by Paul R. Spitzzeri
A couple of days ago, Los Angeles Times writer and columnist, Patt Morrison, always thought-provoking and interesting, wrote a great column “It’s Time to Celebrate California Admission Day! Wait, What’s Admission Day!” with the title nearly encapsulating the near absence of any mention these days of what was long a state holiday and, for quite some years, one that was avidly celebrated—at least, by some residents.
When President Millard Fillmore (Morrison started off with the wry note that this fact added largely to anyone’s collection of knowledge about one of our blandest and least-remembered chief executives) signed off on the admission of California as the 31st state in the Union, it came under some extraordinary circumstances.
For one, after the seizure of Mexican Alta California by American military forces in 1846-47, the unusual geographical verticality of the new possession posed a problem for Congress. With new states admitted, after the Missouri Compromise of 1820, in a succession of a free one followed by one allowing slavery and repeating that formula based on locale, California put a crimp on that concept, because it was both north and south by latitude.
While Congress ponderously pondered what to do for a few years, the discovery of gold just as the war-ending Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was about to be ratified by the Mexican Congress soon led to the famed Gold Rush. In 1849, with hordes of new settlers, miners and others, settling in the territory, a movement to write a constitution and set up a government, irrespective of what was (not) going on in Washington, D.C. led to a convention, the writing of the document, and its approval by delegates by the end of that year.
In spring 1850, elections were held throughout California to set the machinery of government working, however fitfully, and, finally, Congress was stirred to act and quickly. Notably, by the time the admission bill was passed and signed by President What’s-His-Name, there was already a federal census underway, so the enumeration had to be conducted in the new state in the first couple months of 1851—and so poorly that California’s only state census was undertaken the next year.
As Morrison wrote, “Admission Day, Sept. 9, used to be a gala-palooza in California” with the closure of state offices and some commercial enterprises along with pageants, parades and oher public events. The columnist also pointed out that these celebrations included “a sanitized depiction of California’s ‘founders’ mostly as white colonizers . . . —not the immigrants of equally long standing here, nor the Native Americans, whose thousands of years in California where obliterated . . . by the state’s cruel early laws and practices.”
This went on for decades, but gradually began to become less commemorated and more downplayed, if not ignored, though Governor Jerry Brown, during his first go-round at Sacramento in 1976, vetoed a bill to end Admission Day as a state-recognized holiday (I actually typed “state-recognixed” which almost seeks like that could work!). Less than a decade later, though Governor George Deukmejian did sign such a bill, though Morrison noted that the observance morphed into “a flabby, floating day off work for state employees,” few of whom presumably gave no thought to what the 9th meant. When Brown returned to the governor’s seat recently, he couldn’t restore the holiday status but lamented its condition, observing that the state’s history was too neglected.
True enough, but that long history of celebrating the white conquererors is another matter and Morrison, with her usual flair, discussed some of this, including the story of Robert Selden Garrett the designer of the state seal (with its goddess of wisdom, Minerva, the extinct grizzly bear, the miner, and so on), whose statue in Monterey, where the 1849 constitution was written, was removed last year because he was a Confederate brigadier general during the Civil War. She also reminds us that the Compromise of 1850 that created California’s admission also included the horrifying Fugitive Slave Act—something else not discussed on Admission Day!
As an example of how, to use Morrison’s awesome phrase, past celebrations could be a “tragicomic mishmash,” tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings takes us to the local Admission Day celebration of 1927 held at the Los Angeles Union Stock Yards complex in Vernon, the site of the Battle of La Mesa that preceded the second taking of Los Angeles by American forces in early 1847. Now, there’s an overt message about the importance of the holiday!
Moreover, the International Newsreel press photo shows a reproduction stagecoach, pulled by a team of four horses and accompanied by men on horseback, while the cowboy next to the driver wields a shotgun, and a couple of Indians sit (as prisoners?) behind him, one with a feathered headdress like those of Native Americans from the Midwest. It’s bizarre to us now, but it probably seemed like real history to some in attendance. The caption pronounced:
Here’s how frontier days were revived at the Admission Day celebration yesterday at the Union Stock Yards, Los Angeles, with this replica of a pioneer stage coach taking part in the parade.
As noted above, Admission Day was an observed state holiday with government offices shuttered and stock exchanges and banks closed, while larger celebrations were generally organized by groups like the California Society of Pioneers, Native Sons of the Golden West and the Native Daughters of the Golden West taking the lead in organization.
On the 9th, the Times reported that “with song and story, feats of horsemanship and sports characteristic of the earlier days, California will pause today to celebrate her admission” and added that few states commemorated their joining the Union as the Golden State did. The fiesta at the stock yards was to last from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. and “will portray the early history and traditions of ‘Alta California’ as the territory was known in those days. There will be gay songs, dancing senoritas, dashing caballeros, exhibitions of horsemanship, showings of relics of California, Indian relics and other interesting attractions.”
Moreover, ‘in true fiesta hospitality, there will be a great barbecue,” perhaps like that long done by Joe Romero, the “Barbecue King,” whose son was foreman of the Homestead and whose daughter, paramour of Walter P. Temple, the ranch’s owner. Beyond speeches by representatives of the Native Sons and Native Daughters, co-sponsors of the event, “a rodeo in the style of 1830 is to be a feature” with displays of saddles, drilling by native sons and daughters, a caballero contest, and Spanish dances.
In its recap of the following day, the paper stated that “California of the early days lived again” at the festivities and observed that exhibits were placed in two long red-tile roofed buildings at the complex. The stagecoach, along with the first hose cart and hook-and-ladder wagon used for firefighting in the city, was displayed outside the structures, “but the old Spanish ox cart took first prize as the oldest relic in the line of transportation facilities.” John A. McNaughton, vice-president and general manager of the stock yards, which opened in fall 1922, offered the morning greeting.
Also mentioned was that “Gabriel Ruiz and the troubadors promenaded up and down playing Spanish tunes such as ‘Cielito Linda,’ serenading here and there as their fancy dictated.” Ruiz formed his Ruiz California Dancers troupe two years prior, having learned dances from an aunt and the group, usually featuring eight pairs of performers, many descended from Californio families, continued until the 1980s.
Otherwise, “there were Spanish songs, dancing, Indians with their dances and chants, followed by games, exhibitions of horsemanship and lassoing.” The paper also stated that “an interesting feature was the booth of the Native Sons Golden State Chinese-American Citizens ‘ Alliance,” though why this was of note was not explained. The group may have been the local chapter of what is now the Chinese American Citizens Alliance, founded in San Francisco in 1895.
How this “tragicomic mishmash” was supposed to represent California or local history in the context of Admission Day did not seem to be a matter of concern or interest, but mashups were common at all kinds of community events and were accepted as somehow representative. There were, however, rare examples of attempts to provide some historical context with a measure of thought and analysis.
In the Times on the 9th, Rockwell D. Hunt (1868-1966), a California native who earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University, taught economics at U.S.C. from 1908 to 1945 and wrote several histories. In his column “California’s Admission,” Hunt did praise celebrations of his day as “with appropriate ceremonies and patriotic exercises.” He reviewed some of the history behind the news of the state’s admission reaching San Francisco on 18 October 1850, adding that, when a celebration was held eleven days later, “the Chinese [were] taking a prominent part.”
The historian wrote extensively about the importance of keeping California free of slavery when the 1849 constitution was written and ratified, quoting a clergyma’s assertion that this was the “pivot point with the slavery question” as it upset the balance of free and slave states. So, Hunt tried somewhat to be more inclusive in his telling, though the Chinese were targets of brutality and discrimination from individuals and groups during the Gold Rush and targeted with a forieng miners’ tax by the state government, while slavery was banned to keep Blacks out of California because of the effects on labor.
California seems indeed to have been the child of destiny. For seventy-seven years she has been the Empire State [New York] of the Pacific. Having successfully settled the memorable struggle for social order [through white dominance?] during the first feverish years, she has continued to grow in greatness, and today she lies at “the right hand of the continent,” literally fronting the world!
That latter quotation was one used extensively by Charles F. Lummis, the long-time publisher of The Land of Sunshine/Out West, and a post here focuses on a remarkable essay under that title from the magazine.
Some local cities played up their observance of Admission Day, such as Venice, with its Vanguard newspaper, claiming that “Venice observed Admission Day along with all the rest of California, the only difference being perhaps that Venice did it more thoroughly than most communities” with city offices, the Chamber of Commerce, many private offices and banks and other facilities closed and an abundance of flags observed. Radio station KNRC made “elaborate plans” for the day, also dubbed “Santa Monica-Ocean Park Day” including a singer, piano soloist, glee club of Santa Monica realtors, and the municipal band slated to perform.
In Hollywood, a rare Admission Day advertisement was taken out by the local branch of the Security Trust and Savings Bank of Los Angeles. It offered the hope that “the time may come when Los Angeles will observe the holiday as generally as does San Francisco.” It noted in some detail the sectionalism over slavery of the day and California’s role in upsetting the free state/slave state balance maintained since 1820 and proclaimed that ‘the local significance of California’s entrance into the Union will always remain secondary to its national importance.” and the Citizen newspaper proudly published a photo of three-year old Robert Valencia as “the youngest native son at the celebration” and recipient of a state flag given at the Stock Yards celebration.
At Redondo Beach High School, which started classes that week after Monday’s Labor Day observance, students got the benefit of a three-day weekend with Admission Day, being a Friday, declared a holiday, as well, with banks and other financial institutions shuttered. Nearby, in San Pedro, the Pilot noted that Los Angeles city offices and some stores and industrial businesses closed, while locals in the Native Sons and Native Daughters groups were at the Vernon festivities. On the other hand, in the Highland Park neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles showed less enthusiasm, with its News-Herald stating that, because it was not a federal holiday, all busineses, with the exception of banks, would remain open.
In the San Fernando Valley, the Van Nuys News reported that the local Van Nuys and Lankershim Rotary clubs heard a talk from historian and playwright Dr. William Bachman on the Bear Flag Republic, formed in northern California in 1846 as the American military was readying to invade and then heard early California songs from Annabelle Chapman, said to be a descendant of Californios and who also performed at the Vernon festivities.
Inspired by the program, the club decided that “historic spots in San Fernando Valley, probably the most historic place in the southern part of the state as concerns the transition period from Spamish to American domain, will receive honor and precious care that they may be preserved for posterity.” A joint meeting was planned for later in the year at “some one of the historic spots in the vicinity of Cahuenga Pass” where the treaty signed on 13 January 1847 by John C. Frémont and Andrés Pico ended hostilities in California.
So, as another Admission Day passes with nearly nary a mention, aside from Morrison’s excellent essay and a few other notices, this photo takes us back to a time in which the holiday was more avidly celebrated, though with that “tragicomic mishmash” that whitewashed so much and left so much else out. While it it too much to expect large-scale commemorations, we should have at least some recognition of the importance of the day, in all of its complexity, so we better understand how the Golden State joined the Union in remarkable circumstances over 170 years ago.