The Most Dangerous City in American Frontier History

Panoramic View of Los Angeles California 1840, Image Credit: Vintage Maps Prints

Decades of weak Mexican government, a dictatorial American officer and an abundance of criminals made Los Angeles the most dangerous city in America.

On March 9, 1842 the first California Gold Rush began when Rancher Francisto Lopez found gold in Placerita Canyon in the Santa Clarita Valley. Miners came to get rich. A lack of water, then as now, made both survival and gold extraction difficult.

To deal with the growing population Governor Pío Pico made El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles del Río de Porciúnculathe Capitol of the Mexican state of Alta California in 1844. The desert boom town was filling up with saloons, brothels, gambling halls, busted miners, conmen and criminals. Mexican officials preferred to reside in Monterey.

California Becomes American Territory

On May 13, 1846 the United States declared war on Mexico. Due to the state of communications this was unknown to anybody in California. On July 9, 1846 Commodore John D. Sloat landed 60 troops at Monterey, raised the Stars and Stripes and claimed California for the United States.

Commodore Stockton sailed down the California coast, overcoming the barely organized resistance with his three ships and arrived at San Pedro.

Los Angeles Becomes an American City

On August 13, 1846 Colonel Freemont’s cobbled together army marched into Los Angeles. Commodore Stockton was waiting in San Pedro. The combined American force of soldiers, sailors and marines captured the Governor’s office then raised the stars and stripes to declare California an American territory.

At the same time Colonel Stephen W. Kearney with his desert hardened Army of the West traveled the Gila River Trail and invaded California by land, capturing San Diego.

Because of the instability of the Mexican government, high crime rate and lack of development the Californios welcomed the American takeover. Many Mexican civilian and military officials openly supported the American “invasion.” The rest of the world barely noticed.

The Americans bivouacked in Los Angeles for two weeks to allow their forces some R&R time.

Fremont then garrisoned Los Angeles with 50 U.S. troops under the command of Marine Captain Archibald Gillispie and marched off to show the flag to other parts of newly American California.

A Military Dictator Provokes Revolt in California

Captain Gillispie was a dictatorial bully. Instead of treating the welcoming and cooperative citizens of Los Angeles as respected new Americans, he brutally oppressed them.

Thomas Larkin; American console to California and a signatory of the original California Constitution wrote, “It appears even from the Americans that Captain AHG punished, fined and imprisoned people who and when he pleased without any hearings.”

Captain Archibald Gillispie single handedly inspired a needless revolt against American authority that laid the foundation for social turmoil, banditry and murder.

General M. Flores, Andres Pico and Jose Carillo formed a militia and marched the American garrison out of town on September 29, 1846. A revolt against Gillispie was a revolt against American rule.

Gillespie’s men joined with Colonel Kearny’s troops in San Diego County and assembled a force of 160.

The Americans clashed with Andre Pico’s Lancers near the Indian village of San Pascual. The Americans lost 18 men; Gillespie was wounded, Kearney retreated.

Kearney joined forces with Commodore Stockton in San Diego County and a force of 607 men marched north. The Americans won two battles with the Californios.

On January 8, 1847 Fremont and Pico signed the Cahuenga Treaty ending the revolt. Gillespie was promoted to major and commanded the military occupation of Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Prospers in the Second California Gold Rush

In January 1848 gold was found at Sutter’s Mill starting the second California Gold Rush. Some of the Californios who were first on the scene made huge fortunes finding gold for the taking. Others made a fortune selling livestock, grain and citrus to the burgeoning population.

The successful had to hide their wealth. The effectiveness of American troops at enforcing the law was limited to their line of sight. There would be no civilian law enforcement until May of 1850.

The Mexican war veterans from both sides who found their way to Los Angeles either obeyed and helped enforce the law or disregarded it altogether. There was lingering anger and resentment between the former enemies. Some of the Californio Rebellion leaders who had lost their lands had turned their anger into criminal action, preying on the perceived villains of their downfall.

Los Angeles the Most Violent Town in America

In 1850 Los Angeles had a population of about 2,500 with 31 reported homicides for a murder rate of 1240 per 100,000 compared to the current murder rate of 9 per 100,000. This does not include the murder of Indians, Blacks, Asians and Mexicans which were not considered crimes, or, the murders that nobody ever knew about in the vast California wilderness. The 1850 murder rate is the highest murder rate reported in any city at any time in American History.

Attorney and author Horace Bell wrote: “It was a fact that all of the bad characters who had been driven from the mines had taken refuge in Los Angeles and for the reason that if forced to move further on, it was only a short ride to Mexican soil, while on the other hand all of the outlaws of the Mexican frontier made for the California gold mines and the cut-throats of California and Mexico naturally met at Los Angeles and they fought. Knives and revolvers settled all differences, either real or imaginary. The slightest misunderstandings were settled on the spot with knife or bullet.”

Historian John Weaver concurred “At one time it was averaging a homicide a day, not counting Indians.”

The only respect for the law was the respect due an armed man.


  1. Six Gun Sound, Sven Crongeyer 2006 Linden Publishing, Fresno