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

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This third and final part of a post concludes the highlighting of a significant report, a copy of which is in the Homestead’s collection, by California’s military governor Bennet Riley, published on 30 August 1849.  It concerned his recent visit to the newly discovered gold fields and was included in an 1850 compilation titled “California and New Mexico” presented by President Zachary Taylor to the House of Representatives.

After reviewing his trip to the mines, his remarkable conclusions about race relations among those engaged in the search for gold, and his views about what to do with public land and tracts vested in private ownership with titles from the Spanish and Mexican eras, Riley turned to a few other subjects.

One very briefly concerned his view that “I cannot close my remarks on this subject without again calling the attention of government to the importancee of establishing a mint in California at the earliest moment.”  This was to satisfy “natural policy” as well as to secure “justice to the mercnatile mining population” of the recently seized American possession.  The opening of a mint in San Francisco did take place not long after, in 1854.


Then, there was the question of the native aboriginal people of California, the Indians.  Riley noted that Stephen Watts Kearny, when he was military governor, appointed a pair of sub-agents whose work was “of great utility in preserving harmony among the wild tribes, and in regulating their intercourse with the whites.”  This characterization is similar to that Riley made about Americans treating Latino miners differently than Europeans when it came to evicting Spanish-speakers from mining areas.

Yet, he added the caveat that, until the federal government should establish regularly appointed agents with better funding, “it has not been possible at all times to prevent aggression on the part of the whites, or to restrain the Indians from avenging these injuries in their own way.”  One example was provided in which emigrants from Oregon, a territory of only a few years existence, and “mountaineers” came down to the Sacramento area and “committed most horrible barbarities on the defenceless Indians in that vicinity.”

Riley continued that:

Those cruel and inhuman proceedings, added, perhaps, to the execution of a number of chiefs some year and a half since by a military force sent by my predecesor [Richard B. Mason]  . . . [and which] have necessarily produced a hostile feeling on the part of the natives, and several small parties of whites, who, in their pursuit of gold, ventured too far into the Indian country, [and] have been killed.

Riley added that he enacted policies “to prevent a repetition of these difficulties” referring to correspondence he sent to the Indian agents and to military officers.  He did suggest at least one other agent for the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, while, at that juncture, there were none for southern California, though that would soon change.  He noted that the agents needed to be better paid and possess high moral character so that they would not “engage in illicit trade” with Indians or use natives for their personal gold prospecting endeavors.

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Knowing the frustrations of California residents about the possession’s immediate future, Riley issued a proclamation in early June calling for an election for delegates to a constitutional convention.  He referred in his report to that election, which took place on the 1st of August in districts throughout California, and noted that the representatives were to convene on 1 September, which did commence.

Riley wrote of the “interest which was taken by the people” in the election and “the zeal manifested by those elected and appointed to office.”  The idea, he went on, was that the military government in place “will be able to preserve order and secure the administration of justice until a new one shall be put into regular and successful operation.”

A prior communique observed that civil officers under the current administration were being paid out of a “civil fund” derived from import duties collected at the customs houses opened in California.  He added, though that it was “necessary to use a portion of this fund in the immediate construction of jails for the security of civil prisoners.”  This would be a recurring problem in these early years of the American era as the population exploded, crime skyrocketed and sufficient jails and prisons were badly lacking, with current facilities including ships and military garrison houses.

In fact, Riley continued that prisoners easily escaped from the poor facilities (adobe houses, almost certainly) and that the resulting frustration led to the fact that, in some instances, “the people have risen in masses and executed criminals immediately after trial, and without waiting for the due fulfilment of all the requisitions of the law.”  This, too, would be a plague in California for much of the following decade, including in greater Los Angeles.


Referring again to “immediate and summary executions” in the towns away from the coast, the governor stated “this evil calls for an immediate remedy, which will be afforded, so far as the means at my disposal will admit.”  Those means, however, were extremely limited and Riley had little recourse, especially as many soldiers at his command were going A.W.O.L. to head for the gold fields and, in some cases, committing crimes there.

Riley returned to the question of the civil fund, created early in 1847 just after the conquest, and the actions commenced by Governor Mason with no detailed direction or instructions from Washington and then continued by Riley.  Yet, the needs were growing and increasingly pressing as the population mushroomed and there was no established mechanism for the institution of taxes and their collection.

Notably, the governor observed that, while these monies were to be collected by agents appointed for the purpose and deposited in the fund, there was no provision for access to the proceeds by military officials.  However, Riley admitted, “it is true that some of the money has, from time to time, as the wants of the service required, been transferred” to the military.

He added that “this transfer was in the form of a loan” as if he was seeking to rationalize the procedure, adding that, once a mechanism was in place to do so, those dollars would be returned to the fund.  It was expected, though, that tax collectors, with their duly issued commissions, were expected to arrive imminently.


Riley’s report, incidentally, was to Major General Roger ap Catesby Jones, the adjutant general of the Army in Washington.  Jones’ brother, Thomas, was a Navy commodore who, mistakenly believing war broke out between the United States and Mexico in 1842, seized Monterey, Alta California’s capital, for America.  When he realized his mistake, he, with great embarrassment, restored Monterey to Mexican officials and withdrew.  Thomas ap Catesby Jones also helped restore the Hawaiian monarchy in 1843 when a British diplomat tried to seize it for his country and the return journey to America included a deserter named Herman Melville, whose Moby-Dick included a character based on the commodore and, it was said, his experience with a whale attack in 1827.

Bennet Riley’s report of the end of August 1849 is a fascinating document about the early stages of the Gold Rush, the difficult transition after the controversial seizure of Mexican California during America’s first imperial war, and some of the core issues confronting the soon-to-be 31st state in the Union.  His account is interesting, his conclusions often puzzling and seemingly heavily rationalized, and his role as military governor, especially in calling for a constitutional convention that pushed Congress to finally decide the possession’s status, critical in the formative stage of American-era California.

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