Coming of the Argonauts to California

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sand hills, painting by William Henry Jackson

Oregon Trail pioneers pass through the sandhills, painting by William Henry Jackson

The long weary journey, the dreadful monotony of the endless plains, the barren desert, the bleak and almost impassable mountains, the heat and dust, the scorching sun and the drenching rains, the sickness and suffering, and the deaths that have thinned his party, have long since dulled his spirits and left in place of the joyous buoyancy of the start, a sullen, dogged determination to push forward. The faint-hearted abandoned him at the Platte, at Laramie, and at Salt Lake; the weak died; and before him now was the greatest trial of the journey, the greatest test of strength. Many were yet to fail, to die of starvation, of cholera, of scurvy, and some, who had passed through so much of hardship and suffering, were to die by their own hands as they approached the fatal desert and saw in the distance the lofty barrier of the Sierra Nevada.

Almost before the trains had reached the Platte River, the emigrants realized that they had overloaded their wagons and already began to throw away useless freight and baggage. As the difficulties of the journey increased and animals gave out, wagons, provisions, and property of all kinds were abandoned. Large quantities of bacon were tried out and the fat used for axle grease. During the latter part of the emigration of 1849, the difficulties were greatly increased. Feed became very scarce; the water of the Humboldt had a bad effect on the horses and they died in great numbers; the Indians, ever on the alert became more aggressive, stealing the stock and leaving many families from four to six hundred miles from the settlements without teams or means of conveyance.

The remaining animals are now giving out. Everything that can be dispensed with is thrown away that the loads may be lightened for the weakened oxen. The destruction of property is immense and the road is lined with abandoned wagons, sheet iron stoves, shovels, picks, pans, clothing, and other articles — even guns. From halfway down the Humboldt to the sink the carcasses of animals were so thick that had they been lain along the road, one could walk over them without putting foot to the ground.

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

Pioneers in Covered Wagons, by Thomas Fogarty

At last, the sink of the Humboldt is reached and before the emigrant lies the most dreaded desert of all. Here are long stretches of alkali with drifts of ashy earth in which the cattle sink to their bellies and go moaning along their way, amidst a cloud of dust and beneath a broiling sun. The road is covered with putrefying carcasses and the effluvia arising from them poisons the air. Even feeble women must walk and the animals relieved of every possible burden. To add to the general distress cholera again broke out and carried the emigrants off by hundreds. The march now resembles the rout of an army. All organization is at an end and each one pushes on with what strength he has. Wagons come to a stop and are abandoned, while the animals are detached and driven forward. No one now thinks of gold. It has become a struggle for life.

In an effort to avoid the desert a large part of the emigration of 1849 was diverted to the northern route through Lassen’s Pass. They left the Humboldt at the big bend, sixty-five miles above the sink, and took a northwesterly course. They were told they would find grass in ten miles, grass and water in twelve, and at Rabbit Springs, 35 miles distant, an abundance of both, and from there on they would have no further trouble. It was false information and it lured thousands to their ruin. There was little water or grass; the deserts to be crossed were much greater in extent than those of the Humboldt; the emigrants traveled some three hundred miles out of their way and those late in the season found themselves in a rugged mountain region, in three feet of snow, and two hundred and fifty miles from the nearest settlement. The Pitt River Indians were hostile and active, and many lives were lost. Major Rucker, commanding the relief expedition, reported that between seven and nine thousand emigrants with from one thousand to twelve hundred wagons had taken this route.

Many took the lower or Carson River Route. Crossing from the sink of the Humboldt to the sink of the Carson, a distance of fifteen miles, they followed up the Carson river some eighty miles to Eagle Valley, where there was abundant grass, then southerly through Carson Valley and over the Sierra to the south fork of the American River.

In the latter part of July, the advance trains of the emigration began to arrive in the Sacramento Valley and soon a steady stream poured in. Gaunt, hollow-eyed men and women leading or carrying children told tales of horror. Behind these, in the great basin, were thousands battling with famine and pestilence. Notwithstanding the absorbing character of their occupation, the rough miners did not hesitate to go to the relief of the sufferers or to contribute generously of their gold. General Smith ordered all available troops to the Sacramento Valley and Major Rucker of the First Dragoons was put in charge of the relief operations, while one hundred thousand dollars was appropriated for supplies.

Parties were sent in all directions with hard bread, pork, flour, rice, and barley, beef cattle and work oxen, and riding mules. A relief station was established at the Truckee lower crossing (Wadsworth), at the Hot springs in the Carson Valley (Genoa), and on the upper Feather River. From the relief stations, men were sent out on the desert as far as the sink of the Humboldt, and the sufferers brought in. They met whole families, men, women, and children on foot, without food.

Cholera notice

Cholera notice

Women, whose husbands had died of cholera, with their little children, without water or food; men scarcely able to walk, who said that for two hundred miles back they had eaten nothing but dead mules; one old man with his wife and daughter, on foot, had nothing but a few blankets which they carried on their backs. The number of sufferers was so great the relief corps could furnish barely enough food to enable them to reach the nearest station. It is said that in the emigration of this year five thousand died on the plains from cholera alone.

In 1849 the rains began much earlier than usual and the fall was heavy. In the mountains, the snow was of prodigious depth. The northern relief station on the Feather River sent out men on all the trails with food and riding mules, to meet the emigrants coming through by the Lassen Route. The amount of suffering was dreadful. Many of the emigrants had been two or three days without food when the government trains reached them. There were three feet of snow on the ground through which many were making their way on foot. Three men made desperate efforts to get through. For some days they had been on an allowance of one meal per day. When still seventy miles distant from the nearest settlement they took stock and found they had bread for two days only.

Pushing on through the snow they came in a few miles to a wagon containing two women and two or three children who had eaten nothing for two days. With a generosity which was rare under the circumstances, they gave all they had to these helpless ones and went on without. They got through. The relief corps met women wading through the deep snow carrying their children, and strong men who had fallen through utter exhaustion. The officer in charge of the camp wrote: “A more pitiable sight I never beheld as they were brought into camp; there were cripples from scurvy and other diseases, women prostrated by weakness, and children who could not move a limb, and men mounted on mules who had to be lifted off the animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effects of the scurvy.” On December 20th, Major Rucker reported that he had brought in all who had crossed the mountains and had closed the relief camps.

In 1850, the suffering was even more severe than in 1849. Throughout the States, the reports of the overloaded wagons had been received and many went to the opposite extreme. By the time Fort Laramie was reached provisions had begun to give out, but the emigrants went forward recklessly, trusting to chance to get through. The Mormons at Salt Lake were able to afford some relief but they were short of provisions themselves. The supplies of many of the trains held out until the Humboldt River was reached when their stores became exhausted.

Pushing on through the snow they came in a few miles to a wagon containing two women and two or three children who had eaten nothing for two days. With a generosity which was rare under the circumstances, they gave all they had to these helpless ones and went on without. They got through. The relief corps met women wading through the deep snow carrying their children, and strong men who had fallen through utter exhaustion. The officer in charge of the camp writes: “A more pitiable sight I never beheld as they were brought into camp; there were cripples from scurvy and other diseases, women prostrated by weakness, and children who could not move a limb, and men mounted on mules who had to be lifted off the animals, so entirely disabled had they become from the effects of the scurvy.” On December 20th, Major Rucker reported that he had brought in all who had crossed the mountains and had closed the relief camps.

Oregon Trail in Wyoming by Terry Del Bene

Oregon Trail in Wyoming by Terry Del Bene

In 1850, the suffering was even more severe than in 1849. Throughout the States, the reports of the overloaded wagons had been received and many went to the opposite extreme. By the time Fort Laramie was reached provisions had begun to give out, but the emigrants went forward recklessly, trusting to chance to get through. The Mormons at Salt Lake were able to afford some relief but they were short of provisions themselves. The supplies of many of the trains held out until the Humboldt River was reached when their stores became exhausted.

Emigrants arriving at Sacramento in July 1850, reported the desperate condition of those in the desert; that Mary’s River (Humboldt) was six or seven feet higher than it was ever known to be before, and that the bottoms, where the only feed grew, were almost entirely underwater. One traveler hired some Indians for fifteen dollars to swim the river and float some grass across to him, thus saving the lives of his oxen. Another said that what little grass they procured on the way down the Humboldt they had to swim for, sometimes cutting it and sometimes being compelled to pull it while standing in the water up to their waists. “I have seen hundreds, more than150 miles on the other side of the Sink of Mary’s River,” wrote W. Crum to the Sacramento Transcript, “that were out of provisions, or had but a few pounds to sustain a miserable and wretched existence, with animals that could never reach the Desert, by reason of the scarcity of forage. From this circumstance alone it may be possible that three-fourths of the animals now on the plains must perish from hunger, and the emigrant, with his scanty fare, must foot until life itself becomes a burden.

Those who started late will fare still worse; as the season becomes warmer, feed less, and provisions shorter. I saw one man with two small boys 120 miles beyond the Sink, who had left his wagon and lost all his animals but one, and all the provisions he had was three or four pounds of rice; another, with his wife and children, I overtook seventy miles beyond the Sink, with four horses that were just able to move with the empty wagon, the wife walking ahead in the burning sand and scorching sun, to relieve the poor laden animals that were destined never to see the Sink.”

M. Sheppards, who arrived about August 1st, reported that only about one wagon out of five would get through. His company started with 12 wagons of which two would get in; many that start with three or four horses get in with one; many emigrants on arriving in Carson Valley sell their finest horses for 10 or 15 pounds of flour. After arriving at the Truckee River or the Carson Valley, the emigrants still had the difficult passage of the Sierra Nevada to make and most of them were destitute of animals or food and many of both.

Tales of distress were brought by each arrival. Cholera had again broken out and its ravages were appalling. Nine-tenths of those in the desert were on foot and starving. “Mothers may be seen wading through deep dust or heavy sand of the desert, or climbing mountain steeps, leading the poor children by the hand; or the once strong man, pale, emaciated by hunger and fatigue, carrying upon his back his feeble infant, crying for water and nourishment, and appeasing a ravenous appetite from the carcass of a dead horse or mule; and when they sunk exhausted on the ground at night overcome with weariness and want of food, it was with the certainty that the morning sun would only be the prelude to another day of suffering and torture.”

The miners contributed liberally to succor the unfortunate emigrants. From lack of organization and direction, much of the effort was wasted and supplies were slow in reaching the desert. Captain William Waldo left Johnson’s ranch on August 27th with a drove of beef cattle, after waiting three days for the trains promised from Marysville and Yuba City. Seventeen hundred pounds of flour were deposited on the western side of the Sierra, the committee being unable to get it across for lack of mules. At the Truckee lower crossing beef was deposited with the relief committee and Waldo left with them ten good horses and mules to help the sick and destitute to cross the desert. He entered the desert on September 7th and pushed on as far as the Great Meadows of the Humboldt, about the locality of the present town of Palisade. About midway of the desert, he came upon two men who had laid themselves down to die. They had been living on the putrefied flesh of the dead animals on the road which had made them sick and for three days had eaten nothing. He relieved their needs and they reached the station. Two other men had died of starvation. From Boiling Springs to the Great meadows he met few who had any provisions at all. One-fourth of the entire number on the road was reduced to the necessity of subsisting on the putrefied flesh of dead animals. This had produced the most fatal consequences and disease and death were mowing them down by hundreds. “The cholera has carried off eight in one small train in three hours, and seven others are attacked and, it is thought, will die ere three hours more have elapsed.”

From the sink westward the havoc was fearful. “Sir,” he wrote, “by the time this reaches you I presume that you will need no evidence from me to satisfy you of the alarming and wretched condition of these people. It appears that the judgment of God has pursued them from the time they set out up to the present. First cholera — then starvation — next war, starvation, and cholera. The day has now passed when anyone will have the hardihood to say that there is no suffering amongst the Overland Emigrants; at least no one who is within 200 miles of this place will make such a declaration.  When I tell them (the emigrants) that they are 400 miles from Sacramento, they are astonished and horrified; many disbelieve me. They were induced to believe when at Salt Lake, that they were then within 450 miles of Sacramento City.” Indians have stolen a great number of the emigrants’ stock, he says, and scarcely a day passes when there is not a skirmish with them. Many women are on the road with families of children, who have lost their husbands by cholera, and who will never cross the mountains without aid. There are yet twenty thousand back of the desert, and fifteen thousand of this number are now destitute of all kinds of provisions, yet the period of the greatest suffering has not arrived. It will be impossible for ten thousand of this number to reach the mountains before the commencement of winter.

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

The Donner Party by Andy Thomas

All remember the fate of the Donner Party. On September 15th Waldo is back on the Truckee river sending in frantic appeals for supplies. He is issuing, he says, from five to eight thousand pounds of beef per day, and flour only to the sick. The station is surrounded by sick, unable to proceed on their journey. The flour deposited at Bear Valley by the Marysville train has not arrived. The relief raised by the Feather river towns has failed for want of system. If the people of California wish to extend efficient relief to the emigrants, their supplies must be placed under the control of one agent. The emigrants must have bread; thousands must die unless they can be supplied with bread. The cholera is killing them off from this point to the head of the Humboldt.

Ten thousand pounds of flour should be immediately forwarded to the Truckee station and another station established near the summit with the same amount, and such other articles as are necessary for the sick.

If the money cannot be raised for this, he offers to turn over to the committee, or to any other body of men, real estate in Sacramento which has cost him $10,000, if they will advance at once $8,000 or $10,000, forwarded in flour and other necessary articles for the sick, to the summit and to the Truckee station to save 10,000 human beings from starvation.

He says that if he were to describe the cases of extreme suffering that he has seen in the last 15 days the account would occupy a quire of paper. He was to leave on the morning of the 16th for the head of the Humboldt to induce all that are yet from four to six hundred miles back to return to Salt Lake. Ten people died of cholera, the day before while trying to cross the desert.

By September traders were flocking to the desert with supplies, selling flour at one dollar and seventy-five cents to two dollars and fifty cents per pound. They also carried water and grass into the desert and gathered up the animals they found abandoned. They sold water at half a dollar a pint. Many of the emigrants had no money and were obliged to part with their property. In starting out many put nearly all they had into the outfit; others thinking they were going to a land of gold did not bring much money with them. It was a great mistake. Money was required for ferriage across streams, for supplies, and for various purposes, and the want of it caused loss and hardship.

Sacramento Mining District in the 1850s

Sacramento Mining District in the 1850s

At length the emigrants reached the end of their journey, but their troubles were not over; they were attacked with fevers and bloody flux, and many perished miserably after having endured all but death in crossing the plains; they reached the Sacramento Valley sick and weary, with the horror of the scenes through which they had passed still upon them. For a time they were distressed and unsettled. Their numbers were so great that the relief extended by the miners, large as it was, could not reach them all, and many suffered and died for want of proper care and the nourishment which their condition required. Many were happy at first to get employment to pay their board, and even those accustomed to the luxuries of life were glad to get any servile employment suited to their strength and ability. Gradually the dark gloom that over-shadowed them was dispelled by the kind treatment and aid they received on all sides, the memory of their suffering faded, and with returning health hope revived and ambition again awoke.

Most of the states of the Union were peopled by a steady influx of settlers from other communities. California was suddenly changed from a quiet pastoral community to a mining camp. A great population was poured into it from all quarters of the globe, all actuated by the most intense and absorbing of motives, the quest of gold. Some to mine for it, some to supply the gold miner with the means of existence, and some to prey upon him. Some saw fortunes in trade and in the building of cities; others sought to reap the great profits resulting from the cultivation of the fertile soil. The farming class found a large amount of the best lands in private ownership under the Spanish grants. They were not disposed to submit quietly to this condition of affairs and in many cases “preempted” what they chose to consider unoccupied land, ignoring the obligations of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which guaranteed to the Californians the enjoyment of their liberty and property. Both Colonel Mason the governor, and General Riley his successor endeavored to protect the owners of the property, but the failure of Congress to provide a civil government for the territory, together with an insufficient force to compel obedience to their mandates, made the matter a difficult one.

A great population had gathered before there was any regular government to keep it in order. The great mass of the population was American, and the inhabitants formed for their own government and preservation local laws regarding the punishment of crime — unwritten, but none the less understood — the size, manner of locating and recording mining claims, and they visited summary punishment on those who violated the code. All things else were left to individual taste and discretion. The Alcalde of Monterey, Walter Colton, a chaplain in the navy, sold the land on which was situated the old Spanish fort (Castillo de San Cárlos).  This transaction brought from Colonel Mason a letter asking what law or decree conferred on an alcalde the right to sell the title of a Mexican fort or battery. In reply, the alcalde wrote: “No Mexican law or decree, as I can find, designates any particular spot as sites for forts or batteries. Each military chief put up a post where he chose, or demolished those put up by his predecessor. He asked no leave to build, and none to abandon. When guns were mounted no alcalde ventured with his right to sell, but eagerly extended that right over an abandoned position.

“The only rule which appears to have governed the military and civil authorities in these matters seems to have been that of Rob Roy – “The simple plan, That they shall take who have the power, And they shall keep who can.’”

This flippant reply well illustrates the American ignorance of and contempt for the Spanish law and Spanish methods. Colton was an educated man, a graduate of Harvard College and of Andover Theological Seminary, and should have known better. A rebuke was administered him by Henry W. Halleck, captain of engineers and secretary of state. In a formal report to the governor, Halleck said: “Monterey is the next point on the coast deemed of sufficient importance at the present time for permanent works. The old battery (San Cárlos) was built soon after the establishment of the mission of the same name (1770) and though much dilapidated was maintained up to about the time the Americans took possession of the country. Another battery in the rear of an auxiliary to this was begun by the Mexicans previous to July 7, 1846, and afterward enlarged by the Americans, and occupied by them, without intermission.

Copies of the several claims to the land on which these batteries were situated were given while Monterey was in possession of the American troops, and by an alcalde. who was an officer in the United States Navy.

Presideo of Monterey, California

Presidio of Monterey, California

“Unfortunately for the plea set up by the alcalde, the laws relating to the granting of lands in California are, as has already been shown, very minute and perfect, resting upon no such doubtful authority as that of Rob Roy, but upon positive and definite decrees of the Mexican Congress, and the subordinate but no less distinct enactments of the territorial legislature — laws which seem to have been perfectly understood and pretty generally obeyed here previous to the irregular proceedings springing out of the mania for land speculations following the conquest of the country by the Americans. Nor is the alcalde more accurate in his opinion, that the Mexican government has never designated any particular spot or site for forts or batteries.

If he had examined the subject with care, he would have found that the ground which he sold has been occupied by works of military defense from about the year 1772 to the present moment; that when, in 1775, it was proposed by the authorities here to remove these works to a point on the bay further north, the viceroy positively forbid the removal; that there are in the government archives numerous orders, both from the viceroys of New Spain and the ministers of the Mexican republic, for the repair of these identical works, for the mounting of guns in them, etc.; that these are the very works that were captured by the insurgents under Alvarado and Graham in 1836, by the naval forces under Commodore Jones in 1842, and, though greatly dilapidated, constituted the only defenses for the harbor and town of Monterey on the 7th of July, 1846.”

In the winter of 1846-47, a party of immigrants from the United States applied to the priests in charge of the missions of San José and Santa Clara for shelter. This was readily granted them and in the spring they proceeded to plant the mission fields and make themselves at home. So much at home did they become that they finally put the priests out and excluded them from the premises altogether. The priests complained to Colonel Mason and he ordered Captain Henry M. Naglee, of the New York volunteers, to proceed with his command to Pueblo de San Jose and assist the alcalde in ejecting the intruders. If the alcalde did not act promptly and efficiently in the matter, then the officer must proceed to execute the order himself. He instructed him to use mild and persuasive means to induce the intruders to vacate the premises before resorting to force. “Say to those people they have no right whatever to dispossess the priest and occupy those missions contrary to his consent, any more than they have to dispossess the rancheros and occupy their ranches; that they must respect the rights of others before they can claim any respect for their own; that we are bound to protect, and will protect, the priests in the quiet possession of the mission at Santa Clara and San José, and not suffer their premises to be wrested from them even by the Californians, much less by a people who have just come into the country, who have not a shadow of claim to the premises, and who, in the first place, were permitted from motives of charity to occupy them temporarily to shield them from the last winter’s rains.”

The immigrants did dispossess the rancheros and occupy their ranchos, in a great many instances. In Santa Clara County the “Squatters’ League” organized an armed force, resisted the execution of the sheriff’s writ, held public meetings and barbecues — which the sheriff’s men attended — and indulged in many speeches regarding their rights as American citizens, while their women kind presented flags to the riflemen and extolled the defenders of their homes. In the contra costa, armed men took possession of the San Antonio rancho (Oakland), mounted cannon, and announced that they would defend their rights (to the Peraltas’ property) to the death. They even put Don Domingo Peralta in jail, kept him there six months, and made him pay a heavy fine, for attempting to drive them off his rancho.

The better class of immigrants did not approve of the squatter method and strongly condemned all such proceedings; but a portion of the early immigration was from the western frontier states and of the class that considered a dead Indian the only good Indian, and to whom a Spaniard, no matter what his condition or degree of culture and refinement, was a “greaser” and entitled to no respect or consideration when their several claims were in conflict. They were in full sympathy with and consistent believers in the good old rule of Rob Roy and did not hesitate to take when they had the power and hold when they could. In 1848, thousands of Indians were engaged in washing gold in the placers, some on their own account, others employed by Americans, who turned their labor to good profit. The men of the later emigration, and in particular those who came from Oregon, abused the Indians shamefully and began a war of extermination upon them, shooting them down on the slightest pretext and driving them from their claims which they took for themselves. They also undertook to drive all foreigners from the gold mines under color of a proclamation from General Smith informing all foreign adventurers coming to California to search for gold, that trespassing on the public lands was punishable by fine and imprisonment, and that the laws relating thereto would be strictly enforced. In this movement, the Americans were joined by English, Irish, and German emigrants, and it was especially directed against the Sonorans, Chilians, and Peruvians. They even included Californians among the “foreigners.” They attempted to drive Don Andrés Pico from a claim he was working on the Mokelumne River, but the hero of San Pascual was not to be frightened as easily as the timid Sonorans and he maintained his rights as an American citizen.

With the immigration there came, as was to be expected, a plentiful supply of the scum and riff-raff of the world; escaped convicts and ticket-of-leave men from Botany Bay, desperadoes, fugitives from justice, neer-do-wells, and gamblers from all parts of the globe, drawn to California by the promise of easy money which the rapid accumulation of gold by the people seemed to hold out. Armed bands of desperadoes rode through the country committing the most atrocious crimes until the citizens, unable to endure longer the reign of disorder, rose and hunted the criminals like wild beasts and drove them from the country. Mason, in an official communication to the war office, reports a number of murders and the hanging of several men by the citizens, and says: “You are perfectly aware that no competent civil courts exist in this country, and that strictly speaking there is no legal power to execute the sentence of death; but the necessity of protecting their lives and property against the many lawless men at large in this country, compels the good citizens to take the law into their own hands. I shall not disapprove of the course that has been taken in this instance, and shall only endeavor to restrain the people so far as to ensure to every man charged with a capital crime an open and fair trial by a jury of his countrymen.”

California Gold Miners

It is evident from the military dispatches that the deserters from the army contributed to the general disorder and committed many outrages against life and property. These deserters were protected by the great mass of the citizens of the mining region who thought it a shame that the soldiers should be obliged to serve for what was really a nominal sum while all those around them were reaping an extraordinary reward for their labor. Riley recommended the restoration of the war penalty for desertion, and in a letter to the general commanding the division said: “Information from the south shows that, with very few exceptions, the dragoons of the squadron of the 1st regiment deserted upon being ordered to San Luis Rey. Many had previously deserted from Los Angeles, carrying with them their horses, arms, and equipment; and it is believed that the desertions at that place will be greatly increased when the order breaking up the companies of the 2d dragoons is received; so that I fear I shall not be able to organize from four companies of dragoons one required for the escort of the commissioners. It is known that these deserters had committed many outrages upon the property, and, it is feared, upon the persons of the inhabitants they encountered in the route to the mines. The disposition I have proposed (that of establishing a four company post in the mining region and allowing the men limited furloughs) will be an experiment, but one that should be tried, if only for the sake of preventing a repetition of the outrages unoffending people have suffered from those they have been led to suppose would protect them from Indian depredations and domestic violence.”

The Indians of the Tulares, who, joined by many of the neophytes of the missions, had for some years been a source of great annoyance to the rancheros by stealing their cattle and horses, now renewed their depredations, emboldened by the withdrawal of the troops from the south. The situation was further complicated by robberies committed by Sonorans, driven from the northern mines, on their way out of the country. The troops under command of General Riley were the 2d infantry; companies A and E, 1st dragoons; companies D and E, 2d dragoons; and companies F and M, 3d artillery; in all six hundred and fifty men, the number being constantly reduced by desertion. With this force he had to garrison the forts at San Francisco, Monterey, and San Diego, furnish an escort for the boundary commission, guard the government stores, send expeditions against marauding Indians, succor starving emigrants, establish relief stations at Warner’ s pass and in the Sacramento, and police the territory.

More than two years had elapsed since the conquest. Congress had met and adjourned without providing California with a government. The authorities at Washington recognized the military government established in California, under the laws of war, as a government de facto, to continue until the Congress should provide another. The people of California, with that executive instinct of self-government and self-preservation which first challenged the wonder of the civilized world and afterward won its approbation, determined they would have a responsible and representative government. In full sympathy with this sentiment, Governor Riley issued, on June 3, 1849, a proclamation calling for the election of delegates to a convention to be held in Monterey on the first of September, for the purpose of forming a state constitution.

The territory was divided into 10 districts, with 37 delegates, and the election set for August 1st. The number of delegates was later increased to 48, owing to the rapid growth in the population of some of the districts. The convention was composed of men in the full vigor of life, was fairly representative, contained several men of talent, and a good proportion of men of education and refinement. There were five men of European birth, six Californians, twelve natives of New York, five of Maryland, three each from Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, two from Massachusetts, and one each from Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. All the men were of European birth and nine or ten of the Americans were citizens of California before the conquest.

The convention completed its labors October 12, 1849, and the same day Governor Riley issued his proclamation announcing the formation of a constitution and calling for a vote on November 13th for its ratification by the people, and for the election at the same time of a legislature and state officials. The members presented to Governor Riley their bill for services, charging sixteen dollars per day, and $16 for each 20 miles traveled. This the governor paid from the civil fund. The members now gave themselves up to congratulations on the success of the convention and assessing themselves twenty-five dollars apiece for expenses cleared the hall for a grand ball given to the citizens of Monterey. The ball, held October 13th was a great success. General Riley was there in full uniform and wearing the yellow sash he won at Contreras; Majors Canby, Hill, and Smith, Captains Burton and Kane, and the other officers stationed at Monterey accompanying him. Don Pablo de la Guerra acted as floor manager, and gallantly discharged the duties of his office. Conspicuous among the Californians were General Vallejo, Manuel Dominguez, and Jacinto Rodriguez, while Captain John A. Sutter, late of Switzerland, and Don Miguel de Pedrorena, formerly of Spain, took an active part in the festivities.

On December 12th Governor Riley issued a proclamation declaring the constitution ratified November 13th as the ordained and established the constitution of the State of California. The legislature met December 15th and on December 20th Riley resigned his powers as governor into the hands of Peter H. Burnett, the new executive. A great population, coming together from the four winds of heaven with but one idea, to enrich themselves as quickly as possible and then depart, had, recognizing the necessities of the situation, founded a commonwealth.

Many who tried their luck at the mines returned to San Francisco. Even their great success in obtaining gold could not compensate them for all their privations, the exposure, the sickness, the hard labor, and harder fare which fell to their lot. And the shrewd trader saw that rich as were the gold placers, a richer field for acquiring wealth lay before him in the town itself. The great prices and great rise in various kinds of goods, provisions, and other necessaries of life opened the brightest prospects to those who preferred trade to gold hunting. The immigration from the nearest territory was but a mite to that which would flow from abroad when the wild reports of abundant gold should reach and be accredited throughout the eastern states, in Europe, and among the nations of Asia.

It was inevitable that in a community composed almost entirely of men and living far from the steadying influences of the eastern states there should develop a spirit of recklessness and indulgence in exciting pastimes that led to disorder. Every man did as seemed good in his own eyes until the lawless element aroused in the people the instinct of self-preservation, and a form of order was established. The Argonauts were like boys let loose from school. Overflowing with vigor and abounding in high spirits, their exuberance found vent in the ghastly names with which they afflicted the map of California.

The struggle for wealth was redeemed by a whole-souled liberality and no tale of woe failed of a generous response from the miners. The life, hard as it was, was not without its compensations and comforts. Old distinctions of caste were abolished and the professional man dug for gold with his own hands or worked for wages by the side of the common laborer. The angularities of the ungainly and illiterate in time wore off in the contact with educated men, and to many, a farmer boy, raised within the narrow confines of a New England village, the experience of a few years in the mines was an education, while fitness to grasp opportunity brought independence.

Zoeth Skinner Eldredge, 1912. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2019.

About the Author: Zoeth Skinner Eldredge (October 13, 1846 – 1915) was an American banker and amateur historian of California. He self-published two books on the local history of San Francisco, one of which was The Beginnings of San Francisco From the Expedition of Anza published in 1912. This article is a chapter of Eldredge’s book.

Also See:

The California Gold Rush

California Main Page

California Photo Galleries

John A. Sutter

Historical Accounts of American History

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