Steve Cottrell: The 1858 Nevada County judge election
With all the social media buzz these days involving alleged voter fraud, gerrymandering, alternate electors, ballot stuffing and more, a look back at an early Nevada County election seems in order — the 1858 county judge race, in particular.
There were three candidates: Charles Wilson Hill, Henry Montgomery Moore and David Belden. Hill was 29; Moore 49; Belden only 26.
Hill, from Maryland, arrived in Nevada County in 1852 and a few months later ran unsuccessfully for district attorney as a Whig, losing to Niles Searles, a Democrat. A year later, Hill was elected Nevada Township justice of the peace, but in 1856 was defeated in his bid to serve on the Nevada City Board of Town Trustees (now called City Council).
Moore was born and raised in western New York. Like Hill, he arrived in Nevada County in 1852, establishing a general store at a mining camp soon known as Moore’s Flat — about 20 miles northeast of Nevada City. In 1854, as the nominee of the county Democratic Committee, he finished third in the district attorney race, losing to Aaron Sargent, a Whig.
Belden, youngest of the three candidates, was from Connecticut. He initially settled in Marysville in 1852, but two years later came to Nevada City at the invitation of James Churchman, an attorney from Illinois and good friend of Abraham Lincoln. Belden became a Nevada City town trustee in 1857 and served on the executive committee of the Nevada City Democratic Club.
Campaigning in advance of the Sept. 1, 1858, election, the three men visited as many mining camps as possible, standing on street corners and platforms in Nevada City, Grass Valley, You Bet, Rough and Ready, North San Juan, and elsewhere, delivering stump speeches. Then they waited for election day.
The Sept. 3 Nevada Journal, a weekly newspaper, reported 2,057 votes for Belden, 2,056 for Moore, and 1,017 for Hill. In its next edition, however, it published what were called “official” results, showing Belden with 2,077 votes, Moore with 2,076, and Hill with 1,037.
Curiously, the Sept. 10 Journal offered no explanation for an identical 20-vote shift for all three men, but maybe a blurry-eyed compositor initially misread the county clerk’s handwritten Sept. 3 tally? Or maybe the first report was correct and the Sept. 10 posting was a typo? No original documents from that election exist today, so we may never know the actual count.
Whatever the certified totals, however, candidates Belden and Moore were separated by only one vote, headed for a likely recount, right? No. Instead, without fanfare, Moore conceded to Belden on Sept. 3. No quarrels, no recount, no allegations of foul play. Moore apparently trusted the county clerk’s tally, and Belden soon donned the judicial robe.
It was and remains the closest countywide election ever. Other local and district races have been decided by one vote, even coin flips, but only in September 1858 did a countywide election come down to a single ballot.
C. Wilson Hill, known to friends as Charlie, continued to practice law locally and was active in Democratic politics, but did not again seek public office. In the spring of 1864, he left his wife Maria and two young children in Nevada City and moved to Virginia City, Nevada. The following November, his wife was granted a divorce. Although he returned to Nevada City in 1867 to practice law and be near his children, Hill, only 38, soon fell ill and died that September.
Henry Moore, like Hill, remained active in local Democratic circles, but never again ran for public office. He owned a farm at Moore’s Flat, operated his store there until it was destroyed by fire in 1865, and tried his hand at mining. In 1886, with his wife Margaret, he moved to Copperopolis, then to San Francisco, where he died in 1897.
After serving four years as judge, David Belden represented Nevada County in the state Senate, and in 1869, with his wife Elizabeth, moved to San Jose and opened a law office there. Two years later, he was elected judge of the 20th Judicial District, covering Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey counties, and was reelected in 1873. Then, in 1882, Belden was elected judge of the newly established Santa Clara County Superior Court — an office he held until his death in 1888.
In a 2016 speech, President Barack Obama reminded his audience, “There’s no such thing as a vote that doesn’t matter.” And that was certainly true here in September 1858 when 26-year-old David Belden was elected county judge by the narrowest of margins and launched a long and distinguished judicial career.
Historian Steve Cottrell, a former Nevada City Council member and mayor, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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