By Paul R. Spitzzeri
On March 22, 1850, Thomas Butler King, a Massachusetts native, Georgia planter, member of Congress, and then a State Department special agent to California, submitted a 32-page report filled with interesting observations, information and recommendations to President Zachary Taylor and Congress about the newly acquired American possession. He arrived at San Francisco on June 4, 1849, and spent much of his time in the recently discovered gold fields and other areas of the north and does not appear to have journeyed to the southern areas, such as Los Angeles.
A major concern was California’s uncertain status because Congress hotly debated its future in a country riven with issues of slavery in newly-admitted states. The day before King’s arrival, a constitutional convention was called by California’s military governor and a document was adopted by the end of the year. Within days of King’s report, elections were held and California began self-government months before Congress finally admitted it as a state.
King observed that the non-Indian population of California had leapt from about 15,000 to 115,000 in the two years since gold was found, though he felt an estimate of the native Indian population was not possible. He did suggest that “the whole race seems to be disappearing,” having seen abandoned villages throughout the gold regions. He also estimated 20,000 miners working in the fields (75% from Mexico, South America, China and other foreign countries). Up to $40 million in gold was extracted, but King lamented that about half of that was taken out of the country by “armed bands” of, principally, Mexicans and Chileans.
He did, refer, however to the growing unrest and violence brought about by conflict between American miners, growing rapidly in number, and the foreigners who had been working the best mines in the southern Sierra Nevada foothills. Because the military occupation was ineffective, following troop desertions, King proposed a novel system to reserve the “common treasure of the American people.”
His idea was to have the mining regions managed by a mining commissioner and a group of assistants. A miner would pay one ounce of gold, priced at $16 at the time, as a license fee, with a tax structure set up along with a permitting system to cut timber and build structures, while towns would be established by the commissioner and lots sold with reserved mineral rights. License revenue would be used to establish schools, roads and other public works.
This system, however, would exclude all foreigners, reserving it solely for Americans, whose nation acquired California by purchase following the conclusion of the Mexican-American War. He averred that “no other nation, having the power to protect it, would permit its treasure to be thus carried away.” King’s estimate for the upcoming 1850-51 season was $50 million of gold to be extracted. He called for a mint in California and the building of a railroad across the isthmus at Panama to facilitate the shipping of bullion back to the east.
King’s report also covered the climate, potential for agriculture (largely stunted by the emphasis on mining), and significant cattle industry, observing there were some half million animals stocked on California’s many Spanish- and Mexican-era ranches. He wrote that the untapped resources of agriculture in particular could move the California economy to a position of up to $100 million in trade with the eastern states by the middle 1850s.
King pointed out California’s sudden, meteoric rise to “great wealth and power,” which meant it had to “justly be regarded as fully entitled to take her place as an equal among her sisters of the Union.” But, there had to be a stable government, adequate laws to protect the property and lives of citizens, an adequate system to regulate the chaotic mining areas, a mint, development of its immense agricultural and ranching potential, and more, for that to be adequately realized.
After President Taylor’s sudden death within a few months of the report, King stayed in San Francisco as the collector at the federal Port of San Francisco. He failed in two runs for the United States Senate and then became a lobbyist for the new Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western half of the transcontinental railroad. Before that was begun, however, King returned to Georgia in 1859, was a diplomat for the Confederacy, and then returned home, where he died in 1864 as the Civil War was winding to a close.