All Over the Map: A Military Sketch of the California Coast, 19 June 1847

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The California theater of the Mexican-American War, the United States’ first imperial conflict, lasted from the summer of 1846 to the first days of the following year.  As noted here previously, William Workman played a prominent role in the waning days of the campaign, meeting with U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton at San Juan Capistrano to arrange an amnesty for Spanish-speaking Californios readying for the Americans’ second invasion of Los Angeles, helping to free Americans and Europeans taken prisoner at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and then held in what became Boyle Heights, and bringing the flag of truce after the final battle at Los Angeles on 10 January 1847.

Once hostilities ceased, a power struggle emerged between Stockton, Army General Stephen Watts Kearny, and Army Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont over who would be the governor of the newly acquired territory of California.  Stockton claimed the position because he’d overseen the conquest of the region and then appointed Frémont governor in his stead while he went to Mexico to join the ongoing fighting there.  Kearny asserted his authority based on orders he received from Washington before he set out overland to California.


By the end of May 1847, when Kearny returned to Washington, Colonel Richard B. Mason was appointed governor and remained in that position for just shy of two years.  One of the early products of his administration is the artifact from the museum’s collection highlighted in this evening’s post: an untitled map from the adjutant’s office, likely the administrative officer under Mason, at Monterey showing the California coast, dated 19 June 1847.

Published in Philadelphia by lithographer Peter S. Duval and appearing in a message of President James K. Polk to Congress of 7 December 1847, the map appears to be one of the earliest, if not the first, of its kind created in the United States and showing the coastline of the new American possession.

This 19 June 1847 map in the Homestead’s holdings is a sketch of the California coastline from San Francisco Bay to San Diego, with a detail of the southern edge of Baja California, done by the U.S. military just after the seizure of Mexican California during the Mexican-American War.

Laid out on a checkerboard pattern of lines of latitude and longitude, the map, which has a number of misspellings (Campistrano, San Luci Rey, etc.) is very general in the presentation of the coastal regions of California and spans from the Bay Area to San Diego, though there is an inset at the lower right of the southern extremity of Lower (Baja) California.

San Francisco Bay, San Pablo Bay and the Strait of Carquinez to the interior near present Sacramento, identified as Suter’s, or Fort Sacramento/Sutter’s Fort, where the Swiss-born John Sutter presided over a vast domain, are depicted.  So are the Sacramento River and its tributary the American River, which less than a year later was the locale high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which is incorrectly indicated as an uninterrupted range all the way to San Juan Capistrano, where James Marshall inadvertently stumbled upon gold while building a mill for Sutter.

The Central Valley included main features like the San Joaquin River and several short indicators of tributaries like the Merced, Kings and other rivers, and Tulare and Buena Vista lakes, which were then quite large, particularly the former, but later were drained dry because of intensive agriculture and other reasons.

Most of the California missions, from San Diego to Sonoma, are shown, though not all, and other locations, such as Yerba Buena (soon renamed San Francisco); Santa Margarita north of San Luis Obispo; “Dana’s,” signifying the adobe home of William Dana in modern Nipomo, north of Santa Maria; and Angeles, rather than Los Angeles.

Connecting the settlements and missions is a dotted line demarcating the El Camino Real (King’s Highway) running along the coastal regions of California.  San Pedro, Point Concepcion and the Bodega Bay area north of San Francisco are also identified as are the eight Channel Islands, though southeast of Santa Catalina Island is marked as “Nicolas” or San Nicolas, though it is really San Clemente Island.

The main purpose of the map was to show military installations, the distances between them, and the number of troops stationed at each.  Note the reference to the exclusion of the Mormon Battalion in the figures, because the battalion was to be mustered out in less than a month, though about 80 of them remained in a volunteer regiment for eight more months.

The purpose of the map, however, was not to provide great detail about the natural and man-made elements of coastal California.  Rather, it was to identify eight locations of military installations and, as a table at the left indicates, the distances between them and the number of men deployed at each location.

At Sutter’s Fort, there were 31 men stationed, the same number as at Sonoma.  In Yerba Buena and its presidio, which existed under Spanish and Mexican rule, there were 126 men.  Monterey, being a key location and which is where the American seizure of July 1846 really inaugurated the war in California, there were 218 men.

In the southern region at Santa Barbara, which had a presidio, as well, there were 51 men stationed.  In Los Angeles, which was a hotbed of Californio resistance in the last months of 1846, a force of 187 were placed.  Notably, there were no forces at San Diego, though at La Paz (shown as Le Paz on the map), there were 111 troops.

So, for a remarkably long north to south coastline of nearly 1,700 miles, there were only slightly more than 750 personnel stationed at seven military installations.  Of course, California was sparsely populated with respect to non-Indians, so that number seemed to be sufficient to keep the new possession pacified.

An interesting note in the table observed that “the Mormon Battalion are [is] not included as their [its] term of service expires in July.”  In one of the most interesting aspects of the war, Mormon leader Brigham Young decided early in 1846 to relocate his embattled flock from Nauvoo, Illinois to an area referred to as Zion and, for the church, Deseret in northern Utah and the edge of the Great Salt Lake.

This detail of the southern tip of Baja California included “Le Paz,” or La Paz, where 111 troops were stationed at the time.

Yet, Young also solicited federal assistance for migrating Mormons from the midwest to the new haven for the church, but also instructed his emissary to sell an idea to President Polk that the Mormons could assist in fortifying and defending America’s interests in the Far West.

The President allowed the formation of a battalion of 500 Mormon men who were to join Kearny, whose Army of the West marched from Fort Leavenworth in Kansas to San Diego.  There the Army was hit with an overwhelming Californio assault at San Pasqual near San Diego on arrival in early December 1846, resulting in a stunning defeat of the Americans.

The Mormon Battalion, which had nearly 550 men when it left Council Bluffs, Iowa for Fort Leavenworth and then headed west after Kearny and his Army made its journey.  Delayed by the death of Captain James Allen, who was to command the battalion, the troop, led by an Army lieutenant and then a colonel, did not reach San Diego until the end of January 1847, after the fighting had ended and a treaty signed at Cahuenga Pass northwest of Los Angeles.

Still, some of the battalion were sent for guard duty at San Diego, San Luis Rey (modern Oceanside) and Los Angeles, while others accompanied Kearny on his march back to Washington. Though the battalion was mustered out in mid-July 1847, about 80 of them reenlisted as a company in the Mormon Volunteers for another eight months.  The remainder headed for Salt Lake, where the Mormon colony was recently established.

This detail shows the region from Santa Barbara to San Diego with the dotted line showing the El Camino Real (King’s Highway).  Note the indications of rivers, hill and mountain chains, and other elements.

Battalion members, though they did not see action in battle, marched a staggering 2,000 miles in often-hostile conditions to get to California, helped build Fort Moore in Los Angeles, were present for Marshall’s famous gold discovery, and built the wagon road from southern California to Utah that was heavily used by migrants after 1848.

This map is a particularly valuable historical document of the immediate aftermath of the American seizure of Mexican California and reflects the earliest stages of the military governance of the region just before the discovery of gold that ushered in the famed Gold Rush and leading to a delayed statehood for California in September 1850.


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