The Hounds 1849

Primary Source

—from Annals of San Francisco, 1855


The Hounds (an early gang with its roots in New York city)) in action; they specialized in racist attacks on Chileans, Peruvians and Mexicans. Their assaults led to the first vigilante movement.

In the spring and early summer months of 1849, San Francisco was afflicted with the presence and excesses of a parcel of the veriest rogues and ruffians that ever haunted a community. The first intelligence of the discovery of gold in California naturally sent hither the most daring and clever adventurers of blemished reputation from their own countries, who saw in this modern Dorado a fit theatre for the profitable repetition of those tricks and outrages, the exercise of which had rendered their native homes no longer lucrative or safe places to reside in.

Long before any great number of the general public had emigrated from the Atlantic States or from Europe, San Francisco was overrun with such men from the various countries and ports on the Pacific, and particularly from the west coast of the Americas. A little later came stray vagabonds from Australia, where had been collected the choice of the convicted felons of Great Britain. The regiment of New York volunteers, which some time before had been disbanded, and from which so much good had been expected in ultimately peopling the land with first-class settlers, had greatly disappointed the hopes of its projectors and friends. Many of the most noted blackguards of the country turned out to have been formerly soldiers in that corps; and perhaps these very men formed the nucleus and strength of the "hounds" themselves. The very earliest arrivals also from the eastern ports were largely composed of the rowdy and knavish class. They indeed had required no long time to make preparations for the voyage. Their baggage was on their backs, and their purse in every honest man's pocket. They stepped on board the first ship and hey for California! These vagabonds never intended to follow a reputable calling there, but as sharpers, gamblers, and cheating adventurers in every variety of scheme, were prepared only to prey upon the community at large. Every thing in San Francisco encouraged them to think it was what their fellows would call a safe speculation. The municipal and State organizations were both still unformed, and the few local authorities were quite inadequate to cope with such a body of villainy as was shortly developed.

The "hounds" were the natural consequence of such a state of things. A party, calling themselves by that name, was first faintly heard of towards the close of 1848; but it was only in the spring of the following year that their depredations excited much notice. In the desire to make fortunes easily and in a hurry, the overtoiled people of San Francisco paid little attention to any thing but what immediately concerned themselves, individually, and much crime was allowed to be committed with impunity, because nobody cared, or had time to think about it, or to interfere in the matter. Thus the "hounds had perpetrated many outrages before public indignation was fully aroused. These were directed chiefly against foreigners -- Chileans, Peruvians and Mexicans, as being supposed less able to defend themselves, and who were likewise imagined to possess fewer sympathies from the community in their behalf. This class of the foreign population was generally of the lowest and most degraded character.

We have seen that among the first immigrants to the mines were a multitude of foreigners of Spanish extraction, from the various republics and provinces on the Pacific shores of America. The presence of these people--many of whom seemed little better than slaves-in the pay and under the command of their own wealthier countrymen, was considered by the American miners to be unfair towards themselves, as natural lords of the soil, purchased by their own blood and treasure, and as tending to lower both the dignity and profits of gold digging. Many disputes, occasionally attended with bloodshed, had taken place in the mines between the people of the United States and these foreigners, the latter of whom were slowly but surely driven away from the mining districts they had selected, partly by violence, though principally by threats.

This state of matters in the mining districts, which was often not discountenanced, but was even openly approved of by many respectable citizens, as well as the low character of the class alluded to in San Francisco itself, mightily encouraged and lent a flimsy pretext to the criminal attacks by desperadoes in that city against the foreign population. The "hounds," who were a numerous body of youths and men in the prime of life, professed themselves only an association for "mutual defence," but in reality were but a band of self-licensed robbers, who thought every Chileno was fair game for their plundering propensities. They organized themselves so far that they had a place of regular meeting, or Head Quarters, which they called Tammany Hall, in a large tent, near the City Hotel. Leaders were appointed to conduct operations, and afterwards apportion the spoil. To such a daring extent were matters carried that the body, proud of their strength and numbers, attempted a sort of military display, and on Sundays, armed with bludgeons and loaded revolvers, paraded the streets, in open daylight, with drum and fife playing, and banners flying. It was in the dead of night, however, when their outrages were done. There were then neither lights in the unformed streets, nor a police force to watch over the safety of the town. The well-disposed citizens, fearful of brawls, retired early to their dwellings, and the more noise and rioting they might hear at a distance the closer they crept into beds or prepared their weapons for the defence alone of their own proper domiciles. At such times the "hounds" would march to the tents of known Chilenos, and, tearing them down, rob and spoil the contents of value, and shamefully maltreat and even murder the inmates. At other times they would content themselves with extorting by threats large sums of money and gifts of jewels and articles of value from all classes of foreigners, and sometimes from Americans themselves, though it was seldom they meddled with the latter. A favorite sport was to intrude themselves, even in open day, in a numerous gang, upon taverns and hotels, and demand high priced drinks and food, which on receiving--for people were too much afraid of their lives and property to refuse--they would recklessly destroy the furniture nearest at hand and forthwith decamp as boldly as they had entered, without troubling their heads as to who should pay for the damage or the articles consumed.

This state of things had continued for some months, when in one of their destructive expeditions upon the tents and chattels of the Chilenos, a young man by the name of Beatty, not properly one of themselves, but who happened to be among or near the band at the time, received a fatal shot from one of the attacked foreigners. This roused the "hounds" to vengeance against the whole population of Spanish origin, and they became fiercer and more destructive in their excesses than ever. People now could not avoid taking notice of these lawless abuses; but public indignation was not yet full. About this time the "hounds" changed their name to "regulators," and had the impudence to profess themselves guardians of the community against the encroachments of Spanish foreigners. At the sound of the "assembly beat" on the drum, they would collect in great numbers at "Tammany Hall," ready to commit whatever violence their leaders might direct.

On the afternoon of Sunday, the 15th of July, a large band of the "hounds" or "regulators," returning from a marauding excursion to Contra Costa, determined to signalize the occasion by some new exploits. Armed with firearms and heavy sticks, and under the command of one dressed in regimentals, whom they called Lieutenant, they paraded through the town in their usual ridiculous fashion, and towards evening proceeded to attack various Chilean tents. These they violently tore down, plundering them of money and valuables, which they carried away, and totally destroying on the spot such articles as they did not think it worth while to seize. Without provocation, and in cold blood, they barbarously beat with sticks and stones, and cuffed and kicked the unoffending foreigners. Not content with that, they repeatedly and wantonly fired among the injured people, and amid the shrieks of terrified women and groans of wounded men, recklessly continued their terrible course in different quarters, wherever in fact malice or thirst for plunder led them. This was in broad daylight; but there were no individuals brave or foolhardy enough to resist the progress of such a savage mob, whose exact force was unknown, but who were believed to be both numerous and desperate.

On the following day, Monday, the 16th July, when the news of these last outrages were circulated among the citizens, the whole town rose in the greatest state of excitement. Alcalde Leavenworth, who was himself powerless to quell the disturbance, was waited upon by Captain Bezer Simmons and Mr. Samuel Brannan, and urged by these gentlemen instantly to take some steps to organize the community to protect itself, and put down decidedly these disturbers of the public peace. Thus forced to some definite action, the alcalde the same day issued a proclamation, calling on the public instantly to assemble in Portsmouth Square. At three o'clock of that day, the whole honest part of the community seemed to turn out at the place appointed. Mr. W. D. M. Howard was chosen president of the meeting, and Dr. Victor J. Fourgeaud, secretary. Mr. Samuel Brannan then addressed the meeting, and denounced in forcible terms the depredations and many crimes of the "hounds." Upon his motion, a subscription list was opened for relief of the sufferers by the riots of the previous evening. It was next suggested that the citizens should organize themselves into a police force to apprehend the criminals and drag them to justice. This was immediately done; and two hundred and thirty people of those present at the meeting enrolled themselves as special constables. The general command of the body was given to Mr. W. E. Spofford, while Messrs. Stevenson, Wadleigh, Simmons, Smith, Turk, Gillespie, Hughes, Priest, Webb and Stevens were appointed captains. They were armed with muskets, sixty of which were furnished gratuitously by Mr. Hiram Webb, now of the firm of Webb & Harris. This volunteer force exerted themselves so diligently, that, in spite of several attempts at open resistance by the "hounds," nearly twenty of the rioters were the same afternoon apprehended, examined and put in prison on board the United States ship Warren, there being then no safe place on shore in which to keep them in custody. The leader, "Sam " Roberts, was also arrested on his way to Stockton. Mr. A. J. Ellis who had been chosen to act as sheriff, took an effective part in making these arrests.

The next day, Tuesday, a grand jury of twenty-four citizens met, and, upon evidence, found a true bill against Samuel Roberts and other supposed members of the "hounds," to the number of nineteen, on the different charges of conspiracy, riot, robbery, and assault with intent to kill.

The following day, Wednesday, the trials began. All the usual judicial forms were observed, and there was no apparent desire to press harshly on the prisoners. Probably if they had been caught in their very acts of violence on the preceding Sunday, the enraged people would at once have executed popular justice on them; but now public indignation was somewhat calmed, and the trials proceeded with the greatest decorum and impartiality. Francis J. Lippitt, Horace Hawes, Hall McAllister, and Frank Turk appeared as counsel for the people; while P. Barry and Myron Norton were deputed to act for the accused. The judges were the alcalde, T. M. Leavenworth, and Messrs. Gwin and Ward. Counsel for the defence having waived all exceptions to the form of the indictment, a jury was impaneled.

The jury found Roberts, the leader of the gang, guilty of all the counts, and eight others guilty of one or more of them. Roberts and Saunders (another of the more active "hounds") were then sentenced to ten years imprisonment, with hard labor, in whatever penitentiary the governor of California might direct, and the remainder to imprisonment with hard labor for shorter periods, as well as most of them to considerable fines, some of them also being required to grant bonds for large sums to keep the peace for twelve months. From various circumstances these penalties were never inflicted; but the prisoners, some of whom were sent out of the country, were shortly afterwards set at liberty.

Thus ended the affair of the "hounds," which had alarmed the community so much, and which had compelled them, in the absence of a firm and regular judicature, to take the law into their own hands, and administer justice in a prompt and decisive manner. The early success and safety of the "hounds," for a long period afterwards led to still more daring and criminal excesses on the part of the desperadoes with whom the town continued to be haunted, and who were checked for only a little while in their crimes by the examples made of Roberts and his mates. On the other hand, the ease with which a number of respectable and determined men could thus put down a disorderly gang, afterwards encouraged the formation of the famous "Vigilance Committee" of the year 1851, when, what between theft and burglary, assault, murder and arson on the great scale, it became almost a life and death struggle for the honest citizen to preserve his property and inhabit the town in peace and personal safety. Some of the "hounds," who had escaped the due punishment of their crimes at this time, met it shortly afterwards at the mines, where several of them were unceremoniously hanged, at an hour's notice, by the enraged miners, upon whom they had attempted to try the tricks they had so long played with impunity in San Francisco.

Notwithstanding all that we have said, there is yet another phase of the "hounds " business, which may be just noticed. At that period, there happened to be influential parties in San Francisco, who were determined to make "political capital " for themselves, and who considered that a gentle course of public disturbance, while it might not conduce to any materially evil results, could be employed, or at least its instruments, to facilitate the objects they had in view, and further their own personal interests. These persons were suspected at the time, and long afterwards were known, to have had secret intimacies and mysterious dealings with certain leaders of the "hounds," who undertook to promote the purposes of the former while at the same time they served their own. But the monster, which if not born, was, at least, nursed into strength by these very respectable aspirants, soon outgrew the power of its protectors to keep it within bounds, and became at last their disgrace and terror. Fearful of committing themselves by owning a former connection, however slight, with such a vile association, some of the richest and most influential people in the town calmly heard of all the abuses committed by their proteges, but took no steps to quell them. It would be imprudent at this time to mention names, but the fact is so nevertheless. The truly liberal, honest and brave portion of the community had therefore a doubly difficult task to accomplish; for not only had they to put down the "hounds " themselves, who were emboldened to resist by the knowledge that they had "friends at court," but they had also to overcome the unconcealed reluctance of many of their fellow-citizens to move at all in the matter, and to set aside the various obstacles which these facetiously were enabled to throw in the way.

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