“The Centre of a Wide-Spread and Profitable Commerce”: The Report of Gilbert Rodman on California Customs Revenue, 1850

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Unintentional though it is, the pairing of this post with yesterday’s on the Los Angeles Union Terminal is a good one as they two relate to the stunning transformation of the economics of California over six decades from the Gold Rush period to the mid to late 1910s.

Tonight’s post looks at, from the museum’s collection, a “Report of the Secretary of the Treasury” following a United States Senate resolution seeking “information relating to the security and collection of the revenue in California.”  Specifically, the document includes a remarkable report by Treasury Department special agent Gilbert Rodman on the conditions of customs collection and other matters “in relation to the public interests of California,” dated at the end of August 1850,  just a few weeks before statehood.

The larger report was submitted to the Senate on 18 September 1850 and, ten days later, there was an order to print 500 copies beyond the number provided to the members of that body.  The Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Corwin recommended that “new collection [of customs] districts of Monterey and San Diego be established” and that the communities of Benicia, Stockton and Sacramento be given the same privileges for allowing customs duties of imported material as existed for other American cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and others situated along major river routes.


San Francisco was a booming Gold Rush community and Corwin called for “ample provision . . . for the accommodation of the officers of the customs, and the prompt and economical discharge of their important duties.”  He suggested a new customs house be built there.  Further, the secretary recommended the building of a marine hospital for “the great number of American seamen frequenting the ports of California” and their needs when sick and disabled.

Another key request of Corwin was the establishment at San Francisco of a branch of the federal mint, testimony to the burgeoning importance of the city.  He also observed that, despite the growing commerce on the seas along the Pacific coast, there was not a single lighthouse along its shores.  He called for “liberal appropriations” for such purposes, as well as “the vigorous prosecution of the survey of the coast of California and Oregon.”

Rodman (1800-1862) was born in Pennsylvania and worked for a Philadelphia merchant before becoming an attorney after studying with future Vice-President George Dallas, who served under President James K. Polk.  Rodman became a staff member in the Treasury Department by 1830 and remained chief clerk until his death.  He was named a special agent for the purpose of investigating the situation in California and his report was dated 21 August 1850.

In his statement, Rodman stated early on that “the present organization for securing and collecting the revenue from customs in California is deemed wholly inadequate,” noting that an act of Congress from March 1849 for collecting customs revenues was for “the case of a minor port of entry only.”  The stunning discovery of gold and massive migration of new settlers, however, considerably changed conditions.


The lack of a federal court system in California, moreover, “seriously impedes the proper enforcement of the collection and revenue laws, and moreover deprives the masters and owners of vessels of the usual protection afforded them by law.”  Local jurists and officials in San Francisco took matters into their own hands and created confusion for those bringing goods and materials in.

Rodman reported that, in terms of revenue generation from shipping, “Upper California now ranks with the five principal ports of the Union” with collections rivaling those of New Orleans.  This required “the full complement of officers and other facilities” found “at other principal ports of entry.”

In addition, the 1849 legislation made all of Alta California a single collections district with San Francisco the sole port of entry, while “ports of delivery” were established at Monterey, San Diego, and the junction of the Colorado and Gila Rivers (where Yuma, Arizona is now).  Having one port of entry was a hindrance from having foreign trade at the other locations.

So, Rodman argued that Monterey and San Diego be reclassified as ports of entry and stated that ports of delivery for the latter be established at Santa Barbara and the very rudimentary port at San Pedro.  The special agent also recommended that collections districts and port of entry designations be given to Benicia, Stockton and Sacramento and discussed in some detail why these riverside cities warranted this assignment.


In laying out why such major changes were needed, Rodman’s description of the rapidly changing economic picture of California is noteworthy:

The great incentive given to business and enterprise by the discovery of gold in California, and the astonishing rapidity with which that country is becoming populated, present an anomalous condition of things, admitting of no fair comparison or analogy with any other section of our country; and hence, in legislating for that region, proper regard should be had to the peculiar state of affairs there existing, and all safe and reasonable facilities should be afforded by law to aid in the development of its resources, and foster trade and enterprise in this important and surprising portion of the Union.

Rodman reported that “the only public building belonging to the United States at San Francisco is an old dilapidated ‘adobe’ building, formerly constructed and used by the Mexican government as a custom-house.”  There was, however, a four-story brick building used as a custom-house and rented for $3,000 a month, but the agent called for “a suitable fire-proof building upon the old custom-house lot on Portsmouth square,” where Chinatown is today, which he felt could be built for $200,000.  He also called for the marine hospital to be built, as well as the federal mint branch, with Rincon Point (where the Oakland Bay Bridge is now) a suitable spot.

With respect to lighthouses, Rodman acknowledged that, though this matter “is not specifically embraced in my instructions, my attention was nevertheless given to the matter.”  He asked Navy Lieutenant Thomas A. Budd to make recommendations for the establishment of these facilities south of San Francisco and Captain Otinger of the “revenue marine” to do so for areas to the north of the city.


As for the pay of revenue officers, the agent suggested new rates “in consideration of the very high prices of living in California,” due to the ferment of the Gold Rush.  He recommended a $10,000 salary for the customs collector at San Francisco, half that amount for the deputy, $2,000 for the deputies at Monterey, San Diego and the Colorado/Gila rivers junction and other amounts for lesser officers.  This included $4 per day for an inspector at San Pedro.

Wrapping up his report, Rodman expounded further on the extraordinary conditions in California:

the interests of commerce and navigation on the western coast of the United States have already risen to an importance and magnitude hardly to be conceived by any one who has not witnesses the commercial activity displayed at all the business points in California.  The proverbial energy and enterprise of our citizens is exhibited in stronger contrast on the shored of the Pacific than anywhere else . . . Without, at this time, the agricultural and manufacturing ability to feed or clothe her population, California may, nevertheless, be regarded as having at her command every species of product that enters into the commerce of the world . . . the rapid increase of population and trade, and the rich development of mineral resource referred to, demonstrate the ability of California to maintain a large and profitable exchange for whatever products commerce may bring to her shores  This peculiarity of condition must, it is though, ere long, make California an enterpot of commerce, and a point where merchandise will be collected to be exported thence to the numerous markets springing into importance on the Pacific coast of South America, and those of Asia, Australia, and the islands of the Pacific and Indian oceans.

He concluded by predicting that “there is every reason for a confident expectation that she is destined to become, at no distant day, the centre of a wide-spread and profitable commerce . . . [with] revenue from customs from that region equal to any of the larger ports of the union, with the exception of New York.”

Among the supporting documents provided by Rodman is Budd’s letter, dated 15 July 1850 from “at sea,” in which he identified the several locations considered ideal for a lighthouse.  This included the recommendation that “at Point Vicente, or Vermine, the western extreme of the land near Port San Pedro, (the seaport of Los Angeles,) within the Santa Barbara canal, there should be a permanent light and a fog bell of large size.”  Budd also had suggestions for lights off the coast of Mexico and Latin America down to Panama.


This report is an important one for trying to regulate commerce, particularly in revenue generation for imports, in California just before statehood and during the considerable flux of the Gold Rush.  While it was obvious in 1850 that San Francisco was to be the dominant port of entry and San Pedro was hardly mentioned, developments over the next half-century would change the conditions dramatically.

Federal appropriations at San Pedro and Wilmington, established by Phineas Banning as New San Pedro just a few years after this report was issued, would begin modestly in the early 1870s and expand mightily after the “Free Harbor Fight” led to the federal selection of San Pedro/Wilmington over Santa Monica as the main port in greater Los Angeles.  The Port of Los Angeles is one of the busiest in the world and has been the busiest container port in the United States for twenty years.  Together with the Port of Long Beach, almost three quarters of the west coast’s and nearly a third of the nation’s portion of market share is generated.



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