A Brief History of the Santa Clara County Sheriff's Office
Up until 1849, when the first California Legislature convened, California used the Mexican style of government. Under Mexican law the Alcalde, a combination of mayor, judge and sheriff dispensed the law as he saw fit.
In 1849 the first Sheriff appeared in San Jose. Robert Cadden Keyes became the first person to hold the title of Sheriff when he was appointed by the Common Council. The next and last Sheriff, prior to statehood, was J.M. Lowe. Lowe only held the position for a few months, when Santa Clara County held its first official election in April 1850. On April 8, 1850, John Yontz became the first duly elected Sheriff of Santa Clara County, winning by a mere 116 votes.
Soon after taking office, Sheriff Yontz became alarmed by the vandalism caused by jurors during court hearings. The jurors, while listening to court cases, would whittle anything in sight; the jury box, pillars, and benches. Yontz, desperate to save county property, came upon the idea that every morning he would set out a large bundle of pine sticks cut to a number of sizes and shapes, thus saving the county from remodeling the court building every few months.
Joseph W. Johnson, once a Deputy under Sheriff Yontz, was elected the second Sheriff and took office April 5, 1852. Horse thieves and murderers were running wild in the early days of the county. On one occasion in 1853, Sheriff Johnson and a posse of men sought out two Mexican bandits who were holding out in a home near San Jose. The Sheriff was able to seize one of the banditos without a struggle. As he was leading the extremely large prisoner out the door, the bandit threw off the Sheriff and started running. The Sheriff's pistol miss fired as he tried to draw down on the fleeing murderer. Another posse member mounted his horse and quickly caught up with the bandit. The man refused to surrender, forcing the deputy to shoot him dead.
Sheriff Johnson left office in 1853 and later became an attorney, a County Judge, and the ninth Mayor of San Jose. He held the position of Justice of the Peace until his death in 1880.
William McCutchen took over the office in October 1853. McCutchen, a member of the ill fated Donner Party, left ahead of the main wagon train to secure provisions in California. When he learned the group was trapped in the snowed-in Sierras, he risked his life to bring in food as well as rescue his wife and daughter. Upon reaching his wife, he learned that his one year old daughter had become one of the large number of casualties. One Sunday afternoon in 1854, Sheriff McCutchen and San Jose City Alderman Peter Minor decided to hold a horse race through the streets of downtown San Jose, much to the dismay of local citizens and the city's Marshal. Sheriff McCutchen's horse beat Minor's horse by a neck, winning the bet; a bottle of whisky. The marshal, not finding the race amusing at all, arrested the two public officials. The next day both McCutchen and Minor pled guilty and were fined ten dollars.
John M. Murphy the fourth Sheriff, was the son of Santa Clara County pioneer Martin Murphy Sr. The Murphys were members of the first overland party to reach California in 1844. John made his fortune during the early years of the California Gold Rush. The mining town of Murphys is named after him.
During his term as Sheriff, a dispute erupted over the ownership of the Rancho Yerba Buena, a large trac of land consisting of 24,000 acres, east of San Jose. The owner, Don Antonio Chabolla (Chaboya), held the legal title to the land, but during a lengthy court proceeding, squatters settled large portions of his property. Chaboya obtained a writ of ejectment which commanded Sheriff Murphy to evict the squatters. On Tuesday, April 19, 1861, Sheriff Murphy summoned a posse of 600 men. The posse assembled in front of the Court House. The Sheriff asked the crowd if they were armed and ready to assist him, they responded with an emphatic "No!" The Sheriff repeated his question asking if anyone was willing to help him do his duty. Again the crowd answered "No!" Sheriff Murphy responded by saying" I can do nothing; therefore, you may consider yourselves dismissed." The crowd then dispersed - some decided to head out to the Rancho to support the settlers. When it became evident that the Sheriff wasn't going to show up, the settlers and their supporters marched into downtown San Jose. The procession (numbering about 1000), marched through the downtown streets and ended at St. James Square. Later in the day, Sheriff Murphy persuaded the crowd to disband to their homes, thus ending what became known as the Settlers War of 1861.
More to follow later....................
Author: Deputy Rick Sprain, Investigations - (408) 808-4404