The founding of California was an adventure, an epic, a tragicomedy, a conquest, and a window into America’s soul. It was a creation ex nihilo that reveals the roots of society, the establishment of justice, and the very nature of man. “All our brutal passions were here to have full sweep, and all our moral strength, all our courage, our patience, our docility, and our social skill were to contend with these passions,” native son Josiah Royce wrote of his motherland in 1886. Philosophers have long extrapolated from existing states, of whose origins the precise details are lost, just how political life comes into being. In California, there is no need to speculate. It happened only yesterday, every noble act and sordid deed alike recorded. From its beginnings, though, American California has always been a forward-looking place; the past holds little interest unless it can promise some future good. Yet the ascent to who we want to be must begin from knowing who we are—and how we got that way.
In the beginning, there were the Ohlone, the Miwok, the Chumesh, the Kumeyaay, and a hundred other tribes—perhaps a third of all the Indians living in what would become the continental United States. They roamed the land and lived off it, not needing, wanting, or knowing how to cultivate it. Nor were the Spanish much interested: they waited 250 years from discovery to settlement and came not for the land, and not even for the gold—which few sought and none found—but for souls. By then, Madrid’s lust for territory and specie had cooled to a flickering ember. Besides, California was far away—1,500 miles and four months on foot from the colonial capital in Mexico City. The sea, with its relentless southbound currents and winds, offered little respite. On all sides, nature threw up barriers—tall mountains, dense forests, blazing deserts, treacherous waters, steep cliffs—like the walls of an ancient city, as if to lock away the treasures within.
California on the eve of its destiny was bucolic, beautiful, temperate, backward, and close to uninhabited—almost an Eden. The territorial capital lay on the fishhook at the southern end of Monterey Bay, a tolerable anchorage but inferior to the great harbor—arguably the world’s finest—100 miles to the north in what would become San Francisco. Monterey, less shrouded by fog, was discovered first (by 227 years) and so became Spanish California’s nerve center, despite its difficult overland links to the north and virtual inaccessibility from the south. Indeed, the 200-mile stretch between Carmel and San Simeon, where the Santa Lucia Mountains plunge almost straight into the Pacific, remained nearly untouched until the opening of Highway 1 in 1937. Monterey was the only legal port of entry for all goods coming into colonial and later, Mexican, California—a lucrative choke point for tax collectors, given that California produced almost nothing beyond food and depended on the Manila galleons and, later, Yankee clippers for just about everything else. The Monterey Custom House remains the oldest government building in the state; in 1932, it was designated California Historic Landmark Number One.
Santa Barbara, with an estimated population of 1,800 in about 1840, was the larger metropolis and California’s cultural capital—New York, as it were, to Monterey’s Washington. In addition, there was a small settlement at the southern end of San Francisco Bay (San Jose) and another, even smaller, 400 miles to the south in the center of a vast alluvial plain, called El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (the Town of Our Lady the Queen of Angels). But the majority of the 10,000 or so Californios—those largely Spanish-speaking, mostly Roman Catholic people born and raised in Alta California from the days of the first Spanish colonies until Mexico ceded the territory in 1848—lived not in the colony’s few towns but in the missions, on the presidios, and at the ranchos.
What we know of these institutions derives overwhelmingly from one source: Richard Henry Dana, Jr.’s memoir, Two Years Before the Mast (1840). A Boston Brahmin educated in part by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dana dropped out of Harvard in 1834 to improve his failing health with a stint at sea. His travels brought him to Mexican California, where he dutifully recorded everything he could about local life. And he appears to have been the only one: the natives—Indian and Spanish alike—were either illiterate or uninterested in the pen. Decades later, Illinois-born Johnston McCulley would bring time and place to life through his Zorro stories, using Dana as his primary source.
The missions were the original razón de ser of Spanish California. The first, San Diego de Alcalá, became (five years after St. Louis) the second European settlement west of the Mississippi. Founded to convert the Indians to Christianity, Alta California’s 21 missions today seem ready-made for inclusion in the academy’s anticolonial, racism-explains-everything narrative. In fact, the friars, aided by their military muscle, did forcibly relocate Indians onto mission grounds, where many wound up mistreated. Inevitability cannot excuse genuine injustice. But the academics’ unspoken premise—that this gorgeous, rich, paradisiacal land would, should, or could have remained backward and vacant forever—is so preposterous that it’s little wonder that they decline to spell it out.
California’s four presidios were built to protect the colony against incursions from the English, the Russians, and any other adventurers who might happen along. The three most important—in San Francisco, San Diego, and Monterey—occupied high ground just above their harbor entrances, cannons poised to rain hot iron down on hostile fleets that never came. In Santa Barbara, which has no natural harbor, the presidio was built slightly inland to protect an isolated stretch of El Camino Real, the road linking the mission chain (today’s U.S. Highway 101).
Those familiar with these areas today—among the most spectacular plots of land in a state overflowing with the spectacular—should resist the temptation to nostalgia. Life on the presidios was hard. Food was rustic and luxuries nonexistent. Boredom was endemic, punctuated by necessary toil and discipline-reinforcing busywork. Things got interesting only when Indians revolted or, more often, tried to run away. It was the soldiers’ job to restore the status quo ante.
The ranchos were the true heart of Californio society. The Spanish initiated the land-grant process—concessions to use, but not own, gigantic tracts throughout California—to encourage civilian, secular settlers at a time when every white man in the territory was a priest or soldier. It “worked” only in the sense that the number who took the crown up on its offer was not quite zero. After independence, the Mexican government offered titles free and clear, which enticed a few more.
To call the ranchos “baronial” would be an understatement. The largest such grants spread well over 100,000 acres; only the greatest royal English duchies compare as contiguous estates. Rancho Los Nietos, for instance, comprised the lands of what would eventually become 16 incorporated cities in modern Los Angeles and Orange Counties. All the storied names that today define haute California—from Pacific Heights to Pebble Beach, from Beverly Hills to La Jolla—once fell within land-grant boundaries. Had the ranchos not been later broken up through a combination of force, fraud, fortune, and foresight, the decedents of those original grantees might today make the dukes of Westminster (a family that owns 300 of the choicest acres in West London) blink with envy. But these were not the manicured metes and bounds of the sceptered isle. California’s ranchos were wild, untamed, almost untouched. Very little land was developed, farmed, or improved in any way. At the center of each property stood a set of simple structures—a hacienda, some outhouses, perhaps stables or a barn, all crudely built of adobe, some little more than lean-tos.
Nonetheless, by and large, life was as easy on the ranchos as it was difficult on the presidios and mission grounds. Hispanicized Indians were happy to leave mission drudgery for the milder toil of waiting on the ranchero elite, which mostly consisted in preparing elaborate daily meals, some of which the servants were even allowed to eat. The whole day—the Californios’ whole lives, one might say—centered on eating. Cattle—first brought to Mexico from Spain, and then driven north with the friars—were so abundant that beef essentially cost nothing. Spices had to be imported (at great expense), but everything else—tomatoes, beans, corn, peppers, onions, oranges, apples, and pears—was grown locally, in soil that the Californios suspected was superior to any other, foreshadowing California’s emergence as the world’s agricultural powerhouse.
Horses roamed freely and so abundantly that ownership claims were rarely asserted, much less enforced. A traveler simply grabbed the rope helpfully left around a horse’s neck by its last rider and went on his way, leaving the animal at his destination for the next ranchero who happened along. Visits were frequent and long: everyone was related by blood or marriage; besides, there was nothing else to do.
It couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Mexican California was almost completely bereft of civic institutions: there were, at most, “two or three schools,” historian Kevin Starr reports, and only one printing press. Food was plentiful, but the economy otherwise barely rose above subsistence. Cowhides and tallow, which Dana’s merchant brig collected for shipment to Boston, were the only exports. The presidios were weakly defended. When finally put to the test, they fell with scarcely a shot.
By mid-century, the missions were dying or dead. The young Mexican republic wished to purge itself of all remnants of Spanish royalism and so secularized the entire chain, with the vague intent of dividing its holdings between resident Indians and future colonists. But few Indians wanted to stay, and even fewer Mexicans wanted to come. “No man came thence except under compulsion, or for wages,” wrote George Lockhart Rives in his comprehensive history of early U.S.-Mexican relations. Military wives whose husbands were posted to California demanded—and received—hardship pay. Most of the rest of the secular population were discipline-case soldiers to whom California was a place of exile.
In 1834, Governor José Figueroa proposed a generous plan to revert all mission land to the Indians, but—like Lincoln on the eve of Reconstruction—he died before it could be carried out. Most of the properties were either sold or seized. The structures fell into decay, pillaged by the locals for raw materials à la the Roman Coliseum, until Yankee-transplant preservationists took up the cause of restoration in the late nineteenth century.
California in 1840 was a colony ripe for the taking. And it was soon taken.
As historian Robert Kagan demonstrates in Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, westward covetousness formed part of the American character almost from the first English settlement. Yet few Americans dreamed of incorporating California. Most Americans viewed it as the Spanish had: too far, too remote, and too empty to be of any use. Then, by coincidence or fate, Dana’s memoir appeared at the precise moment when America’s appetite for expansion reached a climax. Though the phrase “Manifest Destiny” would not appear in print for another five years, the underlying sentiment was fully formed. Dana called San Francisco Bay the finest spot for human habitation on the planet and predicted that it would inevitably become the site of one of the world’s greatest cities, commercial centers, and strategic hubs—whether under the American flag or some other. Two years later, in 1842, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico described the whole region as “the richest, the most beautiful and the healthiest country in the world . . . with the acquisition of Upper California we should have the same ascendency on the Pacific” that America then enjoyed on the Atlantic.
The British were interested, too. Her Majesty’s First Lord of the Admiralty described San Francisco Bay as “not only the finest harbour, but the most easily defended, really unattackable from the land side, and therefore as good as an island, while toward the sea it has facilities of defence which are hardly to be found anywhere,” concluding that the bay is “the Key of North-West America.” English officials approached Mexico with a number of schemes, from helping the country restructure its debt in return for land to purchasing California outright. That negotiations went nowhere didn’t matter. The mere chance that others might claim the prize inspired Americans to realize how badly they wanted California and how far they were willing to go to get it.
In the fall of 1842, Commodore Thomas Catesby Jones, a hero of the War of 1812, commanded the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron—one frigate, two sloops, and no home port. The American consul in Mazatlán sent Jones an urgent message that the United States had gone to war with Mexico—and that the British and possibly the French were coming to take California. Invoking the Monroe Doctrine but otherwise without orders, Jones sailed into Monterey harbor, seized the town, and raised the American flag over the custom house. There was no war, which the commodore eventually accepted after occupying the city for three days. That little adventure should have alerted Mexico to the danger from the east, but it didn’t.
And Washington knew it. In 1845, as war loomed with Mexico over Texas, the secretary of the navy wrote to Commodore John D. Sloat, who had replaced Jones:
The Mexican ports on the Pacific are said to be open and defenceless. If you ascertain that Mexico has declared war against the United States, you will at once possess yourself of the port of San Francisco, and blockade or occupy such other ports as your force may permit. Yet . . . you will be careful to preserve, if possible, the most friendly relations with the inhabitants; and, where you can do so, you will encourage them to adopt a course of neutrality.
President James K. Polk’s administration hoped that the Californios would regard war with the United States as Mexico’s problem, not theirs, perhaps declare independence, and even—the best-case scenario—seek to join the American Union. Relations between Monterey and Mexico City were distant, in every sense. To protect Yankee trading interests, Washington found it useful to have its own man on the spot: U.S. Consul Thomas Oliver Larkin, the only American official in all of California. Like Dana, Larkin was a Massachusetts native; his grandfather lent Paul Revere the horse for his Midnight Ride. Unlike Dana, Larkin never went back. He learned Spanish, set himself up as a carpenter, grocer, merchant, trader, and moneylender, while remaining both a Protestant and a U.S. citizen. As Californio discontent with Mexico grew, the State Department gave Larkin secret instructions to encourage California to secede peacefully and join the United States. In any event, the U.S. government was prepared to act should “Great Britain or any other European power” try to take California. Commodore Robert F. Stockton rounded Cape Horn with another squadron and orders to prowl the Pacific as a bulwark against possible Royal Navy incursion.
Balancing this overt aggression with covert solicitation proved difficult, especially for John C. Frémont. He has been called, with reason, “our Bonaparte.” Vain, imperious, talented, daring, unscrupulous, and impatient, Frémont was in 1846 a mere captain in the U.S. Army—and not in a frontline unit but in the Corps of Topographical Engineers. Yet his stature transcended the paper limits of his commission.
Despite his illegitimacy, Frémont managed to marry into the highest circles. His wife, Jessie, was the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton, for 30 years Washington’s most dogged proponent of westward expansion, “Mr. Manifest Destiny.” The senator at first disapproved of the marriage—contracted when Jessie was only 16—but came around when his new son-in-law turned out to be adept at promoting the old man’s favorite cause. Benton used his influence to have young Frémont appointed commander of three explorations of newly acquired U.S. territory. During the second expedition, Frémont made a detour to map a route over the Sierras into the Sacramento Valley. His published report of that trip—written up in style by his wife—vaulted him to national fame, prompted comparisons with Lewis and Clark, and earned him the sobriquet “Pathfinder.”
That report also inspired hundreds of Americans and others to make the long, dangerous trek to California. Some were drunks, horse thieves, or gunfighters, repelled by law and order and attracted to the world’s wilder locales. But most were legitimate pioneers seeking to put down lasting roots. The majority arrived without incident, their names soon to be forgotten. Others, such as the Donner Party, were less fortunate but more famous.
A few settlements—for instance, John Augustus Sutter’s fort near the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers—enjoyed official sanction from the Mexican authorities. Sutter, born in Germany and raised in Switzerland, claimed to have been a “captain of artillery in the Royal Swiss Guards in service to the French king” and styled himself “Captain” after he came to California. But later research showed that his claimed regiment never existed. Nor does any trace of him show up in any extant Swiss military records. Given that he had fled Europe to escape paying debts, it’s likely that he just made his title up. Sutter, at any rate, was welcome, but Mexican policy allowed almost no others. They came anyway, in ignorance or defiance of the law, which was not enforced, and Californios chose to see the bright side. Why not welcome the settlers? No one else wanted to come. If these assorted Americans, Irish, Swiss, and sundry castoffs could get some productive farms and ranches going, it would be good for the economy. Few, apparently, paused to reflect that Mexico had lost Texas for much the same reason, with one important difference: the Anglo settlers in Texas had been invited.
Before Frémont’s third expedition, as war loomed between the United States and Mexico over Texas, his father-in-law managed to secure the young officer an audience with President Polk. No written record exists of what the men discussed, a fact that Frémont would later use to his advantage. The ostensible purpose of Frémont’s excursion was to find the source of the Arkansas River. Leading only 60 men—and guided by legendary superscout Kit Carson, whom the Frémonts’ reports made a national icon—Frémont quickly found the source of the river. But rather than turn back, he crossed the Sierras again, stopping at Sutter’s Fort to fan rumors—already circulating—that the Californios were organizing to seize gringo land. Frémont promised the settlers that, should it come to blows, he and his men would defend them.
Leaving his men at Sutter’s Fort, Frémont proceeded to Monterey, where he met Larkin, through whose good graces he received permission from General José Castro to rest and resupply before continuing what he now claimed was his mission to survey “the nearest route from the United States to the Pacific Ocean.” This, Frémont indicated, he expected to find well to the north, in disputed territory that the British knew as Columbia and the Americans called Oregon. Instead, he led his company south and west, to the coast at Santa Cruz, and then down past Monterey into the Salinas Valley. An explanation was demanded, and Frémont replied that he was scouting a seaside retirement home for his mother. Not amused, the comandante ordered the Americans to leave California.
Frémont’s response set in motion a chain of events that he would spend the rest of his life trying, with some success, to misrepresent, obfuscate, glamorize, and spin.
In defiance of Castro’s order, the Pathfinder led his troops up Gavilán (later renamed Frémont) Peak, threw up some barricades, and raised the American flag. In a letter to his wife, Frémont justified this action as the natural response to outrageous Mexican inhospitality. Larkin wrote Frémont a scolding letter, outlining the ways that the captain’s behavior hurt U.S. interests and endangered Americans living in California. He also warned that Castro was gathering troops for an attack. Rather than wait for that assault, Frémont decamped and began a slow march north. On his way, wherever he encountered American settlers, he stirred fear of Mexican aggression.
On May 9, 1846, on the southern shore of Klamath Lake, Frémont and his party were met by Marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, dispatched from Washington the previous November with detailed instructions for Larkin and Commodore Sloat, as well as a packet of private letters for Frémont. The Frémont-Gillespie meeting, now almost completely forgotten, was once a hallowed event in the annals of the American West, on par with Stanley and Livingstone in the mythology of the British Empire. Gillespie delivered letters from Frémont’s wife and father-in-law but nothing from the Polk administration. Later, Frémont would insinuate that Gillespie verbally communicated to him orders from Washington to seize California by force. While only the participants knew for certain what was said, it is certain that Gillespie delivered to Frémont no written orders. Frémont later claimed that the letters from Senator Benton contained instructions, written in a “family cipher,” to seize California. Implausibility aside, even if the claim is true, the senator—an officer of the legislative, not the executive, branch—was in no position to give such directives. Decades later, the investigations of Josiah Royce proved, as near as anything can be proved, that Frémont acted alone in what followed.
At their parting, Frémont told Gillespie that, with his mission accomplished, he intended to go home. But it’s also clear from his letters that he was nursing a wound from his retreat down Gavilán Peak and wanted a rematch with the Mexicans. So he broke camp and began marching through California in plain sight, hoping to provoke Castro or any other Mexican into starting a fight.
While resupplying at Sutter’s Fort, Frémont received a frantic visit from William Knight, an American squatter-rancher, who insisted that a party of eight Mexicans was leading 170 horses south to join General Castro, busy readying a punitive expedition against American settlers. How did Knight know? The Mexican wranglers had told him when they stopped to water their horses at his ranch. Apparently, no one thought to ask: If the Mexicans were coming to get squatters like Knight, why hadn’t they gotten him? Instead, several of Frémont’s men took it upon themselves to intercept the convoy and steal the horses—with Frémont’s full knowledge. If he didn’t directly order them to do it, he didn’t try to dissuade or stop them, either. And, the deed once done, Frémont kept the horses.
In truth, neither General Castro nor any other Mexican official in California intended to act against American settlers, even if they had sufficient forces to do so, which they didn’t. Castro wanted the horses not to fight Americans but to settle a score with Governor Pío Pico, his rival for control of California. But a hostile act having at last been committed—though all eight Mexican wranglers were let go unharmed—the horse thieves calculated that, having begun the affair, they had no choice but to see it through.
The horses had come from Sonoma, the northernmost town in California and the only Mexican settlement of any consequence in the interior. If swift retaliation were to come, Sonoma would likely be its source. Thirty-three men rode north, arriving before dawn on Sunday, June 14, where they found the town wholly unguarded and Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo—the highest-ranking official—sound asleep. Vallejo was duly awakened and, in the recollection of William Baldridge, one of the Americans present, he “went out and asked what we wanted, to which no one answered, for the very good reason, I believe, that none of us knew what reply to give.”
Vallejo offered them the fruits of his cellar and began to draw up the articles of his own surrender on terms highly favorable to himself. William Ide, by virtue of being the least drunk among the Americans present, saw through the ploy and declared that Vallejo and his retainers were to be delivered to Frémont as prisoners. A few were clear-minded enough to ask on what authority any of them had to take anyone prisoner—another unanswerable question. “As the deed had been done,” Baldridge later explained, “I preferred the risk of being killed in battle to that of being sent to Mexico in irons.” Ironically, perhaps, no Californio viewed the American cause more favorably than Vallejo. Throughout his career, he had sought good relations with the United States and even entertained the idea of formal union. In 1836—the same year that Texas broke away from Mexico—Vallejo joined in a rebellion that declared “the Free State of Alta California” under its own California Lone Star Flag (mimicking the one in San Antonio). It didn’t last, but Vallejo’s pro-Yankee sentiments did—and they would prove robust enough to survive his arrest and imprisonment.
As word got out, the party in Sonoma swelled to some 60 men. Most treated the affair as a hoedown. Others, realizing the enormity of what had been done, began to fear for their safety. Ide distilled the situation: “We are robbers, or we must be conquerors.” And so conquerors they became. Several of the men set to work on a hand-painted flag declaring the “California Republic,” with a single star in the upper left, harking back to Vallejo’s Lone Star Flag of 1836, and a grizzly in the middle signifying “strength and unyielding resistance.” (Those words, along with the flag’s design, came courtesy of William L. Todd, a nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln.) The ensign was duly raised over the Sonoma garrison—a building that, along with Vallejo’s house and several others from the period, still stands at the northeast corner of Sonoma Plaza. Ide retreated into Vallejo’s house, where he spent several feverish days writing a kind of hybrid proclamation-constitution, part Declaration of Independence, part Plato’s Republic.
The “Bear Flag Republic” lasted 25 days. Frémont quickly joined the party in Sonoma, defeated a small Mexican counterattack, and then crossed the Golden Gate, where he and his men spiked the ancient and ineffectual guns on the San Francisco Presidio. Commodore Sloat, who had been idling with his squadron in Mazatlán, got wind that hostilities had commenced along the Rio Grande and so—remembering his orders—sailed for Monterey, where he took the town without firing a shot and raised the American flag over the custom house. Two days later, Commander John B. Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth, anchored in San Francisco Bay, seized that town, also without firing a shot. Montgomery then dispatched Lieutenant Joseph W. Revere—a grandson of Paul Revere and later a general in the Union Army during the Civil War—to Sonoma, where he hauled down the Bear Flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes on July 9, 1846.
On July 15, Commodore Stockton arrived to relieve the old, tired, and ailing Sloat and put ashore about 400 marines to garrison the northern towns. Then he gave Frémont a battlefield promotion to lieutenant colonel and authorized him to augment his party of 60 men with another 100 or so Bear Flaggers (as the conquerors of Sonoma were called), Indians, and mountain men. These were duly commissioned the California Battalion of Mounted Riflemen—“as colorful as any column of condottieri from the Italian Renaissance,” in historian Starr’s words. By mid-August, this unit had taken San Diego and Los Angeles without firing a shot. Indeed, up to this point, there had been almost no causalities on either side in California. With virtually every Mexican settlement in American hands, the conquerors assumed that their job was done. Kit Carson was dispatched to Washington with the good news.
The fighting might have ended there, except that Gillespie—now a major—was left to govern Los Angeles, a role in which he proved overzealous. A month into his tenure, exasperated Californios revolted, trapped the Americans, accepted their surrender—and then, inexplicably, let them go. An attempt to retake the Pueblo in October failed decisively and cost ten American lives (though the Californios suffered no casualties). But the bloodiest battle was still to come.
On the outbreak of war, Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny had marched his Army of the West from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to Santa Fe and, finding the city undefended, seized it—again, without firing a shot. He then proceeded west, meeting Carson along the way. Unaware of the revolt against Gillespie, Carson told the general that California was firmly in American hands. Kearny promptly sent two-thirds of his men back to Santa Fe and continued with only 100 troopers. The company arrived near San Diego tired, thirsty, dejected, and riding horses near death from the grueling trek through the Sonora Desert. These they replaced with untrained mules purchased from a wily herder.
Gillespie, now leading only 30 lightly armed men, managed to find the general and inform him of an approaching force of 100 lanceros on fresh horses led by Governor Pico. Despite Gillespie’s ouster from Los Angeles, neither he nor any other American officer respected the Californios’ fighting spirit. So Kearny resolved to force a battle—which he promptly lost, as his unruly mules declined to cooperate with his men. The Battle of San Pasqual, on December 6, 1846, is notable for many reasons, not least the casualty count—17 Americans killed and 18 wounded, versus two dead and 12 wounded among the Californios. Though small by any measure—total casualties for the Mexican-American War would number some 30,000—even this low level of bloodshed was shocking to those accustomed to cost-free victories (and defeats) in California.
But Pico’s victory proved Pyrrhic. Kearny linked up with Stockton’s marines, while Frémont and his men approached Los Angeles from the north after taking Santa Barbara—for the last time in the war, without firing a shot. Once combined, this force of some 600 quickly won engagements on two successive days and retook the Pueblo on January 10, 1847. Three days later, the Californios formally surrendered at the Campo de Cahuenga, on the northern slope of the Santa Monica Mountains, in today’s Studio City. For all his bluster and bravado, Frémont offered generous terms. It would be more than a year before the war formally ended, but the fighting in California was over.
It’s one of history’s small ironies that a state that takes its nickname from gold owes so little of its existence as an American polity to that metal. Yet because gold is—throughout all times and places—one of the catalysts of human greed, ambition, and invention, it looms large in California’s image of itself.
The story ought to be familiar. James Marshall was a New Jersey transplant, enthusiastic Bear Flagger, and enlistee in Frémont’s battalion. With hostilities over, he drifted back to Sutter’s Fort in mid-1847 and partnered with its proprietor to build a water-powered sawmill to feed the region’s growing demand for lumber. Marshall selected a site near Coloma, where the south fork of the America River runs especially fast. On January 24, 1848—one year and 11 days after the “Capitulation of Cahuenga”—Marshall spotted something glimmering in the riverbed. Then more. Then still more. They couldn’t be. Or could they? He took a handful of pieces, subjected them to various tests, and concluded that, indeed, they were. Marshall later claimed that he told his workers, “I have found it,” mirroring the ancient neologism that Diogenes Laertius tells us that Archimedes exclaimed as he rose from his bath, finally realizing how to measure the volume of irregular shapes. Both stories may be apocryphal, but in the modern case, the implausibility fits the setting. “Eureka” would appear on California’s first Great Seal and become, in 1963, the state’s official motto: a made-up word for a make-believe land.
Sutter wanted the discovery kept secret. He feared that gold fever would ruin his dreams of an agricultural New Helvetia. (It did.) But Marshall had a big mouth. Sam Brannan’s was even bigger—and he had a newspaper. If anyone exemplified the spirit of early California, it was Brannan. Equal parts entrepreneur, huckster, and visionary, he had a talent for getting in on the ground floor. When he was 23, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, then barely a decade old. He learned the printing trade and published one of the first Mormon newspapers. After LDS founder Joseph Smith was killed by a mob near the town he had established in Illinois, surviving Mormons debated where to go next. Brannan suggested California, and in 1846 he led nearly 250 of them around Cape Horn. When they landed at Yerba Buena (as San Francisco was then known) on July 31, the town’s population instantly tripled. Using the printing press he had hauled with him on the ship, Brannan founded California’s second newspaper, and San Francisco’s first—the California Star—as well as that city’s first school. Then, to earn some extra cash, he set up a general store at Sutter’s Fort, the only such business in California’s northern interior. When customers started paying their bills with gold nuggets, Brannan knew something was up. He rushed back to San Francisco and ran through the streets shouting, “Gold! Gold in the American River!” Brannan bought up every piece of equipment he could find that might be useful to a miner. Pie tins for which he had paid 20 cents he resold as mining pans for $15. Within nine weeks, he had amassed $36,000.
But the Gold Rush didn’t begin in earnest until nearly a year after the initial discovery, when Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, an aide to California’s military governor, sent east a report explaining the situation. On December 5, 1848, President Polk shared the report with Congress, and the rush was on. “First of all and most fundamentally,” writes Starr in his one-volume history of California, “it was exactly what the name implies: a rush, a mass migration, of mainly younger and some of middle age from all corners of the earth, including China and Australia, who ventured everything, their lives included (one in twelve would die in the process) on the gamble that they could strike it rich and thereby break through to a better life.”
And it happened fast—California underwent a “rapid, monstrous maturity,” in the words of Hubert Howe Bancroft, the prolific historian of the Old West. Within a year of Polk’s disclosure, the population of California increased tenfold, to about 100,000. Within three years, that figure was a quarter of a million—nearly all of them crammed into the 120-mile stretch of the Sierra Foothills that became known as the Mother Lode, in San Francisco, or in the brand-new paddle-wheeler port of Sacramento, established by Brannan and John Sutter, Jr., because of its desirable location: halfway between the goldfields and the Golden Gate, at the junction of the American and Sacramento Rivers, downstream from the mountains, with easy water access to San Francisco Bay.
There were, for all intents and purposes, only three industries in California at the time: mining; selling goods to miners; and buying, processing, and transporting their gold. During the 1850s, about $600 million ($15 billion today) was dug out of the soil. Yet the real wealth was made in the other two categories. Brannan, for instance, became California’s first millionaire. And the most famous Gold Rush tycoon was not a miner at all but a German-Jewish immigrant sent by his older brothers to San Francisco to open a branch of their dry-goods business. The riveted denim for which Levi Strauss would become world famous was not invented until 1873. But by then, his company was already well established as the most successful in California.
Wells Fargo was the other household name to emerge from the Gold Rush. In 1852, two years before moving to San Francisco, Henry Wells and William G. Fargo had founded American Express in Buffalo, New York. Both firms’ primary business in those early days was overland shipping, by horse and stagecoach. Since the chief cargo being transported west to east was gold, banking was an obvious complementary line of business for the new California firm. Competition was fierce. No licenses were required: anyone who wanted to start a bank could and, seemingly, did. San Francisco sprouted banks and assay houses—businesses that evaluated, bought, melted, sold, and traded gold—as numerous as California poppies. Wells Fargo, today the world’s largest bank by market capitalization, is the only one to survive to our time.
The Gold Rush later acquired a romantic image—a great adventure populated by fun-loving miners, perhaps a little worse for drink, reveling in rusticity and the outdoors, manly men enjoying being men. But the reality was brutal for most. Just getting to California was dangerous, with each route posing its own particular risk: shipwreck and drowning in the turbulent waters of Cape Horn; tropical disease or alligator attack in the Isthmus of Panama; venomous Gila monsters or heat stroke in the Sonora Desert; famine and frost in the Sierras; and the possibility of Indian ambush virtually everywhere. In the luckiest of circumstances, the trip would take half a year from the East Coast—nine months was typical—and far longer from Australia, China, and Europe, where perhaps a tenth of the miners originated.
By journey’s end, the danger was only beginning. The California goldfields were unusually violent and anarchic, even by the standards of the time. The annual homicide rate of 500 per 100,000 exceeded today’s by more than a hundredfold. Lynch law was the rule; statutory law, to the extent that it existed, went unobserved. The written record alone tallies some 200 lynchings in the Mother Lode between 1849 and 1853, and that’s a conservative estimate. The ones we know about at least had a semblance of order, replete with hearings and evidence. The great haste with which “justice” was done—typically little more than a day elapsed between arrest and execution—was appreciated as efficient.
The cities were worse. Herbert Asbury, once America’s foremost chronicler of the urban underworld, wrote a vivid history of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast”—the nasty old waterfront, long since pressed inland by landfill and made over as the Financial District, the “Wall Street of the West.” Some of Asbury’s more fantastical stories have since been called into question. Yet the basic outline of his account was certainly true:
The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where bleary-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.
Fittingly, Australians—whose national character, back then, was much closer to their penal-colony roots than to today’s smiling, laid-back sun worshipers—first settled the area. In the first, tender years of the Gold Rush, the notorious “Sydney Ducks”—California’s first street gang—ruled the Barbary Coast with iron fists (and guns and knives). The district filled quickly with miners. The successful ones had ample money to lavish on prostitutes, liquor, opium, and games of chance. Formally, there was law—the San Francisco Police Department was organized on August 13, 1849—but in practice, the police were often worse than the men they collared: “ex-bandits . . . quite as much to be feared as the robbers,” French traveler Albert Bernard de Russailh characterized them in his 1851 journal. Russailh concluded his lament with a cry of desperation: “The state is in a hopeless chaos, and many years must pass before order can be established.”
San Francisco responded with the so-called Vigilance Committees, from which we get our word “vigilante.” For all the angst that these self-appointed enforcers have caused historians in the subsequent century and a half, they were quite popular at the time. In fact, the committees appear to have executed a grand total of eight men, all of whom, one could make a plausible case, had it coming. Still, justice demands more. Procedure matters—as William T. Sherman pointed out when he resigned in protest as major general of the California militia: “[The vigilantes’] success has given great stimulus to a dangerous principle, that would at any time justify the mob in seizing all the power of government; and who is to say that the Vigilance Committee may not be composed of the worst, instead of the best, elements of a community?”
The Southland’s solution was to split the difference. Facing a stratospheric homicide rate of 1,240 per 100,000 in 1851—the highest ever recorded in an American territory—authorities organized the Los Angeles Rangers, a band of toughs more violent than the Vigilance Committees but with official imprimatur. Within a year, they got the area under control by rounding up the usual suspects and executing or exiling them. Longtime California observers will recognize certain continuities. San Francisco is and always has been more relaxed in matters of law and order; by contrast, the LAPD built a reputation as the nation’s toughest and most tenacious police force for a reason.
Along with its Greek motto, the California state seal depicts the goddess Athena, who sprang fully grown from the mind of her father, Zeus. This bit of self-congratulation commemorates the dispatch with which California was admitted to the Union as the 31st state, only the fifth since the original 13 not to have endured a territorial purgatory.
Not that the Polk administration hadn’t tried to impose one. The president repeatedly pleaded with Congress to authorize a territorial government for California, but Congress, deadlocked by the slavery controversy, would not act. On the outbreak of war in 1846, Pennsylvania congressman David Wilmot introduced his famous Proviso to prohibit slavery in any lands won from Mexico. It passed the House handily more than once but never escaped the Senate. Northern legislators would not accept a new territory that allowed slavery, and Southerners refused to admit one that didn’t.
And so California remained in a kind of limbo, ruled for the first three years after its seizure by a succession of military governors. Not just Sherman but several officers who later served with distinction in the Civil War—including Ulysses S. Grant, Henry W. Halleck, and Albert S. Johnston—helped administer California during this period. They performed well, though none—except Frémont, who envisioned a political career—wanted the job or had any training for it.
But California’s swelling Anglo population resented military rule, however competent, as un-American and an affront to human dignity. Tired of waiting for Washington and citing the U.S. Constitution’s “guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government,” they took matters into their own hands. The people of San Francisco, San Jose, and most of the larger towns organized legislative bodies and began drafting laws in disregard, if not outright defiance, of the army and the federal government, to which the newcomers showed no ostentatious loyalty. American state or an independent republic: either outcome would be fine with them. Brigadier General Bennett Riley—the seventh and last military governor—faced an unpleasant choice. Intervening to stop this extralegal activity risked provoking a revolt that the overstretched army might not be able to put down. Doing nothing might reinforce secessionist sentiment then brewing in the American South and, at worst, lose the United States its greatest prize from the recent war.
Riley chose a third way. Without consulting or even informing Washington, on July 3, 1849, he issued a proclamation calling for a constitutional convention that September. Statehood was the goal. Forty-eight delegates assembled at Colton Hall in Monterey—all men, modern historians point out, and only eight of them Hispanic, including Mariano Vallejo, as if these facts invalidate the exercise. But the framers of California’s first constitution deserve more credit than they typically get. Proceedings at the convention were conducted in English and Spanish, and two of the convention’s three chaplains were Catholic. The new constitution would declare Spanish one of the state’s two official languages and granted women, regardless of marital status, the right to own property in their own names. California’s new majority, outnumbering the Californios at least ten to one, could easily have ignored or even despoiled the natives.
It was a young group, too: the oldest delegate was only 53, and nine were under 30. The bulk of their work was to design the machinery of government. In this, the delegates had little outside help—Monterey had no library, few books, and hardly any printed materials. Mississippi-born William Gwin, a former congressman who relocated to California only that year, brought copies of the Iowa and New York state constitutions, Iowa’s having been chosen because it was the Union’s shortest—an irony, given the Proustian length of California’s endlessly amended constitution today.
Designing the new state government was the easy part. Dealing with slavery proved far more difficult. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 explicitly prohibited slavery in all the Louisiana Purchase territory north of Missouri’s southern border. That line (at latitude 36°30') bisected California almost perfectly. Fifteen of the delegates at Colton Hall—including the convention’s president, Tennessee-born Robert Semple, a veteran of the Bear Flag revolt—originally hailed from slave states. They argued that the line—by the spirit, if not the letter, of the Compromise—extended all the way to the Pacific. California must therefore allow slavery throughout or be divided in two, with slavery legal in the southern half. But California had been governed, however imperfectly, as a single entity for nearly 100 years. Isolated from the world by mountain, desert, sea, and distance, Californians—Hispanic and Anglo, north and south—had more in common with one another than with anyone to the east.
Yet in standing up for unity, the delegates were taking a chance that Congress would say no. The population of the American South had not kept pace with the booming North. Even buoyed by the Constitution’s notorious Three-Fifths Compromise, Southerners were easily outnumbered in the House of Representatives. Their only hope for political parity lay in the Senate, which a de facto national policy had kept evenly balanced between the two sectional interests by always admitting states in pairs: one slave, one free. In 1849, the tally stood at 15 each. A unified California would upset that arrangement no matter which path it chose. In the end, the pro-slavery forces were outnumbered and out-argued, defeated by genuine antislavery sentiment and fear of cheap competition—the same combustible combination that, in more evenly distributed numbers, would make Kansas bleed just five years later. As a fig leaf, the Southern faction inserted language suggesting that, after due consideration, all had agreed that California’s climate and soil were unsuited for the “peculiar institution.”
The convention finished its work on October 12, less than six weeks after it had begun. A party of men led by Gwin took the news and the document to Washington, which they quickly plunged into turmoil. The ensuing debate ranks among the most momentous in American history, the stakes nothing less than the survival of the Union itself. It was also the last clash of the “Great Triumvirate”—John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster—all of whom would be dead within two years. As ever, nobody got everything he wanted. But on September 9, 1850, as the third of five provisions of the Compromise of 1850, California gained admission to the Union as a free state.
In January 1847, John C. Frémont had persuaded a tired and uninterested Commodore Stockton to give him the job of military governor after the Capitulation of Cahuenga. But General Kearny pulled rank and settled the title on himself, not without a lengthy argument that left bruised feelings on both sides. Ordered to return east, Frémont was arrested at Fort Leavenworth, court-martialed, and convicted of mutiny, disobedience, and misconduct. A grateful (or perhaps relieved) President Polk reduced and commuted his sentence. Frémont angrily resigned his commission in the army and returned to California, where, with Larkin’s help, he struck gold and became rich. Along with William Gwin, Frémont became one of California’s first two U.S. senators, beginning a decade-long tradition in which the state always sent to Washington one pro- and one antislavery senator.
In 1856, Frémont became the first presidential nominee of the two-year-old Republican Party, but lost to James Buchanan. President Lincoln reinstated him in the army in 1861, with a promotion to major general, and then fired him for insubordination. Frémont later saw brief action against Stonewall Jackson in Virginia but otherwise sat out the war in New York. He lost all his money in a railroad venture and lived the rest of his life in near-poverty. He died in New York City in 1890.
Mariano Vallejo died that same year in a small house in Sonoma, a few blocks from the official residence where he had been rousted from slumber in June 1846. He had served—among other distinctions—as one of California’s first state senators. An early capital of the state (there were four in all) on the San Pablo Bay was named in his honor. Legal challenges and lawyers’ bills chipped away at his extensive landholdings, and he died in modest circumstances.
Unlike Vallejo, José Castro declined an offer of American citizenship. He returned to Mexico, where he was named governor of Baja California. He was killed by bandits in 1860.
John Augustus Sutter’s lands were overrun and trashed by gold seekers; his beloved agricultural colony never recovered. Sutter spent most of his remaining years in court and lobbying Congress to honor his Mexican land grant. The issue remained unsettled when he died in Washington in 1880.
Thomas O. Larkin profited greatly from the confusion endemic to Spanish and Mexican grants, acquiring lands in every corner of the state. By his death in 1858, he was considered the richest man in America. He added to his political and business achievements two architectural distinctions: in 1850, he erected the first brick building in San Francisco; and the balconied home he designed for himself at 464 Calle Principal in Monterey—the first two-story house in California—originated the Monterey Colonial style.
The state of California . . . endures.
Top Photo: California’s “Bonaparte,” explorer John C. Frémont (NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION / ART RESOURCE, NY)