“As It Were By Magic”: A Deeper Look at “T. Butler King’s Report on California,” 22 March 1850, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Five years ago, before changes were made to this blog with deeper dives into regional history, mainly through historic artifacts in the Homestead’s collection, there was a post with a brief summary of “T. Butler King’s Report on California,” dated 22 March 1850 and ordered printed, with 20,000 copies by the House of Representatives five days later (and an additional 10,000 about two weeks after that.)

The report by the special agent (and member of the House and Georgia planter) is a significant document on the early years of California as a new American possession and this multi-part post presents some of the remarkable material it contains, in terms of a general view of conditions there, with specifics about population, climate, soil, its products, the status of public lands, commercial resources, and mineral wealth (the Gold Rush was in full swing.)

King (1800-1864) was from Palmer, Massachusetts, in the south-central portion of the Bay State and, after receiving his education in his native state, he studied law in Allentown, Pennsylvania and then joined a brother, in 1823, in southeast Georgia, along its coast. He married the daughter of a wealthy cotton planter on St. Simons Island, roughly between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida, but he preferred politics, serving several terms in the George Senate before becoming a member of the House of Representatives, where he was a major advocate of the improvements of canals, harbors, ports and railroads. He resigned his house seat in 1850 as he was ensconced in California.

Disappointed at not being chosen to be Zachary Taylor’s secretary of the navy, King accepted his special agent appointment and arrived in San Francisco in early June 1849, two months after he left the east by way of the Panama isthmus. Other than a two-month illness that left him bedridden, King scoured California for useful information for his report, but did not return to deliver it, choosing instead to stay in San Francisco as the federal revenue collector at its port under Millard Fillmore, who became president after Taylor’s death.

Though he failed twice to secure election as a senator from the Golden State, his untiring lobbying for port and rail projects led to his being hired by the “Big Four” of Crocker, Hopkins, Huntington and Stanford and their Central Pacific Railroad and its Southern Pacific subsidiary to lobby for their transcontinental and regional projects in Washington. At the end of the Fifties, King returned to Georgia after the deaths of his wife and a son and he remained there, though he also served under the Confederacy as a trade representative in Europe, until his death in 1864, not long before the end of the Civil War.

King’s report began with the observation that his ship coming into San Francisco also brought the news “that Congress had failed to aid the Executive [Taylor] in providing a government for the people’ of California.” Citing that residents labored under “the greatest anxiety” and wished to know “the cause of this neglect” by Washington and what they were to do given “the painful and embarrassing position in which they were placed,” the agent indicated that his report was “a brief sketch of their condition.”

First, he averred, Americans arriving to seek their fortunes in the gold fields were accustomed to American law and courts, but “they found their rights of property and person subject to the uncertain, and frequently most oppressive, operation of laws written in a language they did not understand, and founded on principles in many respects new to them.” While it is true that elements of the Mexican and Spanish systems were maintained, this was by order of American military governors and King claimed “there was not a single volume containing those laws, as far as I know or believe” anywhere, save for the governor’s office at Monterey.

Among the problems that resulted, he went on, was inequitable justice as “the opinions of judges were conflicting and variable,” while among other elements, “the greatest confusion prevailed respecting titles to property” because no provision was made for what to do under American military rule. Cities and towns popped up, but without charters or other legal operating procedures to provide for police forces, jails “or providing any of those means for the protectionof life and property which are so necessary in all civil communities, and especially among a people mostly strangers to each other.”

Some $1.5 million in revenue was collected as customs houses, but “the people complained bitterly that they were thus heavily taxed without being provided with a government for their protection.” With a lack of action from Congress, King went on, California residents “resolved to substitute laws of their own for the existing system, and to establish tribunals for their proper and faithful administration.” San Francisco, Sonoma and San Francisco had their own legislative bodies and more were forthcoming “had they not been arrested by the formation of a State government,” this before the actual admission of California into the Union, which took place in September 1850.

Previous territories achieved that status slowly as population generally came in dribs and drabs, agriculture was introduced and it took some years before statewhood would be considered. King added,

Not so with California. The discovery of the vast metallic and mineral wealth in her mountains had already attracted to her, in the space of twelve months, more than one hundred thousand people. An extensive commerce had sprung up with China, the ports of Mexico on the Pacific, Chili [sic], and Australia.

The possession’s maritime importance was noted by the fact that it “has a border on the Pacific of ten degrees of atitude and several important harbors which have never been surveyed; nor is there a buoy, a beacon, a light-house, or a fortification, on the whole coast.” Moreover, the nearest docks for the repair of vessels was in New York, twenty thousand miles around Cape Horn. These, along with the need for management of the gold fields and quicksilver mines (such as New Almaden in the Coast Range), dealing with public lands, and others “required the immediate formation of a more perfect civil government.” As stated by King,

California had, as it were by magic, become a State of great wealth and power. One short year had given her a commercial importance but little inferior to that of the most powerful of the old States. She had passed her minority at a single bound, and might justly be regarded as fully entitled to take her place as an equal among her sisters of the Union.

In the decision to form a government without a decision by a Congress riven by sectional divisions, the agent noted, “they not only considered themselves best qualified, but that they had the right, to decide, as far as they were concerned, the embarrassing question which was shaking the Union to its centre, and had thus far deprived them of a regularly-organized civil government.” Namely, California’s residents would decide whether slavery was to be permitted and that this would be accepted by the North and South, because states, it was argued that northern states understood, had that power of self-determination, while territories did not. Southern states, however, did not feel that Congress had no ability limit slavery in territories, but the people there, as in states, could choose either way.

King observed that on 3 June, the day before he arrived, military Governor Bennet Riley called for a constitutional convention and that this was taken up quickly, but he felt it vital to add that “I had no secret instructions, verbal or written, from the President or any one else, what to say to the people of California on the subject of slavery; nor was it ever hinted or intimated to me that I was expected to attempt to influence their action in the slightest degree on that subject. That I never did, the people of California will bear me witness.” Any assertions he had such a portfolio were categorically denied.

Meanwhile, King headed to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to tour the teeming gold fields and he was there until mid-August after the election of delegates took place. Four days after returning, he became seriously ill and was confined to bed for over two months. As the convention convened on the 1st of September, he noted “my illness is sufficient proof that I did not and could not, had I been disposed, exercise any influence in the convention, which was sitting one hundred and thirty miles from where I was.”

Addressing claims “that the South was not fairly represented in the convention,” the agent reported that he was told by two of those elected to represent California in Congress that, of 37 delegates, sixteen were from slave states, ten from free states, and eleven were Californios or naturalized Mexicans, with all but one of the latter from the southern California region. This meant that 26 of 37 men drafting the constitution were wither from slave states or “from places south of the MIssouri compromise line [established by Congress in 1820].” He added “that the clause in the constitution excluding slavery passed unanimously.”

Turning to his several core areas of the report, King provided statistics from two early sources by foreigners visiting California, including Alexander von Humboldt’s statemen that, in 1802, there were more than 15,500 converted indigenous people and 1,300 of “other classes.” Nearly thirty years later, Alexander Forbes, in his History of Upper and Lower California, found that, in 1831, there were just under 19,000 neophytes and over 4,300 of the “other classes.” Forbes did not believe there was much change in those numbers prior to the date of his publication in 1839.

By the end of the American seizure of California during the Mexican-American War, King stated “it was suposed that there were . . . from ten to fifteen thousand Americans and Californians, exclusive of converted Indians in the Territory.” For the year 1849, the immigration was of 80,000 Americans and 20,000 foreigners, a dramatic change in the possession’s demographics and meaning the non-native population was some 115,000 persons.

King went on to aver that “it is quite impossible to form anything like an accurate estimate of the number of Indians in the Territory. Between the war and the Gold Rush, “their numbers at the missions, and in the valleys near the coast, have very much diminished. In fact, the whole race seems to be rapidly disappearing.” He testified to the fact that there were many villages in the Sierras that likely had large populations, but “where there is not now an Indian to be seen.” Those working for “the old Californians” might number “a few thousand in the whole Territory.”

The agent did note that “it is said there are large numbers of them in the mountains and valleys about the head-waters of the San Joaquin, along the western base of the Sierra, and in the northern part of the Territory, and that they are hostile.” He mentioned reports of indigenous people attacking whites in several locations, but did not acknowledge that this was because of the sudden and striking incursion of Americans and Europeans in their lands. While some sources suggested the numbers of these natives was around 3,000, King expressed surprise if there was a third of that figure. Repeating that these were hostile, he added “they ought to be chastised for the murders already committed,” though the numbers of natives killed by miners and other settlers was apparently not reported by him.

King had a very negative opinion of natives he encountered in the lower Sierra foothills, calling them “almost the lowest grade of human beings,” given to eating acorns, roots, insects and some fish and game, but, while they had bows and arrows, he reported that the indigenous people “are said to be too lazy and effeminate to make successful hunters.” As for agriculture, they would only do this “when they are induced to enter the service of the white inhabitants,” one such of these being William Workman, who had native employees on his portion of Rancho La Puente (as did John Rowland, owner of the other half.)

The agent continued that natives “are lazy, idle to the last degree, and, although they are said to be willing to give their services to anyone who will provide them with blankets, beef, and bread, it is with much difficulty they can be made to perform labor enough to reward their employers for these very limited means of comfort.” By contrast, the neophytes at the mision “seem to be faithful and intelligent,” but “those who are at all in a wild and uncultivated state are most degraded objects of filth and idleness.” King concluded by saying it was possible the natives would acquire “the arts and habits of civilization,” but it was more likely “they will disappear from the face of the earth as the settlements of the whites extend over the country,” and these latter would need military protection from the natives.

In his section on the climate, King observed that it “is so remarkable in its periodical changes, and for the long continuance of the wet and dry seasons . . . which have a most peculiar influence on the labor applied to agriculture and the products of the soil.” He discussed what became known as the Santa Ana wind effect, mainly in the south, as the northeast flow “pass over the hills and plains of California, where the temperature is very high in summer, in a very dry state; and, so far from being charged with moisture, they absorb, like a sponge, all that the atmosphere and surface of the earth can yield, until both become apparently perfectly dry.” The wet season then was from about mid-November through mid-May, as cold weather came from the northern Pacific “or, perhaps, from the Arctic” and also brought fog, though he added that survey work needed to be done regarding these features.

In terms of the landscape, King noted that below 39 degrees latitude and west of the Sierras, the forested areas are “scattering groves of oak in the valleys and along the borders of the streams, and of red wood on the ridges and on the gorges of the hills.” Some hills were covered with shrubs, whle much of “the whole Territory presents a surface without trees or shrubbery,” but these areas were filled with grasses “which in the valleys grow most luxuriantly” during the wet season, though the hot summers caused a major diminution of these.

While San Francisco with its cold winds and fog could be “uncomfortable to those not accustomed to it in suymmer than in winter,” just a little inland, “the climate is moderate and delightful,” with the heat “not so great as to retard labor or render exercise in the open air uncomfortable.” Nights were “cool and pleasant,” but as one moved into the great central valleys, the heat could be much higher, though “it is dry, however, and probably not more oppressive.”

These observations should be understood with the knowledge that King did not, apparently, venture to the south, so his comments are limited to the Bay Area, Central Valley and the Sierras, where he spent his time between June 1849 and early the following year. The only mention of the south came from statements made by Army officers who provided temperature readings from Los Angeles and San Diego. From the Angel City, the figures were given by “Assistant Surgeon John S. Griffin,” who came with the invading American Army and stayed to become one of the area’s most prominent citizens.

King concluded his statements about the climate by observing that “we ought not to be surprised at the dislike which the immigrants frequently express to the climate” as “it is so unlike that from which they come, that they cannot readily appreciate its advantages, or become reconciled to its extremes of dry and wet.” Not stated was the fact that California was such a large territory and with so many climatic areas, but the agent added

If a native of California were to go to New England in winter and see the ground frozen and covered with snow, the streams with ice, and find himself in a temperature many degrees colder than he had ever felt before, he would probably be as much surprised that people could or would live in so inhospitable a region as any immigrant ever has been at what he has seen or felt in California.

So much are our opinions influenced by early impressions, the vicissitudes of the season with which we are familiar, love of country, home, and kindred, that we ought never to hazard a hasty opinion when we come in contact with circumstances entirely different from those to which we have all our lives been accustomed.

One could apply these sentiments to the encountering of people from other areas, though that likely did not enter King’s mind!

We’ll return tomorrow with the next part in this series concerning King’s views on the soil, products, public lands, and commercial resources of California, so check back with us then.

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