The Wildest West of Them All

Seller of violent spectacle, Hollywood hides its own dark frontier past.

By Crawford Kilian 30 May 2016 |

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

In February of 1884 an angry American mob crossed into British Columbia, seized a Sto:lo youth named Louie Sam from the custody of a B.C. deputy, and set about lynching the boy from a tree. The vigilantes, led by two white men, claimed Sam had murdered a white shopkeeper in Washington state, but historians are almost certain he was innocent.

The sordid tale might make for a powerful Hollywood movie. But then, what happened to Louie Sam was pretty common in Los Angeles during the same era.

Yet while Hollywood has made countless westerns, using the sunshine and scenery of southern California, it has made almost no movies about the history of southern California, and especially about Los Angeles, which was the wildest west of all.

We've had the occasional flick like Ramona or The Mark of Zorro. But the 60 years between 1830 and 1890 remain largely a blank, and for good reason: a western set in L.A. in those years would mortally offend too many important markets.

Perhaps for similar reasons, historians have also avoided the period. Virtually every group then living in Los Angeles behaved badly, and the dominant American whites behaved worst of all, turning to lynching hundreds of times. Only gradually did life settle down, but even now echoes of that vigilante era rumble across L.A., whether in riots or superhero movies.

Macho aggression

Faragher, a Yale historian, sees the culture of frontier Los Angeles as an uneasy blend of two macho cultures: that of the Mexican cattlemen who took over the lands once owned by the Catholic Church's missions, and that of the "Chivalry" -- migrants from the American South. Both groups clung to a concept of "honour" based on male power over women and readiness to erase insults through violence.

It also helped that both groups were far from the authorities of home. The pueblo of Los Angeles had been founded in 1781. The priests and Mexican cattlemen who settled there were a few hundred Europeans, reliant on themselves and especially on the labour of the aboriginals. They could rule as they pleased, and little changed after Mexico became independent in 1821. Mexico City would send out a governor now and then, and when the ranchers got fed up they ousted him and waited for his replacement. Legal disputes could be appealed to higher courts in Mexico, but the process took months or years.

So California was semi-autonomous right from the start, with "Californios" feeling themselves distinct from their Mexican cousins. Besides, other immigrants added to their numbers: wandering Americans and Europeans, including Frenchmen who helped start a thriving Los Angeles wine industry. The pueblo prospered on the export of wine, hides and tallow, and the rancheros were a market eager for the latest fashions and gadgets from the U.S. and Europe.

L.A. in 1836 was still a very small town of two or three thousand where everyone knew everyone else -- and everyone else's scandals. When one rancher tried to reclaim the wife who'd deserted him over his philandering, she resisted but eventually acquiesced. But her new lover ambushed them, killed the rancher, and vanished with the wife. Both were soon found and interrogated, and confessed to plotting the husband's murder.

Rejecting the authorities, a "junta popular" or vigilance committee formed to demand the immediate execution of the lovers. The committee took them from the local jail and shot them both. "Thus ended the first episode of popular justice," Faragher writes, but it would not be the last.

Setting the stage

The Mexican-American War ended in 1848 with the U.S. taking two-thirds of Mexico, including of course Los Angeles. While the Californios had been promised citizenship and full equality with the Americans, it didn't work out that way. The Americans flooding in, especially after the Gold Rush began in 1849, were far from home and its institutions. Many were from the U.S. South, which had its own code of honour. To them, the Californios were mere "greasers," deserving no respect.

The stage was set for an outbreak of violence that lasted almost half a century. At times, Faragher says, the per capita murder rate in 19th-century L.A. was as bad as that in Ciudad Juárez during the worst years of the cocaine wars.

Apart from the routine murders caused by booze and greed, Los Angeles became an epicentre of lynch law. Vigilance committees formed after almost every notable murder, legitimized by the support of newspaper editors and lawyers. Suspects were routinely pulled out of the jailhouse, hustled to some space where the whole gathered town could watch, and strung up.

Every ethnic group seemed in conflict with both itself and others: Americans against themselves and Californios, and vice versa. The aboriginals, who did most of the real work, were allowed to get drunk every Saturday night; after their brawls and murders, they were arrested and auctioned off as slave labour for a week to repay their fines.

Violence as a family matter

As Faragher points out, much of the public violence spilled over from domestic violence. Men had routinely beaten their wives and children since the founding of Los Angeles. They were rarely charged because such incidents were asuntos de familia, "family matters," where the state had no business. But sometimes a beaten wife escaped into the street and her rescuers found themselves dealing with an armed and drunken husband. Whether the husband or the rescuer was shot, the vigilance committee was likely soon involved.

The outbreak of the U.S. Civil War intensified matters. Most Los Angeles Americans were Southerners, and many went home to fight for the Confederacy. Others, calling themselves "the Chivalry," stayed to create a secessionist enclave; they welcomed back their defeated comrades at the end of war in 1865. (Other Southerners became the professional lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan.)

By then, Los Angeles was changing yet again. A three-year drought ruined the cattle ranchers, and a smallpox outbreak in 1862 killed or dispersed 90 per cent of the aboriginals. (It reached Victoria and then the whole B.C. coast, killing a third of our own First Nations in a year or two.)

The big Californio rancheros, going broke, sold off their holdings into 50-acre farmsteads, triggering real estate as the new driver of the Los Angeles economy. Finding a labour force was a problem, partly solved by the Chinese. But now the murders were over property boundaries and water rights, and some of the Chinese were racketeers quite as crooked as some of the Americans.

A pogrom against the Chinese

A couple of Chinese crime lords imported hired guns from San Francisco in 1871 to sort out a turf war, the resulting gunfight resulted in American casualties -- and a pogrom that saw 18 innocent Chinese workers shot or hanged in a single day and night.

Even the professional vigilantes were appalled, and partially redeemed themselves by pointing their revolvers into the faces of some of the amateur lynchers to rescue their Chinese victims. These idiots were giving them a bad name.

Slowly, painfully and partially, some kind of justice system took power in Los Angeles. By the 1890s, with some spectacular lapses, a criminal was more likely to die legally than not.

It makes sense that Hollywood never dared to look at the lynch law of its own region's history. A movie where Americans shoot and oppress Hispanics would trigger Latin American riots. The 1871 Chinese pogrom wouldn't go over over well in the Asian market. The American South, which has largely vetoed any Civil War movie except The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind, would stay away in droves from such a story.

Instead, the vigilante has been transmuted into the superhero, who restores "justice" by extrajudicial violence, or the solitary westerner who must defend his community against criminal invasion, such as High Noon. Social alienation and mistrust of legal institutions remain ingrained in Hollywood and in American culture itself, expressed most recently in movements like Black Lives Matter.

Nothing like lynch law happened far to the north in British Columbia. Colonial governor William Douglas could see us being absorbed into the American orbit. He recruited San Francisco's blacks to offset the whites seeking gold on the Fraser, and even made Jamaican blacks Victoria's first cops to show the white Americans who was boss. He also had British troops defuse Ned McGowan's "war," a revolt by American prospectors that could have made us the next California.

Pioneer B.C. had plenty of violence and wife-beating, even a Chinatown race riot, but nothing on the scale of Los Angeles. B.C.'s blacks, like everyone else, could turn at once to a stable justice system when they needed it. Evidently we lacked the machismo (though we had plenty of racism), and the idea of solving disputes by gunfire was foreign to the culture of Hudson's Bay Company that first settled Western Canada. It really wouldn't do to shoot the people who supplied your furs and bought your trade goods.

So we still go to superhero movies, and we like westerns where justice triumphs by violence over anarchy. But for us, it's pretty much just fantasy. For the Americans, such films are parables of their own violent past.  [Tyee]

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