The Gold Rush and California Statehood
From the discovery of gold in January, 1848, until California was admitted to the Union in September, 1850, a political and economic revolution occurred which produced the population and business base essential for statehood. The degree of change in California changed every phase of life in the sleepy settlement.,San Francisco, for example, grew from a small village of about 800 to a city of 100,000. This rapid rush of settlers brought the institutions necessary for an American-California. Yet, during the gold rush the economic-political revolution was confined primarily to Northern California and the mining regions of the Sierra Nevada. Southern California remained a relatively undeveloped area with a predominant Spanish-speaking population, and this intensified the north-south political rivalry which had carried over from the days of Mexican- California. Since gold was discovered only nine days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it was only natural that many discharged veterans from the Mexican War wandered into California. This helped to create a macho frontier society and a local spirit which challenged governmental rules and institutions. Consequently, a turbulent political and economic atmosphere developed in California
The Gold Rush and the Revolution in California's Economy
It is ironic that Spain and Mexico settled California largely as a result of a thirst for precious metals. The lure of gold and silver had brought the combined resources of Spanish and Mexican military-governmental power into Alta California. Spain had failed to discover gold largely due to the absence of exploration parties searching California's interior. The Franciscan missionaries also added to this failure by concentrating upon Christianizing the Indians. Mexico failed to find gold because they had a number of internal governmental problems which prevented exploration for gold. But there were stories of gold discoveries and a minor Mexican gold rush occurred in the early 1840s.
Francisco Lopez and the Mexican Gold Rush
There were signs of gold in California during the Mexican era. In 1842 Francisco L6pez, a rancher, discovered a small gold deposit in the San Feliciano Canyon in the mountains behind the San Fernando mission. While pulling up some wild onions one day, L6pez noticed gold particles on the roots. Suddenly a minor gold boom began in the area near present day Newhall. For almost two years forty to sixty miners were employed to extract gold. A portion of this gold was sold to the United States mint in Philadelphia, but the sales failed to spark any official interest in California. There were also occasional reports of gold being discovered by Indians or Franciscan missionaries, and the Mexican government displayed some interest in the economic potential in California. A local Los Angeles businessman, Antonio Coronel, invested in mining parties searching for gold and silver deposits. This entrepreneurial impulse is in marked contrast to the myth that business values did not predominate in Mexican California. On the contrary, Coronel was an active businessman investing in mining ventures that he believed would bring a substantial return. But the Newhall gold find was an insignificant one and it drew little serious attention. It was important, however, in suggesting the skill of Mexican miners and the business acumen of California entrepreneurs.
The Early Gold Rush: The Role of John Sutter
Johann August Sutter had developed an eleven square league ranch known as New Helvetia from two Mexican land grants. Commonly known as Sutter's Fort in present day Sacramento, the settlement was a gathering place for foreign intriguers. Initially, Sutter had hoped to develop a lumber business. He imported a large number of workers and soon mills and shops surrounded Sutter's Fort. One of the characteristics of Sutter's Fort was a multi-ethnic population which included Mexicans, Indians, Hawaiians, Germans and French workers. It also attracted American explorers with schemes for quick wealth. As a result, the reputation surrounding Sutter's Fort was questionable among local Californians. This is an important point, because most people did not believe that gold discovery would be a significant catalyst to the economy.
In January, 1848, James W. Marshall, a thirty-five-year old construction foreman, was dispatched to Coloma Indian land on the American River to construct a sawmill. During the final stages of construction it was discovered that the portion of the creek which turned the main waterwheel was too shallow. After some digging and blasting, particles of gold began to appear at the bottom of the creekbed. On January 28, 1848, Marshall entered Sutter's Sacramento office and quietly showed him some gold nuggets the size of a dime. Every known test was applied to the gold to determine its content, and they were soon convinced it was gold. It was no longer possible to obtain a Mexican land grant so Sutter negotiated an agreement with the Coloma Indians to lease a twelve-mile-square track of land for three years. For $150 worth of hats, shirts, flour and other miscellaneous goods Sutter was granted the right to mine the Indian lands. It is interesting that while Sutter bragged to everyone about the gold discovery, he would then ask them to keep the gold discovery a secret. This peculiar brand of behavior did little to authenticate the gold rush. Also, Sutter's reputation as a liar caused many to discount the stories of mineral wealth.
To Sutter the discovery of gold offered the possibility of immense wealth. He had constructed New Helvetia along the lines of a medieval feudal society with himself as the local baron. It was an entirely self-sufficient settlement which included a fort, farm, trading post, and a livestock ranch replete with cattle, horses, sheep and hogs. Only the difficulty in obtaining labor prevented Sutter from setting up an independent republic in the Sacramento Valley. The grandiose nature of Sutter's thinking was shown when he dispatched one of his employees to request that the American military governor, Colonel Richard B. Mason, grant Sutter the right to all California gold deposits. Sutter supported his request by sending six ounces of gold samples to the military government. Colonel Mason refused Sutter's request, but he began to speculate upon the wealth possible in the new gold discovery. It appears that Sutter's gold find was taken seriously by American military officials, and they began to express enthusiasm to military and government officials. During 1848 President James Knox Polk began to quietly promote migration to California. This was a prelude to Polk's exhortation to search out any economic and settlement potential in California and to reap the profits of the gold fields.
Although the news of a gold discovery at Sutter's saw mill circulated throughout California, few local citizens were excited about the possibility of immediate wealth. Rumors of gold had been frequent in Spanish and Mexican California, and the general feeling was that it was just a good story. In fact, it was not until March 15, 1848, that the San Francisco weekly newspaper, the Californian, mentioned the gold discovery. In a small story on the last page the gold discovery was noted, but the lack of conviction in the story made it appear to be an unimportant event. Ten days later, another San Francisco based weekly, the California Star, printed a short notice which further contributed to the general skepticism surrounding Sutter's gold find. The difficulty in convincing Californians about the gold find was a blessing in disguise. The first gold rush was a small, localized phenomena which built permanent mining towns and established the institutions necessary for the frenetic 1849 gold rush.
The Season of '48--A Quiet Revolution in the Sierra
On May 12, 1848, a mild form of gold fever struck Californians when Sam Brannan, a Mormon merchant, arrived in San Francisco with gold samples. Brannan, a mercantile store owner in Sacramento, stood to profit from a rush to the gold fields. He told a story of possible wealth for anyone who was able to scoop gold from the ground. Brannan's tales of simple diggings were not necessarily false ones. However, he had no idea of the magnitude of the gold discovery. Brannan's only interest was to create a business impulse in the Sierra. Soon San Francisco emptied as gold fever hit California.
Brannan's tale of gold exerted a hypnotic hold on San Francisco. Merchants closed their shops, skilled and unskilled working men left their jobs, and most itinerant travelers headed for the Sierra Nevada foothills. Brannan's general store at Sutter's Fort was well stocked to meet the gold rush. Prior to lobbying in San Francisco, Brannan had purchased every piece of equipment and type of supply necessary for miners. This created a price revolution as shovels jumped from $1 to $ 10, and the cost of most other goods reached epidemic proportions.
The gold craze spread to every corner of California and even the most skeptical acknowledged the importance of the gold nuggets coming out of the motherlode country. Almost every town in California lost young men to the gold fields. The frenzy for gold became so prevalent that the San J6se jailer transported ten Indian convicts to the gold fields to work his claim. The Military Governor reported it was impossible to keep his troops from deserting. At one point only the Military Governor and his cook remained to provide protection for Californians. In July, 1848, Governor Mason toured the gold fields to see firsthand the mystic hold that the gold rush had upon Californians. He came away convinced that California's population and wealth would soon be sufficient enough to make it a state. As a result, Colonel Mason began to encourage local citizens to press for immediate statehood.
The season of '48 was a crude gold rush. Most of the miners worked surface diggings. Much of the early gold rush centered around surface diggings and shallow streams, and operated at a low technological level. The gold was gathered in a pan full of sand and gravel and washed out with water leaving the heavier gold in the bottom of the pan. This crude method was soon replaced by the cradle. Isaac Humphrey, an experienced Georgia miner, introduced the cradle. This device was a simple oblong box mounted on a set of rockers with a mesh wire bottom. Water was run through the dirt and sand while the device was rocked and the process left only gold flakes at the bottom of the wire meshed rocker. It was a simple technique and indicated the low level of mining technology in the California gold fields.
Many times miners were forced to create technological innovations. Problems with water demanded that dams be constructed, and this brought the earliest scientific impulse to gold country. Soon canals and ditches were built to bring water to the most obscure mining claims. In the early 1850s river mining required extensive planning and a heavy financial outlay before a substantial monetary return was realized.
The major change in California mining occurred in the early 1850s when hydraulic mining was introduced in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This process involved bringing a stream of heavy water pressure down upon a hillside to wash away the dirt. While an ecologically disastrous method, hydraulic mining introduced the elements of big business to the California gold fields. One mining company spent more than a half million dollars to develop hydraulic mining and soon ditches as long as fifty miles could be seen in Northern California. The importance of hydraulic mining is that it was a large scale industrial development which brought big business into California. It changed the nature of the mining economy by transforming a treasure hunt atmosphere into one resembling a modern capitalistic venture. However, prior to the "scientific revolution" in the mines, California experienced difficulties due to the lack of established law and order.
One of the earliest problems concerned the regulation of mining claims. Mining communities were often founded before established legal institutions began to function. A hurried form of mining camp law developed to fill this legal void. It ignored the rights of Indians and most foreign mining claims during the gold rush. But it was also difficult to decide which mining claims were legal, because there was no Federal mining law in the California military district. In the transition from Mexican to American-California there seemed to be little legal protection or precedent for mining claims. Consequently, the mining camps developed their own laws. Ad hoc organizations of miners formed instant courts to judge the validity of a claim. Each mining community organized a mining district and elected representatives to draw up a set of laws. Institutional growth was rapid as more than 500 mining camps established the first viable political and legal foundations in California. They were important in that they reflected the tendency for American frontiersmen to engage in a highly formalized, almost legalistic, type of local self-government. Moreover, early American miners repeatedly mentioned the past tradition of frontier self-government dating back to the Mayflower Compact. This indicates a degree of historical awareness which helped to establish American hegemony. Soon energetic Americans set up a type of local mining law which defined the size of each land claim and imposed rules for working it. The mentality of early American miners was one influenced by the Protestant work ethnic. If you didn't work a mine or a piece of land someone else could pre-empt it under mining camp law. In California land title was more a permit to use the land than outright ownership.
A boom town atmosphere permeated California's mining camps. Towns sprang up within weeks in the foothills of the Sierra. The prospect of quick wealth was the element which created the psychological drive necessary for gold miners to continue the search for precious metals. California miners generally failed to recognize the uncertainty of gold veins and the hard work required for quick wealth. Many newcomers realized that business was the quickest means to a respectable income. Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Mark Hopkins were merchants during the gold rush days, and they used their business skills to form the Central Pacific railroad. By providing the miners with tools, food, and clothing many of California's subsequent economic and political leaders began their careers.
The economic advantages of California's gold rush made San Francisco the fourth most productive port in the United States. More than $322 million was produced during the gold rush, and the economic base was laid for modern California. There were also a number of political changes during the gold rush.
One of the most significant political innovations in California mining communities was the development of the office of the alcalde. This office was a transformation of the old Mexican alcaide who governed in lay cities. Each mining district elected a person to record deeds, thus an alcalde's primary duties were to register claims and settle disputes over mining and land deeds. The alcalde also acted as a judge and jury, but many times he selected a panel of local citizens who acted as arbiters to aid in deciding mining claims. The alcaide system was an example of Spanish and Mexican influences permeating the American mining community. In mining communities the alealde was a combination mayor, court system, and city government. While an alealde system worked very well as a means of deciding American land claims, Spanish and Mexican mining claims were generally ignored, and this led to the first ethnic tensions in the gold fields. Despite these crude attempts at justice, however, lynchings and vigilantism continued to predominate. The hostile racial oppression toward Mexcians, Californios, and Indians created a vexing problem for early American settlers. Often extralegal means were used to punish individuals, and this created a law and order problem in gold country. Consequently, one of the side effects of the gold rush was to create a disregard for the law and a lack of respect for established institutions. It was difficult to fully develop Californian civilization because of ethnic conflict and law and order problems.
Racial conflict was inevitable in California's gold fields. The earliest mining impulse was an individualistic one, as the lone miner operated without assistance from the outside world. Initially, mining techniques were so simple that no equipment was required and little investment was needed to begin a mining operation. This type of placer mining gave way to the more sophisticated cradle or rocker methods of mining, and eventually technological types of mining emerged. When the United States acquired California, Mexican and Chilean miners were already very successful in gold country. Soon Americans were forcibly evicting Mexican miners from prosperous claims. But Mexican miners on the American River fought back and soon Americans were talking of legislation to prevent foreign miners from operating in California.
The increased violence in California's mining communities was an indication that cultural differences were creating racial tensions. Soon large numbers of Mexicans moved into the San Joaquin Valley. In effect, racial differences forced Latins out of the mines and into ranching areas. In 1849 Chile dispatched a war ship to look after his nationals after riots took place in San Francisco's neighborhood dubbed Little Chile. These first signs of ethnic strife were an ominous indication of future racial problems. But by 1848-1849 gold fever was on everyone's mind.
The excitement surrounding the gold rush was not limited to the United States. In 1848 Hawaii was hit by gold fever, because of supplied labor and services to San Francisco. News of the gold rush passed quickly among the Hawaiians, and soon they were immigrating to California in search of quick wealth. Oregonians talked about the potential for fortune hunting, and within a year almost two-thirds of the territories 10,000 people migrated to California. In northern Mexico, in the state of Sonora, miners began to answer the call of the gold rush. Then the eastern press discovered that gold sold newspapers. By the winter of 1848-1849 there were well-circulated stories of the California gold rush, and the stage was set for a population boom unprecedented in American history.
The 49ers: The Gold Rush as the Catalyst to Permanent Settlement
In December, 1848, President James Knox Polk's annual State of the Union message explored the changes in the United States due to the recent gold discovery. President Polk used statements from Governor Mason to urge Americans to explore and exploit California's new-found mineral wealth. Unwittingly, Polk was encouraging the migration of thousands of permanent American settlers to California. The end result was a well-organized settlement in Northern California, and the transformation of a raucous new American society. Two days after Polk's address, a tea caddy filled with 230 ounces of gold was delivered to the President by Governor Mason, and it was promptly displayed at the War Department to illustrate the vast potential for sudden wealth in California. Suddenly a mania for gold swept the United States. The influx of American settlers created a rush to California, and historians point out that the season of '49 created an economically sound and socially active settlement.
One obvious change in California was the growth of cooperative societies and clubs. Cultural and social activity was transmitted from Boston and New York. Every piece of information concerning California suddenly appeared valuable to Easterners, while Californians emulated Eastern culture. It is not surprising that the publication of guidebooks to the American West became an important reflection of this mania for material about California. The most successful guidebook was Lansford Hastings, The E?nigrant's Guide to the Gold Mines. The Hastings' book was an instant best seller when it was published in New York in December, 1845. Although it contained only thirty pages, there was a fascinating do-it-yourself guide for traveling to the land in California. Maps of the gold mining regions were included in later editions, but they proved to be virtually worthless. The Emigrant's Guide was a book of dubious value as the Donner party discovered when it followed its geographical shortcuts to doom and disaster. The popularity of Hastings' guide book was an indication that Americans were interested in permanent settlement in California.
The three routes to California were via the Isthmus of Panama, traveling around Cape Horn, or the Overland Trail. Perhaps the most romantic route was the Overland Trail, and its scenic beauty conjured up images of adventure.
In 1846 the Donner party was trapped in the Sierra and they engaged in cannibalism in order to survive their confinement in the mountains. The tragic fate of the Donner party indicated that experience was necessary for settlement. Most migrants traveling to California were frontier farmers who were escaping the confining atmosphere of the east or middle west. Marino Vallejo casually remarked that many Yankees were hostile to Spanish speaking Californians, and he believed this showed the low level of education among Americans. Since Vallejo was fluent in Latin and spoke several languages, he found it amusing that the Californios and Mexicans were often stereotyped as less than civilized. Vallejo confided to a friend that deteriorating relations between Americans and Spanish-speaking Californians would continue to plague California.
In 1849 a stampede of gold prospectors, businessmen, and farmers began to alter the shape and structure of California civilization. Cities were bursting with recently arrived settlers and goods, and the major California cities like Monterey, San Francisco, and San Diego did not have the facilities to accommodate the newcomers. An Asiatic cholera epidemic struck and killed more than 5,000 people in the summer of 1849. In addition to disease, geographical obstacles, a shortage of supplies, and a lack of grass for grazing animals hindered permanent settlement. From the available records, it was very difficult to accurately record the number of Americans who traveled into California. The best estimate is that more than 150,000 Americans migrated to California to find a new home in 1849-1850.
The California Gold Rush: A Social Perspective
One of the byproducts of the California gold rush was the creation of a cosmopolitan society. All nationalities were attracted to the gold fields and this helped to create a diverse cultural strain. By 1850 small ethnic communities sprang up in the mining camps and in the major cities like San Francisco. The multi-ethnic tone of early San Francisco prompted many visitors to comment on the variety of fine food, and the presence of numerous European opera productions astounded many travelers. But it was still a quiet social life which developed in San Francisco. During the heyday of the gold rush only 2 percent of the city's population was female, and by 1850 it had increased to only 8 percent. It was not uncommon for photographs of that era to show one finely dressed woman standing among eight or ten men in the gold fields. One remarkable woman, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, wrote a series of observations known as the Dame Shirley Letters. This small book described the life of the only woman in a typical mining camp in 1851 and 1852. The 23 letters illustrated the problems created by frontier civilization, and Mrs. Clapp admirably chronicled the fear and violence which resulted from declining gold deposits. The Dame Shirley Letters provide one of the first documentary sources to examine Anglo-Mexican differences. The problems of women and minorities were very similar in nature within California's mining communities. All ethnic minorities and women faced hostile attitudes when they stepped out of the bounds of established conformity.
The mode of conformity in the mines was the result of a change in dress and attitudes brought about by Levi Strauss. The young Jewish merchant migrated from the east, and helped to set clothing standards when he began making heavy trousers from tent material that he had brought to California. Originally, Strauss came to California to repair and manufacture tents. It was ironic that he failed in this venture, because he used the remainder of his material to found the Levi Strauss Company which popularized jeans in the mines. A number of historians have com- mented on the lack of individuality in dress and suggested that this indicated a general conser- vatism in the mining regions. This is an erroneous assumption, because jeans were heavy trousers with a belt which could hold knives and guns. Thus, Levi Strauss' jeans were more of a necessity than a sign of total conformity. But it is a strange twist of history that Strauss was forced to use the tent fabric to make his jeans, thereby creating what became a multi-million dollar clothing industry. Jeans became accepted for social purposes, and this created a revolution in western dress.
The social highlight of the mining camps was the presence of female entertainers. Many women came to California's gold fields to find a husband, but the general reason for migrating west was to find instant wealth in the gold fields. While many women found husbands and a simple life in California, others came for business opportunities. The dance halls were dominated by Latin and Australian women, and French girls ran many of the gambling clubs which sprang up in the Sierra Nevada. Women also had a stablizing influence upon most mining communities. Many times churches were built in a mining settlement to bury a woman. The church at Gold Run, for example, was built to bury a young school teacher who died suddenly. Rather than bury her in a saloon, a church was hastily constructed. This illustrates the concern for traditional institutions.
The theater brought a form of advanced culture to the miners. The most popular plays were performed in the various mining communities, but equally popular was a morality play, "The Reformed Drunkard." It spoke of the evils of alcohol while fifty drunken miners roared their approval. In San Francisco in the years after statehood, more than 900 different plays were performed, 48 operas were sung in five languages, and 66 separate minstrel shows entertained local citizens. The best known performers were Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree. Lola Montez' reputation was similar to that of recent Hollywood sex symbols. She posed intermittently as the daughter of a Spanish gypsy, the daughter of a Turkish Sultan or the daughter of the famous English Lord Byron. In reality, Montez was born in Ireland in 1818, and she was married to an English officer for a short time. After her divorce Montez toured Europe as a dancer. After an affair with the composer Franz Liszt, she married a young man ten years her junior. In desperate need of money, she came to San Francisco in the early 1850s. She became an instant success with her spider dance, in which she slithered around the stage warding off imaginary spiders. The legendary performances of the spider dance created a very profitable reputation and career for Lola Montez. Her career was always a turbulent one, and a few weeks after arriving in San Francisco she married a third husband. After moving to Grass Valley, Miss Montez discovered a young performer, Lotta Crabtree. The young Lotta was taught to act, sing, and dance, and she was a perfect performing companion for Lola Montez. Many contemporary accounts suggest that the spider dance was an early day form of exotic dancing which excited the miners and produced an economic windfall for Lotta and Lola.
The social history of California during the gold rush is a blend of sophisticated Shakespearean plays combined with low-level dance hall entertainment. In many respects this duality mirrored the upper and lower extremes of California's newly created gold country society. There was something for everyone in the newly created gold rush society.
The California Gold Rush: A Summary
The California gold rush brought a new economy and a vibrant social settlement to the Golden State. Commercial growth, urban expansion, and cultural diversity were the hallmarks of the gold rush. The sleepy province of Mexican-California was transformed into a booming civilization. By the 1850s, 91'newspapers and magazines were published in California, including seven in foreign languages. Almost half a million people a year came to California to hunt for gold, and this strained governmental, social, and economic institutions. Much of the confusion surrounding California in the 1850s can be traced to the rapid growth during the gold rush. In summary, the importance of the gold mania was in its creation of an Americanized California.
California and State Making: The First Constitution
The struggle among American military personnel prevented the implementation of any work- able form of civil government. In effect, the military governor acted in civil matters, and this angered a number of citizens. In February, 1847, the San Francisco newspaper, the California Star, called for a constitutional convention to write a state constitution which would lead to statehood. As a military district, California was poorly governed, but President Polk did not have the power to create territorial government. Only Congress could allow Governor Mason to imple- ment territorial policy. But Congress was slow to act on the question of creating a California territory, because there were a number of problems with the national debate over slavery. Many congressmen believed that California was important in an eventual compromise over slavery.
One of the strongest voices for statehood was Walter Colton. Prior to leaving California, Robert Field Stockton had appointed Colton as Monterey's alealde. A graduate of Yale University, Colton had also studied at the Andover Theological Seminary, and he came to California in 1845 to seek his fortune. After his appointment to office, Colton's intellectual abilities and his willingness to deal fairly with people prompted the voters of Monterey to continue to reelect him. Colton urged Californians to think of immediate statehood and to drop any thoughts of territorial government.
The discord between the North and the South over slavery was a significant influence upon Congress' indecision in setting up territorial government in California. In the end this worked to California's favor as statehood was used as a political compromise to help avoid the Civil War. Thus, as California was governed in a virtual vacuum, local public opinion demanded immediate statehood. The only major administrative official in California was the alcalde, and this was one of the main reasons for demanding a more stable form of government.
There were signs of local government developing in California. In San Francisco in August, 1847, a town council of six men was elected to assist the alcaide. Governor Mason stipulated that local government be financed with customs duties, and he rigorously collected taxes to insure adequate government funds. As local government grew stronger and California's mining wealth encouraged the growth of the population, a general restiveness developed over military government. It was generally agreed that California was too populous and too wealthy to remain a military district.
When General Bennett Riley arrived in California in April, 1849, to assume the Military governorship, public opinion pressured him to call a state constitutional convention for the fall of 1849. The drive for statehood intensified when the United State's Congress adjourned in May, 1849, without providing territorial government for California. One of Riley's prime considerations in calling for a state constitution was his fear of Mexican institutions continuing to dominate California. The transformation to an American-dominated society was the reason these fears of Mexican influences were aired publicly in Northern California. There was no better example of the transformation brought by the gold rush than the increase in San Francisco's population from 800 in 1848 to 6,000 the following year and to over 100,000 by 1850. Lots in the center of San Francisco sold for $ 1 0,000, and a local police force, the Regulators, emerged to give a semblance of order to San Francisco. The Regulators were a volunteer police force who attempted to control the mounting crime rate. It was the continued increase in murders, robberies, and other forms of violence which led to the demand for state government.
The delegates to the Monterey Constitutional Convention were selected by a vote in which all male citizens of California twenty-one years old or older who claimed California as their place of residence established eligibility. The elections resulted in 48 delegates, ten from Southern California and 38 from Northern California, who were instructed to convene in Monterey in September, 1849, to write a state constitution. The Constitutional Convention was dominated by representatives of the Sierra mining regions. For this reason, the final document prevented banking from developing and excluded the assessment of gold from the tax structure. The final result was a weak constitution that would have to be rewritten in 1878, but the delegates meeting at Colton Hall in Monterey produced a framework of government which secured admission to the Union the following year.
The Minority Impulse in the Constitutional Convention
The Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849 is the only major event in California history which has been strongly influenced by Mexican-Americans. The Spanish-speaking representatives made up more than 16% of the delegates and were unusually vocal in defending minority rights. The "native delegation" as it was dubbed sat at one table dressed in traditional garb. Many of the Californios had been in the middle of political battles with the American invaders for a number of years. J6se A. Carrillo, for example, was one of the signatories of the Treaty of Cahuenga, and he had been instrumental in delaying Southern California's annexation. Mariano Vallejo and Pablo de la Guerra were the leaders of the Californio delegation. Vallejo was a moderate, compromising voice, and this split the Californios. His nephew, Pablo de la Guerra, had been an important voice in Santa Barbara politics since 1838, and he was instrumental in challenging the delegates who were intent upon restricting the rights of Mexicans, Californios, and Indians. Another significant voice was J6se M. Covarrubias who was born in France, but as secretary to Governor Pio Pico had become an important political voice supporting Californio land ownership. The Californios were very skillful in parliamentary debate, and threatened to bolt the convention if they were not heard on key issues. This confrontation tactic was very successful and it allowed the Californios to mold key provisions on voter qualifications, taxation, state boundaries, and civil liberties.
The Californios' influence would have been greater had they voted as a bloc on key constitutional questions. However, on 35 roll-call votes they split on 17 issues. It was this division between northern Californios like Vallejo and southern Californios like de la Guerra which doomed the Mexican-American political influence. Yet, the Californios did unite in the face of arguments on the question of limiting civil rights. Pablo de la Guerra, for example, opposed a suggestion to limit voting to white males, and he argued that many Californios were dark-skinned and to disenfranchise them would be a travesty. De la Guerra pointed out that the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed citizenship. The Californios were particularly incensed with provisions to ban the Indians from voting.
Another key contribution of the Californio delegation was to protest the heavy taxes upon land and the general lack of taxation upon gold. The Californios demanded the election of local tax assessors to insure equitable taxation of ranch land. J6se Carrillo argued that since the ranchers paid a heavier tax they should have more representation in the state legislature. This was easily voted down as was Carrillo's suggestion that Santa Barbara become the capital. But Pablo de la Guerra was successful in securing a provision providing that all laws be printed in Spanish. When the Constitutional Convention broke up the Californios were generally satisfied with their efforts, and they provided most of the liberal provisions written into the new California constitution.
The Monterey Constitutional Convention: The Main Debates
After electing Dr. Robert Semple, a well-known newspaperman, as the permanent chairman of the Constitutional Convention, the delegates began the arduous task of writing a state constitution. The delegates ranged in age from 25 to 53 years old, and the median age was 36. In terms of occupation, 16 were farmers, 14 were lawyers, 9 were merchants, and one delegate listed his profession as "elegant leisure." In general, the members of the Monterey Constitutional Convention were white, middle-class, and Protestant.
The first important issue evolved around the question of whether or not California should apply for immediate statehood. Many Americans believed that territorial government was preferable to statehood, because federal money could be used to develop California. However, the majority of delegates pointed to California's wealth and its burgeoning population as an indication that statehood was the appropriate course. The Californios supported territorial government, because they believed that large landowners would otherwise bear an unusually heavy share of taxation.
On the question of whether or not California should be a free or slave state, there was a lengthy debate which resulted in a decision to apply for statehood as a free state. Although fifteen members of the Constitutional Convention had migrated from the South, most of the delegates either opposed slavery or realized that it would be a potential block to admission to the Union.
Equally important to the delegates was the status of big business. A number of delegates had experienced a variety of problems in business including bankruptcy. Thomas Oliver Larkin argued that banks were necessary to ensure the credit and lending potential which could create a healthy
business climate. Delegates who opposed banking argued that hard money transactions did not require banking institutions. They also pointed out that banks led to small numbers of investors amassing huge sums of money. William Gwin of Mississippi argued that he had gone bankrupt in the Panic of 1837 due to a lack of governmental controls over banking. This opinion reflected that of the majority of the delegates and banks were severely restricted in the Constitution of 1849.
The banking issue touched off a fierce debate over how California government was to be financed. The delegates established a $300,000 limit on spending by the state legislature, but inserted a provision for increased spending if state voters approved it. On the question of taxation, the delegates decided that all property should be taxed on its value. Local tax assessors would establish this value and the tax rate. Since tax collectors would be elected in local elections, this quieted fears of ranchers who believed that they would pay a disproportionately high tax.
Establishing a state boundary was a vexing issue at the Monterey Constitutional Convention. The debate was both heated and long, and it revealed a great deal about the delegates. The primary question was over the eastern boundary. Oregon and Mexico provided the northern and southern boundaries, but the question of an eastern boundary evolved into large state and small state factions. The large states argued that Colorado or Utah should be the boundary. But such an extreme boundary created problems, because the thousands of Mormons settled around Salt Lake were not represented at the Constitutional Convention. Dr. Robert Semple argued that the Sierra should be the natural boundary, and he exhibited a strong anti-Mormon tone in his rhetoric. When the President and Congress indicated that statehood might be threatened should the large state proposal carry, the delegates swiftly voted for the Sierra boundary.
There was a number of enlightened features in the California Constitution. A liberal strain was apparent in the provision for public schools and a university. The free public school system was instructed to meet for at least three months each year. Married women were allowed to own property, a concession designed to encourage female migration to California. Dueling was forbid- den, and this was another example of democratic liberalism. These advances were among the most forward looking political concessions in western American history and stamped California as a leading liberal state.
There was also a strong strain of conservatism in the Monterey Constitutional Convention. The restrictions upon banking are the best example of this philosophy. Bank notes were illegal, thus reflecting a fear of paper money. While banks were restricted, provisions were made for associations to hold gold and silver deposits for business interests. The delegates, uncertain how to promote, feared that a capitalistic economy would develop which might exclude the vast majority of Californians from business ventures. The end result was to create a stagnant economic picture and to set the stage for the revision of key economic portions of the state's original constitution.
The Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849.- A Summary
The liberal-conservative differences among convention delegates made compromise a necessity, and these compromises led to a highly conventional state government. A bill of rights was included with the typical guarantees of assembly, religion, and speech, but it also guaranteed foreign residents of the state the same rights of citizenship and of property. Qualifications for voting were relatively simple. All white males over the age of 21 who had been residents for 30 days were granted the franchise. This applied not only to Americans, but to every Mexican who decided to claim citizenship under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
The distribution of governmental powers was a common one. A governor, a judicial system, and a bicameral legislature were created to provide adequate government. A two-house legislature with a senate and an assembly was structured so that members were elected to two-year terms, as was the executive branch. This provision reflected a suspicion of government officials who remained too long in power. There was general agreement that lengthy stays in office led to political corruption. Most of the institutions and provisions in the California Constitution were copied from the Iowa and New York constitutions. The founding fathers of California state government were political pragmatists who while representing the interests of their local constituency, fully intended to produce a workable government. In general, sectional and partisan political issues were set aside to ensure that government functioned smoothly in the Golden State.
Once the document was completed it was distributed to local citizens in both English and Spanish translations. All citizens were included in the ratification process and more than $10,000 was spent in publicizing the new California Constitution. In October and November, 1849, the Constitution was debated in the midst of election campaigns for the new state offices. All the candidates supported the new Constitution and this was reflected in a vote of more than 12,000 for approval, and only a little more than 800 who disapproved the document. The governor was Peter Burnett of Sacramento, an Independent Democrat, whose campaign benefited from the presence of his two beautiful daughters. Burnett was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1807 and as a young man he went into politics in the Oregon Territory and was elected to the legislature. He made a local name by opposing the sale of alcoholic beverages and arguing for legislation to exclude Blacks from migrating to the American West. In 1848 Burnett migrated to California to open a law business and to advise John Sutter on fiscal matters. His successful gubernatorial campaign owed as much to the large numbers of transplanted Oregonians as it did to his alluring daughters. On December 20, 1849, Bennett Riley, the Military governor, turned over the reins of government to Burnett. Although Riley had no constitutional authority to make such a decision, he did it because he believed it was in the best interests of California government.
In sum, California had framed a new Constitution and implemented a new government without authorization from the United States Congress. It was now up to Congress to decide whether or not California had acted legally. Much to California's benefit the controversy over slavery in national politics caused Congress to overlook the independent attitude taken by the Golden State. The United States Congress approved California statehood as part of a compromise to avoid Civil War. The two United States Senators from California, William Gwin and John C. Fr6mont, were popular and influential figures in the nation's capital and they were extremely helpful in gaining the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which granted California statehood. On September 9, 1850, California entered the Union.
The literature on the Gold Rush is voluminous and very entertaining. For the best general studies see, John W. Caughey, Gold Is the Cornerstone (1948), republished as The California Gold Rush (1975). Caughey's study is the finest overall treatment of the Gold Rush and it is excellent reading. An equally impressive book is Rodman Paul's, California Gold (I 947) because it places a great deal of emphasis upon technology and legal aspects of the mining industry. Charles H. Shinn's. Mining Camps: A Study of American Frontier Government (1885) is an excellent study of how not to write mining history. For years it has been erroneously described as a "classic study" of American mining, but this critical acclaim ignores its bias toward foreign miners and its preaching of American virtues. For an important and highly interpretive work on ethnic mining, see Richard H. Peterson, Manifest Destiny in the Mines: A Cultural Interpretation of Anti-Mexican Nativisn in California, 1848-1853 (1975) and Leonard Pitt, "The Beginnings of Nativism in California," Pacific Historical Review, XXX (February, 1961), 23-38.
Some interesting biographical material is Theressa Gay, James Marshall, Discoverer of California Gold (1967); Paul Bailey, Sam Brannan and the California Mormons (1953); and the account of an army It., Bernarr Cresap, "Early California as Described by Edward 0. C. Ord," Pacific Historical Review, XXI (November, 1952), 329-40.
Recent scholarship which places the gold phenomena in a broad perspective is Ralph J. Roske, "The World Impact of the California Gold Rush, 1849-1857," Arizona and the West, V (Autumn, 1963), 187-232; Ralph P. Bieber, "California Gold Mania," Mississippi Valley His- torical Review, XXXV (June, 1948), 3-28; and Charles Bateson, Gold Fleet to California: Forty- Niners from Australia and New Zealand (I 964).
There is an excellent body of contemporary letters and diaries of the gold rush see, Gary F. Kurutz, "California is quite a different place now: The Gold Rush letters and sketches of William Hubert Burgees," California History, LVI (Fall, 1977), 211-229 for the observations of an artist, jeweler, miner and teacher in California's gold rush. For the season of 1848 see, James Carson, Early Recollections of the Mines (I 852) and E. Gould Buffum, Six Months in the Mines (I 850). The classic study of letters from the mines by a knowledgeable articulate woman was written by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, and published under the pseudonym Dame Shirley, The Shirley Letters from the California Mines (1949 edition). A series of letters which interpret the gold rush from contemporary standards is William D. Wyman, California Emigrant Letters (1952). Another useful contemporary account is Robert Wienpahl, editor, A Gold Rush Voyage on the Bark Orion (1978).
A pioneering historiographical work on mining two decades after the gold rush is Richard H. Peterson, The Bonanza Kings: The Social Origins and Business Behavior of Western Mining Entrepreneurs, 1870-1900 (1977). Peterson's sophisticated study is a study of the social origins of western mining magnates, and it is only peripheral to California. However, The Bonanza Kings is an important piece of scholarship in reminding California historians how much work remains to be done on individual mining barons. For an excellent attempt to test the ideas of Frederick Jackson Turner in mining territory see, Richard H. Peterson, "The Frontier Thesis and Social Mobility on the Mining Frontier," Pacific Historical Review, XLIII (February, 1975), 52-67.
The United States Department of the Army, Sacramento District Corps of Engineers has commissioned some excellent studies which examine mining see, W. Turrentine Jackson, Stephen D. Mikesell and Harvey Schwartz, Historical Survey of the New Melones Project Area (1976) for a study of the parts of Calaveras and Tuolumne counties covered by New Melones. It is a pathbreaking look at local history with an emphasis on the growth and development of mining, water power, transportation, and ranching from Spanish discovery to the 1970s.
The road to statehood and the early Constitution is sketched in William H. Ellison, A Self- Governing Dominion: 1849-1860 (1950); Earl Pomeroy, "California, 1846-1860: Politics of a Representative Frontier State," California Historical Society Quarterly, XXXII (December, 1953), 291-302; and William E. Franklin, "Peter H. Burnett and the Provisional Government Movement," California Historical Society Quarterly, XL (June, 1961), 123-36.
For the role of Mexican-Americans during the Monterey Constitutional Convention of 1849 see, Leonard Pitt, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 (1966) for a pioneer interpretation of Californio ideas and attitudes during the Constitutional Convention.
(Copyrighted: This chapter is used with permission from the author Dr. Howard Dewitt. The California Dream, "The Gold Rush and California Statehood", Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1997.)