Flakes of gold were found by a New Jersey carpenter in the American River near Sutter’s Mill in the Sacramento Valley on Jan. 24, 1848. John Sutter, the Swiss immigrant who owned the mill along with several Hawaiian-born slaves, wanted to keep the discovery quiet — but word got out anyway.
By 1849, San Francisco’s then natural harbor was clogged with ships filled with gold-hunters from the Eastern United States, Australia, China, Chile, and Peru. The 49ers, as they came to be called, ditched their ships in the Bay and hightailed it inland in hopes of striking it rich. Many of the ships were sunk near the shore, covered in sludge, and used to form the highly unstable landfill that the 58-story Millennium Tower is sinking into today.
Despite people streaming from the tent cities of San Francisco to the gold fields, the population of the city shot from 400 to 25,000 people in 1849. In the power vacuum created by a major port city springing up almost overnight, a gang of ex-military men called The Hounds set themselves up as the city’s de facto police force.
The Hounds were headquartered in a tent saloon they dubbed Tammany Hall, and often paraded through the muddy streets wearing what the Weekly Alta California described as “fantastic or ridiculous dresses.” As The Hounds became quasi-official, they changed their name to The San Francisco Society of Regulators, but were still little more than a protection racket with drums and bugles.
At first, San Francisco’s emerging business community was happy to pay The Hounds to shake down recently arrived Chileans, but soon the gang started shaking down the businessmen who were already paying them. With what passed for prominent San Franciscans already getting fed up with them, The Hounds finally went too far on July 15, 1849.
After a day of conducting drunken military drills in the East Bay, Hounds leader Samuel Roberts came home and caught Felice Alvarez in her room with Leopold Bleckschmidt and another German man. Roberts believed he had forced Alvarez, a Chilean prostitute, into an exclusive relationship, but he obviously hadn’t.
Roberts flew into a rage and dragged Bleckschmidt into the street, beat him unconscious with a club, and slashed his face with his riding spur. Still raging, Roberts then gathered up his Regulators and attacked the Chilean encampment.
The Regulators came down on everyone who spoke Spanish or looked like they did. Men were shot, women were raped, and tents were ransacked. The Regulators snatched sacks of gold dust and auctioned off the Chileans’ other belongings to passersby on the streets. Rebaldo Alegria and several other Chileans escaped into the bay on boats. A young Chilean boy was shot in the stomach and died days later from his painful wound.
“In every direction were heard the cries and shrieks of women and children, mingled with the oaths and demoniac laughter of reckless and impious men,” the Weekly Alta Californian reported. Historian Stanton Coblentz later exclaimed the raid was “a spectacle of madness, a scene reminiscent of wartime horrors!”
On the following day, Sam Brannan, W. D. M. Howard, and several other men with streets named after them held a meeting at Portsmouth Square where they organized a police force and an instant court system to take down the Hounds. Roberts and 20 of his men were arrested and tried, but nothing much came of it beyond the spectacle of the trial itself. Despite being sentenced to 10 years hard labor, most of the Hounds were freed a short time later.
The Chileans – the original victims in all of this— saw little difference between the vanquished Hounds and those who replaced them. They had a word for these men who took it upon themselves to enforce the law. They called them “vigilantes.”