Coming of the Argonauts

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 ten districts, with thirty-seven delegates, and the election set for August 1st. The number of delegates was later increased to forty-eight, 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 of European birth and nine or ten of the Americans were citizens of California before the conquest. Among the Californians were the distinguished Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the courtly Pablo de la Guerra, the polished Jacinto Rodriguez, and the dignified and handsome José Antonio Carrillo. Among the Americans who later became more or less famous, were Henry W. Halleck, later general-in-chief of the United States army; W. M. Gwin, U. S. Senator; John McDougal, governor and U. S. Senator; Rodman M. Price, member of Congress for and governor of New Jersey; Thomas O. Larkin, consul and special agent of the United States; Edward Gilbert, member of Congress and editor of the Alta California; Pacificus Ord, Francis J. Lippitt, Stephen C. Foster, Robert Semple and others whose names are well known.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *