A Court of the People
by Steven Lavoie
They came by the thousands to a land without law or lawyers, judges or police officers. Anticipating chaos, the huge swarms of 49ers arriving in the Gold Rush towns found instead, a surprising sense of harmony and order.
With saloons as their legislative chambers, miners throughout the gold fields managed to coordinate sophisticated methods of self-government, agreeing to strict codes of conduct that they seldom violated. Complicated codes to regulate mining claims drafted at these sessions remain in force today.
Few firearms found their way to the lode. Most were left behind in San Francisco to lighten the load on the inland journey to the placers. Unlike the shoot-em-up style of justice portrayed in Hollywood westerns, disputes in the gold camps were handled swiftly and usually peacefully by the miners themselves, without jails or judges.
"There were no lawyers to delayno petty technicalities to obstruct the "course of justice," missionary Israel Lord observed in 1850.
Lord and his fellow men of the cloth, those preachers who ubiquitously roamed the Mother Lode in search of souls to save, would substitute as judiciary in ad hoc people's courts, where residents took turns as counsel, jury and bailiffs.
Punishment was meted out with fines or banishment, rather than with incarceration. Theft was uncommon. "Judgment and sentences and justice are too speedily executed here to make stealing profitable," Lord wrote.
Abundant supplies of whisky helped to aggravate the rowdiness in the camps. "Hardly a night passed without some bloody quarrel," German visitor Friedrich Gerstacker reported in 1849. But these fisticuffs were seldom fatal, and as often for sport as for retribution.
Other journals describe an unexpected harmonious environment of trust and openness among the 49ers. Lost goods were returned. Large caches of gold would sit unattended at a camp site without disappearing.
"I suppose a common interest, here, answers to the legal restraints which the laws of the states impose on their citizens," Lord wrote.
That interest, of course, was to strike it rich in gold.
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