Benjamin Ignatius Hayes

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Benjamin Hayes, or Benjamin Ignatius Hayes, (1815–77) was an American pioneer who was the first judge of the California District Court for the "First Judicial District" of California that served Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino Counties in southern California. His seminal rulings are still cited in that state's courts.


Hayes in 1849

Hayes was born on February 14, 1815, in Baltimore, Maryland, and was graduated from St. Mary's College (earlier part of St. Mary's Seminary, oldest Roman Catholic seminary in America, founded 1791 - College established 1806 - now St. Mary's Seminary and University) in that city. Shortly after graduation, he relocated to Missouri, but in 1849 he "set out from Independence, Missouri, for California, then just recently conquered and acquired from Mexico in the recent Mexican-American War of 1846-1849. Riding one mule and leading another packed with supplies for the trip." He joined a train of American western pioneers and reached a Mormon settlement (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) near San Bernardino, California (north of modern Los Angeles), in January 1850. He stopped again at the Mission San Gabriel and reached the "pueblo of Los Angeles" on February 3, looked around, went back to San Gabriel, sold his mules, later returning to stay in the "pueblo".[1]

Two of his sisters moved to Los Angeles, a former small sleepy Spanish and Mexican pueblo as well. They were Helena, "the mother of Fred Eaton, one of the new (now American ["Anglo"]-dominated) city's mayors; and Louisa, who became the first public school teacher. . . ."[1]

A Roman Catholic, Hayes was married twice—first, on November 16, 1848, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Emily Martha Chauncey of Harford County, Maryland, (northeast of Baltimore), who died in 1857, and second, on August 2, 1866, in San Diego, California, to Adelaida Serrano. He had two children, John Chauncey and Mary Adelaida.[1]

Hayes was joined by his wife Emily late in 1851, traveling "by packet to New Orleans, thence by steamer to Panama, which she crossed side saddle on a mule, then by steamer to San Diego."[1] After she died in 1857, the Lafayette Hotel was built on the property, where he reared his son and where Benjamin Hayes died on August 4, 1877.[1] [2][3]

Hayes was one of the men who helped bring the "Sisters of Charity" to Los Angeles to establish a hospital.[1] Along with Don Abel Stearns, Hon. Thomas Foster, Don Luis Vignes, The Honorable Ezra Drown, Don Antonio F. Coronel, Don Manuel Requena, Don Ignacio del Valle and John G. Downey," he organized a committee to "solicit subscriptions from the citizens of this county" and to "act in co-operation with the Right Rev. Thaddeus Amat, the Bishop of Monterey, in all matters necessary" in establishing the hospital."[4] The hospital was the forerunner to today's St. Vincent Medical Center of Los Angles.[5]


Private practice[edit]

In the 1840s Hayes began his practice of law in Independence, Missouri, and after arriving in Los Angeles he formed a law partnership with Jonathan R. Scott. He was a member of the "Rangers", Los Angeles's first police force, all volunteers.[1]

Public service[edit]

In the first Los Angeles County general election on April 1, 1850, Hayes, a Democrat, was elected County Attorney for Los Angeles County, "a prosecuting office then provided by law" serving until September 1851. In July of the same year, he was elected the first City Attorney in Los Angeles, and he served until May 1851.[1][6]

In 1852, he was elected by the voters as the first judge of the California District Court in the "First Judicial District" that served Los Angles, San Diego and San Bernardino Counties; he was reelected in 1857, eventually serving to 1864. Hayes "journeyed over his district on horseback and later by carriage and the little steamer, "Senator". He convened state District Court in whatever available structures there was."[1]

In Los Angeles, in 1859, California District Court was held in a dingy unhealthy old adobe then standing at Franklin and Spring streets. When it rained[,] water came through the roof in streams onto the judge's head, his desk and papers, and spattered against the walls, making an umbrella a necessary adjunct of court attendance.[1]

Hayes held state District Court in both English and Spanish; he recorded in his diary "that he was able to read and write Spanish with competence but that he was not fluent in speaking it". He also found a problem with the lack of available lawbooks from back East.[1]

One biographer wrote that Hayes "courageously administered justice in the violent "Fifties", (1850's), when mob rule so frequently took matters under its own control." in "vigilantism". While he was L.A. County Attorney in 1851[,] a disgruntled litigant on horseback fired at him from three feet away, but the bullet passed harmlessly through Hayes' hat.[1]

In his ten years on the state District Court Bench[,] litigation was heavy and important, and as it has transpired, history-making. Many of Judge Hayes's decisions have took the test of time and are references before the bar today, He is considered by posterity of historians, legal scholars and the profession to have been a learned man, with a brilliant legal mind.][1]


  • "'Los Angeles County From 1847 to 1867," a chapter in "An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County", published in 1876[1]
  • Diaries and scrapbooks[1]


The Bancroft Library is in possession of Hayes' diaries, notes and scrapbooks.[1]


External links[edit]

  • [1] Pioneer Notes From the Diaries of Judge Benjamin Hayes, 1849–1875, edited and privately published by Marjorie Tisdale Wolcott, Los Angeles (1929)
  • [2] Further biographical and genealogical information may be available from this Find a Grave listing.
  • [3] Election results for Los Angeles County in 1852, in Spanish, with reference to El Señor Don Benjamin Hayes
  • [4] Photo of Hayes near the end of his life.

Preceded by
Los Angeles City Attorney
Succeeded by
William G. Dryden