History of California State Military Forces
"Polished Boot and Bran New Suit"
The California Militia in Community Affairs
by Dello G. Dayton

The volunteer companies which organized in California between 1849 and 1866—the substance of the state's militia system—were not unlike the target and sporting clubs and volunteer fire companies then so prevalent throughout the United States. As a matter of fact some of California's militia companies traced their origin to these groups. (1) The regularly formed militia companies were organized, regulated, and caparisoned in a military fashion; they had within their ranks many men with military training and experience, and they were liable to military duty upon the call of the state and nation; yet, in their day-to-day activities they were essentially fraternal and social organizations. The companies offered excellent opportunity for fellowship and group association. Their activities—parades, balls, banquets, receptions, and target excursions—lent color to California's frontier society, gave a good outlet for social expression, and helped introduce the social graces of the more settled societies. (2)

The volunteer company's activities ordinarily centered about its meeting place. The company armory was more than a place for the storage of arms and the perfection of military drill. It was frequently a social center, containing club rooms for the relaxation and enjoyment of its members and a drill room readily convertible into a banquet or dance hall. The non-military features associated with the company armory were undoubtedly more than a little responsible for the contributions of time and money that militia members made to have such a meeting place.

The First California Guard built its initial armory by forming a joint stock company exclusively of Guard members, who subscribed to three hundred shares of stock at one hundred dollars each. (3) The funds thus raised enabled the company to construct a two and one-half story building forty feet square. (4) According to a news item which appeared in a San Francisco paper on February 4, 1850, the "fine drill room, billiard saloons, reading room, etc." of Military Hall, the new armory, were "being elegantly furnished for the exclusive comfort of [company] members.(5) Several days later the paper made reference to a visit to "the elegant suite of apartments fitted up for the First California Guard" and stated that the drill room of the company was "a magnificent apartment, beautifully furnished and ample for the training of a large body of men." (6)

Not all armories were company-owned, nor were they as commodious and "elegantly furnished" as that of the First California Guard. But militia members endeavored, where possible, to endow their armories, whether owned or rented, with comfortable club features. The armory was a place "to meet the boys" as well as a place to engage in military training.

The celebration of Washington's birthday on February 22, 1850, gave the First California Guard one of its earliest opportunities to participate in a community occasion and its first chance to use Military Hall for a social activity. It so happened that on the day of the celebration the steamer Oregon arrived with news from the East. The Guard welcomed its arrival by firing a salute from the Plaza. In the evening the company sponsored a ball and dinner which were well attended by members of the Guard and other San Francisco residents. (7) Unfortunately, however, there was a slight repercussion within the company as a result of the evening's festivities.

The company Minutes disclose that a special meeting was called on the morning of February 23rd to consider the conduct of a member, Private Walter Cleeman, who, being overcome with "too much punch and exhuberance (sic)" the previous evening, had directed insulting remarks to Lieutenant Myron Norton, presiding officer at the ball. The effect of the night's celebration was evidently such as to prevent Private Cleeman from appearing personally at the special meeting, but a letter from him was presented in which he expressed regret that he had been "over-powered by the deep potations in which [he] had indulged in honor of the day" and apologized to Lieutenant Norton and the members of the Guard for the opprobrius terms he had used.(8) The apology was accepted and no further action was taken against Private Cleeman. One wonders, however, if the incident had anything to do with his resignation, which came on April 15th. (9)

The First California Guard's participation in the Washington birth-day celebration was only one of numerous occasions in which the company was represented during its long and colorful existence. In the absence of other militia units it occupied an extremely conspicuous place in community affairs. It joined with other civic organizations on October 29, 1850, to stage a parade marking California's admission into the Union as the thirty-first state and, in the evening, sponsored a ball as a conclusion to the day's activities.(10) The following year, on September 9th, in connection with the celebration on the first anniversary of California's entrance into the Union, the Guard was given the honor of firing the salute. On the same occasion the company gave an exhibition drill which, according to the press, was "greatly admired by all."(11)

One of the most gala affairs in which the First California Guard took part was the first semi-annual celebration of the Society of California Pioneers, held on January 1, 1851.(12) The day's festivities began at noon with a colorful procession. In the vanguard of the procession was the Guard. The company was in uniform and, as one contemporary account put it, "never appeared to better advantage."(13) After the procession the oration for the day was given by Captain John B. Frisbie from an adobe building on the Plaza. In the evening a banquet was held in "spacious Military Hall, which was decorated with the National Flag festooned gracefully about the walls.(14) At the banquet "wine, wit, humor, good feelings, toasts, and speeches ruled the hour."(15) Among the distinguished guests was General Vallejo, who favored the assemblage with a short speech. There followed thirteen prepared toasts alternated with appropriate musical numbers. After the toast to the New Year came "Auld Lang Syne"; the one to California was followed by "Oh, California"; one to the press and express called forth "Get Out de Way"; another to the miners of California initiated "Rock the Cradle, Lucy"; and that honoring the ladies was appropriately followed by "Thou, Thou Reignst in His Bosom." The toast to the volunteer militia was as follows:

The Volunteer Militia—The spontaneous effort of the first love of liberty, and the quickening consciousness of the power of self-defense; so was it shown in the colonies of '76, and so it has been seen in the first new state on the Pacific, the minute men of Lexington, and the California Guard of California.

After the tribute to the militia came the "California Guard March."(16)

The parades, processions, banquets, and balls were not the only community activities participated in by the First California Guard. In the first year of its existence company members found opportunity to act as fire-fighters. The company Minutes reveal that the Guard helped combat San Francisco's fire of May 4, 1850. The same records indicate that the company incurred expenses for refreshments served other fire fighters.(17) The First California Guard also helped combat the fires which occurred in June and September. During the latter conflagration Military Hall was among the many buildings destroyed.(18)

After the disaster in September, the First California Guard offered its services as a permanent fire guard. The Board of Aldermen, after some discussion as to possible conflict with fire department activities, accepted the offer.(19) The Guard's service in the new capacity did not, however, prevent the recurrence of fire. On May 4, 1851, the anniversary of San Francisco's second great fire, another started—the fifth experienced by the city in a year and a half. Although unable to prevent the fire, the Guard was not inactive. An article in the Alta California on May 7th, referring to the First California Guard, reported:

This soldiery was on duty with full ranks on Sunday and Monday nights, patrolling the city for the purpose of protecting the property of our citizens. Many of their number were gentlemen who had lost their all during the fire or sustained very heavy losses and their promptitude in being out under such circumstances entitles them to great praise from their fellow citizens. This is a source of great pride to us that we have so spirited and excellent a corps who can be relied on in time of need.

The services of the First California Guard in connection with the San Francisco fires were not unlike those frequently performed by the National Guard in a later period. The organization of volunteer fire companies throughout California precluded the need for later militia companies to assume the role of regular fire fighters.(20)

The unique position which the First California Guard occupied in San Francisco and, for that matter, throughout the state, was of short duration. In 1850 another unit, the Washington Guards, arose in San Francisco, and the Sacramento Guards organized in Sacramento. The following year the San Joaquin Guard was formed in Stockton. In 1852 the San Francisco Blues, Marion Rifles, Empire Guards, New York Guards, First Light Dragoons, Eureka Light Horse Guard, and National Lancers organized in San Francisco, the Sutter Rifles in Sacramento, and the First Calaveras Guard at Mokelumne Hill in Calaveras County. These units, and the many that came after them, patterned their activities after those of the First California Guard. The influence of the companies was felt in practically all California's communities.

Exchange visits between the state's volunteer companies began in 1852. These were community as well as company occasions. One of the earliest, and perhaps the most publicized, occurred when the Sutter Rifles invited the Marion Rifles to be their guests in Sacramento. On the evening of October 27th the San Francisco company was escorted to the steamer by the First California Guard. After an all-night boat trip up the Sacramento River the Marion Rifles reached the host city. There they were received by the Sutter Rifles and conducted to Orleans House, headquarters while in Sacramento. Following breakfast the Marion Rifles drilled for their hosts. The Sutter Rifles then reciprocated. With the company demonstrations completed, the units were formed into a single organization under the command of Captain F. B. Schaeffer, leader of the Marion Rifles. Then they were drilled as a battalion, labeled by the secretary of the Marion Rifles as the "First California Volunteer Rifle Battalion."(21)

In ceremonies conducted during the afternoon of October 28th the Sutter Rifles was presented a silk flag by John A. Sutter, after whom the company was named. The day's activities were concluded with a reception and military ball held in Orleans House in the evening. The ball was attended by more than five hundred men and women, and, according to one newspaper account, was "the most brilliant affair ever witnessed in California.(22) After the ball the Marion Rifles returned to San Francisco by boat.

The Journal of the Marion Rifles reveals that the company was greatly pleased by the treatment accorded it by the Sutter Rifles. An entry of October 29th recorded that "hotel bills, liquor bills, and all sorts of bills were paid in advance, and all we could do, we couldn't spend our money which was pronounced counterfeit." Despite the graciousness of their hosts, the Sacramento trip was not without cost to the Marion Rifles. The ten-piece band which was hired for the trip cost the company two hundred and twenty-five dollars, and transportation for each man was five dollars. To cover the expenses incurred by the trip it was necessary to assess each member twelve dollars.(23)

Early in June, 1853, the Marion Rifles joined the other volunteer companies of San Francisco to plan a military celebration for Independence Day. The Sutter Rifles were invited to be their guests for the occasion.(24) On July 3rd the Sacramento company arrived in San Francisco. Its members were met at the dock by the Marion Rifles and escorted to the Mountaineer Tavern for champagne. Thereafter the company was taken to the Oriental Hotel for dinner.(25)

The following morning the Sutter Rifles joined the San Francisco companies—First California Guard, Marion Rifles, National Lancers, San Francisco Blues, Eureka Light Horse Guard—in the Plaza.(26) There the companies engaged in drill, observed by Major General Sutter and his staff (27) and many onlookers. The drill was interrupted periodically while the companies visited nearby saloons. The Journal of the Marion Rifles records that the Sutter Rifles were treated to the drinks by both the Marion Rifles and the First California Guard.(28)

At noon the First California Guard fired a thirty-two gun salute. The volunteer companies then assembled for the parade which had been planned. At one o'clock the formation moved out of the Plaza. (29) It must have been a colorful sight as the companies proceeded toward Russ' Gardens, one of San Francisco's favorite spots for social gatherings. Leading the parade was the First California Guard, dressed in uniforms of blue which were trimmed in red to designate artillery, the branch of service under which they were organized. The San Francisco Blues, National Lancers, and Eureka Light Horse Guard also wore uniforms of blue. Those of the two latter companies were trimmed with orange, the ornamentation of the Guard being more lavish than that of the Lancers. Any effect the Lancers lacked in uniform, however, was more than made up for by the long steel lances they carried. The Marion and Sutter Rifles were outfitted in pantaloons and frock coats of green. The coats were ornamented with rifle buttons, velvet trim and shoulder knots, the pantaloons with velvet trim and the headgear with distinctive designations and pompons.(30) It was perhaps such a spectacle as the parade which marched to Russ' Gardens that moved "An Old Soldier" to pen the following lines, which he entitled "The Gallant Militia Man":

As he marches gay, on a summer's day,
When smiling maids but scan—
The polished boot and bran new suit
Of the young militia man;
In the youthful face and lithesome grace
The thoughtful surely see—
The bud and bloom, the bride and groom,
The foliage of the free!


To the right about—march on, and shout—
Go it while you can!
Let love and law shout out hurrah!
For the gaIIant militia man.

When the plum'd cockade nods in parade,
And treasure's watchdogs snear —
At the awkward squad, as the columns plod,
While gamins whoop and cheer;
In the blue and buff, I see in rough
The brawn of a hero heart
And drum beats con: `You'll need anon
The spirit we impart.'


Forevermore each front and fore —
To the right— and on, march on!
Let law control while girls extol
The gallant militia man.
In love and law first freedom saw
The twain that teaches men:
`Let no surcease of slothful peace
Forge your chains again.(31)

When the military procession reached Russ' Gardens it was drawn up preparatory to receiving the colors. The colors were presented by the dramatic actress Mrs. Catherine Sinclair, with a speech which the Alta California characterized as "one of the most beautiful Iittle gems that ever borrowed the light of such an occasion to reflect diamond-like its many brilliant fires."(32) After the presentation speech Major General Sutter thanked Mrs. Sinclair in behalf of the companies. Then a delicious banquet was enjoyed by the military. With the banquet over the militia companies returned to San Francisco and, as was quite customary on such festive occasions, attended a San Francisco theater.(33)

Some idea of the expenses of volunteer companies in connection with celebrations such as that staged on July 4, 1853, may be ascertained by observing the costs to two of the companies on that occasion. The Journal of the Marion Rifles indicates that the company spent four hundred dollars for music, two hundred for wine, thirty dollars for servants, fifty dollars for rooms for the Sutter Rifles, a like amount for printing, and seventy dollars for incidental items. Total expenses of the company were one thousand dollars.(34) Expenses of the First California Guard were even greater. The Independence Day celebration cost that company one thousand and twenty-three dollars, of which six hundred and thirty-four dollars went for the banquet, two hundred and seventy-five for music, and the balance for costs incidental to the moving of cannon to and from the Presidio and firing them.(35) Were records of the other volunteer companies available, they would undoubtedly reveal comparable expenditures.

The exchange visits of the Sutter Rifles of Sacramento and Marion Rifles of San Francisco, although somewhat more showy than usual, were by no means unique. Many volunteer companies entertained other companies, in the smaller as well as the larger localities. Two companies which were frequently hosts to each other at balls and banquets were the Columbia Fusileers and Sonora Greys of Tuolumne County. They were so closely associated in their activities that they were often called "The Inseparables."(36)

Exchange visits were not alone responsible for the intermingling of the volunteer companies. There were many public occasions in which the units participated together. Celebrations on Washington's birthday, Independence Day, and Admission Day, which in the beginning were graced only by the First California Guard, became annual affairs in which all existing militia companies took part in their respective communities throughout the state. Participation became so common on July 4th and September 9th that, for the sake of convenience, the militia legislation of 1866 specified those two dates for the official parades of the National Guard, as the militia came to be called after 1866.(37)

Apart from the usual celebrations there were many special occasions calling for participation by the volunteer companies. For example, on the occasion of the death of Henry Clay the First California Guard, National Lancers, Eureka Light Horse Guard, and Marion Rifles were in the vanguard of the procession which honored the statesman in San Francisco." The militia companies were represented in similar processions upon the death of other distinguished Americans or company members.


1. For example, the Marion Rifles and National Guard, both of San Francisco.

2. The social and fraternal characteristics did not apply, of course, to short-lived companies organized to chastise Indians or curb lawlessness. Veterans of the Mexican War, many from the New York Volunteers, were the nuclei for the California militia companies.

3. Minutes of the First California Guard, August 25 and October 2, 1849, in possession of The Society of California Pioneers. Hereafter referred to as Minutes. See also Frank Soule et al., The Annals of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1855, pg. 703.

4. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, San Francisco, A. L. Bancroft and Company, 1884-1890, VI, 188.

5. Alta California, February 4, 1850.

6. Ibid., February 14, 1850.

7. Alta California, February 23, 1850.

8. Minutes, February 23, 1850.

9. Letter, Cleeman to First California Guard, February 23, 1850, in possession of the Society of California Pioneers.

10. Alta California, October 30, 1850. The centennial editions of the Oakland Tribune, September 5, 1950, and San Francisco Chronicle, September to, 1950, have illustrations of old prints depicting the celebration. Prominent in the prints is a military company.

11. San Francisco Daily Herald, September to, 1851. Two cannons, borrowed from the United States forces at the Presidio, were used to fire the salute. The Alta California, September 12, 1851, humorously referred to the salute as "The Salute of a Thousand Guns."

12. Many of the members of the First California Guard were also associated with the Society of California Pioneers. Walter C. Allen and Helen S. Giffen, "A History of the First California Guard, The First Private Military Organization in California," Publication of the Society of California Pioneers, 1940, pp.39-40.

13. Alta California, January 3, 1851.

14. San Francisco Daily Herald, January 3, 1851.

15. Alta California, January 3, 1851.

16. Ibid.

17. Minutes, May 4, 1850.

18. Allen and Giffen, op. cit., p. 19. John Sirnes thereafter built another, supposedly fireproof, armory, but it also burned in a subsequent fire.

19. Ibid., p. 22.

20. Alta California, May 7, 1850. An entry on November 4, 1852, in the Journal of the Marion Rifles indicates that that company sent five hundred dollars to the Sutter Rifles to help those who had suffered loss in a Sacramento fire. The Journal of the Marion Rifles may be found in the California State Library in Sacramento. Hereafter it will be referred to as Journal.

21. Journal, October 21, 27, 29, 1852. See also San Francisco Daily Herald, October 30, 31, 1852.

22. San Francisco Daily Herald, October 30, 1852.

23. Journal, October 27, 29, 1852.

24. Allen and Giffen, op. cit., pp. 30-31.

25. Journal, July 3, 1853.

26. Alta California, July 6, 1853; also San Francisco Daily Herald, July 6, 1853.

27. Sutter was made a Major General in the California Militia by legislative action on February 16, 1853.

28. Journal, July 4, 1853.

29. Alta California, July 6, 1853.

30. Ibid., July 6, 1853; Journal, May 24, 1852.

31. Golden Era, December, 1885, p. 552.

32. Alta California, July 6, 1853.

33. Ibid. San Francisco Hall, Washington near Montgomery, conducted by Mrs. Sinclair.

34. Journal, July 21, 1853.

35. "Vouchers" with Minutes.

36. The National Guard of California, 17 Vols., I, 47. Unpublished compilation prepared by the Adjutant General's Office of California with the assistance of the Work Projects Administration. Hereafter referred to as National Guard.

37. Cal. Stats. (1866),p. 730.

38. Alta California, August 11, 1852.


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