James R. Barton Frontier Sheriff of Los Angeles County


During military rule of Los Angeles crime went out of control. It fell to a few men to protect the lives and property of Los Angeles citizens.

The first elected sheriff of Los Angeles County was George Thompson Burrill he served from April 1850 to September 1851. He liked to be called Thompson; was particular in his dress, careful in his demeanor, clean shaven and wore a handlebar mustache.

G. Thompson Burrill looked like the symbol of authority a sheriff should be, this was a main reason he was elected Sheriff at age 40. He would patrol the dangerous streets armed with a navy Colt and an infantry dress sword.

The Mean Streets of Los Angeles

Gambling halls, saloons and brothels lined the streets of Los Angeles. Over half of all businesses were saloons, in addition; every hotel, gambling hall, boarding house and barber shop sold alcohol.

In gambling halls if there was a complaint of cheating; thugs would club the man and throw him out unconscious, less whatever money he had. Gunfights were common.

On the street roving gangs, often of nearly dehumanized alcohol addicts, would strip the victim and trade what they could for another bottle of cheap wine or rotgut whiskey.

Sometimes it was just easier to slip a knife into the victim’s heart and drag his body to the nearest garbage pile and let the drunken remnants of the Tongva Indian tribe deal with the less valuable items.

Gambling, guns, knives, clubs and liquor made some parts of town so degenerate that to go there was to be robbed and risk death. Only the naïve went. The survivors never went back.

The Second Elected Sheriff of Los Angeles County was James R. Barton. He was elected for four consecutive terms from September 1851 to October 1855.

Barton was born in Howard County Missouri. He immigrated to Mexico in 1841 and moved to Los Angeles in 1843. He was a carpenter by trade and a veteran of the Mexican-American War. Barton was the first Treasurer of Masonic Lodge Number 42 F&AM.

Shootouts on the Streets of Los Angeles

Barton was paid to deal with thieves, cutthroats, claim jumpers, pimps, rapists, highway men and gangs. When confronted Barton did not back down and wait for backup. He would face armed men and women, be they drunk or sober and shoot it out and win. These actions earned Barton a reputation for reckless bravery.

In the vast wilderness of the California frontier a shoot to kill reputation against outlaws who obeyed only the law of the human jungle served its purpose. The citizens paid Barton $10,000 a year to risk his life to protect theirs.

Outlaw Gangs Terrorized California and Los Angeles

One of the gangs Sheriff Barton faced was headed by the outlaw Salomon Pico. Pico claimed to have killed 39 Yanquis. As proof he cut off their ears and strung them on a necklace around his horse’s neck. He was a cousin to former Governor Pío Pico and General Andres Pico who led the Californio Rebellion against the American invasion; Salomon Pico lost his lands and became an outlaw.

In a running gun battle on horseback Barton wounded Pico. Barton had emptied his pistols at Pico. Unable to reload; the tables suddenly turned and Barton was outgunned. Barton had to flee for his life with the outlaw in pursuit, firing at Barton.

Later under pursuit by the Los Angeles Rangers Pico fled to Baja California to avoid capture. The Mexican government captured and executed him in 1860.

The Frontier Love of Sheriff Barton in Los Angeles

Barton’s wife had died, he never remarried. In 1854 he lived with Maria de la Espirita Santa, an Indian woman. They had a child who was born on March 25, 1854; Jose Santiago. Barton refused to acknowledge Jose Santiago as his child. Espirita left him and moved in with family on the east side of the Los Angeles River.

Barton went to bring her home and when she refused to go with him, Barton, seized her and was violently dragging her away when Andres Fuentes (AKA Fontes) rode upon the scene. Fuentes drew his gun and forced Barton to release the woman.

Barton framed Fuentes for horse theft. Fuentes was sentenced to two years in San Quentin. As he was being loaded into the stage, handcuffed, for San Quentin Fuentes told Barton, “I am innocent. You put up this job on me. In two years I will return and kill you.”

On August 24, 1854 Barton swore out a will acknowledging Jose Santiago as his son and heir, giving his son full rights of American citizenship.

The notorious outlaw Andre Flores and his family were victims of the Land Act of 1852. In 1855 Flores was arrested in Los Angeles for stealing horses. He was convicted and sentenced to three years in San Quentin. There Fuentes met Flores and a conspiracy of revenge was hatched.

Sheriff Barton Looses a Prisoner to a Vigilante Lynching

In January 1855 notorious renegade, outlaw and gang member Dave Brown was convicted of murdering a man in El Monte and was sentenced to hang. Brown had received a stay of execution from the California Supreme Court. Los Angeles Mayor Stephen C. Foster quit his office to lead a lynch mob. The mob overpowered Sheriff Barton and his men, broke into the County Jail and hanged Dave Brown from the cross bar of a corral gate.

Barton refused to risk his life for a town that did not respect the law. Instead of sheriff he ran for County Supervisor and won. David W. Alexander was elected Sheriff in September 1855.


  1. Six Gun Sound, Sven Crongeyer 2006 Linden Publishing, Fresno
  2. The Assassination of Sheriff James Barton by the Mexican Juan Flores, Gustavo Arellano OC Weekly January 08, 2009