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Squatting dangerous due to rise in real estate prices

A ship burning in San Francisco Bay, 1853
A ship burning in San Francisco Bay, 1853
Bancroft Library, Berkeley, CA

By 1853 squatting in San Francisco had become much more dangerous and far more frequent than ever before due to an extraordinary rise in real estate prices. While it never became as threatening as in Sacramento, where violent riots had occurred earlier, there were a number of bloody fights, some fatal. One of those deadly battles took place on July 20 when Redmond McCarty was ejected from a Mission Street lot that belonged to Rodman Price. After Deputy Sheriff John Freaner was sent to execute a writ of removal, he and McCarthy were both shot and seriously wounded. A similar situation occurred when Joseph Hetherington appeared at a lot he owned on Greenwich Street between Kearny and Dupont and found Dr. John Baldwin in armed possession and erecting a fence around it. Hetherington shot and killed Baldwin. About this same time Hiram Pearsons attempted to take possession of several waterfront lots near Vallejo and Front Streets when he met armed resistance. A number of pilings were pulled up, several of his scows set adrift and some men who worked for him were fatally shot.

In that same year, directly across the bay in Alameda County a squatter league, or as they called it a pre-emptioner’s league, was formed for the purpose of organized resistance to land grant owners and for mutual support and defense of pre-emption claims. Membership included many who proved to be among the most substantial men in the county. Each member paid an initiation fee of five dollars and promised to each of the others that they would make no overtures to grant claimants and would reject all offers made to them until approved by the league. They agreed to contribute their share of financial support for the league and come to the aid of other members when defending their homes and property from the grasping greed of land speculators. And, because of these principles, they gave the grant holders so many problems that in the end they were glad to sell out cheap. And when these former squatters became land owners they were forced to look on the subject in a totally new light and became as bitterly opposed to squatting as the grant holders had ever been.

John Putnam is the author of hard driving historical fiction from the California gold rush. See his website at JohnRosePutnam.com