Military Governor Bennet Riley’s Visit to the California Gold Fields, Summer 1849, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A rich source of information about California shortly after the United States seized the former Mexican department in the Mexican-American War are the published reports by the federal government dealing mainly with the efforts to establish a form of temporary government, handled by the military.

Today’s post looks at one report of a great many in a very large compilation titled “California and New Mexico” comprised of a message from President Zachary Taylor, who followed his prominent role as a general in the American invasion of Mexico with a successful campaign for president in the 1848 election.  An original printing of this report is in the Homestead’s collection.

When Taylor assumed office in March 1849, he left the military government in place “until Congress should take some action” with regard to the new possession, but sharp differences between northern and southern states about what to do with territories and states entering the Union, including whether slavery should be allowed, paralyzed the government.


Taylor sent an emissary, Thomas Butler King, to deliver letters to officers in California and New Mexico and stated his assent to the idea of people there drafting a constitution and asking for admission into the Union.  In the case of California, however, the president wrote that “I did not anticipate, suggest, or authorize the establishment of any such government without the assent of Congress.”

That is exactly what residents of California did.  Impatient with the delays from Washington, a convention was held at Monterey in late 1849 and a constitution drafted and approved, shortly before Taylor’s message.  Many of the delegates at the convention and those who elected them were, in fact, very new arrivals to California because of a staggering discovery that transformed the possession far more than the war: the discovery of gold in the Sierra Nevada mountains that unleased the Gold Rush.

The report highlighted here was issued on this date, 30 August 1849, by Brevet Brigadier General Bennet Riley (1787-1853), the military governor of California from 13 April to 20 December of that year.  His report, written from Monterey, is a fascinating account of his trip to the gold fields in July and August just as the mass of 49ers were converging in large numbers in the region.


Riley was accompanied by Secretary of State Henry W. Halleck (later commander-in-chief of Union forces from 1862-64 during the Civil War and a major framer of the California constitution) and three other Army officers, noted that he went to inspect military posts in the interior regions of California

and of learning from personal observation the actual state of affairs in the mining regions, and also of allaying, so far as I could, the hostile feeling which was said to exist between the Americans and foreigners who were working in the gold placers.

Heading up the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, Riley stated “we proceeded to examine the principal placers on the tributaries” of those two water courses, observing “these washings or diggings have been among the richest and most productive in California.”

Starting in 1849, F.P.F. Temple, who went up to the Tuolumne River area to dig for gold, instead began to acquire property for what, over the years, became a substantial investment in grazing land for cattle, slaughterhouses, and butcher shops in the areas around Sonora, Jamestown, and Columbia (the latter being a state historic park.)

In fact, Riley mentioned Jamestown and Sonorenien [sic] Camp (Sonora) as among the main areas of gold seeking, especially the latter “which presents the appearance of a city of canvass houses,” that is, tents.  From there, Riley and his party ventured north through other gold regions and visited “Culloma,” or Coloma, where James Marshall found the gold flakes at Sutter’s Mill that set off the rush.  They completed their journey by descending to the San Joaquin Valley and to Stockton “a new town on an estero some distance above the mouth of the San Joaquin” River and on to San Francisco before returning to Monterey.


Notably, when Riley talked of crossing the San Joaquin Valley, he observed the searing heat, stating that much of the great valley “is so barren as scarcely to afford subsistence for our animals, and can never be of much value for agricultural purposes,” though the eastern portion, bordering the rivers that flowed from the Sierras had “some excellent land.”  But, it was “the want of water for irrigation” that was problematic for its future and that’s exactly what massive public works projects, unthinkable in 1850, would do many decades later.  Meantime, Riley’s suggestion was to invest in artesian wells.

Riley stated that, because of the intense digging for gold, fruit and vegetables could only be had at exorbitant cost, but farming was likely to be practiced by many of the immigrants coming to California.  The failure to release public lands for settlement and “the uncertainty that exists with respect to the validity of land titles” involving the Mexican and Spanish-era land grants was a major issue, as well.  If these usually large tracts were held by a few, it would be a barrier to increased agriculture.

The governor added that many new arrivals, believing pre-emption laws applied in California, “attempted to settle upon” former mission lands, secularized in 1833, under the control of the government, but he added “I cannot deem myself justifiable in permitting this” until those lands were put up for sale.  He also called for “the speedy and final settlement” of titles to ranchos granted before the American conquest, noting “this is essential for the peace and prosperity of the country.”


He referred the matter to a report by Halleck, conducted under the administration of Riley’s predecessor, Richard B. Mason, and sent to Washington in early April, while another report on California land titles was made by William Carey Jones, due to the influence of Jones’ father-in-law, powerful Missouri senator Thomas Benton.

Tomorrow we’ll continue with the report of Governor Riley, focusing on the question of relations between Americans and other ethnic groups in the gold fields and other matters of import for the new possession


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