by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This fourth part of a post from a fascinating House of Representatives report from August 1848 on transactions made by Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont, acting governor of Alta California, recently seized by the United States during the Mexican-American War, takes us further into his agreement with Eulogio de Célis for 600 cattle on a promise that the federal government would honor the contract.
Colonel Richard B. Mason, however, Frémont’s successor as governor, held that the deal made with Célis was illegal, being outside the establish procurement channels established by the American military. Supporting documents attesting to Mason’s claim are the focus of tonight’s part.
On 12 July 1847, Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson, whose New York Volunteers arrived in California just after hostilities ended earlier in the year and who was the commanding officer at the headquarters of the Southern Military Department at Los Angeles, wrote to Mason.
Stevenson reported that Quartermaster Davidson came to him with Célis “who had exhibited to him a contract made with Lieutenant Colonel Frémont for the delivery of 600 head of beef cattle, and inquired whether the government would recognize the contract, and pay the bond at maturity.”
The colonel told Célis to give to Davidson all relevant materials, including “the disposition that was made of the cattle . . . [and] as to the causes that led to the original contract. Stevenson then forwarded to Mason the papers received as part of his request. Having gathered the materials, the Los Angeles garrison commander opined that “this matter, in my judgment, clearly shows the whole transaction to have been unjustifiable and calculated to defraud the government.” Yet, Stevenson added, “such may not have been the intention of the government officer who made the contract.” In a postscript, the colonel added that he’d received a receipt from Célis that the delivery of cattle to a third part was completed on 7 July, whereas the certificate of Colonel Frémont, that the contract is complied with, bears date 26th April 1847.”
That latter statement, included in the packet forwarded by Stevenson to Mason, had Frémont stating that “there is due from the United States to Don Eulogio de Célis the sum of six thousand nine hundred and sixty-five dollars, on account of supplies furnished by him for subsisting United States troops in service in this territory, and under my command.” Interest of 2% per month “after the expiration of the term of eight months from the 18th day of April, 1847, until paid.”
This was followed in the document delivery by a 3 March contract signed by Frémont certifying a deal with Célis for $2500 “loaned or advanced me for the benefit” of administering the government of California, with the same 2% interest per month due beyond the maturity of the terms. Notably, both documents were certified as true and accurate copies by a First Lieutenant in the Third Artillery unit in California, a name not then known, but which would be in the Civil War: William Tecumseh Sherman.
On 11 August, Stevenson wrote Mason concerning a statement made by Célis concerning the disposition of the notes he held and given to him by Frémont, namely that these documents were to be delivered in “the hands of some person at Monterey, to be presented, at maturity, to the successor of Governor Frémont.” If, however, “they were not paid, [they were to] have them protested and forward to the Spanish minister at Washington,” this because Célis was a native and citizen of Spain. From there they were “to be presented by him either at the War or Treasury offices for payment.”
The Célis information was provided to Stevenson by “Doctor Foster, the interpreter here” and this was Stephen C. Foster (1820-1894), a native of Maine who joined the Mormon Battalion in its march to Los Angeles at the end of the war and who was not only official interpreter by Mason’s appointed alcalde (roughly, mayor) of Los Angeles in 1848-49.
Moreover, Stevenson referred to the fact that “Mr. Stearns is still at his ranch, some twenty-five miles from here.” Earlier in the document, it was stated that a “Mr Steavens” was holding Célis’ cattle, which were never delivered to Frémont as the agreement stipulated. This, however, was Abel Stearns, who was from Massachusetts and came to Los Angeles in the late 1820s, becoming the second merchant in town, after Jonathan Temple. Stearns rose to a prominent figure in town and his ranch, Los Alamitos, was adjacent on the east to Temple’s Los Cerritos. The Stearns residence is a historic site in a gated housing development on a hill next to Cal State Long Beach.
Stevenson included in his letter to Mason his request to Stearns, dated 1 August, in which he wanted to know “what cattle these are he holds; by what tenure he holds them; whether he considers them his own, that of Lieutenant Colonel Frémont, or that of the United States.”
On the 12th, Stearns answered, from his house at “Angeles,” this being his adobe townhouse called “El Palacio,” where the Baker Block was built in the 1880s and the site of which is where U.S. 101 runs under Main Street now. He told Stevenson that the 600 cattle, mostly “breeding cows,” were held “by agreement, and for the term of three years,” upon which he was to return the animals “with one half of increase,” meaning 900 at the expiration of the agreement, except for those lost “not for want of care on my part.”
Crucially for Mason’s accusation against Frémont, Stearns ended his missive by declaring “I consider the cattle as the private property of Lieutenant Col. J.C. Frémont, not being instructed by him to the contrary.” Within an hour of receiving the statement on that day, Stevenson certified the note as original.
On 17 September, Stevenson asked Stearns “for the proofs of his cattle contract with Lieutenant Colonel Frémont,” citing a letter ten days prior from Mason’s acting assistant adjutant general, Sherman, asking for an authenticated copy of any written agreement “or, if be a mere verbal agreement, witnessed by disinterested persons . . . to furnish you with such evidence as would prove his right to the trust he claims before a competent court.” Sherman added that “Colonel Mason considers this agreement between Lieutenant Colonel Frémont and Mr. Stearns of importance.”
Stearns’ reply of the 20th was that “I hold the cattle by verbal contract” witnessed by Samuel Hensley, a former battalion captain with the invading army, as well as naval midshipman John R. Wilson and Marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie. The latter was mentioned earlier as tracking down Frémont in Northern California during the Bear Flag Revolt period and before the last push to conquer California.
Gillespie was also the imperious garrison commander of captured Los Angeles, whose domineering edicts led to his ouster by Californios in revolt, after which the reconquest of the City of Angels was effected by Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton and leading to Frémont’s improvised Treaty of Cahuenga with Californio general Andrés Pico.
On 7 October, however, Wilson submitted a document from Monterey in which he wrote “I have no recollection of being present when the verbal agreement was made, but that I possessed at the time some knowledge of a contract existing; but what the nature of it was I am now unable to say.” This is an interesting statement, to be sure.
The next part of this post continues the saga of the Célis agreement and the matter of the question of the legality and legitimacy of Frémont’s deal with the rancher for money and cattle.