David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
The San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1856; Three Views: William T. Coleman, William T. Sherman, James O’Meara. Introduced and edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. (Los Angeles, Ca., The Silver Anniversary Publication of the Los Angeles Westerners, 1971). Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 181 pages. $20.00.
Reviewed by Walton Bean who received his A.B. in history in 1935 and his M.A. in 1937 from the University of Southern California, and his Ph.D. in 1941 from the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Boss Ruef’s San Francisco (1952, 1968), and of California, an Interpretive History (1968), and is professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.
In this attractive volume Professor Nunis has made a valuable and stimulating contribution to the study of one of the most controversial subjects in the history of California.
To have reprinted the accounts by Coleman, Sherman, and O’Meara, in facsimile and with good editorial notes, would have been useful in itself; but Nunis has done much more by adding as an introduction an historiographical essay that is a model of thoroughness and fairness. In it he describes the published materials on the San Francisco vigilance committees, from the pamphlets of the 1850s all the way to the very recent writings of Richard Maxwell Brown and Roger Olmsted. That the views of Brown (critical) and Olmsted (favorable) are almost as conflicting as those of most of the earlier writers suggests that the controversies over the merits of vigilantism will long remain unresolved. As Nunis says, a judicious history of the vigilantes has yet to be written. He states his own general view at the end of his introduction: “In a day when law and order is a critical national problem, it would do no harm for all of us to contemplate quietly and rationally the consequence of invoking extralegel means as a tool for social or political redress.”
William Tell Coleman’s account, headed “San Francisco Vigilance Committee, by the Chairman of the Committees of 1851, 1856, and 1877,” is reproduced from Century Magazine, November 1891. An appendix adds a facsimile of Coleman’s earlier “recollection” of the committee of 1856, extracted from his 1877 dictation for H. H. Bancroft and published in the San Francisco Call. Sherman’s side of the story is told in letters he wrote in 1856, as published in the Century in December 1891; these are supplemented by the parts of the letters that the Century omitted (Dwight L. Carke is credited with the discovery of the omissions), and by Sherman’s letter to Stephen J. Field, written in 1873 and published in the Overland Monthly in February 1874. James O’Meara’s version is in his pamphlet, The Vigilance Committee of 1856. By a Pioneer California Journalist, published in 1887. Since this is the first time this pamphlet has been reprinted, Nunis’s footnotes on it are particularly extensive and valuable.
There are some textual blemishes. Richard Maxwell Brown wrote that “The San Francisco vigilantes were ethnically biased” (not “ethicaly biased” (o. 22). Walton Bean’s middle initial is E., not A.; and he wrote that “As for vigilante jurisprudence, its record of violations of due process was (not “were”) appalling.” (p. 11).
The introductory essay includes brief decriptions of a remarkable number of writings. This reviweer would question the accuracy of only one of these descriptions: to say (p. 10, n. 1), that George R. Stewart’s Committee of Vigilance: Revolution in San Francisco, 1851 (1964), is “a current restatement of the work of Mary Floyd Williams in her History of the San Francisco Vigilance Committee of 1851 (1921), is something of an understatement of Stewart’s research.
Every serious student of California history must form his own judgments about the vigilantes; and every student of the vigilantes will find Nunis’s book essential.