The American Conquest of Alta California and the Instinct for Justice: The "First" Jury Trial in California

Article excerpt

This is how the judge Walter Colton described what he called the first jury trial in California. It is how all the great historians of California who have noted the 1846 trial have described it, too. (2) But much of that description is wrong and the rest is incomplete. (Indeed, it was not even the first jury trial.) The truth is far more interesting. On one hand, it is the story of an attempt to render justice in an occupied frontier in a time of war. On another, it is the story of a newly appointed officeholder's endeavor to deal with the most controversial issue he faced while standing for election. Both are true.


The trial was held in Monterey on September 4, 1846. Although Monterey was the capital of Alta California, it was a small community whose elite consisted of a handful of Mexican government officials and Hispanic, American, English, Scottish, Irish, and French entrepreneurs. (3) In addition, there was a polyglot population of laborers in the surrounding area. The community functioned reasonably well, but this mix of nationalities, languages, and cultures created some inevitable misunderstandings and frictions.


Mexican law provided relative stability in the fields of real property and family law. (4) But in other areas, the Mexican legal and political systems were the source of much dissatisfaction, particularly among the expatriates. The central authority in Mexico City was too remote to govern effectively. (5) In the twenty-five years since Mexican independence, there had been at least twelve internal revolts against the provincial government in Alta California. (6) Government was routinely unstable.

Justice was administered locally by alcaldes, local magistrates who exercised executive, legislative, and judicial powers. The alcaldes were not trained in the law. Instead, they were respected members of the community who were expected to govern with wisdom, common sense, and an ability to work well with people. Mediation--not litigation--lay at the heart of the judicial system. The alcaldes sought to foster reconciliation and agreement. (7)

There were no juries, in either civil or criminal cases. Civil disputes featured compulsory mediation and an ineffective system for collecting money owed to a successful claimant. (8) This created discontent among the American residents who were used to a more adversarial, less conciliatory system of justice and who believed Mexican law was incapable of protecting their business interests. (9)

Many were expecting an end to Mexican rule. There had been much discussion about which power--the United States, England, or France--would take Alta California from Mexico. (10) So it was no surprise when an American fleet, under the leadership of Commodore John Drake Sloat, seized the town on July 7, 1846 to begin the occupation of Alta California.

The locals were eager to learn how Sloat would administer justice. The commodore had given thought to that. His first act was to issue a conciliatory proclamation: "Henceforward California will be a portion of the United States, and its peaceful inhabitants will enjoy the same rights and privileges as the citizens of any other portion of that territory, with all the rights and privileges they now enjoy, together with the privilege of choosing their own magistrates and other officers for the administration of justice among themselves.... I invite the judges, alcaldes, and other civil officers to retain their offices, and to execute their functions as heretofore, that the public tranquility may not be disturbed; at least, until the government of the territory can be more definitely arranged." (11)

Sloat asked the incumbent alcaldes, Manuel Diaz and Joaquin Escamilla, to remain in office. (12) But they declined to serve. So he directed the purser from the sloop Cyane, Rodman M. Price, and the surgeon from the sloop Levant, Edward Gilchrist, to go ashore and assume their duties. …