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Lawyers' Papers Reveal Life in Wild, Wild West

September 10, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

When Gordon Bakken began to catalogue the vast collection of legal documents in the Huntington Library at San Marino 18 months ago, he was surprised by what he found.

Bakken, an attorney who teaches American legal history at Cal State Fullerton, had expected to devote his time to indexing legal documents ranging from deeds, abstracts of title and mortgages to promissory notes, contracts and lawyers' briefs that had been donated to the library by the families of numerous leading attorneys and business leaders.

Vivid Descriptions

What he found in addition were vivid descriptions of what life was like in California, going back to the days when it was under Mexican rule.

Most of the barristers who came into California as its earliest settlers kept journals in which they recorded their impressions of what they observed in the new state, as did those emigrants from other parts of the nation who would make fortunes in business ventures.

The indexing project was assigned to Bakken by the California State Bar's Committee on the History of Law in California and the Huntington Library, to be used by scholars in future research.

"What these papers provide is a picture of the development of the oil industry, citrus, wine, agriculture, the coming of the railroads, the growth of cities such as Los Angeles during real estate booms that brought thousands to California, particularly to our Southland," Bakken said, surrounded by boxes of documents on his desk at the Huntington.

"Many of the attorneys became involved in various enterprises that contributed to the growth of California. The material is particularly informative from 1850, following the war with Mexico when California became a state, to the turn of the 20th Century."

Not all of the contributors to the collection were lawyers. Sifting through the papers accumulated by businessman Abel Sterns, Bakken estimated there are about 12,500 pieces written in both Spanish and English.

Sterns, a native of Massachusetts, settled in Los Angeles in 1833 after acquiring Mexican citizenship. He became involved in a variety of business enterprises. He began acquiring rancho property and by 1858 was the owner of extensive land holdings and cattle herds and was the wealthiest man in Los Angeles County.

"In his papers are descriptions of life in California during the Mexican and early statehood periods," Bakken continued. "There are descriptions of cattle raising, trading transactions, especially in hides and tallow, the ranchos, political and social life, and, of course, legal documents like land transfers and titles. Sterns was forced to sell a great deal of his property when he became bankrupt after a drought during 1863-64 that caused a decline in the cattle industry in California. He died in 1871."

Benjamin Hayes is believed to have been the first American lawyer to establish a practice in Los Angeles. Leaving his wife in Missouri, Hayes, then 35, journeyed west, riding into the pueblo on a mule Feb. 2, 1850.

Entering the Bella Union Hotel on Calle Principal, which was across the street from the present City Hall, he ordered a drink. The Bella Union would serve as the county's first courthouse from 1850 to 1852. Its bar became a favorite gathering place for the town's leading citizens.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, the Bella Union had become such a rendezvous for supporters of the Southern Confederacy that Union soldiers, primarily volunteers in training at Drum Barracks in San Pedro, were forbidden to enter the hotel.

Lawless Community

Los Angeles of the 1850s was one of the most lawless communities in the nation. It was a mecca for outlaws, gamblers and ladies of the evening. The principal business establishments in what is today the downtown area were saloons. There were so many killings on the streets of Los Angeles that the local newspaper, the Star, rarely accorded them more than a few lines of type.

Hayes' career flourished. In his "Lawyers of Los Angeles" published in 1959 by the Los Angeles Bar Assn., historian W. W. Robinson wrote that Hayes was elected district judge, traveling by horseback and carriage throughout Southern California to administer justice. He carried a shotgun and a bowie knife for protection. At times, the courtroom had to be recessed temporarily when the judge imbibed a little too freely while on the bench.

During that early era in the city's history, the regular police were unable to control crime. Citizens' groups were organized, meting out vigilante justice at the end of a rope. There were numerous lynchings.

"The legal system didn't always work as judges said it should operate," Bakken said. "This led to the rise of vigilance committees here, in Santa Barbara and in San Francisco. The law stipulates how citizens should behave. There is a social expectation that the legal system will enforce that standard of behavior, and when it doesn't--then a group will enforce it."

Crime Becomes Widespread

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