by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In his remarkable report to Congress, dated 22 March 1850 and ordered printed five days later (with an additional number produced two weeks after that), Thomas Butler King, a George representative in Congress and a special agent appointed by President Zachary Taylor to investigate conditions of California, provided much detail on a variety of areas in that possession, then in the full throes of the Gold Rush.
Yesterday’s post included a general overview and examinations of the population and climate, while today we look into other areas, such as soil, products, public lands, and commercial resources, as King delved into the possibilities of what California had to offer, though his analysis was largely confined to the Bay Area, Central Valley, and gold-producing areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Still, his report was among the earliest detailed accounts just after the seizure of California during the Mexican-American War and as the Gold Rush was developing.
As to the soil, the agent noted that “the valleys which are situted parallel to the coast range, and those which extend eastwardly in all directions among the hills towards the great plain of the Sacramento, are of unsurpassed fertility.” He recorded that the massive central valley was apparently a huge lake with the major rivers draining from the Sierra Nevada “having cut their channels through the alluvial deposits after it had been formed.” In this location, King continud, “the soil is very rich, and, with a proper system of drainage and embankment, would undoubtedly be capable of producing any crop, except sugar-cane, now cultivated in the Atlantic States of the Union.”
In the western Sierra foothills, once mining was reduced, a large number of people could be there to farm, while, for the east side of the range, “there is no information sufficiently accurate . . . to enable us to form any opinion of its general character.” There were miners, though, who said that portions of that area were “equal to any portion of the country to the westward of it.”
What the agent called “the great valley of the Colorado, situated between the Sierra Madre [the San Gabriel range] and the Sierra Nevada” was “inhabited by numerous tribes of savages, who manifest the most decided hostility towards the whites, and have hitehrto preventd any explorations of their country, and do not permit emigrants to pass through it.” He added the migrants from Santa Fe were “compelled to make a circuit of near a thousand miles northward to the Salt Lake,” basically the Old Spanish Trail used by the Workmans in late 1841, or “about the same distance southward by the route of the Gila,” which many emigrants used to come in through Warner’s Pass, Temecula, Chino and into the San Gabriel Valley and Los Angeles. King observed that “although this valley is little known, there are indications that it is fertile and valuable, though which section is not clear as much of this region is arid desert.
The word “Colorado” for the river of that name had to do with the red color found in the water, indicating fertile soils, though the name was bestowed on it by the Spanish because of silts and sediments found further upstream from the California portion. King added that it was likely that “this river flows through an alluvial valley of great fertility, which has never been explored” and felt that the Indian resistance to whites traveling through the area supported this supposition. Of course, with irrigation, the Imperial Valley in southeast California later proved to be very fertile. It was also vital to survey this area, he went on, “as it is highly probable that . . . the line of the great national railway to Pacific [will go] through some portion of it.”
With respect to the “Products of California,” King reported that during the Mexican era “the exportable products of the country consisted almost exclusively of hides and tallow” as “the Californians were a pastroal people, and paid much more attention to the raising of horses and cattle than the cultivation of the soil.” There was the raising of such crops as barley, beans, edible roots, maize and wheat “for home consumption,” however. In the pre-American period, cattle fetched some $2 per head, but “beef cattle . . . are now worth from $20 to $30 per head,” while horses that were priced at some $5-10 “are now valuyed at $60 to $150.” It can easily be seen why the Workmans, Temples and other ranchers of the south made such significant sums during the heyday of the Gold Rush.
King stated that there were about a half million cattle in California and, with about 120,000 residents, that ratio led him to conclude that the population would be some 520,000 persons. As for beef consumption, it was averred that 60,000 head would be processed in 1850 and be near double that in 1851 with another doubling within three years. He viewed this as “a very important matter” as “there is no other country on earth which has, or will ever possess, the means of supplying so great a demand,” perhaps 100,000 head of beef cattle each year.
Meanwhile, oxen, pulling wagons and other conveyances for migrants and cows, coming in large numbers from Missouri, meant that it was expected that “cattle from the western States will be driven annually by tens of thousands to supply this new market,” including the vaunted longhorns from Texas. Additionally, King reported that a stock trader left the prior winter for New Mexico and intended to bring 10,000 sheep back, showing that such sources would supply Pacific markets.
As to crops, the agent noted that oats, barely, rye and like field crops could be raised without irrigation, though the use of this technique was successfully undertaken at the missions under Spain and Mexico. Still, he continued, “there is abundant evidence to prove that, in the rich alluvial valleys, wheat and barely have produced from forty to sixty bushels from one bushel of seed, without irrigation [italics original].” William Workman certainly found the soil on La Puente to be such that massive yields of field crops and other agricultural produce could regularly be had, much of this without irrigation.
Also discussed was that “the cultivation of the grape had attracted much attention at the missions, among the residents of towns, and the rural population, and been attended with much success, wherever it has been attempted.” The dry climate, unlike in the East, such as in New York, limited effects from diseases. King reported that “the wine made from it is of excellent quality, very palatable, and can be produced in any quantity” while “the grapes are delicious, and produced with very little labor.” Dried by stems in warehouses, “they become partially dry, retain their flavor, and remain several weeks, perhaps months, without decay.” Here, too, Workman found success in raising grapes and, later, making wine and greater Los Angeles was California’s original wine-making center.
The two long wet and dry seasons, without the burdens of frost and snow found in the east, were also vital to the possibilities of California’s productive agriculture and he added “that irrigation would be of very great importance” so that the surveying and allocation of land by the government was a major priority. King did note that, in the throes of the dry season, vegegation died off or dried out to such an extent that “these materials . . . are very combustible, and usually take fire in the latter part of summer and beginning of autumn, which commonly passes over the whole country, destoying in its course the young shrubs and trees.”
With proper maintenance and management, though, farmers could mitigate the damage caused by such matters and “time may be usefully employed in sowing various grain and root crops during the wet or winter season.” Again, there was the great virtue of having “perfect security of alol crops in harvest-time from injury by wet weather.” In the north, forests were of such quality and extent that they would be able “to supply the wants of the southern and western portions of” California. Meanwhile, as long as the Gold Rush was in effect and “as laborers can earn fifteen dollars or more per day in collecting gold,” agriculture would be stunted and imported food would be of great importance.
Turning to the “Public Domain,” King observed that “the extent and value of the public lands suitable for agricultural purposs in California cannot be ascertained with any degree of accuracy” until it was understood how much land was held under title issued under Spain and Mexico that would be considered valid under American rule. Moreover, “most of the land fit for cultivation south of latitude 39 [degrees], and west of the valley of the Sacramento and San Joaquin,” that is, along the coast, “is claimed under what purport to be grants from the Mexican government. While grants reserved minerals and metals to the government, the agent noted that many terms of grants were not followed so that “boundaries described [could] embrace two or three times as much land as the grant conveys.”
Additionally, King noted that land grants were to be confirmed by the central government in Mexico City, but that the distance and problems in communication “made a compliance with the law so expensive and tardy that it came to be almost disregarded.” Conditions in pre-American California were such that “there was room enough for all” and land was not valued for more than cattle grazing, so “the claimants or proprietors did not molest one another, or inquire into the validity of titles,” while surveys were very general and “might allow of a variation of sevral miles in the establishment of a corner with chain and compass.”
A key issue, he felt, dealt with that “want of compliance on the part of the grantees with the conditions of their grants” as well as “a want of perfection in the grants” with their titles. King added,
this is a subject of very great importance, not only to the people of California, but to the United States, and calls for prompt and efficient action on the part of the government. It is believed that the appointment of competent commissioners, fully empowered to investigate thesr titles in a spirit of kindness towards the claimants, with power to confirm such titles as justice may seem to demand, or with instructions to report their proceedings and awards to Congress for confirmation or rejection, will be the best and perhaps the only satisfactory mode of adjusting this complex and difficult question.
Just shy of a year later, the California land claims act was passed to do basically what King here described, though it took seventeen years on average to adjudicate claims and a great deal (the end of the Gold Rush, floods and droughts in the first half of the Sixties, and more) took place that led to the loss and/or division of land grants. The Workmans and Temples managed to make it through this period with their ranches intact, but many others, mostly Californios but some Americans and Europeans, as well, did not.
Land in the far north was not explored or granted and this estimated 20 million acres, the agent went on, included much that “is doubtless valuable for its timber and soil.” In the great Central Valley, there were few grants, so some 12-15 million acres was available for a government to distribute, while the areas aforementioned to the south and east involved massive areas to survey and dispose of, as well. As to the gold region, about 500 miles long and 60 miles wide, it would, at some point “be embraced in the general land system for sale and settlement.”
Good surveys were critical, as was the equitable distribution of water for irrigation and drainage and the canalization of rivers in the Central Valley to conserve water and limit waste. Done well, management of these lands would “make this valley one of the most beautiful and productive portions of the Union.”
Concerning “Commercial Resources,” King reiterated that these “are at present founded entirely on her metallic wealth” with “her vast mineral treasures remainng undeveloped and her fertle soil almost wholly neglected.” This would remain so, as long as gold mining was “more profitable than in any other pursuit which can furnish the sinews of commerce,” though it would soon come to pass that other mineral wealth would be exploited. At the moment, “gold is the product of the country, and is immediately available, in an uncoined state, for all the purposes of exchange,” but was not yet used for foreign commerce.
The issue of “the want of return freights of home production for the vast number of vessels which will arrive with supplies” was important, though King added that having “no calculations on return cargoes,” these ships would determine profit on outward freighting only and thus be “willing carriers for a comparatively small consideration.” Consequently, he went on, this would render “San Francisco a warehouse for the supply, to a certain extent, of all the ports of the Pacific, American, Asiatic and the islands.” Virtually any good brought in “finds a ready market in California” and he suggested a mint that could also assay and coin silver from Mexico and South America, though, within a decade, a silver boom would erupt in Virginia City, Nevada and benefit San Francisco and the Union during the Civil War.
Thanks to the Pacific’s currents, sailing to and from California from long distances was made much quicker and would greatly benefit San Francisco and other ports and King averred that, because countries on the Pacific coast of the Americans “have not exports which find a market in China, or other parts of Asia,” San Francisco would “become not only the mart of these exports, but also of the products and manufactures of Indian required in exchange for them, which must be paid for, principally, in gold coin or gold dust.”
He added that such importers would send the coin or dust “to New York for investment in sterling bills on London” where they would be “placed to the credit of the firm in China from whom the merchandise had been received. This in mind, the agent added
It will thus be perceived that nature has so arranged the winds and currents of the Pacific, and disposed of her vast treasures in the hills and mountains of California, as to give the harbor of San Francisco the control of the commerce of that ocean, as far as it may be connected with the west coast of America.
By the end of the century, though, the Port of Los Angeles would begin to take on a role that would eventually surpass that of San Francisco. Interestingly, King followed his observation with the prediction that “important as the commerce of the Pacific undoubtedly is, and will be, to California, it cannot now, nor will it ever, compare in magnitude and value to the domestic trade between her and the older States of the Union.” Obviously, the future of China as a productive powerhouse could hardly be foreseen!
While California was enmeshed in gold fever and local production limited, King cited the example of lumber pricing in which in summer and fall 1849 it was sold at up to $400 per thousand feet and up to $600 in Stockton and Sacramento, but that recent accounts showed drops to about $75. At this price, he noted “it cannot be made, where labor is from $10 to $15 per day” and manufacturing was more expensive than in the eastern states. Moreover, lumber could be imported at some $40 per thousand feet, at whjich price “the manufacture of it in California [would have] to be abandoned.” King added, though, that something would have to be done about perishables like fruits and vegetables, if they had to be imported, but long ocean voyages meant inevitable spoilage, unless local agriculture could be initiated.
He also gave estimates for the importation of necessaries like flour and clothing and estimated that trade between California and the eastern states was to be around $25 million, and perhaps much higher, in 1850 and could quadruple within a half-decade to provide for all that was needed to build up California and its estimated half-million resident. Given the profound effect on the rest of the nation in providing for the development of the possession, King stated “let no one, there, suppose he is not interested in the welfare of California.” It was also vital to build a transcontinental railroad in the long term and one spanning the Panama isthmus, cutting shipping time from New York to twenty days (trips around the Horn of South America generally took near five times that length), in the short run.
King returned briefly to the potential of trans-Pacific trade, such as through “the establishment of a line of heavy steamers to China” as well as “the means of opening communications with Japan,” the latter established by force just four years later. In order to make the most of California’s possibilities, however, the agent highlighted a crucial need in developing the fortification and defense of “the entrance to the harbor of San Francisco;” otherwise, “permit a hostile fleet to cast anchor in the ha[r]bor of San Francisco, and the country would be virtually conquered.” Also critical was a coast survey to determine places of danger to ships, the building of lighthouses, placement of buoys in needed locales and others “will attract the early attention of government.”
Tomorrow, we’ll conclude with a look at the rest of this seminal report, focused on King’s detailed look at California’s “metallic and mineral wealth,” so please check back then.