MODESTO — A reader's question leads to the story of one of the most exciting periods in Modesto's early history. She asks, "Is it true that we once had vigilantes in our area?"
Amazing as it seems, our little town did have a well-organized group of some 250 vigilantes that conducted two dramatic raids.
At this point, some may wonder, "What is a vigilante?"
Dictionaries define the word as a noun, of Spanish derivation, meaning "a person who takes the law into his or her own hands."
That describes exactly what happened in young Modesto, featuring events that culminated in two raids. The first was in August 1879, and the second occurred nearly five years later, in March 1884.
So, who were those vigilantes? And when, where and why did they conduct their missions of vigilance?
This story requires some background data to understand exactly what occurred.
Modesto was founded by the Central Pacific Railroad in October 1870, a joyful event for the people who awaited the arrival of the first train. Some had purchased lots in the new Modesto settlement and were anxious to start building their houses.
Others who owned dwellings in the nearby river towns chose to move them to the new town. This entailed putting the smaller buildings on wagons and hauling them to the new sites, pulled by horses or oxen. To move the greater structures, they outfitted larger, heavier wagons with wheels, dragging the drays (a low heavy horse cart without sides) to the new Modesto village.
Meanwhile, within a few years after Modesto's founding, some of its residents became lawless and disorderly. This occurred during the area's wheat period, when the huge sums of money resulting from the abundant wheat crops attracted some of the worst kind of thugs and criminals. A number even came from San Francisco's notorious Barbary Coast, enticed by Modesto's 15 saloons, rampant crime and lack of any form of law enforcement.
As described by historian Sol Elias, Modesto's Front was wide open day and night and became "the rendezvous of the most daring sports, gamblers and saloon habitués that could be found in the state."
That was what precipitated the founding of the vigilante group, which was determined to save the town. Composed of 250 of the area's most respected and substantial male citizens, the group trained for six months in a vacant warehouse on Ninth Street. Its leader, referred to as "Captain," was described as a "fearless farmer" whose ancestors fought in the Civil War.
Gathered on Modesto's outskirts, the vigilantes made their August 1879 raid wearing black masks and fully armed with guns, knives and swords. Moving singly or in pairs, they quietly marched along H Street to 10th Street, where they turned right, led by their captain. Arriving at the infamous Sullivan's Dance Hall on 10th, they ordered Sullivan to leave town and never return, which apparently he obeyed.
Continuing their raid, the vigilantes destroyed illicit shanties and houses of ill fame, located in the alley between G and H and Ninth and 10th streets.
Although the raid was considered a success, the ensuing peace didn't last. Within a few years, local violence and crime were worse than ever, with an increase in shootings, drunken carousals, wide-open gambling, robberies and prostitution.
Finally, in March 1884, the vigilantes were reactivated with a new name: the San Joaquin Regulators.
Responding to the assault of two young girls by local hoodlums, the resulting fracas led to the killing of one of the lawbreakers, a saloon owner named Joseph Doane. It was that kind of sobering event that motivated the community to establish laws and hire an honest police force to enforce them.
The stories of Modesto's vigilantes can seem more real by visiting their original location, which still exists. You can play the vigilante game by repeating their march up H Street. However, you must use your imagination to pretend you are walking on narrow dirt paths rather than on wide cement sidewalks. And what you may see driving along H Street won't be automobiles. It will be horses and their riders, or perhaps horse-drawn carriages and wagons.
When you turn right from H onto 10th Street, on the left side you can see the large proscenium arch that was over the staging area of the once-vibrant Modesto Theater. It has survived at least two fires and is still visible after about 100 years.
And continuing down 10th, on the upper right is the large KRESS sign which brings back memories of that five-and-dime store and its lunch counter.
Thus, it is gratifying that we do still have a few remaining vestiges of what can be called "the good old days."
Bare is the author of several books about area history and the official historian of the McHenry Mansion. Send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.