by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We conclude this series of posts on a remarkable August 1848 House of Representatives report on claims emanating from California in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War with the final cache of documents included as part of material gathered to highlight contracts made by acting governor John C. Frémont in spring 1847 and claims made on them afterward.
For example, there was a 5 June 1847 letter to Secretary of War William L. Marcy by William A. Leidesdorff, a remarkable figure in California. Born in the Virgin Islands, his father was Danish and his mother a part-black “creole.” Leidesdorff was sent to New Orleans to work as a merchant and then went to Mexican California where, as a ship captain, he brokered exchanges between California (with raw cattle hides as an article of trade) and Hawaii (which offered sugar in return).
Settling in Yerba Buena, later renamed San Francisco, Leidesdorff built many firsts in that small pueblo, including its first shipping warehouse, hotel, and lumberyard, among other endeavors. In addition to possessing substantial property in the town, he, as a naturalized Mexican citizen, owned ranch land near what became Sacramento. He also was a supporter of the American seizure of California and readily supplied the occupying forces.
In his letter, written from the “Town of St. Joseph’s,” better known to us as San José, Leidesdorff informed Marcy that, while serving as U.S. vice consul (Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey served as consul), “I supplied Colonel J.C. Frémont with a small quantity of supplies for his exploring party, on account of the United States government.” After Frémont was found by Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, as hostilities reached California, Leidesdorff “furnished cash for the purchase of supplies of arms, ammunition, provisions, and all the necessary articles for the volunteers who were enlisted for the United States service in California.” This totaled over $3,700.
Moreover, Leidesdorff “advanced on account of the United States government, upwards of $5,000 . . . for the seizure of the horses, saddles, arms, ammunition, &c., but also to deprive the Californians of all means of resistance to the arms of the United States.” With nearly $9,000 expended, the merchant added that a part of this “was actually borrowed by me upon interest of two per cent per month, (the customary rate of this country,” in the firm belief that I should be fully remunerated.”
Significantly, however, Leidesdorff reported to Marcy that “I have not been able to procure Colonel Frémont’s acknowledgement or approval of my accounts,” though he sought him out in Monterey. He added “I sent a clerk to obtain the required approval of my accounts, but I regret to say that Colonel Frémont would not even answer my letter of look at my vouchers or accounts.” The merchant wrote, “this conduct appears to me to be so inexplicable.”
Leidesdorff continued that “I have already exhausted all arguments with the commanding officers in California, for recovering the above amounts,” but they told him they could not be held responsible for the actions of Frémont. This in mind, he offered this frustrated rejoinder:
It is truly a hard case, sir, that individuals who have placed reliance in the acts of an officer of the United States army, should suffer such serious embarrassments in the delay of the payment of just debts; and which acts no person in this country can be made to believe that Colonel Frémont was not authorized by his government to perform, especially on his return from Oregon in company with Lieutenant Gillespie.
He ended by imploring Marcy to answer his letter “and release me from debts that I have contracted for some of the very supplies furnished to Colonel Frémont.”
The next document was a 25 May 1848 letter to Marcy by Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup at Washington, D.C., who informed the Secretary of War that “it is known that claims to a large amount are outstanding in California,” but Jesup could only answer that “having no official information on the subject, I am unable to form even a conjecture as to the amount,” only repeating that “it is believed, however, to be large.” He asked the quartermaster under General Stephen Watts Kearny, who brought court-martial charges against Frémont, to provide any information available.
This was Thomas Swords, whose letter to Jesup the same day, included the statement that, “claims were frequently presented to me for payment for horses and other supplies” used for Frémont’s California Battalion. Because, though, the battalion was not formally mustered into Army service, Swords continued, “I had no authority to pay for these articles, which was the cause of so much dissatisfaction in the country.” Though Swords could not provide a figure, he did add that “believing most of them to be just, I think it incumbent on the government that some means should be adopted to equitably settle such as are so.
Marcy’s reply to Leidesdorff, dated 22 September 1847, merely stated that he could not, “without your accounts and vouchers” do anything to assist the merchant because “it is impossible for this department to say whether your claims are such as can be paid under existing laws, or whether they will have to await the action of Congress.” He suggested Leidesdorff send whatever accounts and accompanying explanation that he could as “the best evidence you can obtain to substantiate the facts” and forward them to the War Department’s accounting officers.
The remaining several documents, dated 15 June 1848, concerned statements from several men, including the secretary of state under Frémont, William H. Russell, about the fact that “cows are the preferred beef of California” and that “there are but comparatively few bullocks or altered males old enough for beef.” These latter, though, were “annually slaughtered for the hides and tallow,” this being the main engine of the California economy to date. Russell added that interest rates had “never been less than 20 per cent, and in times of scarcity” could approach 50%.
Another testimonial was offered by Edward M. Kern, for whom the central California county was named and who was the artist on Frémont’s exploring expedition until he was appointed a lieutenant of the California Battalion by Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Kern commanded Fort Sacramento until the battalion was disbanded on 25 March 1847. He stated that, while there, he “always procured cows as the best beef,” because steers and bulls were used “only as hide and tallow, that being the currency of the country.” He concluded by noting the average price of cows was $10.
Henry King, the commissary officer for the California Battalion, also stated that as “he made numerous purchases of cattle . . . the greatest proportion of the cattle were cows” because locals used steers for the hides and tallow. King added that “it was the general custom of the country, also, to prefer the meat of the cows, as being both more tender and sweet.” As to price, there was a line at Monterey, below which the cost per head was eight dollars and above which it was ten.
Alexis Godey, another member of the Frémont party as a valuable scout and who became a second lieutenant in the California Battalion, stated that “in procuring supplies, we always preferred cows to any other meat” and repeated the distinction between Californios preferring them for food, while steers were raised for the hides and tallow.
Finally, there was Raphael Prone, another Frémont exploring expedition veteran and California Battalion member, and, naturally, he corroborated what the others said about the preference of cows over steers and offered little more than that.
This report is a treasure trove of information of several types. First, it is part of the evidence gathered in the prosecution of claims against the government for actions made directly or under the command of John C. Frémont as acting governor of California immediately after the American seizure. Next, references to Frémont’s court-martial are notable in the context of his actions in purchasing supplies, such as cattle, as well as borrowing money outside established law and military regulations. Additionally, there is some valuable information about the prices of goods and animals in 1840s California, as well as prevailing interest rates on loans. Finally, there are references to notable residents of the region, including Abel Stearns, Eulogio de Célis, John Rowland, José Antonio Cot, and David W. Alexander, among others.
As mentioned before in this series, Frémont was court-martialed on charges of mutiny, disobedience and conduct prejudicing good order and military discipline. It was not just his contracting of money and supplies, but other acts, including his purchase of Alcatraz Island from F.P.F. Temple, that led to the extraordinary proceeding.
Despite his powerful father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas H. Benton as one of his attorneys (the other was William Carey Jones, also married to a daughter of the senator and who later wrote a report on the validity of Spanish and Mexican land grants in California), Frémont was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to dismissal from the Army with the loss of all privileges.
President James K. Polk set aside the mutiny conviction and ordered Frémont to report back to Army service with his rank restored, but, highly offended, Frémont resigned his commission. His foils in California emerged with their reputations tarnished as their conduct was not without fault or blame. Commodore Stockton resigned in 1850, while Kearny was reassigned to govern captured Mexican cities and died of disease shortly afterward. Frémont actually emerged as the first Republican Party candidate for president in 1856, but lost to former Secretary of State James Buchanan, whose single term ended with the country readying for division and the horrors of the Civil War.