Customer Reviews: Vigilante Wars (Kindle Single)
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About ten years ago, my wife and I made our first trip as tourists to California. We spent ten days in northern California from San Francisco to the Oregon state line. A couple of those days were spent driving around the Gold Rush towns east of Sacramento. In a local bookstore, we bought some books about the 1849 Gold Rush, and when we returned home, we devoured them, reading about the incredible experiences of tens of thousands of Americans and foreigners who trekked to California. Some of the books mentioned San Francisco and what was happening there during this period, but the books were mostly focused on the gold miners' journeys to California and their efforts to get rich in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Cecelia Holland, in her Kindle Single "Vigilante Wars," turns the focus on San Francisco, which, before the 1849 Gold Rush began, was a tiny settlement of fewer than a hundred inhabitants. With the US having just taken possession of California from Mexico, it was pretty much a no-man's land with no real government. In San Francisco, gangs such as the "Hounds" roamed freely, stealing what they wanted and beating up anyone in their way. As a natural consequence, vigilante groups such as the Committee of Vigilance were formed to bring quick justice to violent lawbreakers. Over the next few years, the Committee would come in conflict with the local political forces, often resulting in chaos as public opinion wavered back and forth. With the United States government trying desperately to resolve the slavery issue that was driving the country toward war, the US government could do little to intervene in California's troubles.

"Vigilante Wars" is no dry recitation of facts and figures. Ms. Holland includes glimpses of many of the colorful characters who were influential in building and governing San Francisco during the turbulent years during and after the Gold Rush. Remarkably, two Americans who came to fame during the War Between the States played small roles in early San Francisco history: David Farragut and William Tecumseh Sherman.

There were some great little tidbits about San Francisco during the Gold Rush era. Once the Gold Rush began, the city's population grew exponentially for several years. In the early years, most people lived in wooden shanties and tents, and fires destroyed the fledgling city several times. Prices were rising so fast that it was claimed that it was cheaper to send laundry to China compared to having it done locally. Those are just a couple of the fascinating items about the city.

For anyone with even the slightest interest in the 1849 Gold Rush and the early history of San Francisco, "Vigilante Wars" is a must read.
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San Francisco grew enormously during the early days of the Gold Rush, so fast that law and order was a relatively fragile concept. Part of the problem was that California had recently been "purchased" from Mexico; part was that Federal authority was many months away by boat to Panama, then overland to another boat, with still many miles to sail; part was that the Federal government itself was torn by the growing division between North and South, exacerbated by the fact that California had joined the Union without a counter-balancing slave state. Interestingly, California voted to come in as a free state because gold miners believed slaves would give slave owning miners a competitive advantage. But over-riding all these factors was the incredible cast of characters -- toughs from the streets of New York who mixed fisticuffs with politics, gamblers making their mark with cards and guns, shopkeepers buying up submerged water front and filling it in to make building lots -- an exciting, wonderful place to live and prosper or fail or perhaps to die.

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance was formed in 1851 and revived in 1856. The purported goal was to control crime and government corruption. The Committees hanged eight people and forced several elected officials to resign. Both Committees ceased activities after three months, for a variety of reasons. Cecelia Holland puts a human reality behind these cold historical facts; one can hear in her wonderful prose the ringing sounds of the two giant firehouse bells that called the vigilantes to meetings, to trials, to hangings.

After hanging John Jenkins from Australia for stealing a safe, the first Committee published the following manifesto in "The San Francisco Alta":

"WHEREAS it has become apparent to the citizens of San Francisco, that there is no security for life and property, either under the regulations of society as it at present exists, or under the law as now administered; Therefore the citizens, whose names are hereunto attached, do unit themselves into an association for the maintenance of the peace and good order of society, and the preservation of the lives and property of the citizens of San Francisco, and do bind ourselves, each unto the other, to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order, and to sustain the laws when faithfully and properly administered; but we are determined that no thief, burglar, incendiary or assassin, shall escape punishment, either by the quibbles of the law, the insecurity of prisons. the carelessness or corruption of the police, or a laxity of those who pretend to administer justice."

Holland weaves together the stories of many of these citizens: James Stuart (hanged); Samuel Whittaker (hanged) Robert McKenzie (hanged), James P. Casey who shot a competitor newspaper editor James King of William (the reason for establishing the second Committee), William Tell Coleman, Martin J. Burke, San Francisco mayor Henry F. Teschemacher, and San Francisco's first chief of police James F. Curtis (in one political sense, the Committees represented a transfer of power from the Democratic machine established by New Yorkers to the newly formed Republican party); James "Yankee" Sullivan (a suicide to escape the hangman), Charles Cora, a gambler who was supported by his beautiful lover Arabella Ryan (the two were married in jail just before Cora's execution), David Farragut who establish the naval yard at Mare Island and generally kept US forces out of the activities of the second Committee, despite requests of state officials to intercede, and many, many others.

It is remarkable that Holland can make this complicated story come so alive, and that in so few pages. She doesn't really sum up whether as a general matter the Committees were a good or bad influence on the development of San Francisco, and perhaps it is impossible to determine that value even after 150 years or more.

At least one famous American raised very serious doubts; in the Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman, Sherman writes:

"As [the vigilantes] controlled the press, they wrote their own history, and the world generally gives them the credit of having purged San Francisco of rowdies and roughs; but their success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community? Indeed, in San Francisco, as soon as it was demonstrated that the real power had passed from the City Hall to the committee room, the same set of bailiffs, constables, and rowdies that had infested the City Hall were found in the employment of the "Vigilantes." [Chapter V: California]

Robert C. Ross
July 2012
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on August 13, 2012
Bought this based off of other positive reviews and was impressed - interesting subject matter highlighting a city's explosive growth in the untamed West and the ongoing conflict of mob rule vs. law in the years running up to the Civil War. Plenty of content and well-written. Recommend.
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on July 22, 2012
Cecelia Holland's VIGILANTE WARS works so well as a Kindle Single. As someone who is interested in history, but not interested enough to spend the time with a 700-back book, VIGILANTE WARS is engaging and propulsive. This Kindle Single describes San Francisco and its rise at the cusp of the 1849 Gold Rush. Before all of America was trying to strike it rich in California's gold mines, San Francisco was a tiny town -- a town too tiny to really handle the kind of population growth it was going to receive. The town essentially became lawless, with what government and law there was unable to handle the massive rise in population and the crime/corruption that came with it.

The story that Holland follows the city of San Francisco, but it is anchored with colorful characters and engaging prose. VIGILANTE WARS isn't just textbook-like recitation, it's an actual narrative. I would recommend this to anyone interested in American history (especially on the Western front). This Kindle Single is a great read, but readers will probably even a little something or two. At its current price ($1.99), it's well worth the money, time, and energy.

Readers who enjoy this short, exciting account of history are encouraged to check out Holland's description of the railroad strike of 1877 in Blood on the Tracks
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on October 25, 2012
Vigilante Wars ISBN 9781937853365, Now and Then edition, e-book by Cecelia Holland is a look at the attempt to rid San Francisco of vice by use of gangland tactics in the 1850's.
The author has presented an interesting description of another chapter of American History. (A couple of interesting asides that would not fit into the dialogue about two of her prominent players. When John Coffee Hays, the legendary Texas Ranger who became sheriff resigned in frustration, he became the United States Surveyor General. His two successors, Thomas Johnson and William Gorham, both were well qualified, but also resigned for the same reason. The next appointed sheriff, David Scannell, who was forced to give up his prisoners at cannon point, was a New Yorker who had distinguished himself in the Mexican War. He was well respected and even well-thought-of during the entire proceedings. Upon his resignation he became Chief Engineer of the San Francisco Fire Department.)
With respect to Cecelia Holland's story, however, she very nicely has illuminated the personal agendas behind vigilante activity during the 1850's and, once again, as with her Blood on the Tracks, has produced material that history buffs will enjoy. Reviewed by John H. Manhold, author of award winning fiction/non-fiction.
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on January 4, 2014
To the degree that this book is historically accurate, the reader is sobered to discover that Americans had (and to a degree still have) taken the law into their own hands in order to maintain that civil order which they judge to be desirable.
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on September 6, 2012
Another single on American History covering events that rarely if ever turn up in high school or college history classes. I am glad I read it. As Americans, we seem to have a history of vigilantism extending from coast to coast and north to south. We don't read about it very often because when the events are over no one much wants to remember them or take credit for them - lynchings, committees and so on. We would like to see ourselves as past all that and to a large extent we are, but we shouldn't let these things be forgotten. History cycles around, no?!
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on July 19, 2012
I am a big fan of Cecelia Holland's Historic novels, but I am now getting excited about her new Kindle Singles. This latest one, "Vigilante Wars" is a fascinating, fast-paced, and incredibly well researched saga of the early development of San Francisco, when men of wealth and power actually took over the government and control of an important new city in our country. For Californians, any one who has ever been to San Francisco, for Gold Rush era history buffs, this is a must read. I can't wait to see what this author comes up next. Terri B
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on September 6, 2012
As a Northern California native and part time resident I enjoyed learning about this wild part of San Francisco's past of which I was unaware. It's a colorful city now with a history to match, and it's fascinating to learn how lawless it was during the early years.
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on January 7, 2013
This is a fascinating glimpse into the chaos that structured one of the largest cities in America. Surprisingly enough, it gives you an appreciation for the governments role in our society. Think, Lord of the Flies, only worse, with adults, and a whole city! It's almost too wild to believe.

Overall, it's a fun short read, which will give you a new perception of America.
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