 (Feb., 1973)
- Senkewicz, Robert. Vigilanties in Gold Rush San Francisco, Stanford 1985
- Sheilds, Scott A. Stay East Young Man: California Gold Rush Letter Sheets, California History, Vol 78, No. 2 (Summer, 1999) pp. 98-102
- South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA) Saturday 13 September 1856
- Reviewed Work: Committee of Vigilance: Revolution in San Francisco, 1851: An Account of the Hundred Days When Certain Citizens Undertook the Suppression of the Criminal Activities of the Sydney Ducks by George R. Stewart, Review by Richard H Dillon
[i] Gudde, Erwin G. California Place Names (2004) University of California Press, London, England, 147
[ii] Gene M Gressley, The Gold Rush in Miniature, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol.30, No.4 (Winter, 1999), 435
[iii] Frank Soule, John H. Gihon, and MDJim Nisbet,The Annals of San Francisco; containing a summary of the history of California, and a complete history of its great city; to which are added, biographical memoirs of some prominent citizens, Publication date , New York, Appleton, 1855, 563
[iv] ibid., 563
[v] Sherman L. Ricards and George M. Blackburn, The Sydney Ducks: A Demographic Analysis, Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 42, No.1 (Feb., 1973), 24
[vi] ibid., 20
[vii] ibid., 26
[viii] Soule, et al., 564
[ix] Ricards, et al., 21
[x] Peter McAllister, In gold-rush California, Aussie differs were unwelcome boat people, February 2015
[xi] Soule, et.al., 566
[xii] Soule, et al., 565, and South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA) Sat 13 September 1856, 2
[xiii] Ricards, et al., 31
[xiv] Robert Glass Cleland, The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1856: An Estimate of A Private Citizen, The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 31, No 4 (December 1949), 291
[xv] Ricards, et al., 22 and Gene M Gressley, The Gold Rush in Miniature, Western Historical Quarterly, Vol.30, No.4 (Winter, 1999), 435
[xvi] Ricards, et al., 23 and Robert Senkewicz, Vigilanties in Gold Rush San Francisco, Stanford 1985, 80
[xvii] Ricards, et al., 21
[xviii] Soule, et.al., 564
[xix] Soule, et.al., 566 and Rockwell D. Hunt, The Committees of Vigilance of California, Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1920), University of California Press on behalf of the Historical Society of Southern California, pp 37-38
[xx] Jay Monaghan, Australians and the Gold Rush: California and Down Under, 1849–1854, pg 24
[xxi] Soule, et.al., 569
[xxii] ibid., 568-569
[xxiii] ibid., 576-577
[xxiv] Richards, et.al., 22-23
[xxvi] Soule, et.al., 577
[xxviii] Soule, et.al., 583
[xxix] ibid., 587
[xxx] Scott A. Sheilds, Stay East Young Man: California Gold Rush Letter Sheets, California History, Vol 78, No. 2 (Summer, 1999) pp. 98-102