Saturday, November 25, 2017

Oscar Shafter (1812-1873): Oakland Councilman and California Supreme Court Justice

Oscar Shafter's Supreme Court portrait and family burial plot
PLOT 2

Judge Oscar Lovell Shafter (October 19, 1812 - January 23, 1873) served on the  Oakland City Council, Vermont Legislature, and was an associate justice on the California Supreme Court.

Born in Athens, Vermont, Shafter was the son of William Shafter, a farmer who was also a member of the Vermont Constitutional Convention of 1836, County Judge and State Legislative member, and Mary Lovell Shafter.  Judge Shafter was also the grandson of James Shafter, who fought in the battles of Bunker Hill, Bennington and Saratoga, followed by 25 years in the Vermont Legislature.

After attending Wilbraham Academy in Massachusetts, Shafter graduated in 1834 from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and in 1836 graduated from Harvard Law School.  He practiced law in Wilmington, Vermont, and with his political star rapidly on the rise, Shafter was elected to the Vermont State Legislature and although he did not want to run for Congress, was the chosen candidate of the Liberty party, with which he was affiliated.

Sarah Riddle Shafter and three of their 11 children
Oscar Shafter married Sarah Riddle in 1840 and together the couple had eleven children, ten daughters and one son.

The prominent law offices of Halleck, Peachy, Billings & Park in San Francisco heard of Shafter's successful New England law practice from his friend Trenor W. Park, a junior member at the firm.  They recruited him to join their firm and after accepting their offer, Shafter moved with his family to San Francisco in 1854.  Although the firm dissolved shortly after he arrived, Shafter formed a partnership with his friend, starting the law practice of Shafter & Park.  Over the years the firm continued to grow and change with the addition and departure of various partners.

In 1863, Shafter served on the Oakland City Council, serving the city where he had built his home.  He spoke fondly of Oakland in his letters, and saw it as growing faster than San Francisco and quite fertile.  In a letter to his wife Sarah on April 30, 1855, Shafter wrote "I went with a friend to Oakland on the opposite side of the bay. There are thousands of acres of level land there and exceedingly fertile, lying between the bay and the mountains, and it is covered with ancient and gigantic oaks standing from 40 to 60 feet apart, and the sward beneath is covered with a luxuriant growth of grass and flowers. Among these trees the town is built. Every variety of fruit and flower, including many tropical exotics, grow here in the greatest perfection, and as to the climate, it is an unending June. Children here do not die young - at least rarely."

Oscar Shafter's gravestone
Shafter also had a role in the current location of Mountain View Cemetery, having mentioned the site which adjoined some property that he owned, to Rev. Isaac Brayton. The idea was brought to the trustees who were looking for a new location for Oakland Cemetery, which sat too close to downtown and had outgrown its usefulness.

In 1863, a constitutional amendment meant all of the seats of the Supreme Court of California were open for election. In October 1863, Oscar Shafter was elected as a justice on the Republican Party ticket, and begin his term in January 1864. The justices drew lots for term length and Shafter was assigned the long, 10-year term as an Associate Justice. According to court records, he was very slow and meticulous in preparing his cases.

He penned numerous cases, including the oft-cited and legally questioned Bourland vs Hildreth, which claimed that an action of the Legislature should be deemed Constitutional, unless an obvious error occurred. A number of the land use cases that he ruled on have defined certain geographic boundaries in Oakland and San Francisco to this day.

Shafter had a great fondness for Point Reyes, where he owned a ranch, Punta de los Reyes, and he had plans to build a home in Olema and take up the life of a farmer following his retirement from the legal profession and serving on the bench. A lone Sequoia gigantea was planted on the building site of his planned for home. He acquired large tracts of land in order to preserve its natural beauty and pass the land on to his descendants for their future homes.

After traveling to Florence, Italy in an effort to regain his health, Shafter died there on January 23, 1873. His funeral was conducted at the home of his son-in-law Charles Webb Howard. As the funeral cortege continued to the First Congregational Church at the corner of 10th and Washington Streets, many leaders of Oakland were in attendance, including numerous judges.

There is a memorial window commemorating Shafter in the First Unitarian Church in Oakland of a farmer sowing his fields. On September 4, 1892 Rev. Charles W. Wendte delivered the discourse at the dedication of the stained glass window placed in the church in memory of Shafter by his daughters.

Life, Diary and Letters of Oscar Lovell Shafter
He was the subject of a biography, the Life, Diary and Letters of Oscar Lovell Shafter, written by his daughter Emma Shafter-Howard and edited by Flora Haines Loughead and published in 1915.  

His nephew William Rufus Shafter was a general in the American Civil War, recipient of the Medal of Honor and had Shafter Avenue in Oakland named in his honor. His family on the Lovell side was related to President William Howard Taft.

Sources: Wikipedia, OaklandWiki, California Supreme Court archives, "Lives of the Dead" by Dennis Evanosky and Michael Colbruno, "Life, Diary and Letters of Oscar Shafter"

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