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A Sketch of the Causes, Operations and Results of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856   By: (1804-1879)

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By Stephen Palfrey Webb


Stephen Palfrey Webb was born in Salem on March 20, 1804, the son of Capt. Stephen and Sarah (Putnam) Webb. He was graduated from Harvard in 1824, and studied law with Hon. John Glen King, after which he was admitted to the Essex Bar. He practiced law in Salem, served as Representative and Senator in the Massachusetts Legislature, and was elected Mayor of Salem in 1842, serving three years. He was Treasurer of the Essex Railroad Company in the late forties.

About 1853, he went to San Francisco, where he resided several years, serving as Mayor of that city in 1854 and 1855. It was during this time that he witnessed the riotous mobs following the Gold Rush of 1849, and upon his return Salem made notes for a lecture, which he delivered in Salem; and later, with many additions, prepared this sketch, probably about 1874. He was again elected Mayor of Salem, 1860 1862, and City Clerk, 1863 1870. He died in Salem on September 29, 1879. On May 26, 1834, he married Hannah H. B. Robinson of Salem.

There have been several accounts of the activities of the Vigilance Committee, but this is firsthand information from one who was on the ground at the time, and for this reason it is considered a valuable contribution to the history of those troublous days. It certainly is a record of what a prominent, intelligent and observing eye witness saw regarding this important episode in the history of California. The original paper is now in the possession of his granddaughter, Mrs. Raymond H. Oveson of Groton, Massachusetts.

Many of the evils which afflicted the people of San Francisco may be traced to the peculiar circumstances attendant upon the settlement of California. The effect all over the world of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in 1848 was electric. A movement only paralleled by that of the Crusades at once commenced. Adventurers of every character and description immediately started for the far away land where gold was to be had for the gathering. The passage round Cape Horn, which from the earliest times had been invested with a dreamy horror, and had inspired a vague fear in every breast, was now dared with an audacity which only the all absorbing greed for gold could have produced. Old condemned hulks which, at other times, it would not have been deemed safe to remove from one part of the harbor to another, were hastily fitted up, and with the aid of a little paint and a few as deceptive assurances of the owners, were instantly filled with eager passengers and dispatched to do battle, as they might, with the storms and perils of the deep during the tedious months through which the passage extended. The suffering and distress consequent upon the packing so many human beings in so confined a space; the miserable quality and insufficient quantity of the provisions supplied; the weariness and lassitude engendered by the intolerable length of the voyage; the ill temper and evil passions so sure to be roused and inflamed by long and forced companionship without sympathy or affection, all tended to make these trips, for the most part, all but intolerable, and in many cases left feelings of hate and desire for revenge to be afterwards prosecuted to bloody issues.

The miseries generally endured were however sometimes enlivened and relieved by the most unexpected calls for exertion. A passenger described his voyage from New York to San Francisco in 1849, in company with several hundred others in a steamer of small size and the most limited capacity in all respects, as an amusing instance of working one's passage already paid for in advance. The old craft went groaning, creaking, laboring and pounding on for seven months before she arrived at her destination. Short of provisions, every sailing vessel that was encountered was boarded for supplies, and almost every port on the Atlantic and Pacific was entered for the same purpose... Continue reading book >>

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