by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Ten months after the American seizure of Mexican California, which ended with the Battle of Los Angeles on 9 January 1847 and two months after the fall of Mexico City, the New York Tribune of 20 November featured a few articles related to the aftermath of the war on the Pacific Coast.
One of the pieces was from Yerba Buena, which soon changed its name to San Francisco, and was dated 15 May. The editor of the Tribune, Horace Greeley, who founded the paper a few years prior, observed in a note that “this letter is not so late as the latest we have heard from California, but it is from a gentleman of intelligence and energy who went out to California expressly for us, and is to reside there as our correspondent so long as news from that quarter shall be desirable. His observations my be relied upon.”
The unnamed correspondent traveled the region between the “Bay of San Francisco” and Monterrey and noted “its natural wealth in general . . . large valleys of the richest soil . . . an inexhaustible range for stock” which was the basis for the belief that California was “full of resources which, when developed by an intelligent population, will make Upper California one of the richest countries in the world.” Evidently, those people living there before, primarily Mexicans and Californios, lacked such intelligence—a statement made by others, as well—rather than the capital and infrastructure required.
In fact, the correspondent’s next comments were somewhat along those lines, as he observed that “emigrants coming here, however, will find many difficulties to contend with which the excellence of the country will not overcome.” These included the lack of lumber for house construction, of homes for them on arrival, a paucity of furniture, “and all of those things which make up, little by little, the sum of the great moral structure of civilization—a HOME.”
There was also some cautious commentary about the arduous route of travel overland comprising four months along dry and dusty roads often through mountains that were virtually impassable “to any but the most resolute and hardy people.” Notably, the writer began to refer to many migrants who died en route and referred to one group: “and one party, which arrived late at the California Mountains, suffered horribly—they ate one another!!” This reference was, of course, to the tragic Donner Party.
While there was the sea route, it was not considered advisable because of long delays and expense at the Isthmus of Panama, but, with improvements there, that route would be far preferable to the overland one.
In an added portion to the article, dated 16 May, it was reported that José Castro, who’d been the leading political figure in Northern California prior to the war, was supposed to have entered “the lower country,” perhaps Southern California with a small group. The prevailing impression among Anglos was Castro’s return would lead to a “general rising among the natives of the country.”
Further, it was stated that local military personnel were not numerous enough to counteract such a revolt and that Californios professed to be unafraid of naval forces of the New York Volunteers, then stationed at Los Angeles. Those volunteers who joined the American forces and were renowned for their skills with the rifle were feared, but it was stated that they would not rejoin because of not being properly paid or supplied while they were in the service. It turned out not to matter because there was no Castro-led revolt.
Another battle mentioned, however, was that between Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearney, who was given authority to govern California once it was conquered, and Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont, who tried to assume leadership in the newly seized territory after an appointment by naval commodore Robert F. Stockton and who had the support of his powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas H. Benton.
Referring to it as “a war raging here now,” the correspondent observed that “Gen K. believes himself to be governor of the country, Col. F. believes he ought to be; and refuses to report himself in a less humble capacity. He will probably be tried in a court-martial.” Decrying the state of things politically, the writer continued that:
We very much need an organized government. The Spaniards are very well protected by the present one. I regret to say that there probably never was a weaker apology for a civil or military government among civilized people than the one now existing in California, and yet the present is much better than the miserable administration of Fremont.
Elsewhere in the edition was the republication of a letter sent to an Albany, New York paper from an officer with the New York Volunteers, commanded by Captain Jonathan D. Stevenson and mentioned above as being stationed in Los Angeles. The missive was sent by the ship Loo Choo, which also carried letter to the east by William Workman and F.P.F. Temple for family members in Baltimore and Massachusetts.
The officer’s missive, dated 22 June from “Puebla de Los Angelos,” noted that the situation was quiet since Kearney departed for the east, where he would seek Fremont’s court-martial. The writer noted “the country now, as then, is perfectly tranquil . . . some of the Californians who left their homes for Sonora, are returning here . . .” He reported that they said that conditions in Northern Mexico were “deplorable” and added they returned “from a conviction that they will be sure of a permanent and good Government under the American flag” and that no aid would be coming from Mexico.
Also of note is the statement that:
We have now at this post nearly completed, a strong fortress. It has been erected by the troops, on a hill that commands the town and the surrounding country. This, of course, will effectually suppress any attempt at insurrection, as every effort must inevitably involve all engaged in it, a common calamity.
The reference here was to the construction of Fort Moore on the hill to the west overlooking the Plaza, the center of pre-American Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, a large force of Mormon volunteers marched down from Utah and arrived just after the cessation of hostilities following the aforementioned Battle of Los Angeles, but these troops remained there and at San Diego for a brief period. The 360 men, however, were due to mustered out in mid-July and the writer expressed the hope that they would reenlist for another year “for they are an orderly, quiet and peaceable set of men, submitting without resistance or a murmur, to the severest discipline, and altogether a most useful and efficient body of men.”
As for the writer’s own New York Volunteers, he observed that they “were now very much scattered through California and in Baja, as well.” He noted that “they will dearly earn all they receive from the Government” and that their service showed that “the hand of American industry and enterprise is plainly to be seen wherever our troops are stationed.”
Bricks were made to build ovens and chimneys, sawmills were constructed, and wooden houses erected. Watch and clock repair, the making of clothing, leather working into boots and shoes and meat prepared as if in New York were also emphasized. This last point even, it was said, affected the natives who previously were “in the habit of slaughtering a bullock in the streets,” but were “patronizing the New York butchers.” This missive concluded with the note that “all can do well here who choose to help themselves and become useful.”
Finally, there was a short article about what was prophesied in the above letter from mid-May: the court-martial of John C. Fremont. When written, the piece observed that the trial had gone on for ten days and “we can yet see no prospect of its termination.” Some attention was paid to testimony of Kearney, but “the trial so far, in our opinion, has developed more of the farcical than the tragic.”
To the reporter, there was more of the “ridiculous” than the “solemn,” due less to the witnesses and their character and veracity than “to the transactions they are called upon to testify to.” It was expected that when Commodore Stockton returned east and testified, it “will scarcely lend the proceedings a graver aspect.”
The writer’s impression was that either Frémont would be acquitted or that, “if found guilty, [he] will receive pardon of the President [James K. Polk], who might be unwilling to punish an otherwise well-deserving officer for technical or even substantial irregularities.” It was not expected that Polk, given his penchant for independence in action, would be influenced by Frémont’s powerful father-in-law, Senator Benton.
Still, the article concluded with a pertinent question:
In the meantime, as Gen. Kearney, Com. Stockton and Lt. Col. Fremont are all in Washington, attending to this little personal affair, what becomes of California, of which each has been—and for aught we know to the contrary all at the same time—Governor?
Fremont was, among other charges, being tried for issuing an I.O.U. to F.P.F. Temple for the purchase by the federal government of Alcatraz Island, which was granted to William Workman by Pío Pico in 1846 just before the outbreak of the war in California and then transferred by Workman to his son-in-law. The controversial Frémont was, indeed, court-martialed at the end of January 1848 for misconduct and disobeying a superior officer.
Polk, though approving of the court’s decision, commuted the sentence of a dishonorable discharge and reinstated Frémont’s commission in the Army. Dissatisfied with Polk’s partial pardon, however, Frémont resigned and moved to California, where he obtained a large ranch, served as one of the new state’s first senators and ran a failed presidential campaign in 1856 under the newly created Republican Party.
This issue of the New York Tribune provides some fascinating contemporary glimpses into some of the issues confronting California in the months following the end of the Mexican-American War there and just prior to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and the discovery that launched the Gold Rush.