FRANK TILFORD is of Scotch-Irish descent, and a native of Lexington, Kentucky. In the year 1745, a remote ancestor, John Tilford, emigrated with his family from the North of Ireland and settled in the valley of the Shenandoah. The descendants of this family are now scattered through the Western States. They belong to that hardy race of pioneers, who, after driving the Indian tribes from their hunting grounds in the Mississippi Valley, laid well and deep in their wilderness homes the foundation of a free government.

      In the spring of the year 1849, Frank Tilford, then twenty-seven years of age, with a small party of youthful adventurers, started overland for the Pacific. He arrived in California in August of that year, and from that time until now has resided on the Pacific coast.

      In the early days of San Francisco, when the place was a Pueblo, Mr. Tilford was a member of the AYUNTAMIENTO, and in that capacity contributed largely and beneficially to the development of the future city. The cause of education received from him earnest attention, and to his exertions we owe the first endowment ever bestowed upon a public school in San Francisco. He endeavored, although ineffectually, to procure an appropriation of some of the public lands belonging to the corporation to the establishment of a College of the Pacific. Had the scheme succeeded, we might, years ago, have had on this coast a University richly endowed and ranking with the noblest educational institutions of the land. At that time, unfortunately, a large majority of our people lived only for and in the immediate present; few either appreciated or cared for the magnificent future which awaited their adopted State; and the inevitable result of such indifference was the failure of all propositions of a public character, which did not promise a speedy remunerative return to the community.

      In May, 1850, Mr. Tilford was elected Recorder, or Criminal Judge, of San Francisco. He held the position for one year. During his term of office, San Francisco was noted for the fierce controversies which prevailed in regard to the title and possession of the lands within her limits. These conflicts, commencing in acts of lawlessness, ended, too often, in sanguinary violence, and became, therefore, the subjects of investigation in the criminal courts. In all such cases the sympathies of the Judge were with the actual and honest occupant, and the law was administered to protect him against the aggressions of trespassers who sought to obtain possession without the shadow of legal title or equitable claim. The firm yet just course pursued by Recorder Tilford in these troublesome disputes, won for him the esteem and regard of all well-disposed citizens. His re-election to the same position, it was conceded, was certain, had he been a candidate for Mayor at the municipal election in April, 1851. The nomination was made against the earnest, openly-expressed wishes of the candidate, and finally accepted with great reluctance. The contest was animated, and rendered more interesting as being the first to occur in California on strict partisan issues. The Whig party, then, for the first time, organized, and under the leadership of T. Butler King, collector of the port, achieved the most brilliant, and almost the only victory, which ever rewarded its expiring efforts in California. The average majority against the Democratic ticket was not less than one thousand, while the candidate for the mayoralty was defeated by only four hundred votes.

      Shortly after the election, Judge Tilford formed a law partnership with R. A. Lockwood and Edmund Randolph, two gentlemen of commanding abilities, now deceased. This firm instituted a suit which created intense and general excitement—Metcalf vs. Argenti and others—the cause célebre of that day. The plaintiff complained of a trespass committed by the defendants in entering his house and searching the premises. They (the defendants) were members of the Vigilance Committee of 1851. The whole case involved the legality and propriety of the action of the Committee. Plaintiff laid his damages at fifty thousand dollars. There were two trials of this cause, but the jury, on both occasions, were unable to agree upon a verdict.

      In the summer of 1851, Judge Tilford visited Oregon and remained some five months in Portland, where he practiced law with considerable success. Feeling, at the end of that short period, that he was out of the pale of civilization—Oregon being but a dreary abiding place eighteen years ago—he returned to San Francisco early in 1852, and resumed the practice. He obtained a high reputation at the bar, but principally as a criminal lawyer.

      From 1852 to 1856, during which time Judge Tilford was practicing law, the San Francisco bar numbered among its criminal lawyers, Col. Baker, Gov. Smith of Virginia, Bailie Peyton, Gov. Foote, Edward F. Marshall, Col. James, and Harry Byrne, now, as then, District Attorney of San Francisco.

      In 1854, he was nominated by the Democracy for Judge of the Superior Court of San Francisco. In that year the Native American party first appeared in California as a district political organization. “Towering in its pride of place,” it swept all before it and succeeded in electing every one of its nominees. The Whig party was crushed out of existence. The Democracy held together, and although defeated, were not demoralized.

      In 1855, Judge Tilford received the compliment of the nomination, unanimously tendered him by the county convention of his party, for State Senator. He took the field against the enemy, before whose power he had fallen the previous year, and at the fall election was chosen by a majority of twenty-five hundred votes.

      The seventh session of the California legislature was one of unusual interest to the political parties of the State. The Native American party had been successful at the State election and returned a majority of the legislature. In the assembly they had the decided control, and in the senate, one majority. The first question which arose was in reference to a joint convention to elect a United States Senator to succeed Wm. M. Gwin, whose term had expired. The Democrats opposed the convention and favored the postponement of the election. Senator Tilford made the only speech on the Democratic side; taking the ground that the State election had turned on local and personal issues; was no just indication of the popular judgment, and that it would be impolitic, if not disastrous to the public interests, to place in the Senate of the United States the representative of a faction which had no national existence, and whose career was destined to a speedy termination. This speech was published in all the Democratic journals of the State, and was generally accepted as defining the attitude of the Democracy.

      The vote was taken on the motion to indefinitely postpone the assembly resolution in favor of a joint convention, and the motion was carried—Hon. Wilson Flint acting with the Democratic members. The people of the State, at the election which took place in the fall of 1856, sustained the course pursued by a majority of the senate.

      Another debate of a political character occurred in the senate, important as, in part, the cause and precursor of the fall of the Native American party in California. The assembly, in which that party had a large majority, as stated, had passed a resolution condemning the election of Hon. N. P. Banks to the position of Speaker of the House of Representatives at Washington, for the reason, as alleged, that he was “the exponent of sectional ideas and principles diametrically opposed to the spirit of the Constitution of the United States.” When this resolution came to the senate, the Native American members after caucus held, unwilling to pass, yet hardly prepared to oppose, resolved on tabling it. The discussion which arose was the most interesting and exciting which, up to that period, had occurred in the California Legislature. Hawks, Senator from San Francisco, and the eloquent Ferguson of Sacramento, favored the tabling of the resolution. Senators Mandeville and Tilford urged its passage. The motion to table the resolution was carried by a clear vote; but in the discussion which preceded the final vote, were sown the seeds of the ultimate dissolution of the Native American party in the State. Upon the fall of that party, a large number transferred allegiance to the victorious enemy, while another very considerable element united with the National Republican party, then about organizing. The speech of Judge Tilford on this resolution was ordered to be published by the Democratic members of the legislature. A comparison will show that this speech embodied the views, in almost the identical language, afterwards set forth in the platform adopted by the convention which at Cincinnati nominated James Buchanan for the Presidency.

      While a senator from San Francisco, Mr. Tilford was a member of the judiciary committee, and during the latter portion of his term was chairman of the same—a position which gave him considerable control in the passage and defeat of bills. No little credit is due to him for revising and preparing amendments to the criminal law of the State. He reported two bills for that purpose, which passed the senate, and, with some slight alteration from the assembly, became law. Among other features in these bills, whipping for petit larceny, and the death penalty at the discretion of the jury in cases of robbery and grand larceny, were abolished; the attempt to commit a crime was made punishable, and degrees in murder and other offences were introduced and defined. The views of the author of these measures were set forth in a speech on crimes and punishments, and the argument made that the certainty, not the severity of punishment, deterred from the commission of crimes. This speech was printed and extensively circulated, the leading ideas receiving the general approval of the press and bar.

      Judge Tilford often recalls with pride his advocacy of a bill which became a law, to enable aliens to inherit real and personal estate as fully as native born citizens—a measure which, just in itself, has exercised a beneficial influence on the prosperity of the State. He also advocated, with zeal and deep interest, a confirmation of the celebrated Van Ness Ordinance by the legislature. The measure than failed, but in 1858 was adopted, and is now universally admitted to have been one of the most salutary measures ever passed by a California legislature.

      To Horace Hawes, then a member of the assembly, is undoubtedly due the credit of the Consolidation Bill. It originated with him. Yet, when it came to the senate, it met with a violent opposition, and but for the cordial and active support which it received from Senators Tilford and Shaw, must have miscarried.

      The property owners of San Francisco at that time will always gratefully remember the constant, persistent opposition which Mr. Tilford made to any and all schemes for the control by individuals or corporations of the harbor and water front of the city.

      In 1856, Judge Tilford was a candidate before the Democratic State Convention for Congress. His opponent was the Hon. Charles L. Scott, who received the nomination by a small majority. The party in California was then divided into two very distinct elements—the chivalry, or Southern wing, and the more conservative portion, composed of men from all sections of the country and opposed to radicalism in any shape. Judge Tilford belonged to the latter division. The Federal office-holders acted generally with the chivalry wing; and gave an almost unanimous support to the successful candidate.

      The Legislature which convened on the first Monday in January, 1857, was charged with the duty of electing two United States Senators, in place of William M. Gwin and John B. Weller. The Hon. David C. Broderick was nominated by the Democratic caucus, and elected in joint convention, on the first ballot, to succeed John B. Weller. Judge Tilford was an active, zealous, untiring supporter of Mr. Broderick. He was selected to make the nomination, which he did, accompanying it with a speech which was published and warmly applauded by the friends of the new Senator.

      In 1857, Judge Tilford received from the President the appointment of Naval Officer of the Port of San Francisco, which position he held for the full term of four years. This appointment was made in acknowledgment of the many and faithful services rendered by the appointee in behalf of his party.

      Upon retiring from office, and on a final accounting with the Treasury Department, he received not only an acquaintance, but an order for money found to be due him—a practical endorsement of double value.

      During his stay in the Naval Office, he participated in every political canvass which occurred in the State.

      When, in 1860, the memorable division took place in the ranks of the Democratic party resulting in the nomination of Stephen A. Douglas and John C. Breckenridge, Judge Tilford’s earnest wish and efforts were for a reunion of the party in California. He endeavored to prevail upon the party leaders to present but one electoral ticket to the people. The candidates for presidential electors were to cast the vote of the State as a majority of the ballots they received might indicate the preference of the masses of the party. This plan failing, Judge Tilford then gave his support to Breckenridge. He canvassed the State with unflagging spirit, although his views did not entirely coincide with those of either wing of the party. He had always opposed secession as unconstitutional, wrong in theory and pernicious in practice. On the other hand, in common with a large number of the leading statesmen and journals of the North, he believed coercion a dangerous remedy, liable to terminate in the subversion of States’ rights and the centralization of power—that, while the Federal government had the undoubted right to maintain and defend its own existence, imminent danger to popular liberty was to be apprehended from standing armies and military dictatorship. When it became apparent that an amicable adjustment of our national difficulties was impossible, that the issue was to be presented to the arbitrament of the sword—he felt it his duty to sustain the government under which he lived and to which he owed allegiance.

      In the same year, a committee was appointed by the San Francisco leaders of the Breckenridge branch of the Democracy, to prepare an Address to the people of the State, vindicating the course of the Baltimore Convention in nominating Breckenridge, and the claims of their candidate to popular support. This committee consisted of Hon. O. C. Pratt, since Judge of the 12th Judicial District, Hon. R. Augustus Thompson, formerly a member of Congress from Virginia, and Mr. Tilford. The address prepared and published by these gentlemen, set forth very ably and eloquently all the positions which the press and speakers of the Breckenridge wing afterwards sustained.

      From 1861 to 1863, Judge Tilford was not engaged in the practice of his profession; and, although feeling a profound interest in the events progressing in the Atlantic States, abstained from any active participation in politics.

      In the fall of the latter year he removed to the then Territory of Nevada, and entered again on his professional labors.

      In 1864, he was elected Superintendent of Public Instruction in Storey County, and acted in that capacity until the adoption of the State Constitution placed the control of the  public schools in other hands. Shortly afterwards he was appointed City Attorney of Virginia City, and retained by a Board of Aldermen politically opposed to him. One incident in his career in Nevada is particularly worthy of mention. It occurred in the summer of 1864. In August of that year, a concerted and general uprising of the miners of the Virginia District took place, caused by an attempt to reduce their wages. Labor was suspended. Threats of violence were freely made against the Superintendent of the Gould & Curry mine. At one time there appeared serious danger of a wide destruction of property by the multitude. The procession, numbering three to four thousand strong, marched through the streets of Virginia, and finally assembled in front of the International Hotel. At the earnest request of Mr. Stewart; now United States Senator, and other prominent citizens, Judge Tilford consented to address the exasperated crowd. His remarks were well-timed, well-received, and had a very happy effect. The people gradually dispersed, and the whole proceeding ended harmlessly.

      In the spring of 1866, Mr. Tilford, feeling satisfied that there was no prospect of a revival of prosperity in Virginia City, sought a new and more promising locality.

      At the time, the Excelsior Mining District, in Nevada county, California, engrossed a considerable share of public attention, and was believed to be one of the richest mineral regions on the Pacific Coast. He was then, and for some time past had been, largely interested in the mines of that section. Thither he removed in May, and opened a law office in the town of Meadow Lake, in connection with J. C. Foster, Esq. The district proved a ruinous failure. The character and peculiar formation of the ledges, the vast amount of rebellious sulphurets in the metalliferous lodes, and more than all, the length of the winter, which, in this mountainous region, extends over eight months, united to disappoint the expectations of thousands, who had invested their means in the mines of the locality. While residing at “Meadow Lake,” Mr. Tilford edited the “Sun,” an independent newspaper. He also prepared an elaborate description of the mines, and history of mining operations, in Excelsior; giving an account of the discovery, settlement, resources, scenery and prospects of this romantic section of country. This interesting narrative first appeared in Bean’s Directory of Nevada county, (1866) and also, in a condensed form, in the CALIFORNIA SCRAP BOOK (1869). It is replete with valuable knowledge concerning an extensive and almost unknown region, (remarkable for its mineral richness as well as the beauty and grandeur of its scenery) and being written in very attractive style, will repay attentive perusal.

      In the summer of 1866, the Democratic convention of Nevada county met at Grass Valley. Hearing that an effort would be made to give him some place on the ticket, and having abandoned the field of politics, Judge Tilford addressed a letter to the convention, declining any nomination. The convention, however, aware of his popularity and abilities as a public speaker, unanimously nominated him for State Senator. At the urgent request of some of the most prominent Democrats of the county, he accepted the nomination. No one supposed his election was possible. Nevada county had been, and was still claimed as, the banner county of the Republican nominee for Supreme Judge received one thousand majority. Judge Tilford entered the canvass, and addressed the people almost every night in the months of July and August, visiting nearly every town, village and mining camp in that populous county—from the summit of the Sierras where the reign of winter is unbroken, to the valleys where flowers are in continual bloom. His meetings were large—the people never stayed at home when Tilford was announced to speak. His political enemies confess, that, in conduct of this campaign, he made the most gallant fight ever witnessed in Nevada county, while his friends were enthusiastic in their expressions of admiration. His opponent was Hon. E. W. Roberts, who, on the official count, was shown to be elected by a majority of ninety-one out of a total vote exceeding five thousand.

      When the legislature met at Sacramento in December, 1867, Judge Tilford’s name was brought forward by many of his friends as a candidate for United States Senator, and submitted to the Democratic legislature caucus. The universal esteem in which he was held by the people of his county was shown in the fact that, before the Democratic caucus had agreed upon a candidate for Senator, all Democratic and Republican papers of Nevada county advocated his nomination and election.

      In November, 1867, he returned to his first home on the Pacific Coast, San Francisco, where he formed a partnership with Tully R. Wise, formerly United States District Attorney, and applied himself diligently to his profession. In the Presidential election of 1868, he supported Seymour and Blair. He retains firmly the principles cherished through his entire political career.

      Judge Tilford occupied a prominent place in the gifted band of orators whose appeals were wont, in the olden times, to thrill and electrify the hearts of the multitude; whose contests have become famous and whose achievements have passed into the history of the State. The voices of BAKER, FERGUSON, HAWKS and GRIFFITH, in life so eloquent, have long been hushed. Tilford remains among the few who not only witnessed their triumphs, but gathered laurels with them on the field of debate. He often recurs, with proud emotion, to his old companionship with those gallant spirits. As a political debater and popular speaker he has few equals in California. His prepared addresses to literary and benevolent associations, of which he has delivered many, are ripe and artistic productions. His command of language is remarkable and he is always effective in addressing a jury.

      At this time Mr. Tilford is in the White Pine district, actively, and we trust, profitably, engaged in conducting litigation. His home is, however, still in San Francisco, and thither he expects, at no distant day, to return and spend the remainder of his life.

      Frank Tilford has retired from the political arena. The conflicts of party and the contests of politicians possess no attractions for him. Hereafter, he will devote his talents and energies to professional pursuits, which, if less exciting, are in their results more satisfactory than the toils or triumphs of a partisan. In one respect he has been ever consistent, and to one aspiration always true—his devotion to the advancement, and confidence in the grand destinies, of the Pacific Coast.

      A glorious commonwealth of States, extending along the shores of the Pacific, from the Arctic circle to Panama, united by a common interest, with free institutions, a homogeneous population, and in the enjoyment of a degree of prosperity unparalleled in history, is now, and has been for the last twenty years, the cherished hope and day-dreams of his existence.

History, Genius and Resources of Ireland
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Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 277-287.

© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.












San Francisco County