Long Arm of Law Reaches Back to Old Town, 1847 : Restoration of S.D.'s First Courthouse, Set to Begin in January, Marks 4-Year Effort
San Diego’s first courthouse was a tiny, brick building in Old Town that delivered swift justice with a big stick.
James Robinson, alias “Yankee Jim,” who in 1852 stole a rowboat, found out the hard way.
Yankee Jim was convicted and hanged.
“They passed a city ordinance and any theft over $150 or $250 carried a death sentence,” said Richard B. White, curator of the San Diego Union Museum in Old Town. “When they went to convict him, they wanted to hang him, but they couldn’t because the rowboat was not of enough value. So they said that he was stealing the rowboat in order to steal the pilot boat too.”
Fascinated by such history and lore surrounding the tiny courthouse, local judges, attorneys and private citizens formed the First San Diego Courthouse Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the structure built in 1847.
Rebuilding to Begin
And on Jan. 30, the group will conduct a ground-breaking ceremony at the Old Town State Historic Park to begin reconstruction of the building, which also served as the office of San Diego’s Alcade, headquarters of the U.S. Boundary Commission and the county’s first District Court.
The oldest standing courthouse in the county is the Whaley House Museum in Old Town, which was built in 1856.
Reconstruction is being guided by June D. Moeser who, after serving as foreman of the San Diego County Grand Jury in 1978, became engrossed in researching San Diego’s grand jury system.
Moeser dug up copies of the old San Diego Herald, diaries at the Mormon Battalion Visitors Center, city and county government records and scores of historical accounts, including William E. Smythe’s History of San Diego, which she calls the “Bible” of local history.
Moeser, who was a deputy marshal in the Municipal Court system for 12 years, learned that Judge Oliver S. Witherby convened the first District Court session in Old Town on May 6, 1850.
Finding the exact location of the courthouse soon became a growing obsession for her.
“It was thrilling,” she said. “That’s why we even got more interested in developing this building . . . . It was the most important building in the area at the time.”
Moeser found that the small courthouse burned down in 1872 in a fire that destroyed several other Old Town buildings.
The building was completed, however, by the Mormon Battalion in 1847. The battalion was a contingent of soldiers enlisted from the Mormon church and which came to San Diego to help fight in the Mexican-American War.
The courthouse building served as the Office of the Alcade of San Diego from 1847 to 1850. (Alcade was the name for a judicial official before the City of San Diego was incorporated.)
In addition, the building was used as a headquarters for the U.S. Boundary Commission, which mapped the divide between Baja and Alta California; as Office of the San Diego mayor and city clerk; as a meeting room for the Common Council, the early equivalent of today’s City Council; as site of the first District Court and Grand Jury; the meeting room for the County Board of Supervisors, as a Masonic Lodge; and as a Protestant Church.
During her research, Moeser learned that the Mormon Battalion Inc., a group that promotes the history of early Mormon settlers in San Diego, tried in 1981 to obtain permission to reconstruct the courthouse on its original site, now a state park.
The request was turned down in 1982 by the state attorney general’s office because of a question about the separation of church and state. The battalion’s ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints barred a state agency from granting a permit for construction in the park, the attorney general advised.
Moeser believed the building had to be saved, however.
Religious, Governmental Uses
“I’m not proselytizing for them and I’m not a Mormon,” she said. “But this building is so important that it must go beyond all the boundaries of any religion. We looked at it and we found out that Protestant Church services were held there, the Masonic lodge met there and the County Board of Supervisors.”
In 1984, Moeser and a group of friends established First San Diego Courthouse Inc. to raise money through private donations for reconstruction of the courthouse.
With members such as Superior Court Justice Jack Levitt and retired Superior Court Judge William A. Yale, the organization has raised about a third of the $100,000 needed to rebuild San Diego’s first courthouse.
Moeser said once the courthouse is completed the organization plans to hold reenactments of the trials and government meetings based on historical records. Artifacts from a recent archeological dig at the site will be exhibited.
“We’re keeping history alive . . . educating the public to the history of the area,” Moeser said.
Construction is expected to be completed by mid-summer, Moeser said.