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Squatting in 1853

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JULY 20th, 1853: The under-sheriff, John A. Freaner, was shot on Mission street by one Redmond McCarthy, a "squatter," when the former, in the performance of his duty, was endeavoring to execute a writ of ejectment against the latter. Revolvers were produced and fired by both parties, and both were severely wounded. The circumstance is particularly mentioned as illustrative of the "times in San Francisco." About this period the squatters on city lands became suddenly more numerous and daring than ever.

These were not like the legitimate "settlers," who took possession of vacant unclaimed lands, under the ordinary preemption laws of the United States. On the contrary, many of the squatters seized upon lands known to be claimed by others, and who held them by the strongest legal titles known. As these titles however, happened in almost all cases to have borne nice legal doubt affecting them, "squatters" settled the matter in their own way, and at once forcibly seized upon every piece of ground that had no permanent improvements made upon it. They "squatted" everywhere; not only on choice lots along the line of public streets, and among the distant sandy hills, but on the public and private burying grounds and on the open squares of the city. If they had the least colorable title adverse to the party in constructive possession, good and well; but generally there was no other right pretended than that of force. The intruder displayed only his six-shooter and with a scowl and a sullen curse would mutter to the offended owner: My title is as good as yours; I have now the ground, and I will keep it, ay, until death. Out of the way!

Of course those who considered themselves the proper owners were not inclined tamely to submit to this violation of their rights. Sometimes they took counsel and aid from the law, but nearly as often they met the invader with his own weapons, the axe to destroy fences and buildings, and the revolver to frighten or kill his antagonist. Hired persons on both sides sometimes helped to carry on the war. Occasionally one "squatter" would envy, and seek to steal the already stolen possession of another; and then both would have a bloody fight about the matter. "To the victors belonged the spoils."

Many lives were lost in these savage contests, and bitter enmity engendered among rival claimants. The law was almost powerless to redress wrong and punish guilt in such cases. It said that the owner of ground was entitled by every means in his power to prevent unlawful and hostile intrusion upon it; and thus men had not the slightest scruple to use fire-arms upon all occasions. In the confusion and conflict of adverse titles. It could not be instantly determined who were the true owners, and judges therefore could not punish the trespassers and murderers. If even the title of one slain in such a struggle were clear, juries could not be found who would bring in the slayer guilty of murder. His plea, however false and ridiculous, of supposed title to the ground which was the cause of the fatal dispute, was always held sufficient to save him from any verdict that would justify the extreme penalty of the law. Probably one or more of the jurors themselves had committed similar outrages, and would not condemn in the prisoner their own principles of action, and weaken the titles to their own properties. It was supposed that many of these "squatters" were secretly instigated in their reckless proceedings by people of wealth and influence, who engaged to see their pupils out of any legal difficulty into which they might fall. Such wealthy speculators shared, of course, in the spoils of the proceedings.

To this day, many of the most valuable districts in and around San Francisco are held by squatter's titles which had been won perhaps at the cost of bloodshed, and in defiance of other titles, that, if not the best in law, had at least a colorable show, and should have been always strong enough to resist the strong-hand claim of the mere robber. In this way the city itself, the great victim of real estate speculators "squatters" and plunderers, has lost, for a time, at least much of its remaining property. The new charter, if passed by the Legislature, will make many of these temporary losses, final and irretrievable ones. If it were desirable to enlarge on this painful subject, as showing the independent and lawless state of California, a history might be given of the great gang of squatters who have stolen the broad rich acres of the native Peraltas on the opposite side of the bay in Contra Costa. However, it is sufficient merely to mention the subject, in illustration of the like practices that had been long carried on, and at this time seemed to be at their height in San Francisco and its environs.

--Annals of San Francisco, 1855


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