Joseph McKinney became the first elected Sheriff for Sacramento County while in his early twenties. Unfortunately after only a few months in office, he became the first peace officer to give his life in the line of duty on August 15, 1850.
The Gold Rush brought many problems to the early day settlers in Sacramento. One of those problems became known as the “squatters riots” of 1850. During the weeks before McKinney’s death, several battles took place between government officials and land squatters with heavy casualties on both sides.
On August 15, Sheriff McKinney and his deputies rode a few miles outside the city to a house near the town of Brighton where “land squatters” were reportedly barricaded in a house. As Sheriff McKinney and his men entered the house, he ordered those inside to put down their weapons. That order was ignored and a volley of bullets erupted from those inside the house, and the Sheriff, who led his men into battle, lost his life.
A funeral with full honors was held at Sutter’s Fort and the young Sheriff was buried in the New Helvetia Cemetery, also known as the Sutter’s Fort Cemetery (Alhambra and J Street, location of the Sutter Junior High School). When the cemetery was closed in 1955 for the building of the school, many of the graves, including McKinney’s were unmarked due to vandalism, floods and other occurrences over the years. Sheriff Mc Kinney, along with about 5000 other “unmarked” graves were moved to a common grave site at East Lawn Cemetery on Folsom Boulevard.
In 1995 the Bruce Verhoeven Memorial Fund began a project to properly honor Sheriff McKinney. A dedication ceremony took place on August 15, 1995, the date McKinney was killed in 1850, again with full honors, at the East Lawn Cemetery. A stone marker was placed at the site to remind us of the sacrifice made by our first sheriff.
Each year on the anniversary of his death, board members of the Verhoeven Fund place flowers at the grave site.
This floral tribute is also extended to each officer who has given their life in the line of duty for Sacramento County over the past 150 years on the anniversary of their death.