The Guns of August
On August 10, 1850, judgment was rendered in court against squatter John F. Madden, and a statement made by the judge was construed to mean that Madden had no right to appeal. Two days later Charles Robinson and the infuriated Settlers Association issued a manifesto refusing to recognize the California courts and legislature (since California was in limbo waiting upon its ratification as a state, its current government had little legal standing). A tense meeting between Mayor Hardin Bigelow, Robinson, and 200 squatters brought about a temporary calm, but tempers flared anew on August 13 when two more squatters were arrested and thrown into the city’s jail--then merely La Grange, a ship anchored on the riverbank.
The next morning, Sacramento Sheriff Joseph McKinney seized a squatter’s house, which was soon reclaimed by a large armed party of squatters under the leadership of a James Maloney, cutting a puzzling figure on horseback with pistols and sword. Maloney’s men then moved toward the waterfront, where it was speculated they might attempt to free their imprisoned compatriots aboard La Grange. For reasons unknown, they turned away from the prison brig and eventually passed within mere blocks of Sacramento Mayor Hardwick Bigelow, who was passionately rallying citizens to arms.
Mayor Bigelow’s ad-hoc militia caught up with the squatters at the intersection 4th and J Streets. Maloney’s men turned and formed a line across 4th while the Mayor reportedly ordered the squatters to lay down their arms--whereupon, according to newspaper reports of the day, Maloney commanded his band to open fire. Mayor Bigelow fell with four bullet wounds (which he would survive, despite dire expectations). The city assessor, J.M. Woodland was mortally wounded and died in minutes. Maloney was killed, and Charles Robinson was also wounded. The Sacramento Transcript of the following day reported four total dead, and five wounded.
Deprived of leadership, the squatters scattered. Many were rounded up in the following days and arrested as militia poured in from San Francisco and Benicia under command of the Lieutenant Governor--though the violence was not yet over. Sheriff Joseph McKinney was killed the day after the downtown shootout while rounding up a band of squatters in the Brighton neighborhood, becoming the first Sacramento County sheriff killed in the line of duty. Most of the indictments against squatters fell away within weeks of the riots, as California received news of its freshly ratified statehood in October (a month after it had been approved by Congress).
Though the riots themselves had fizzled out quickly, their legacy proved durable. Mayor Bigelow never recovered from his wounds, succumbing to a cholera epidemic in San Francisco a few months later. The legal debates between squatters and the “pro-Sutter” party continued to play out in newspaper editorials for months, and historians later argued that the suppression of homesteading in the area severely inhibited Sacramento’s population and economic growth for years afterward. The issue boiled over again during a more violent cycle of unrest in San Francisco the following year.