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Dirty Santa Cruz Secrets: Hanging on Water St. Bridge

For many of today's youth, the only Santa Cruz they've known is the Santa Cruz of progressivism, surfing and the university. But it wasn't too long ago that Santa Cruz, much like other cities of California, was a hotbed of vigilante violence fueled by vehement racism and encouraged by the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Extreme forms of violence and repression of the indigenous peoples, mestizos, and the local Chinese community were heavily used in creating what we now know as Santa Cruz.

On Sunday, a group of students decided to spend a few hours at the Water St. bridge, where Francisco Arias and Jose Chamales were lynched in 1877. With a RIP sign and plenty of flyers, they made sure the community, at least for a few hours, did not forget its origins.
Photo from the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum.
At the time, the Santa Cruz Sentinel condoned the lynching - racist practices that would expand under Duncan McPherson's (ancestor of current politician Bruce McPherson) control.

On May 5, 1887 the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote: "were we to receive a communication, (finding it very unexpectedly under our door) it would read something like this: "The people of Santa Cruz, finding that their lives and property were in danger from the number of murders and robberies that have been committed in this county within the past eight years - no legal execution having followed; that the Night Watchman refuses to make an arrest when the robbers are pointed out; that new trials are granted on technicalities; that Arias and Chamales were guilty of the murder of De Forrest beyond a doubt - resolved to hang said Arias and Chamales; that we, tax payers and conservators of justice assembled to the number of 150; that after due deliberation we resolved that Arias and Chamales should pay the penalty of their crime on the night of the 2d inst., and that the taxpayers in this case be free from the expense of a trial and judicial execution; that we went to the jail; that jailor Sylvar refusing to let us into the jail-yard, we broke down the gate; that we found Under Sheriff Hunt on guard, and without doing him bodily injury, we forced him to lead unto us Arias and Chamales; that we led said Arias and Chamales across the upper San Lorenzo Bridge, where they were placed in a wagon; that they confessed their guilt, one charging the other with the murder of De Forrest; that Arias said: Can't you give us a drink, and that on whiskey being placed to his lips he drank the bottle to its dregs; that the wagon started; that arriving at the middle of the bridge it stopped; that ropes were passed over a beam above, and the driver told to 'move on' that he did so; that we left them alone to swing as a warning to other murders and thieves; that their fate is but what other murderers and assassins may expect. But no letter was left under our door, consequently this is only theorizing."

The Sentinel then goes on to justify the lynching by stating that both Arias and Chamales had previous history of 'crimes' and spent time in prison. However, it is clear that the lynch mob was blood-thirsty, unwilling to let even a highly racist judicial system try these men, instead resorting to vigilante violence.

It is also clear that members of The Sentinel were present in the lynch mob (this whole 'letter under the door' concept is ridiculous) and so was attempting to justify their own actions. It is important not to get swayed thinking that these two men were murderers and criminals - some of the crimes that the Sentinel referred to around that period, including a barn burning, may well have been acts of resistance by local indigenous peoples to the violent seizure of their lands. There was little evidence connecting Arias and Chamales to the murder, but that was not the concern of the Sentinel - instead they sought to justify the immoral acts of the lynch mob, of which they were members.

This is just one instance of many. If you search through Santa Cruz's history you can see the extreme brutality of the Santa Cruz Mission (now represented by Holy Cross Church) and indigenous resistance (including the strangling of an extremely brutal priest known for his practices of torture), the continued violence against indigenous and mestizo communities by the European population, and the anti-Chinese movement that was extremely strong in Santa Cruz - ultimately destroying a Chinese community of over 1,000 people. While the Front St. Chinatown burned down, you can still see remnants of the Chinatown that existed on Blackburn St. (off Laurel): behind a bunch of bushes along the left side of the road, there is a house with a roof that slopes up towards the middle - a house that wasn't always a house, but a Chinese temple.

While some people know of this history, many do not. It is imperative that we not only unearth the details of oppression and violence in Santa Cruz, but that we take the necessary steps to ensure that this history is never lost - never ignored - and never sugar coated. This is our history. This is our legacy. While many of us may not be responsible for the terrible events that happened, we are the direct benefactors of the historical and continued oppression of others. Thus, it is our responsibility not just to remember, not just to apologize, but to take action for justice.


For more information about the 1887 lynching of Francisco Arias and Jose Chamales, see Geoffrey Dunn's article:

You can also read Dunn's book entitled 'Santa Cruz is in the Heart'. Another of Dunn's articles, this one about some of the experiences of Santa Cruz's indigenous peoples through the eyes of two young men, can be found here:

For more information about Santa Cruz's history in general, or the local movement against the Chinese community, see works published by Sandy Lydon.

You can also find old microfilms of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and the Santa Cruz Surf (another name) at the Central Library. You will find that the historical role of the Santa Cruz Sentinel is that of a tool of outright oppression.

I strongly urge anyone with a vested interest in this community to do research on the true history of Santa Cruz, share it (especially with Indymedia), and take action for justice.
Students passed out many of these flyers to passing motorists and pedestrians. They received a variety of responses - most very positive or surprised, while one man told them not to bring up 'old' history.

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Thanks - good to be aware

Thank you for this research. It is so important for us to learn about our own city's history, good and bad.

On the subject of the Front Street Chinatown, it is sad to see how the Redevelopment Agency succeeded in erasing every trace. Walking down the passageway from Mobo Sushi to the Riverfront Twin Cinema, off the Longs/Trader Joe's parking lot, one would have no idea.

Let us not repeat these mistakes.

Re: Dirty Santa Cruz Secrets: Hanging on Water St. Bridge

How do you justify criticism of these hangings as "vigilante justice" while casually dismissing the strangulation of a priest as "indigineous resistance"? What a double-standard!

Re: Dirty Santa Cruz Secrets: Hanging on Water St. Bridge

After quoting the sentinel article in the fourth paragraph, the next paragraph simply summarizes:

The Sentinel then goes on to justify the lynching by stating that both Arias and Chamales had previous history of 'crimes' and spent time in prison. However, it is clear that the lynch mob was blood-thirsty, unwilling to let even a highly racist judicial system try these men, instead resorting to vigilante violence.

I'm wondering if you have the text that justifies these actions as you have written. i'd like to read it for myself.


Re: Dirty Santa Cruz Secrets: Hanging on Water St. Bridge

thanks for the interest. Here are some responses to your comments.

"How do you justify criticism of these hangings as "vigilante justice" while casually dismissing the strangulation of a priest as "indigineous resistance"? What a double-standard!"

I don't use the term 'vigilante justice' but rather 'vigilante violence' - just a quick note.

It is extremely important to differentiate the indigenous killing of the Spanish priest and the white lynching of these two men. Understanding the context is vital.

While some of us may cringe at the tactics used by some native santa cruzans in attempting to end their oppression, who are we to say that they were not justified in their actions? This priest from the Santa Cruz Mission was notorious for his torture of enslaved native peoples - google it and you can find out for yourselves. The rumored reason they killed him was because they were so sick of his brutality and once they heard that he had just gotten a metal tipped whip, they decided to take action. Would you condemn a slave for killing his owner? Would you condemn those who are raped for killing their raper? If you are not careful in your critique of the tactics used by the oppressed, you become close to trying to justify the oppressor.

One might say, "yeah, I support their cause, but killing someone is just immoral" - but my question is this - what other options did they have? While the whites had a racist legal system that they knew could and would convict people of color for things they did not commit (or did not have enough evidence to prove - and even if someone was convicted, always giving unfairly harsh and racist punishment), who did people of color, especially the indigenous, have to turn to? They had no court. They had no prisons. They had no well-equipped military. All those native Santa Cruzans had was their two hands. And so who can blame them for utilizing their only tool against such horrible slavery?

Furthermore, the comparision between violent acts of resistance and violent acts of oppression is not equal. The white lynch mob had little proof of these two individuals' involvement in the killing - while the scars on their backs and the chains on their wrists was enough proof for the native santa cruzans to take action. When they took action, it was in the pursuit of freedom, but when the whites took action, in was that of oppression - to make an example to 'the others' that it was the whites who now ruled the land and they could do as they chose. The whites had other options - specifically the racist courts (frequently sending people of color off to prisons like San Quentin, where many died of diseases and other things) - if it was just the suppossed crime that they were interested in pursuing. However the fact that they (with the help/urging of The Sentinel) chose to forgoe the courts and resort to mob violence showed that it wasn't just the "crime" they were interested in.

I suggest you study the writings of Ida B. Wells (including her Autobiography) and the horrific lynchings of specifically black men (although some black women were lynched too, rape was the oppressive tool used more often) in U.S. History. You'll find that a lot of times the "crime" the whites accused them of was that of raping a white woman. However, many times these crimes were never committed and/or were attempts to save the reputations of white women who had consentual sex with black men.

If you study U.S. History in general, you'll see the continued presence of supposed "crimes" as a way to persecute and/or eliminate various oppressed peoples. Another example of this would be the anti-Chinese movement in Santa Cruz where opium (which was smoked by many Chinese elders and did not harm anyone) was consciously criminalized so that whites could incarcerate and raid Chinese communities.

Don't look just at the crimes. Look at the context. Look at the history. Look at both sides of the story.

"I'm wondering if you have the text that justifies these actions as you have written. i'd like to read it for myself."

The Santa Cruz Sentinel text that justifies the lynching can be found at the main Santa Cruz Library. Ask for the microfilm section and pull out the year 1877 for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Then look at May 5th's edition. I don't have the exact page on me right now, as I'm out of the state, but it's not too hard to find.

I'd also suggest looking through the old editions of the Santa Cruz Sentinel especially in regard to the anti-Chinese movement and other lynchings. Ask the Reference desk at the library for a book that has a list of subjects in the Sentinel - search for anything that looks interesting. Keywords: Crimes, Lynching, Chinese, Killing, Murder.

If you don't have the time or will to do this, the rest of the article basically had a few comments from a few local whites - none from any people of color - and talked about some of the 'crimes' that Arias and Chamales had been imprisoned for. It also talked about some 'crimes' that their siblings had been presumed to have done.

The fact that the Sentinel made up the whole story of the 'receiving the letter under the door' shows that they were involved in the lynching themselves. The fact that they did not condemn the lynching (as other papers around the country did) demonstrated they supported the actions. And the fact that their article does not interview anyone that did not support the lynching shows the historical legacy of terrible, bias, and racist news reporting. I wish I could say things have drastically improved.

Re: Dirty Santa Cruz Secrets: Hanging on Water St. Bridge

p.s. As far as I know, the Santa Cruz Sentinel has never apoligized for their racist writings and legacy of oppression.


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