“Policy As Well as Justice”: Still More Documents from a Report on California Claims from the Mexican-American War, 8 August 1848

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s continuation of a post covering a remarkable House of Representatives report, dated 8 August 1848, concerning claims on the United States government for transactions made by acting California governor John C. Frémont in late winter 1847 takes us to the question of whether Frémont’s deals with Eulogio de Célis of Los Angeles were necessitated by unusual conditions and urgent needs requiring unorthodox actions by the governor, or if they were rash actions committed outside military protocols.

On 26 May 1848, acting Secretary of War Archibald Campbell, Jr. forwarded a cache of documents about the affair to John M. Botts, chair of the House Committee on Military Affairs.  Additionally, the agreement made between Frémont and Célis on 3 March 1847 for six hundred head of cattle at a cost of $6,000 due eight months from date “to be delivered to the commissary of the troops under the immediate command of Governor Frémont.”  Interestingly, the hides were to be returned to Célis, it being obvious the need for the animals was for beef to feed the troops, while the rancher could make money from the sale of the hides for leather rendering.


On 26 April 1847, Frémont certified that Célis duly delivered the animals, upon which the governor issued “my note for the sum of six thousand nine hundred and seventy-five dollars,” the overage coming, it seems, from “the hides of the full number of cattle.”  First Lieutenant A.J. Smith of the 1st Dragoons of the Army certified a copy of these documents on 17 June.

Also included in the report was the Spanish original text and the translation into English of a 1 May receipt by Abel Stearns, a prominent Los Angeles merchant and owner of Rancho Los Alamitos southeast of the pueblo, that he had “received from Don Eulogio de Célis four hundred and eighty-one head of cattle, on account of Mr. J.C. Frémont, lieutenant colonel of the army of the United States; which cattle exist in my possession.”  As noted in a previous part of this post, Stearns told Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson, garrison commander in Los Angeles, on 12 August that he considered these animals to be the personal property of Frémont.


On 7 June, Stevenson, being apprised that Stearns was holding the cattle for Frémont wrote to quartermaster, Lt. J.W. Davidson, and instructed him to “possess yourself of all the facts and circumstances of the case, with a view to recover the property if it legally belongs to the government of the United States.”

A month later, Célis submitted a statement in which he noted that Frémont “finding himself short of resources for the support of the armed forces which, under his command, co-operated towards the pacification of the country” sought loans in the form of “provisions and cash” from Los Angeles-area residents through the agency of Charles Flugge.


Flugge, a native of Germany, came to California with the Bidwell and Bartleson wagon train that reached the north at the same time the Rowland and Workman Expedition arrived in the south.  After the Battle of Los Angeles, which ended hostilities on 9 January 1847, Flugge, Domingo Olivas, and William Workman brought out a white flag of truce.

Célis clarified that the terms for the purchase of the 600 head of cattle was so arranged “on account of the cattle being movable property which could not be consumed in two nor three months, and, besides, was augmenting daily, it consisting chiefly of cows.”  Moreover, the Spanish native who later owned the lands of the Mission San Fernando, added that, because Frémont “not having time to consume said cattle, on account of having received a superior order to deliver up the command, and disband the force, he ordered the cattle to be delivered to Mr. Abel Stearns, as I understand, in the quality of a deposit, until the government should dispose of it.”


Also included in the documents at hand is a “true copy of [the] original” by Stephen C. Foster, a recent arrival to Los Angeles as interpreter for the Army’s Mormon Battalion and a future mayor and member by marriage of the prominent Lugo family, of Frémont’s $2500 loan from Célis with 2% interest per month if the amount was unpaid after eight months.

On 7 July, Stearns issued another receipt, as interpreted by Foster, for an additional 119 cattle “on account of Mr. J.C. Frémont.”  Obviously, with the 1 May receipt for 481 animals, it is seen that none of the cattle purchased by the acting governor from Célis were actually consumed by the military, ostensibly, as the seller indicated above, because Frémont was removed as governor and subsequently returned to Washington to face court-martial proceedings for mutiny, disobedience, and conduct prejudicing good order and military discipline.”


The court-martial, with Frémont defended by his powerful father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton and brother-in-law William Carey Jones, lasted for nearly three months between November 1847 and January 1848 and led to his being found guilty and dismissed from the service with the loss of all privileges.  President James K. Polk set aside the mutiny conviction but allowed the others to stand and then ordered Frémont to resume his commission and return to the service.  Hurt by the trial and decree, however, Frémont resigned.

On 18 May 1848, Secretary of War William L. Marcy wrote to Frémont, then a private citizen, informing him of Botts’ request for papers concerning the Célis claims.  Marcy stated, “I find some of them of such a character as induced me to think that you might wish to see them, and probably may desire to accompany them with some remarks.”


The following day, Frémont, likely tipped off to what was at work in the House committee, submitted an extraordinarily long letter to Marcy explaining his side of the situation.  It included reference to testimony given by Captain Samuel J. Hensley, appointed as the commissary officer of the California battalion under Frémont’s command.

Hensley testified before the Senate Military Affairs Committee that he acquired the cattle and arranged the loan from Célis as part of his duties.  Interestingly, Hensley told the committee the loan period was six months, when the original documents stated eight.  He went on to say that, “soon after this purchase the California battalion was disbanded, and Governor Frémont ordered me to retain possession of these cattle until he could know whether those succeeding him in command would become responsible for the contracts made under his authority.”


Yet, the captain continued, “when it was ascertained that his successor [General Stephen W. Kearny] would not become thus responsible, General Frémont directed me to place the cattle in safe keeping, where they might remain as some security to Célis for the amount due him.”  Hensley, consequently, delivered the animals to Stearns, “a responsible man,” who agreed to do so “for one half of their increase.”

Another notable tidbit is that Hensley testified that “there was also left in that country about sixteen hundred pounds of sugar, in the possession of John Rowland, near the city of Angels, and also a quantity stored in Santa Barbara.”  It was not previously stated in the report that Rowland, who was the original grantee of Rancho La Puente in 1842 and then co-owner when the ranch was regranted by Governor Pío Pico in 1845, was involved in the claims issue.


Frémont added that his decision to order Hensley to have the cattle delivered to Stearns was “without expense to the United States” and, thereby, justified.  Frémont went on to note that he went to Monterey to meet with Kearny at the end of March, just weeks after the Célis deals, and discussed “these liabilities,” but he claimed that “the interview was of such a character as to induce me to offer my resignation to him.”

Also offered in the letter were quotations from the court-martial in which Kearny was asked about the meeting with Frémont and replied that he didn’t recall being asked if he would assume the responsibility for the debts, but would have refused.  The questioner, likely Benton or Jones, claimed that “those expenses are not protested to the amount of some twenty thousand dollars, and subject to be doubled, and he [Frémont] to be sued for the whole.”


Frémont further wrote Marcy that “it was notorious in the country that General Kearny refused to recognize these liabilities, and even to depreciate their value by disparaging remarks.  He also addressed the question of whether the interest rate and the price of cattle in the Célis agreement were too high, offering trial testimony to the contrary.

Added to the letter was a “Statement of the average prices of military supplies of all descriptions in California before and during the war.”  This is a rare and valuable source of the cost of goods in that era (provided it was accurate) and includes such figures as:

Horses and miles, from $25-35

Saddles, from $30-40

Bridles, from $6-10

Spurs, from $6-10

Botas [boots], from $4-8

Rifles, from $50-100 [very scarce]

Powder, 2 per pound

Lead, 37 1/2 cents per pound

Percussion caps, $10 per thousand

Beef cattle, from $8-10 per head

Flour, $10 per hundred pounds

Sugar, from $37-50 per hundred pounds

Coffee, $50 per hundred pounds

Frémont informed Marcy that “the contract with Célis was a good one for the United States and entered into by him as an act of friendship with the United States.”  He added testimony from his appointed secretary of state, William H. Russell, about the “wise and humane treatment of Colonel Frémont towards the conquered population” which meant that “his popularity became very great in the country” and, consequently, that this “enabled him to do what no other man . . . could have done, to obtain supplies on credit.”


Answering Mason’s claim that Frémont should have applied for help from the quartermaster at Monterey, Frémont replied that disputes between Stockton and Kearny over leadership of postwar California meant that he would have “derived no benefit from that quartermaster.”  Any assistance came from Stockton, who went to Mexico leaving Frémont behind as governor.

Frémont added that his contracts with Célis were done two days before Kearny issued a proclamation that he was taking over as governor.  He also addressed another charge from Mason about the borrowing of funds at usurious interest from José Antonio Cot, also of Los Angeles, and which was mentioned in an earlier part of this post.  Again, Frémont stated the rate of interest was typical for California.


Moreover, Frémont reasserted that Kearny did not communicate with him at all about his movements and plans during the days and weeks following the contracts made with Célis and Cot.  He also defended himself concerning his order for about $1,700 in depreciated paper, to the tune of about 30%, in favor of F. Hultman “in payment of his custom-house dues” at the Port of San Pedro.

The order was given to port collector David W. Alexander, a long-time friend of the Workman and Temple families.  The government paper issued at “the usual discount” in customs dues were, Frémont explained, as “a mode of paying for the supplies.”  Notably, Frémont said that his order to Alexander was at first verbal and then in writing “to authenticate the transaction.”


Frémont reiterated that “my situation in California was difficult and arduous,” far from the rest of the United States and lacking in support.  He said that he and his staff knew every transaction functioned “as an act of friendship to the United States” as well as a necessity for governing.  He claimed that, if Commodore Stockton remained in California instead of going to Mexico, he would have paid these claims out of naval funds.

A lengthy quotation from United States consul at Monterey, Thomas Oliver Larkin called for the claims to be accepted and paid, as coming from those who acted “with good will and readiness,” adding that overland emigrants to California arriving in fall 1846 “came forward and lent or sold this little all to fight for their country, and secure California for the United States and make a home for themselves under our flag.”  Larkin added that some of these settlers were “almost in rags” and suffering from “the crush of their hopes” because of unpaid claims.  What this had to do with the Célis and Cot deals, however, went unexplained.

This remarkable missive ended with Frémont imploring that “policy as well as justice requires these claims to be now paid with the least possible delay.”  Next, we conclude this post with the last of the documents in this very informative report.


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