Friday, September 17, 2021

The Sydney Ducks

The San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 was organized because of the lawlessness taking place in San Francisco at the time. To legitimize their formation, they published a constitution on June 9th, 1851, which was in effect a mission statement. Yes, sort of the same thing as our Declaration of Independence. It was meant to advise the world of why we were seeking independence. 

The constitution of the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 advised all that they were there "to do and perform every lawful act for the maintenance of law and order." And that they "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."

Two days later, the Committee of Vigilance apprehended and hanged a former Australian convict by the name of John Jenkins for stealing a safe. A month later, the San Francisco Vigilantes lynched James Stuart, who was also a deported criminal from Sydney, Australia.

It is said that between April 1849 and May 1850, about 11,000 Australians arrived in California. Of those new arrivals, about 7,500 were from Sydney. Of those, many were families. But also, there was the criminal element that arrived as well. The vigilantes' primary target was that criminal element known as the Sydney Ducks. 

As I've said in other articles on this, during the California Gold Rush, not everyone coming to California came to dig for gold. Yes, there were those who saw miners and others as easy pickings. Criminal types, no matter if they were shifty gamblers, con artists, swindlers, and other lowlifes, saw hard-working people as suckers to be fleeced or worse.

Since San Francisco was the primary destination inside the Golden Gate for all coming by sea, that city had a boom in population like no other. But, along with the good came the bad apples. Among those who wanted to prey on others were Samuel Whittaker and Robert McKenzie, who had also arrived from Australia.

Starting in 1788, Australia was a British penal colony that would see over 160,000 prisoners being sent there from England and Ireland over the years. In 1849, with the influx of people coming to California, the Australian authorities saw a way of unloading part of their prison population in San Francisco. Their deported convicts were known as Sydney Ducks. Known for running protection rackets targeting businesses who were made to pay up if they don't want to be firebombed, it is believed that they were responsible for committing devastating fires starting in 1849. And besides their committing arson, the Sydney Ducks were known, killers and thieves.

Mistakenly thinking he was going to save his own neck, Stuart informed on a number of his Sydney Duck cohorts. Of course, he was hanged and never saw Whittaker and McKenzie apprehended on his information. Stuart also never saw the Vigilance Committee rid San Francisco of his cohort pals.

The Sydney Ducks were the reason for the formation of the first San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. At that time, vigilantes conducted unlawful apprehensions of Sydney Ducks, beat confessions out of them, held secret trials, deportations, and at least four lynchings while bypassing those in political power. While that's true, it might interest folks in knowing that they did hold their own investigations of those they apprehended, and in fact, held their own secret trials before determining sentences.

Before it was known as the "Barbary Coast," San Francisco's waterfront was known as "Sydney Town." The reason it was called "Sydney Town" had to do with the Sydney Ducks. The "Sydney Ducks" was not a political terrorist group like the Democratic Party created Klan. The Ducks were a gang of criminals from Australia.

They arrived in San Francisco because the British penal colonies in Australia thought it a good idea to ship their convicts to California when people worldwide arrived in California during the 1849 Gold Rush. It's said Australia ordered ship Captains to throw convicts overboard if they acted up in any way. And when they were dropped off in California, the convicts quickly took to mugging, murder, and extortion instead of doing the more challenging work of finding a job or digging for gold.

While the Sydney Ducks were not a political terrorist group like the Klan, they had something in common with the Klan -- they used arson to get what they wanted. But unlike the Klan that set fire to homes and businesses to intimidate Blacks and Republican administrators in the South on behalf of the Democratic Party, the Sydney Ducks used arson and the threat of fires to criminally extort money from their victims.

The Ducks were known to extort money from merchants, saloons, and any other business they believed could meet their demands. Of course, they beat the owners, threatened families, and set fire to their business if they refused. Their intimidation worked, and people paid because everyone saw that the Ducks meant business. After all, no one wanted to see their business burned to the ground. It was common knowledge in San Francisco that the Sydney Ducks used arson to get what they wanted. Yes, very much like ANTIFA arsonists today.

People today might not know how much people in the Old West feared fires. It was actually a town's number one concern even before setting up organized law enforcement. As for the Ducks, arson was their weapon of choice for extortion. Arson was what they used to prove they were serious. In fact, the Ducks are believed responsible for the 1849 fire that devastated San Francisco.

They set fires, and no one really knows how many died in those fires as they spread through the city. They did so without thought or care for human life. Sound familiar, it should. Of course, there was a reason that the Ducks were blamed for the fires. That's what they did. Like ANTIFA today, everyone knew arson was their weapon of terror. And just as we know why there is an increase in crime because of ANTIFA and BLM groups' rampage for months in places like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon in 2020, the rampant crime in San Francisco from 1849 to 1851 had to do with the criminal behavior of the Sydney Ducks and their reign of terror and extortion. 

Many arrived chasing the dream of getting rich during the California Gold Rush, yet only to reap failure. Many craftsmen who wanted to quit their trade in favor of going after gold soon found themselves working their trade to keep themselves fed. Indeed, many a ship in San Francisco Bay arrived to lose its crew to the goldfields. Of course, the other part of that story is that many a sailor returned to the sea. Many a seeker of gold and fortune found only despair and disappointment when learning gold wasn't just lying around for the taking.

It's said the Sydney Ducks were criminals who took up to the criminal ways without finding such despair of the slim picking in the gold camps. It's believed the Ducks saw it easier to get rich through intimidation, violence, murder, and extortion. While some opened businesses to get the gold out of hard-working miners' pockets, the Ducks saw that as unnecessary. Instead, they robbed, killed, and burned down the city for gold.

As for following through on their threats to burn down the city? It is believed they started at least a half-dozen major downtown fires that leveled thousands of buildings between 1849 and 1851. All started by the Sydney Ducks as a way to get their victims to meet their demands.

If that does not sound like what is going on today, here's this. It is said that the Ducks lit a fire, especially picking those days when the wind blew downwind of Sydney Town, then they would loot the warehouses and businesses while others were busy fighting the fires.

The threat was real, and people knew it. They understood the ruthlessness, the fact that the Ducks didn't care who died in the fires. They intimidated business owners and city officials. Both paid the Ducks to ensure that their city wouldn't burn. Their lawlessness reached such a level that robbery, arson, and killings in San Francisco took place daily.

As for the law, they were simply too under-manned to search them out. Part of the problem with apprehending the Ducks is that they were part of a large proportion of foreign-born immigrants who had a history of looking at law enforcement and the authorities as oppressors. Though that was the case, the Sydney Ducks were criminals. Those Australian criminals were the dregs of society.

People came to believe that it would take a large force to deal with the Ducks. Certainly a party more extensive than what the county sheriff had on hand. Though brave and resourceful, the county sheriff was too limited to cure the situation.

But because the citizens had enough of what they saw as weak-kneed responses, political promises, and a corrupt city government either too afraid to take strong measures or seen as being run by incompetent officials, the citizens banded. Of course, some of the city fathers wanted to declare Martial Law and alert the militia to deal with the ongoing threat.

Using members from dozens of independent militia groups in San Francisco county, more than 700 citizens formed the San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851. Among them were sailors, longshoremen, teamsters, wheelwrights, shipwrights, domestic servants, store owners, merchants, bartenders, saloon keepers, former soldiers, laborers of all types, and others.

The Sydney Ducks were the reason for the formation of the Committee of Vigilance of 1851. After a few years, and the burning of their city more than a half-dozen times, the death and the destruction, San Francisco citizens were fed up with the promises to stop the chaos. The citizens acted and formed their vigilante committee.

While some think of vigilante groups as merely "a mob," that wasn't the case. Working parallel with the local law, the San Francisco Vigilance Committee turned over some of those they caught to the local authorities. Others were not so lucky. For example, there's a story about when a Sydney Duck was caught stealing a safe. It's said a dozen members of the newly formed Committee on Vigilance chased the Duck on foot and then by rowboats as the crook tried to row away.

The criminal was not merely taken to a tree and hanged, as would have happened in many gold camps and California's ranchlands where other Vigilance Committees were not so inclined to work within the law's confines. While most such groups were not unruly mobs but instead were organized and used such things as Miners Courts as the basis for their judicial system, not all Vigilance Groups were the same. One such group in Northern California tried a rustler on their way to a hanging tree. Another is known to have pronounced judgment fifteen minutes after catching a sluice box thief in the act. He was caught, tried, and tarred, and feathered within an hour.

The Sydney Duck caught stealing the safe in San Francisco was accused and tried in a vigilante court where evidence was provided. He was actually afforded a defense lawyer who was a member of the vigilantes. His trial lasted five hours. He was hanged from the Mexican customs house in front of 1,000 citizens in Portsmouth Square. It's said that after the third hanging of Sydney Ducks, Australia looked like a much safer place for Ducks to apply their criminal ways. With that, Ducks were put on ships and shipped out of town. They left being warned that they would be shot on sight if found anywhere in California.

So how long did the Committee of Vigilance conduct their trials and hangings and conduct forced deportations of Ducks who, in many cases, were beaten before being taken aboard out-going ships? The citizens of San Francisco formed their Vigilance Committee, decimated the Sydney Ducks, and then disbanded in just 100 days.

That's the reason some of the Sydney Ducks were banished by putting them on ships leaving San Francisco while others like Whittaker and McKenzie were hanged.

There is something to be said about Whittaker and McKenzie that can't be said about too many men who were hanged by vigilantes. They were stolen twice. It's true. After being apprehended by the vigilantes and kept at their headquarters, a few days later, the Mayor and County Sheriff John Coffee Hays, along with some deputies, made a surprise raid on the Committee of Vigilance headquarters. They stole Whittaker and McKenzie from the vigilantes and put them in the county jail. That was on August 20th, 1851.

The first San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 had over 700 members. Just four days later, after reconsidering the loss of their prisoners, 36 Vigilance Committee members barged into the jail and overpowered the few deputies on duty. The vigilantes stole them back. That was August 24th. While the Sheriff was miles away when that took place, it's said that when the Sheriff found out what took place, he rode back to town immediately. By the time he returned, Whittaker and McKenzie had already been hanged.

A few weeks after the hanging, the first San Francisco Committee of Vigilance of 1851 disbanded itself. In the end, the vigilantes got what they wanted and effectively wiped out the Sydney Ducks. Because they accomplished what they set out to do, and rid the city of the Sydney Ducks, they saw themselves as not being needed. Besides, it's said that they made their point about being present if things got out of hand again. Sadly, it did and they rose up again in 1856. That next time, they were 6,000 strong. 

Yes indeed, the largest vigilante force in the history of the United States.

Tom Correa



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