Unlocking History

Navy chaplain Walter Colton shaped early prison system

Grainy photo of two-story building a small brick-and-stone jail.
The jail in Monterey was attached to Colton Hall, circa 1900.

The seeds of rehabilitation in California were planted early thanks to the efforts of Reverend Walter Colton, a Navy chaplain named the first American Alcalde of Monterey in 1846. His role was essentially judge, sheriff, prison warden and leader of much of northern California. With the Mexican American War raging at the time, he was the first American official overseeing California as part of a transitional government.

Chaplain Colton constructed first physical prison in California

Colton, whose role was forged in battle after U.S. military forces seized two strategic points along the west coast, was a key figure in California’s history prior to statehood. In his duties as alcalde, Colton wrote about running a prison in Monterey. His journal “Three Years in California” was published in 1850 and begins on July 10, 1846, when the U.S. flag was raised over Monterey and San Francisco. A few weeks later, on July 28, he was appointed alcalde.

“Thursday, July 30, (1846). Today I entered on the duties of my office as Alcalde of Monterey: my jurisdiction extends over an immense extent of territory, and over a most heterogeneous population,” he noted. “Through this discordant mass I am to maintain order, punish crime and redress injuries.”

He also published the area’s first newspaper, The Californian, which announced the declaration of war with Mexico.

On Aug. 1, the U.S. war ship Congress sailed “with all her marines and full complement of men for San Pedro. Com. Stockton intends to land there with a force of some 300, march to the Pueblo de los Angeles, capture that important place, and fall upon Gen. Castro, who, it is now understood, has posted himself, with some 800 soldiers, in a pass a few miles below. The general will find his southern retreat cut off by Col. Fremont’s riflemen and the sailors of the Cyane, his western route obstructed by the Colorado, while the forces of the Congress will bear down upon him from the right.”

Colton bucks norms by paying for prison labor

Colton sentenced offenders to public works projects because he found there were no suitable prisons. He also paid the offenders for the work, a concept way ahead of its time.

“Aug. 27, (1846). Nothing puzzles me so much as the absence of a penitentiary system. There are no work-houses here, no buildings adapted to the purpose, no tools and no trades,” he wrote. “The custom here has been to fine Spaniards and whip Indians. The discrimination is unjust and the punishments ill-suited to the ends proposed. I have substituted labor and have (a dozen) at work making adobes. They have all been sentenced for stealing horses. Each is to make 50 adobe (bricks) a day (as part of their sentence) and for all over this they are paid. (If) they make 75, for the additional 25 they get as many cents. They are comfortably lodged and fed by the government. I have appointed one of their number captain. They work in the field, require no other guard. Not one of them has attempted to run away.”

As the incarcerated population grew, so did escape attempts. Eventually, he ordered them to construct a modest prison, school house and public gathering place. The main building was dubbed Colton Hall and still stands today.

“A prison has also been built, and mainly through the labor of convicts. Many a joke the rogues have cracked while constructing their own cage. But, (they) have worked so diligently, I shall feel constrained to pardon out the less incorrigible,” he wrote.

When the chaos of war moved farther south, he began restoring order.

“Sept. 6, (1846). The bell of the Roman Catholic church, which has been silent some weeks, rung out loud and clear this morning. I directed the prisoners, sentenced to the public works, to be taken to the service,” he wrote. “I had given them soap and sufficient time to clean their clothes on Saturday. They made quite a respectable appearance. Their conduct, during service, was reported to me as very becoming. They may yet reform.”

First California jury impaneled by Colton

During his time in California, Colton is credited with using the first jury.

“Friday, Sept. 4, (1846). I (impaneled) today the first jury ever summoned in California,” he wrote. “The examination of the witnesses lasted five or six hours. I then gave the case to the jury, stated the questions of fact upon which they were to render their verdict. They retired for an hour, and then returned, when the foreman handed in their verdict, which was clear and explicit. The inhabitants who witnessed the trial said it was what they like, that there could be no bribery in it, that the opinion of 12 honest men should set the case forever at rest. If there is anything on earth besides religion for which I would die, it is the right of trial by jury.”

After a few months, Colton was elected by the residents to continue in his post, but not as a military man.

Residents elect Colton to continue as alcalde

“Sept. 15, (1846). The citizens of Monterey elected me today alcalde, or chief magistrate of this jurisdiction, a situation which I have been filling for two months past, under a military commission. It has now been restored to its civil character and functions. Their election is undoubtedly the highest compliment which they can confer,” he wrote.

News was hard to come by at the time, arriving via horseback over the mountains or by ship. In November, Colton mentioned a ship that would eventually become one of the first to house inmates in the state.

“Nov. 10, (1846). The merchant ship Euphemia arrived today from the Sandwich Islands, bringing the intelligence that the Columbus, bearing the broad pennant of Com. Biddle, had sailed from Honolulu for Valparaiso. We shall not then see that noble ship on this coast. Her 800 men would have been a great accession to our strength. The war in California can never be decided from the deck. We want some 500 horsemen and a few pieces of flying artillery,” he wrote.

Rehabilitation is focus

In a civilian capacity, Colton settled into his role and began to focus on rehabilitation.

“Today I remitted the sentence of my prison cook,” Colton wrote. “He is a native of San Domingo, had drifted into California, was attached, in some subordinate capacity to Col. Fremont’s battalion; and while the troops were quartered in town, (he) robbed the drawer of a liquor shop of $200. For this offense, I had him sentenced to two years on the public works. Discovering some early reliable traits about the fellow, I soon made him cook to the rest of the prisoners, and allowed him the privileges of the town, so far as his duties in that capacity required. He has never betrayed my trust and has always been the first to communicate to me any stratagem on the part of the prisoners to effect their escape.”

In 1846, $200 was worth the same as $7,300 today.

He sent the trustee into town to purchase supplies, and “he has faithfully accounted for every shilling (and is) kind and attentive to the sick. For these faithful services, I have remitted the remainder of his sentence, which would have confined him nine months longer, and have put him on a pay of $30 per month to cook.”

Chaplain Colton allows guitars in early prison

Early in his role, he saw the need to keep offenders occupied after their work was complete.

“We have in one apartment of our prison, two (bandits) confined for having robbed a United States courier, on his way from Monterey to San Francisco with public dispatches,” he wrote on Aug. 5, 1846. “Yesterday they applied to me for permission to have their guitars. They stated their situation was very lonely and they wanted something to cheer it. Their request was complied with and last evening, when the streets were still, their music streamed out upon the quiet air with wonderful sweetness and power. Their voices were in rich harmony with their instruments.”

Juvenile sentences get hard look by Colton

Much like his later counterparts, Colton struggled with appropriate sentences for juvenile lawbreakers and how to keep them separated from repeat offenders.

“March 15, (1848). A lad of 14 years was brought before me today charged with stealing a horse. The evidence of the larceny was conclusive; but what punishment to inflict was the question. We have no house of correction, and to sentence him to the ball and chain on the public works, among hardened culprits, was to cut off all hope of amendment, and inflict an indelible stigma on the youth,” he wrote.

He called in the boy’s father and ordered him to punish his son. He also chastised the father for setting a bad example for the boy.

Colton emphasized the need to reform those with criminal tendencies.

Gold changes California’s future

Everything changed with the discovery of gold in Coloma at Sutter’s Mill.

“June 5, (1848). Another report reached us this morning from the American Fork. The rumor ran, that several workmen, while excavating for a millrace, had thrown up little shining scales of a yellow ore that proved to be gold,” he wrote.

He sent a messenger to verify the reports and on June 20, the rider returned along with small samples. The news caused more problems for Colton.

“The excitement produced was intense and many were soon busy in their hasty preparation for a departure to the mines. The blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his pane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter. I have only a community of women left, and a gang of prisoners, with here and there a soldier who will give his captain the slip at the first chance,” he wrote.

The servants, inn keepers and others rushed for the hills and the gold contained therein. Colton and the military leaders found themselves without helping hands to prepare meals or handle chores.

“A general of the United States Army, the commander of a man-of-war, and the Alcalde of Monterey, in a smoking kitchen, grinding coffee, toasting a herring and peeling onions,” he lamented. “These gold mines are going to upset all the domestic arrangements of society, turning the head to the tail and the tail to the head.”

Buildings were abandoned and for a short while, the town was essentially deserted. Even the alcalde headed to the gold fields to see firsthand what all the fuss was about. Eventually, residents and Colton returned.

Mexico surrendered in 1848 and ceded numerous territories, including California. On Sept. 9, 1850, California became a state.

When his duties in the transitional government were complete, Colton returned home to Philadelphia. He was 54 years old when he died in 1851.

Colton Hall is known as birthplace of California statehood

Colton Hall, which still stands today, is also known as the birthplace of California. The hall is often referred to as California’s first capitol building since it is where early state founders gathered to craft the request for statehood and draft the state constitution. Colton’s journal describes the hall which was built using inmate labor.

“Thursday, March 8, 1849. The town hall, on which I have been at work for more than a year, is at last finished. It is built of a white stone, quarried from a neighboring hill, and which easily takes the shape you desire. The lower apartments are for schools; the hall over them – 70 feet by 30 – is for public assemblies. The front is ornamented with a portico, which you enter from the hall.

“It is not an edifice that would attract any attention among public buildings in the United States; but in California, it is without a rival. It has been erected out of the slender proceeds of town lots, the labor of the convicts, taxes on liquor shops, and fines on gamblers. The scheme was regarded with incredulity by many. But, the building is finished, and the citizens have assembled in it, and christened it after my name, which will now go down to posterity with the odor of gamblers, convicts, and tipplers. I leave it as an humble evidence of what may be accomplished by rigidly adhering to one purpose, and shrinking from no personal efforts necessary to its achievement.”

The granite-stone jail was built adjacent to Colton Hall in 1854 and served as the city jail until 1956.

Ships played key roles in the war with Mexico, the transmission of information and the transportation of goods and passengers. Soon, ships would bring people by the thousands to strike it rich in the gold fields. Those ships would also become resources for the prison system.

Liberty ship named after Colton

Did you know? To honor Colton’s memory, on Dec. 10, 1942, the liberty ship, the Walter Colton, was launched at Richmond.

Read Walter Colton’s “Three Years in California” at the Library of Congress website.

By Don Chaddock, Inside CDCR editor

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