by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most important of the many crucial developments in 19th century America was the dramatic growth of public education, which was elemental to the rapid increase of literacy and the consequent economic expansion that elevated the country to the powerful position it assumed by the onset of the 20th century.
A fundamental boost to education was the increasingly progressive role played by the federal government, especially through the establishment of school lands. On 4 September 1841, as the Rowland and Workman Expedition was just in the early stages of its journey from New Mexico to California, Congress passed the Preemption Act of 1841, which established procedures for “pre-emptive” settlement on public lands by what were otherwise largely known as squatters, but it also provided for new states to receive 500,000 acres of land for internal improvements.
Specifically section eight of the legislation stipulated “the selections in all of the said States to be made within their limits, respectively, in such manner as the Legislatures thereof shall direct, and located in parcels . . . of not less than three hundred and twenty acres in any one location, on any public land . . . which said locations may be made at any time after the lands of the United States in said states, respectively, shall have [been] surveyed according to existing laws.”
This provision was soon enacted, as the Placer Herald, published in the Gold Rush town of Auburn east of Sacramento, observed in its 31 December 1853 edition, in December 1849 as “the framers of our State Constitution, having a deep solicitude for the well-being of society, and comprehending the moral influences of education, secured this and other property by special provision for the use of common schools.”
The constitution was created by residents, mostly recent arrivals because of the discovery of gold, impatient with the delays of Congress is granting statehood, and that deliberative body finally responded by admitting California into the Union on 9 September 1850. In the legislative session of 1852, an act was passed “authorizing the issuing of land warrants for not less than one hundred and sixty and not more than three hundred and twenty acres [these being quarter and half sections—a section being 640 acres] each, to the amount of these 500,000 acres.”
The Herald continued that “many of these warrants were located immediately after the passage of this act” with more coming afterward, so that “about four-fifths of the whole amount are now believed to be laid on the choicest lands in the State.” Moreover, quite a few of the warrants were “re-located on lands possessed by actual settlers, and difficulties sometimes occur between the warrant holders and the settlers, which, if the law were fully understood, need not occur.”
The problem for the warrant holders, however, had to do with the provision in the 1841 law that tracts had to be surveyed and this was not expected to be done for a few years at the earliest, beyond the question of what to do with those who “pre-empted” or squatted on the land. The paper opined that, as the day was far off when surveys were to be done, “we hope to see every acre of tillable and grazing land within the borders of our State in the actual possession of pre-emptors.”
Swamp lands belonged to the state by statute, while mineral lands were “the property of the Nation” and it was concluded that pre-emptors were far more likely to acquire mineral land from the federal government at 35% less than what they could get from any successful warrant holders “and with one-tenth the trouble.”
When Governor John Bigler, the state’s third chief executive, narrowly won reelection in September 1853 and began his second term in January 1854, his second inaugural message observed that, while California residents were “greatly absorbed in the development of her unequalled mineral wealth . . . [and] her vast commercial advantages,” they “have not been unmindful of other great interests.”
The governor continued,
The education of the youth of the State has been the subject of much solicitude, and in view of the fact that the families of our citizens are daily coming to our shores, and settling upon the public domain, a system of public instruction is being matured, worthy of the great Pacific State, and entirely adequate to the wants of the rising generation. Congress, with commendable liberality, has donated lands to the State, which, if properly disposed of, will yield not less than eleven millions of dollars for school purposes.
Bigler went on to state that these monies would be “amply sufficient to educate all the children of our State” and went on to proclaim that “the education of the masses is just esteemed the ground-work of free institutions, and the enduring basis of constitutional liberty.” Given the existence of the land that would provide, if predictions bore out, the $11 million for schools, the governor intoned that “we have, indeed, reason for congratulation, my fellow citizens, that our school fund, inferior to that of no other State, promises, for future generations, the intelligence so necessary to the preservation of the free institutions under which we so happily live and prosper.”
On 24 January 1854, newly elected state Superintendent of Public Instruction Paul K. Hubbs presented his report on the state of California’s schools and noted that over $460,000 was raised to date from the sale of school land warrants, but that it “has almost entirely ceased” even though slightly more than half, above 268,000 acres, of the lands remained unsold because they were not yet surveyed.
Hubbs called for “energetic action toward an early location” of these lands, the reasons being “apparent to everyone desirous of husbanding all proper resources in aid of our schools.” He added that providing for “the energies of the settler, and the means of educating the rising generation” was such that the two “step in harmonious concert toward the goal of their great destiny.” In addition to the 500,000 acres, there were Congressional provisions for more lands, available for pre-emption, that would otherwise be for school benefit.
The superintendent also observed that “each township of six miles square may be expected to maintain a school, and this sum [of revenues generated for school purposes], though small, would be sensibly felt in the rural districts of the State.” Two sections within each township were to provide revenue, through sales, for schools specifically within that jurisdiction rather than those monies going to the state’s School Fund. Hubbs added that it was crucial for legislation to provide for school commissions and taxing mechanisms in each township, as well as to address imbalances with small and sparsely-populated districts having unused funds, while more populous ones were lacking for money.
As for the more than 268,000 acres left of the original 500,000-acre grant, Hubbs suggested that the price per acre be trimmed from $2 to $1.25, conformable to what the Herald stated above, with any land purchased, but not fully paid off when acquired on terms, to be sold to the highest bidder, among other recommendations. He also expressed the hope that the legislature would soon pass a bill, following up on an 1849 constitutional provision, to found a “California State University,” something that finally happened fourteen years later with the establishment of the University of California at Berkeley.
Hubbs articulated that schools in all townships would be so managed as to avoid what happened in other states, in which there was “fighting at shadows” and “passing the substance” and engaging in other “quibbling.” Instead, we should “educate the youth of our State; preparing them to succeed you in these halls—to equal and to excel you—to replace the ermined judges—and, last, not least, to form the cohort forces of the State in that great struggle that awaits our common country. Finally, he closed with the admonition that,
This great State is not the propagandist of any creed—nor the factionist of any section; to elevate the general intelligence of men, and to disseminate and extend the republican influences, is her more exalted destiny.
This context leads us to the joint resolutions of both houses of the California legislature, approved on 8 April, transmitted to the United States Senate, and referred by it, on 10 May, to its Committee on Public Lands with an order to be printed. Signed by Charles S. Fairfax of Yuba County, who was Assembly Speaker, and recent Lieutenant Governor and newly installed Senate President Samuel Purdy of San Francisco, along with Bigler, the document began by stating the importance that school lands “should be selected without delay.”
This was because it was vital that “our system of common schools may speedily be placed on such basis as our extraordinary wants and peculiar position demand.” Among these latter was that,
having a large foreign element in our population, which is, to a great extent, ignorant of our policy, laws, and language, it is most necessary to secure the education of the youth of this State in such manner as will assure the adherence of our heterogeneous population to our present liberal, yet conservative institutions.
To achieve this, “the perfection of our common school system must depend almost entirely on the means to be realized from the lands donated to this State by Congress.” Without prompt action, however, to put these lands under California’s control, “there is imminent danger of these means being rendered comparatively of little importance.”
It was added that “the far greater part of the lands in this State are of little worth for school purposes, being mountainous and more fitted for grazing than agriculture, and hence of little value as compared with arable lands. The concern was the settling on farmland occurred on par with federal surveys and left “no lands of much value to be selected by the State,” while the proceeds from the sale of good agricultural tracts of public land “passes into the national treasury, and our school fund is left of trifling amount.”
It was averred that this state of affairs was not wished for in Washington, D.C. as much as in Sacramento, selected as the state capital in February, and the Golden State’s populace, “who feel the pressing necessity for extensive public instruction” and who wanted to federal government’s donation to be handled “in the most effective and beneficial manner.” If the State could choose lands quickly, there would be not effect on settlers and monies could go into the California treasury for school use. This was because state officials would sell lands at terms employed by the federal government.
Moreover, it was argued that proceeds to national treasury “is a mere pittance,” while “to the children of our State a magnificent fund, securing the benefits of mental culture to all” would entail the propagation of “that intelligence and high-toned feeling that will insure to our democratic government and free institutions a permanency” which could not occur “among an uneducated people.” It was added that “our school fund is derived entirely” from the sale of the donated lands “and it would be a great injustice and hardship to deprive the purchasers of the lands they have located under this law.”
The first resolution was that Congress authorize and confirm State agents to choose the 500,000 acres as well as those two sections in each township “whether surveyed or unsurveyed,” while individuals were to be limited to 640 acres, or a full section, of applicable land which was to be patented to them. This latter was to be under the auspices of the 3 May 1852 act by the state legislature for the disposal of the half-million acres.
The second resolution was that the representatives and senators representing California in Congress “be requested and instructed to endeavor, by all honorable means, to procure the passage” of a law giving the State “the privilege and right of selecting the school lands of this State, upon surveyed or unsurveyed lands” as stipulated in the document. Finally, Bigler was asked to send the resolutions to those federal representatives.
Today, the California State Lands Commission states that “no federal patents to the State were required under the grant” of the two sections in each township, but that “title to the lands was vested in the State upon approval of the U.S. Township Survey Plats.” Presumably, this applies to the earlier 500,000-acre grant, as well.
This document is an interesting and informative early one relating to education in California with respect to the management of lands granted by the federal government to the State for the purposes of school funding. In Los Angeles, in July 1853, the Common [City] Council appointed its first school board and superintendent, with the earliest state apportionments of funds coming the following year. The inaugural city elementary school opened at Spring and 2nd streets in 1855.
The Los Angeles County school fund began operation in 1854 and the Homestead just happens to own the first ledger, which provides fascinating detail on the origins of the county’s educational system. A few years later, the state superintendent lamented that some 75% of all school-age children were not being education, so it was a gradual process towards achieving universal (or near-universal) education, but this post and the one for the county school fund ledger highlight important documents in the Homestead’s collection for the origins of our public schools.
It should be added, as some thing of a postscript that, within a few years of this document’s publication, William Workman established a private school at his house for the education of his Temple grandchildren (he sent his son, José Manuel, or Joseph, to live with his sister in Baltimore for the purposes of receiving a good education). Workman’s son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, whose wife Antonia Margarita Workman, as many women were in greater Los Angeles, was illiterate, donated a lot in 1863 for the establishment of a school near the family’s Whittier Narrows-area home. So, the state of education in the rural San Gabriel Valley was also one of slow progress, as well.