William Jefferson Hunsaker (1855-1933)
Popularly known as ‘Will’, William Jefferson Hunsaker was the fourth mayor of San Diego, and the first under the City Charter of 1887. For the thirty-five years previous San Diego had been run by only a Board of Trustees. Will was born in Contra Costa County, California on September 21, 1855 to Nicholas and Lois E. (Hastings) Hunsaker.
Will received his early schooling in Contra Costa County before moving, with his parents, to San Diego in 1869. In San Diego the family lived on their ranch in the Tia Juana Valley. His father, who had been Sheriff of Contra Costa County, became the Sheriff of San Diego County in 1875 & 1876, and was Sheriff at the time of the famous Gaskill Brothers Store shootout in Campo on December 4, 1875. Will is said to have “entered the office of his father” in 1875, but there is no evidence to suggest he was with Sheriff Hunsaker when he arrived, with three deputies, at Campo, on December 5.
Will Hunsaker became a lawyer receiving his legal training under the tutelage of Major Levi Chase and Judge A. C. Baker. Was admitted to the practice of law in 1876. During the course of his career Will Hunsaker achieved a high level of prominence and respect which made him well known throughout the southwest.
On February 27, 1879, Will married Florence V. McFarland. Together they had a son and three daughters. Also in 1879, Will went to Tombstone, Arizona where he teamed up with Tom Fitch. He remained about a year and, while there, the two of them represented U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp in several of the Southwest’s most infamous cases.
After his return to San Diego, Will was elected to the office of San Diego District Attorney from 1882 to 1884. Once nominated, he decided to run a vigorous campaign for the office. He and Jack Dodge rented a horse and buggy for transportation. They then traveled much of San Diego County touching practically every community west of the mountains. The reader must understand, this was no simple task. At that time, San Diego County stretched north from the Mexican border to a line at about where the town of Banning is today, and east from the coast to the Colorado River. The area covers all of what is today San Diego and Imperial Counties, most of Riverside County, and part of San Bernardino County. However, due to the sparse population of the desert, Will and Jack concentrated on the area west of the mountains. ‘Will’ would speak on the topics and issues of the day while Dodge would sit in the front row and lead the applause. When ‘Will’ finished, Dodge would go on stage to play the banjo with Will now sitting in the front row leading the applause.
In 1887 Will Hunsaker was elected Mayor of San Diego to serve a two year term of office. However, he resigned in November 1888. Will was elected as a Workingmen’s candidate, comparable to today’s Democratic Party, but the City Council was dominated by members of the Citizen’s party, comparable to today’s Republican Party. The Council included such San Diego luminaries as George Marston, Simon Levi, and Martin Hamilton. According to a letter from a William Sullivan dated October 15, 1985, the Mayor “lost a power struggle with the rest of the Council”. Afterward he began to run-up a poor attendance record until his resignation on November 13, 1888. Though the official reason for his retirement is stated as, “owing to demands on his time made by his professional demands as a lawyer” it is certainly implied in Sullivan’s letter the real reason for his leaving may lay elsewhere. Richard Pourade in his The History of San Diego, The Glory Years, Chapter 13, writes “The San Diego Union in 1888 accused Will, as Mayor, of failing to properly oversee the city police and, as a lawyer, he “was representing criminals and gamblers.” As Mayor, he vetoed an attempt by members of the council to increase the license fees for saloons three-fold.
During his time in San Diego, Will Hunsaker began a legal partnership with E. W. Britt in the firm of Hunsaker & Britt. The partnership ended when Will moved to Los Angeles in 1892, but was renewed when Britt also moved to Los Angeles in 1900. While in practice in Los Angeles Will was involved in a number of high profile civil cases and was the legal representative for the Santa Fe Railroad.
During his career, besides his elections as District Attorney and Mayor of San Diego, Will earned numerous honors including: Charter President of San Diego Parlor #168 – Native Sons of the Golden West, Life Member of the Ramona Parlor, President of the Los Angeles Bar Association and President of the California State Bar Association. He was a long time member of the Chamber of Commerce of Los Angeles, and was made a Master Mason on September 17, 1903.
In 1933, at the age of 78, Will died at his home in Los Angeles. His burial site is not known.
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