August Riots, 1850

Vandalism and petty acts of violence had been escalating in Sacramento for months before finally erupting in bloodshed on August 14, 1850, at the corner of 4th and J Streets. The hotly contented issue was property rights, and emotions on both sides were boiling over. A number of Gold Rush newcomers, dubbed “squatters” by existing landholders, contested John Sutter’s land title originating from his 1841 Mexican land grant, declaring that city plots already paid for by others were really public domain lands available for their own homesteading—for free. The shoot-out killed city assessor James M. Woodland and severely wounded Mayor Hardin Bigelow, both unarmed, who were attempting to quiet the mob. Two squatters also lost their lives as the melee spread to K Street. The following day Sheriff Joseph McKinney was shot and killed instantly as he attempted to arrest those squatters who had fled to a roadhouse in Brighton, near today’s State University campus, where two more squatters were killed in the exchange of gunfire. Reinforcements arrived and took four prisoners back to town. With their leaders in jail, the whole city full of armed citizens, and regular army infantry and artillery reported on the way from Benecia, the squatters abandoned any alleged plans to re-invade the town. By midnight of August 15, the violence, which had left six men dead and several severely wounded, had ended.

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