by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The American invasion and seizure of Alta California during the Mexican-American War, the nation’s first imperial conflict, involved the capture of the departmental capital of Los Angeles in summer 1846, followed by a revolt by Californios who were angered by arbitrary impositions of martial law, curfews and the like by Archibald Gillespie, the imperious commander of the garrison left behind to guard the pueblo, and sent him and his men to exile on a ship anchored off the port at San Pedro.
A second invasion took place in the first two weeks of 1847 as a combined Navy and Army force, led by Commodore Robert F. Stockton, marched from San Diego, met with William Workman at San Juan Capistrano where Stockton rejected overtures from the Californio General José María Flores concerning pending battles at the San Gabriel River (Río Hondo) and La Mesa (in present Vernon), and then retook Los Angeles with Workman and others bringing out the white flag of surrender on 10 January.
Stockton, heading to México proper to continue the campaign, appointed John C. Frémont, the self-appointed head of the so-called California Battalion of volunteers recruited among Americans and Europeans living in Alta California, as military governor. General Stephen Watts Kearny, appointed by the Polk Administration to take command of affairs in California, but who disastrously defeated after a long overland march at San Pasqual by Californios led by General Andrés Pico, brother of Governor Pío Pico, who’d gone to México the previous year to seek help for his department, was determined to take over the administration of the newly captured territory.
Frémont was removed from his position as governor and then subjected to a court-martial, based on several questionable actions attributed to him, one of which was an agreement to acquire Alcatraz Island from F.P.F. Temple, who’d been given the island by William Workman who, in turn, was granted it by Pico in spring 1846, for $5,000 with reimbursement to come later from the federal government. Frémont had, however, no such authorization to make the deal and, for this, and the other actions charged against him, was court-martialed.
One of those who testified in his defense at the trial, held in Washington, D.C., was William H. Russell (1802-1873). A native of Kentucky, Russell was a lawyer and legislator in his home state before migrating to Missouri in the early 1830s. He fought in the Black Hawk Indian War, served as a federal marshal for the Missouri district, including native territory, and was known by the honorific term of colonel before his term ended in 1845. The following year, he joined a caravan of emigrants leaving Independence, Missouri, and heading overland to northern California.
He was captain of the migrant group, but was dislodged from this role and he and several others, including Edwin Bryant, author of What I Saw in California, traveled in a small group by mule, being the first to follow a route Frémont took across the great deserts of Utah and Nevada before ending their journey on 1 September 1846 at Sutter’s Fort in what became Sacramento. After a short stay at Yerba Buena, which soon became San Francisco, Russell wound up in Monterey, former departmental capital, and it was there that, in October, he joined Frémont’s California Battalion of volunteers and was commissioned a major and placed in charge of ordinance.
Russell was with Frémont in operations in the north, including the slaughter of Californios for no defensible reason, and then was in the march to the south where the battalion was to join Stockton and Kearny in the recapture of Los Angeles. For reasons that are somewhat unclear, Frémont and his men, including Russell, were late for the battle that ended the war in California, but the ever-opportunistic “Pathfinder” took it upon himself to negotiate the Treaty of Cahuenga with Andrés Pico, signed on 13 January 1847 at the Cahuenga Adobe in modern Studio City. Russell was among several of the battalion who worked on the terms and was named secretary of state under Frémont’s tenure as governor.
As Frémont’s situation changed by March and he was removed as governor with that court-martial looking (on the 20th, he wrote Workman and others in Los Angeles thanking them for their support of his cause), Russell remained with him until Frémont headed to northern California to shore up support. Russell, meanwhile, went east, passing through New Mexico and then Missouri, where he arrived early in July, prior to his traveling to the nation’s capital to offer his testimony in support of his commanding officer.
While in St. Louis, on 13 July, Russell penned an account titled “Affairs in California” for that city’s St Louis Union newspaper. Nine days later, the article was reprinted in The Daily Union, published in Washington, D.C., with that edition of 22 July being this evening’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection. His account opened with the statement that, “being direct from California, and presuming that I am possessed of the latest authentic information from that country, I make you the following statement of facts, to show the state of affairs there, and to prevent unauthorized or mistaken reports of what information I really bring.”
He continued by noting:
I left Los Angeles on the 22d of March, up to which time the province was in a state of profound tranquility, and American life and property were regarded as safe, without guards or escorts, as in any portion of the United States . . .
Gov. Frémont had been residing in Los Angeles, the capital of the province, of about 7,000 souls, without any military protection whatever, having sent the undischarged portion of his battalion to San Gabriel, a Catholic mission seven miles distant, trusting, as he could safely do, his personal safety entirely to the inhabitants.
Russell observed that, when Frémont went to Monterey, he took José Jesús Pico, who was pardoned at San Luis Obispo by Frémont, and Andrés Pico. The support of prominent Californios, as well as many Americans and Europeans (such as Workman), led the correspodent to claim that “this fact abundantly shows the tranquility of the country, and the perfect security of American life and property which now prevails in that distant province, and so lately the theater of war and insurrection.”
Warming to his subject as an apologist for his commanding officer, Russell added that the reason for this peaceful state of affairs was because of how Frémont conducted the negotiations of the Treaty of Cahuenga “and the evidences of humanity in him,” shown through his pardon of José Jesús Pico, as well as “the implicit confidence which the inhabitans have in his justice and regard to all their rights.”
With respect to the treaty, Russell alleged that some officers in California would not have negotiated ther terms as Frémont did because “the considered the Californians base rebels” and pushed for the ex-governor’s court-martial because of his actions at Cahuenga. Yet, the author continued, citing his role in the creation of the capitulation, the document “put an end to the war, and established the cordial peace which ensued.” Otherwise, the Californios, he alleged, would have formed hostile groups “exciting the Indians and people to engage in guerilla war against us,” which would have created advantages to those who possessed “extraordinary skill in horsemanship.”
In fact, Russell added that
their public declaration was, that “they would take to the mountains, and fight every inch of the country, and die like wild beasts, before they should submit to anyone but Col. Frémont; and that, on the terms he granted them.
Because the treaty did not criminalize the Californios as rebels or exact oaths of allegiance from them, only requiring that they demonstrate “obedience to the American authorities, and forgetfulness of the past.” Because of this treatment, it was claimed, the placidness of California was in marked contrast to New Mexico, through which Russell passed on his way home, or in subjugted areas of México proper.
A problem in Russell’s telling disturbing this state of quietude was the arrival in Los Angeles of the Mormon Battalion from Utah, which he claimed, “excited the greatest consternation in the city, and would spread alarm throughout the country.” Moreover, there was Kearny’s assumption of military control of the territory on 1 March, replacing Frémont. This led the latter to ride to Monterey to meet with Kearny and it was averred that the presence of the Picos meant that they were like to think of “any proceedings against him as importing danger to themselves, as they rely upon him” for their safety. Notably, Russell argued that the Cahuenga treaty was a palliative to the loss of trust brought about the prior fall when the Californios revolted against American military mistreatment.
Not content with this defense of Frémont, Russell went further to suggest that the creation of the California Battalion and its role in the capturing of San Diego and Los Angeles in summer 1846 and then the return down the coast, including the taking of Santa Barbara on Christmas Day before the march to Los Angeles and the negotiation of the treaty, “displayed as much military judgment as has been performed, in my opinion, during our present difficulties with Mexico, and enabled him to put an end to the war.”
In addition, the writer went on,
The insurgents capitulated to him at the near approach of this battalion. He raised the battalion alone by his own influence, and without means of any kind as furnished by his government, and had marched it with great activity through the heart of the insurgent’s [sic] country, and through defiled and mountains, capturing insurgent chiefs, and without spilling a drop of blood. Incredible were the hardships of men and horses on this winter march.
The approach to Santa Barbara during a heavy rainstorm, including the loss of up to 200 horses, and the extensive use of ropes to carry artillery over San Marcos Pass, where HIghway 154 crossed the Santa Ynez Mountains, meant, Russell stated, that knowing of his commander’s “intrepid conduct on that trying occasion, and then hear him accused of being absent [meaning claims that he dallied in marching to Los Angeles afterward so that he was not present when Stockton and Kearny took the Angel City], is truly provoking.”
To answer the charge of delay, Russell ended by proclaiming, “happily for the country with all his haste and execution he was still at some distance from the Angeles at the time of the two little skirmishes—he was stationed at the head of his own battalion.” In other words, Stockton and Kearny’s engagements at the San Gabriel River and at La Mesa were nothing, though there were some casualties on both sides unlike Frémont’s “bloodless” engagements, compared to his great achievements—if Russell’s apologia was to be believed.
Despite this spirited defense, Frémont was convicted in fall 1847 in his court-martial, though President Polk ordered that his commission be returned to him, which the proud officer rejected. He ran unsuccessfully for president in 1856 as the first Republican Party candidate for that office and then returned to the Army for the Civil War, though he stirred more controversy and again resigned his commission. His later career included a decidedly unsuccessful stint as governor of the Arizona Territory and Frémont was ready to retire in Los Angeles when he died in New York in 1890.
As for Russell, he returned to California during the Gold Rush and practiced law at San Jose before being appointed the collector of customs duties at Monterey in March 1851. After just three months, however, he left that position and returned to his legal practice for a few years. Later, he was a U.S. consul in Cuba and remained there dring the Civil War and, aside from seeking a consul-general post for that island nation, seemed to have lived quietly until his death. In a 1930s biographical sketch, it was said of him that “he was a large man, expansive of manner, boastful and bombastic in speech,” while his large ego did not go unnoticed, though it was also observed that he was “a man of many substantial and endearing qualities, and was widely popular.”
Russell’s spirited defense of Frémont is a notable document in the history of the Mexican-American War in Los Angeles and California and to have an early published version from this edition of The Daily Union is a fine addition to the Homestead’s collection.