Stephen Johnson Field (November 4, 1816 – April 9, 1899) was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from May 20, 1863, to December 1, 1897. Prior to this, he was the 5th Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. He owned and lived in the house that is now the Mary Aaron Memorial Museum. Another of his houses is still a private residence that can be seen at 630 D Street in Marysville. Stephen J. Field Park is named for him.
Stephen J. Field was born in Haddam, Connecticut, the son of a Congregationalist minister. He grew up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and went to Turkey at thirteen with his sister and her missionary husband. He graduated from Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, in 1837. He studied law in New York City and went into law practice with his brother until 1848, when he departed for California as part of the Gold Rush. In his memoirs, Field described his arrival in the future city of Marysville this way:
|No sooner had the vessel (Lawrence) struck the landing at Nye's Ranch than all the passengers, some forty or fifty in number, as if moved by a common impulse, started for an old adobe building, which stood upon the bank of the river, and near which were numerous tents. Judging by the number of the tents, there must have been from five hundred to a thousand people there. When we reached the adobe and entered the principal room, we saw a map spread out upon the counter, containing the plan of a town, which was called "Yubaville," and a man standing behind it, crying out, "Gentlemen, put your names down; put your names down, all you that want lots." He seemed to address himself to me, and I asked the price of the lots. He answered, "Two hundred and fifty dollars each for lots 80 by 160 feet." I replied, "But suppose a man puts his name down and afterwards don't want the lots?" He rejoined, "Oh, you need not take them if you don't want them; put your names down, gentlemen, you that want lots." I took him at his word and wrote my name down for sixty-five lots, aggregating in all $16,250. This produced a great sensation. To the best of my recollection I had only about twenty dollars left of what Col. Stevenson had paid me; but it was immediately noised about that a great capitalist had come up from San Francisco to invest in lots in the rising town. The consequence was that the proprietors of the place waited upon me and showed me great attention.|
After putting his name down for 65 lots of land for himself, Field drew up deeds for the land being sold to others, helping to establish the new city. John Sutter came to Marysville (which at that time was called Yubaville) to sign the deeds, selling all his land in Marysville to Charles Julian Covillaud, José Manuel Ramirez, Theodore Sicard and John Sampson, for a total of $10,000. After only three days in the Marysville mining camp, Field was nominated to run for alcalde - a form of combined mayor and justice of the peace under Mexican law - in the newly formed city government. He defeated his rival, who had been in Marysville for only six days, and a town council was elected. That night, the townsfolk decided to name the new city Marysville after Mary Murphy Covillaud.
While serving as alcalde of Marysville, Field was nearly the entire city government. The Marysville City Council had been established, but there is no record of it ever having a meeting. Field and his clerk, Lorenzo Babb, ran the city more or less by themselves. One of Field's first acts as alcalde was to order that the banks of the Yuba River be graded to facilitate the landing of steamships. In Field's memoirs, he describes some of his other experiences as alcalde:
|One morning, about five o'clock, a man tapped at my window, and cried, "Alcalde, Alcalde, there has been a robbery, and you are wanted." I got up at once, and while I was dressing he told his story. Nearly every one in those days lived in a tent and had his gold dust with him. The man, who proved to be Gildersleeve, the famous runner, upon going to bed the previous evening had placed several pounds of gold dust in his trunk, which was not locked. In the night some one had cut through his tent and taken the gold dust. I asked him if he suspected anybody; and he named two men, and gave such reasons for his suspicion that I immediately dictated a warrant for their arrest; and in a short time the two men were arrested and brought before me. The gold dust was found on one of them. I immediately called a grand jury, by whom he was indicted. I then called a petit jury, and assigned counsel for the prisoner. He was immediately placed upon his trial, and was convicted. The whole proceeding occupied only a part of the day. There was a great crowd and much excitement, and some talk of lynching. Curiously enough, my real trouble did not commence until after the conviction. What was to be done with the prisoner? How was he to be punished? Imposing a fine would not answer; and, if he had been discharged, the crowd would have immediately hung him. When at San Francisco, Mayor Geary of that place told me if I would send my convicts to him, with money enough to pay for a ball and chain for each one, he would put them in the chain-gang. But at that time the price of passage by steamer from Marysville to San Francisco was fifty dollars, which, with the expense of an officer to accompany the prisoner, and the price of a ball and chain, would have amounted to a much larger sum than the prosecution could afford; so it was clearly impracticable to think of sending him to San Francisco. Nor is it at all likely that the people would have consented to his removal. Under these circumstances there was but one course to pursue, and, however repugnant it was to my feelings to adopt it, I believe it was the only thing that saved the man's life. I ordered him to be publicly whipped with fifty lashes, and added that if he were found, within the next two years, in the vicinity of Marysville, he should again be whipped. I, however, privately ordered a physician to be present so as to see that no unnecessary severity was practiced. In accordance with this sentence, the fellow was immediately taken out and flogged; and that was the last seen of him in that region. He went off and never came back. The latter part of the sentence, however, was supererogatory; for there was something so degrading in a public whipping, that I have never known a man thus whipped who would stay longer than he could help, or ever desire to return. However this may have been, the sense of justice of the community was satisfied. No blood had been shed; there had been no hanging; yet a severe public example had been given.|
Thereafter, Field continued to sentence many other criminals to be whipped at a public whipping post, for the same reasons. It would be a long time before Marysville could afford to build a jail or transport prisoners to San Francisco, so he viewed whipping as a merciful option when it seemed that the only other readily available punishment would have been to hang people even for rather minor crimes.
In 1850, when California became a state, Field was elected to represent Yuba County in the California State Assembly. He ran for the California State Senate in 1851 but lost. In 1855, he was one of the founding fathers of St. John's Episcopal Church in Marysville.
In 1857, Field was elected to the California Supreme Court, where he served until 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln appointed him to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served there for 34 years. By the end of this time, he was not able to handle the court's workload, and the other justices asked him to resign. He insisted on staying until 1897 so he could break John Marshall's record of 33 years on the court. However, Field's own record has since been broken by William O. Douglas, who served 36 years.
Field was a Unionist Democrat whom President Lincoln (a Republican) appointed to achieve political and geographical balance on the court. Field supported the substantive due process theory that protected property rights from regulation under the Fourteenth Amendment. His position on this subject was in the minority at the time, but was adopted by the court's majority after his death. Field opposed income taxes, and limited corporate regulations. He helped invalidate laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants, but he upheld racial segregation of African-Americans in Plessy v. Ferguson.