Coming of the Argonauts to California

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.”

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