San Diego in 1850: One “Good and Suitable” Policeman

It was in February of 1850, two years after the end of the Mexican-American War transformed California from a province of Mexico to a territory of the United States, that the territorial legislature began creating the framework for city and county governments.

The first election for a San Diego county government under the U. S. flag took place on April 1, 1850. A total of 157 people voted, according to historic records cited by William Smythe in his 1908 book, History of San Diego: 1542-1908.

If that vote total sounds miniscule, keep in mind that the total non-Indian county population in 1850, according to census figures from the San Diego History Center, was only 798. And of that 798, 650 of them lived in within the confines of the city of San Diego. (The absence of some 10,000 Native American people in the county at the time from the census records is a whole sorry history lesson in itself.)

Elections for a San Diego city government were held on June 16, 1850. Voters elected a mayor, five city council members, a treasurer, an assessor, a city attorney and a marshall. The council had its first meeting the next day, June 17.

I recently learned that the San Diego City Clerk’s office has digitized many of the city’s historical records in its archives, including copies of some of the very first ordinances passed by that new city government. The archive’s website is at .

Not surprisingly, one of the first ordinances passed by the council created “the office of City Interpreter and Translator” to serve “in all cases, where his services may be required on behalf of individuals, or of this council, or of any of the Courts of the City or County.”

Another early ordinance declared that “the ordinances of the late Ayuntamiento [the name of the town council under Mexican rule]…relative to licenses, nuisances and the general government of the said town, shall be and remain in binding force, until other laws are substituted therefor.”

These ordinances were all passed in June and early July, as was another entitled: “An Ordinance relative to creating a Temporary Jail and providing suitable fixtures.” In addition to authorizing the City Marshall to “rent a good and secure room” and other equipment necessary “to keep securely all offenders against the laws,” it also called for the marshall “to employ a good and suitable person as Policeman, whose duty it shall be to report to the Mayor, once a day, or oftener if required.”

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