Taming the Elephant: Politics, Government, and Law in Pioneer California

By John F. Burns; Richard J. Orsi | Go to book overview
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8
The Beginnings of Anglo-American
Local Government in California
Edward Leo Lyman

California local government in the Anglo-American period did not get off to a particularly auspicious start. For a short time during the United States military occupation and thereafter, some of the Hispanic institutions, especially the office of alcalde, a position that existed in many localities, mainly in northern California, continued in effect. This office combined legislative, judicial, executive, and law enforcement functions in one person. But there was little patience among newcomers with the lack of separation of powers and checks on the power inherent in the position, and the rapidly increasing throng of citizens from the United States demanded prompt instituting of offices and procedures with which they had more confidence. Sometimes this impatience ran roughshod over existing officials and the rights of people who had been in the region much longer. Yet in an amazingly short time the structure and functions of local government as they would continue to operate were successfully established throughout the state.

In southern California the transition from the Mexican forms of local government to that of the United States was sufficiently gradual to be generally less painful for Spanish-speaking residents, who supposedly were assured full rights of citizenship by the recent Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, than was often the case in northern California. In the huge Los Angeles County, which in 1850 stretched east to the Colorado River and into what would later become southern Nevada, the first County Court of Sessions met June 24, 1850, with Augustin Olivera serving as presiding judge. 1 Since he could not speak English and at least one of the associate justices knew no Spanish, G. Thompson Burrill, who was also the sheriff, was appointed county interpreter at an additional salary of fifty dollars per month. By June 1852, the state legislature had provided for a five-member county commission or board of supervisors in a few of the larger counties, including Los Angeles. There

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