Small Building, Big Responsibilities: The First San Diego Courthouse
By Nathan Fogerson, San Diego State University Intern, Spring 2021
The origins of the First San Diego Courthouse can be traced to a time before California gained statehood. To better understand the history of the First San Diego Courthouse, it is important to recognize and understand the people who built the building. President James Polk enlisted Mormon volunteers to serve in a battalion and help with the Mexican War effort in the West. They bolstered the ranks of the United States Army and its continuing effort in the Mexican American War. These volunteers were recruited to assist while parts of the Mormon community were beginning to settle further West into Mexican territory. When the battalion started their march from Iowa in 1846, the Mormon church members did not have any foothold in the West. After the march began, a large contingent of church members, unconnected to the battalion, travelled to Utah to make Salt Lake City the headquarters for the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Members of the Mormon Battalion ended up all over the West Coast, with some specifically landing in San Diego. The battalion arrived in San Diego on January 27, 1847, about two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga in Los Angeles on January 13, 1847, which ended the fighting in California. The enlistment papers, for many within the battalion, required their military service continue until July 1847. As a result, many stayed in San Diego to help with public service projects like building the courthouse.
Built in 1847, the building was the first fired brick structure in San Diego. (We know that the courthouse was constructed of bricks, but to this day we do not know where the brick kiln was located within the community.) By 1849, the building had taken on significant importance as the headquarters of the US Boundary Commission, which dealt with matters relating to the newly formed boundary between the United States and Mexico following the Mexican American War. This was only the beginning. This modest building became increasingly important in San Diego and served as much more than just a courthouse. Before California was admitted as part of the United States, the local Mexican mayor (or alcalde) of San Diego operated out of the building. Since the building was first erected, it has served as a hub for important individuals and organizations and continued to serve in that capacity until the building was burned down in 1872.
On March 27, 1850, the California State Legislature approved an act to incorporate the City of San Diego. The newly founded city needed a place to conduct its business, and the courthouse was the chosen site. This building served as the center of governance in the new city and county of San Diego. Beyond local matters, the California district court also operated out of the building from 1850 to 1869. As tiny as the building might have been, it served as the seat for criminal justice in the new community. Law and order proved to be tricky in the newly formalized community. The first Sheriff of San Diego County was Agoston Haraszthy. He was elected on April 1, 1850. Being the Sheriff of San Diego County carried a hefty responsibility. The Sheriff was charged with keeping the peace in a county over 40,000 square miles, which at the time, included areas of modern-day San Bernardino, Imperial, and Riverside Counties. Despite its vast size, the county had only 800 residents recorded.
Criminal justice in the 1850s was completely different from the criminal justice that we know today. San Diego, like any other city at the time, experienced its fair share of crimes. One specific case of interest is the August 1852 trial of James Robinson (aka “Yankee Jim”), which would have been held in the courthouse. Yankee Jim earned a reputation for robbing miners, sometimes killing them. Yankee Jim, shortly after arriving in San Diego, attempted to steal a 30-ton pilot boat Plutus that was docked in the San Diego Bay. Vigilantes gave chase but Yankee Jim escaped by taking a rowboat across the bay, landing in Point Loma. His luck ran out a few hours later when he was captured by a local rancher. Days later, on August 18, 1852, Yankee Jim was convicted of grand larceny and sentenced to death for the crime. Throughout his trial it is said he laughed multiple times thinking that the trial was merely an act to scare him. Given a chance to attempt to change the sentence, he remained silent. It is said that up until the moment he was hung he did not believe that such a harsh punishment would befall him for his crimes. His own godfather, Deputy Sheriff Philip Crosthwaite, was the one who ultimately gave the signal for him to be hung. Subsequently, Yankee Jim was hung on the ground upon which the Whaley House now stands. His accomplices were sentenced to just one year in a state prison for their involvement in the crime. Yankee Jim was buried in a cemetery just a short walk from where the courthouse stood. The courthouse museum resides on that same plot of land.
Over the years, the courthouse took on increasing importance for the Old Town community. For example, it also served religious purposes. Reverend John Reynolds began to preach on Sundays starting in July 1853. Other purposes the building served included meeting places for the Mayor of San Diego, City Council of San Diego, and the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. During elections, it would further serve as a polling place where early San Diegans would vote on candidates for different political positions. The building served as the meeting ground for the San Diego Lodge of the Freemasons from 1852 to 1853. There can be little doubt that this small building was vital to the newly founded community of San Diego, its location and function further cementing the importance of the Plaza at Old Town.
The original courthouse met its demise in April of 1872 when a fire started in the building and wiped out a third of the town along San Diego Avenue. Without access to any real equipment to fight the fire, it quickly spread into adjoining buildings. The courthouse, along with many other buildings, was burned to the ground and left in ruins. The building that had served the community in many different capacities was no more.
Alonzo Horton came to town in 1867 from San Francisco. Horton bought up 960 acres of land just south of Old Town near the bay and quickly subdivided and developed the area. This new area, called “Horton’s Addition,” later became known as New Town (currently the downtown area today). Horton sold his parcels of land off, resulting in commerce moving from Old Town to the New Town area. The county seat was moved in 1871 from Old Town to New Town. The famous fire of Old Town was started on April 20, 1872. Many people speculate that the fire was started by an arsonist in hopes of driving business from Old Town to New Town. The new courthouse was erected on June 4, 1872, at Broadway and Front Street on land donated by Horton.
Many years later, community members with a strong interest in the history behind the old courthouse formed the First San Diego Courthouse, Inc. with the intention of rebuilding the structure that had been gone for over a century. Groundbreaking occurred in 1988 with construction completed in 1992. Today’s museum was built on the footprint of the original 1847 building. The courthouse is one of many free museums within Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. There is more to learn about the courthouse from a time capsule containing artifacts and historical documents set to be opened in 2050. San Diego’s first courthouse played an enormous role in shaping the community that has blossomed into the beautiful city we know today.
San Diego Herald from 1850 about Yankee Jim:
Los Angles Heard from 1873 about Yankee Jim:
More information about the Mormon Battalion:
Article about reconstruction of the building:
City Ordinances that governed San Diego in the 1800’s:
Original San Diego Tribune article from 1872 about the fire transcribed:
San Diego History Society article about justice in Old Town: