Law and Order
Federal Government in the West
West of the Mississippi, there is no long-distance telegraph or railroads – so news travels at the speed of a stagecoach or steamer ship. This makes modern central control impossible, and local representatives of state and federal government are trusted to operate with near complete autonomy.
The primary missions of the federal government are.
• Prevent insurrection – the Bear Flag revolt is still top of mind
• Protect from invasion
• Pacify the Indians – exactly what it sounds like
• Manage the land, homesteading and land grants
• Secure the gold trade
• Project power to secure American economic and political interests in the Pacific
Most federal government offices are based in San Francisco.
• Army & Navy – dealt with below
• Treasury – Revenue Cutter Service (customs enforcement) and U.S. Mint
• Interior – Bureaus of Land Management, Indian Affairs, Agriculture and Commerce
• State – Patent Office and Foreign Service (diplomats supporting the many Pacific consulates)
• Justice – U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal Service
The judicial branch is represented by a fully functioning federal court including immigration clerks recording all new arrivals. There are no federal prisons west of the Rockies, convicted felons are either held in military stockades or transferred the state-run prison at San Quentin (in Marin County, north of the Golden Gate).
Outside of San Francisco, the most common federal offices will be from the Interior. Along the coast, you can expect to find revenue cutters at the major ports. You may also run into the occasional surveyor from Land Management, agent for Indian Affairs or the “law unto themselves” the U.S. Marshal.
The Army runs all operations west of the Rockies from the Department of the Pacific – a major command reporting directly to Washington and located at the Presidio of San Francisco guarding entrance to San Francisco Bay. The department is led by Brigadier Gen Newman Clarke and commands about 5,000 troops spread across 20 garrisons. This small permanent army is supplemented by militia forces as needed.
The Navy operates the Pacific Squadron as its flag command for the eastern Pacific. The fleet is commanded by Commodore William Mervine and based out of San Francisco. It supports operations along the entire US coast, with expeditions to support US vital interests along the entire North and South American coast and as far west as Hawaii. The “fleet” rarely works as a single unit, and ships are typically detached in groups of two or three.
The US is a blue-water navy, and US interests the western Pacific and Indian Oceans are handled by the East India Squadron commanded by Commodore James Armstrong. They operate out of civilian port facilities in China, Japan and Korea – and have been known to project power as far west as India. Their primary responsibility is protection of American merchant interests in the Yangtze River (port of Shanghai), the western enclaves in Japan (Nagasaki, Shimoda/Edo, and Hakodate/Hokkaido), and American whaling fleets operating in Pacific and Southern ocean waters.
State and Territory Government
California went from Spanish presidios bound by the El Camino Real (now the Pacific Coast Highway) to a Mexican Territory to unorganized US possession to full statehood. Civilian government institutions above the local level are less than a decade old, and the military still retains many functions that are (should) be state concerns.
The state capital has changed several times in the last twenty years. The Mexican state had Monterrey as its capital – and civilian administration stayed there after the war. After US statehood the original capital was San Jose, then Vallejo and Benicia, before finally settling at Sacramento in 1854.
The Oregon Territory, Utah Territory, and Mexican Territory have their own territory governments which work in a combination federal/local leadership model.
Immigration & Naturalization
The United States of 1850s are at the height of the “give me your tired and poor” phase. There are no quotas or green cards. All passenger ships dock at an approved port of entry – once there you would be asked name, age, country of origin and intended residence.
But that does not mean all are treated equally. Immigrants from “desirable” countries in Western Europe faced better treatment than those from other lands. Immigrants must have “good moral character” – an arbitrary standard that could mean “the judge thinks you look suspicious”. There are also medical tests to check for signs of contagious disease – and tests for literacy and mental acuity. In the 21st century, we would call this “racial profiling”, but in the 1850s this was “common sense”.
Each new immigrant would be granted a letter documenting their port of entry and date of arrival. This is a key document for anyone who would eventually like to receive citizenship or own property – as it establishes your status in the country.
Citizenship is much harder to obtain. Expect a fourteen year residency requirement, and a five year application process.
Residency status and suffrage
California has much looser rules for residency and suffrage than the eastern states. Any citizen of “good moral character” can be considered a permanent resident after as little as six months of established status.
Expect the definitions to be arbitrarily applied. Very arbitrarily and corruptly in many cases, since this is an excellent way to manipulate who is allowed to vote, who can own property, and who owes what taxes. Out west the miners in the nearby camps may be allowed to vote, but they are expected to vote the way there foreman tells them.
Crimes against property treated more severely than in than in the 21st century. Horse thieving and cattle rustling are capital crimes (as they impact your livelihood). Arson can also result in capital punishment. Water rights are also key – ranching, farming and mining are all heavy water users.
Contract and property law is key in California. When the first lawyer moves to town, he starves – when the second one moves in, they both get rich. Claim jumping and mining rights are major problems faced by every gold seeker, and having your day in court depends on hiring the right lawyer and knowing the right judge. You also need the right geologist to prove that the scoundrel’s so-called “new strike” is actually part of your proper and long-standing claim.
Violent crimes are considered less severe, especially if no weapons are used and no death resulted. Of course that assumes that the assailant and victim are of relatively equal social status.
Most “social justice” movements of the day are focused around abolition. Two notable exceptions : the Quakers are known for pacifism, and the Mormons for temperance. There are few protections for the young the old and the weak – e.g. no employment laws, child labor laws or animal welfare law.
Nor are there any laws on food labelling, drug safety or product liability. The world is full of patent medicines that are nothing but moonshine, mineral water, bitter herbs, and some coloring. And it is your responsibility to know the difference between rabbit meat and rat meat.
There are also few laws for environmental protection or clean air and water. Hydraulic mining is considered a “necessary evil” – everyone knows it fouls the water, but the mines are at least four times more productive with the new techniques.
Local law enforcement
Don’t expect the sheriff to step in if a merchant overcharges you. That’s not his job.
The local sheriff worries about four things:
• Fire response and building codes,
• Keeping the peace,
• Collecting his fines, bribes and kickbacks, and
• Getting re-elected
The sheriff’s office is right next to the stagecoach depot. Every arrival will have to check in with a deputy and deposit their firearms. Only “residents of good character” will be allowed to keep their weapons. Every arrival also has to document their name, purpose in town, and place of residence while visiting.
The other part of “keeping the peace” is isolating the red light district. The town needs its late-night, raucous and violent clientele – they spend gold and drink whiskey – but that doesn’t mean the town elders want their young children waking up in the middle of the night from gunfire. Fist fights in the alley will go unremarked and unreported. Pulling a gun or harming a prominent resident is another matter.
Local government is funded by property taxes, fees and fines. The property taxes and business license fees go to support the courthouse and registrar, so the sheriff’s office has to be self-funded by the fines he collects. This may mean a $20 “fire safety inspection” fee to a grocer – or a $1 fine for “galloping in the streets” to “carrying an unregistered firearm”. In many towns, the deputy is not paid a salary – just a portion of the fines they collect, plus a bonus for participating in a posse.
This lax and unequal attitude toward law enforcement creates an environment of preferential treatment and selective enforcement. Many times there is also a cozy relationship between law enforcement and those pursuing victimless crimes like smuggling, gambling or prostitution.
In some cases, the cronyism and protection rackets get so extreme that the good folk of the town take justice into their own hands. San Francisco is still recovering from the “Vigilante Riots of 1856” – and the “vigilante movement” is one of the leading grass-roots movements in California, working for better government and an end to patronage and corruption.