Religion and Non-Partisan Politics in Gold Rush San Francisco

Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 1979


Historical Society of Southern California/University of California Press


For nearly a century, many historians of gold rush San Francisco seemed intent on standing Santayana's celebrated axiom on its head: the more they studied the past, th emore they tended to repeat it. Specifically, historians who studied the great 1856 vigilance committee tended to imitate their subject and divide into two armed camps. In 1856, the pro-vigilance Chronicle thundered, "This community must be purged from its dregs, the creatures, whoever they are, who have poisoned the fountains of society and made the place as loathsome as a charnel house." Most subsequent historians, led by Hubert Howe Bancroft, took to Fort Gunnybags. They argued that the pervasive presence of crime and political corruption in San Francisco left law-abiding citizens no other choice but to step outside the letter of the law to preserve its spirit.