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James Van Ness

In office
July 1, 1855 – July 7, 1856
Preceded by Stephen Palfrey Webb
Succeeded by George Whelan

Born 1808
Burlington, Vermont
Died December 28, 1872
San Luis Obispo, California, USA

James Van Ness (1808 Burlington, Vermont - December 28, 1872) was mayor of San Francisco, USA from 1855 to 1856.

He was the son of Dutch-American Vermont Governor Cornelius Van Ness and father-in-law of future San Francisco mayor Frank McCoppin. Prior to being mayor, he had been a lawyer in the U.S. South and then a San Francisco city alderman. As alderman, he sponsored the "Van Ness Ordinance", which ordered all land within the city limits that was undeveloped at that time (that is, west of Larkin Street and southwest of Ninth Street) to be surveyed and then to be transferred to their original deedholders.[1] Because there were many fraudulent deed holders at that time, this law led to many lawsuits for many years.

Van Ness was elected mayor as a Democrat in 1855. However, his administration proved ineffectual in the face of three major crises that arose. First, his election was called into question following allegations of irregularities in the outcome. Then, On November 18, 1855, Charles Cora fatally shot U.S. Marshal William H. Richardson. Cora sought the safety of the sheriff at the city jail and Van Ness pleaded with the mob that had surrounded the jail to disperse. Another high-profile murder occurred on May 14, 1856, when James P. Casey shot newspaper editor, James King of William after King wrote an unfavorable article about Casey. After King died on May 20, the Vigilantes reformed and tried Cora and Casey and convicted them of murder.

The hanging of Cora and Casey.

Van Ness tried in vain to have California Governor J. Neely Johnson to send state militia forces into the city to stop the executions. Yet he ultimately watched helplessly as the Vigilantes executed Cora and Casey. Van Ness would leave office office in July under the terms of the Consolidation Act (passed by the State legislature on April 29, 1856), which provided for the merger of the city and county governments into one unit.

In 1860, he moved to San Luis Obispo County to practice law and became State Senator in 1871.


  • The Van Ness Ordinance was the first step in the formation of the Western Addition district.
  • Van Ness would be the last mayor to be referred to as such during his term until 1862. Until then, the mayor would be known as the "President of the Board of Supervisors"


  • Heintz, William F., San Francisco's Mayors: 1850-1880. From the Gold Rush to the Silver Bonanza. Woodside, CA: Gilbert Roberts Publications, 1975. (Library of Congress Card No. 75-17094)

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