by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The phenomenal developments that took place in California in the last few years of the 1840s were perhaps unique in all of history. The turmoil of the American invasion and seizure of the Mexican department of Alta California, which ended military early in January 1847 and politically a little over a year later in March 1848 with the ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, was followed almost immediately with the staggering revelation of the discovery of immense deposits of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
In short order, hordes of gold seekers descended on the rapidly expanding fields where the precious mineral was being mined with those within California quickly followed by experienced miners from northern México and others from Central and South America. Ships began arriving at the rudimentary port at San Francisco (until recently known as Yerba Buena) from those countries, but also from Asian locales like China and the Philippines.
The mass migration of the ’49ers included sea-bound migrants as well as those who braved the formidable land routes over the Midwestern plains, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Basin and the Sierras to the north and the deserts and mountains of the southern route, which passed through the town of Los Angeles, as did those that came up from México and points further south. Within just a few years, the number of persons in California may have been in the vicinity of 300,000, whereas, prior to 1848, some estimates were that the non-native population was about 10,000.
By the discovery of gold, members of the Workman and Temple family had resided in Mexican Los Angeles and vicinity for up to two decades, beginning with Jonathan Temple’s arrival there in 1828. A little more than a dozen years later, his much-younger half-brother, Pliny (later known as F.P.F.) came in summer 1841 for what appears to have been a visit to meet Jonathan (who’d left their native Massachusetts for Hawai’i prior to Pliny’s birth in 1822), but remained permanently. At the end of 1841, William Workman, his wife Nicolasa Urioste and their children, Antonia Margarita and José Manuel, used the Old Spanish Trail from New Mexico to reach this area and soon settled on the Rancho La Puente, about twenty miles east of Los Angeles.
It remains little known that there was a gold discovery before the one at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. About six years prior, in March 1842, Francisco López stumbled upon the metal in San Francisquito Canyon north of Los Angeles and for a few years there was something of a “mini-rush” there. Pliny Temple took the opportunity to acquire gold dust and sent it to his brother Abraham, who remained in their hometown of Reading, Massachusetts, to be taken to the American national mint at Philadelphia. Surviving correspondence shows that Abraham purchased goods, some apparently from Jonathan’s store, in which Pliny was a clerk, and others for the Temple brothers’ personal use, from California gold forwarded to him.
When the Gold Rush of 1848-1849 burst forth, Pliny evidently ventured north to investigate the situation, though whether he actively engaged in mining is not clear. What is known is that he began acquiring property in the southern mines of what became Tuolumne County in such towns as Columbia (now a state historic park, where two surviving structures were once owned by him), Sonora and Springfield.
Moreover, cattle ranchers in greater Los Angeles quickly realized that a safer means to financial success was in the transportation of their livestock to the gold fields, trips which took weeks, because of the great demand for fresh beef. William Workman owned nearly 25,000 acres, which provided ample space for thousands of cattle and, after Pliny Temple married Margarita Workman, father-in-law and son-in-law partnered in this business of selling meat in the heyday of the rush.
While there might have been no urgency initially for Congress to act on the status of California, the boundaries of which, for one, had to still be determined, that changed very quickly with the onset of the Gold Rush. This was especially as there was increasing pressure to pass over the idea of a territory and go directly to statehood with the masses of emigrants settling there, but there were some significant hurdles to overcome, having to do with the prevailing process, determined by the Missouri Compromise of 1820, for admitting states alternately as slaveholding and free, based on geographical position along the Mason-Dixon Line.
California upset the formula because of its unique orientation lengthwise along more than 750 miles making it essentially both northern and southern. While Congress, which even in the best of circumstances could be incredibly deliberative, bickered and dithered about statehood, the growing number of Americans in California were increasingly agitating to take matters into their own hands and create a constitution and institute a form of government.
This finally happened with the adoption, at a convention at Monterey, of a constitution, ratified in December 1849. Several months later, elections were held and a government put into place. Spurred by this remarkable situation, Congress was finally motivated to get the matter settled and the Compromise of 1850 was enacted, which admitted California as a free state on 9 September. One of the notable consequences was that the federal census, already completed in the other states, had to be quickly organized and then enumerated in the first couple of months of 1851.
It was during the opening weeks of that year that the New York Times, in its edition of 13 January, published an unattributed article titled “Birth-Day of California,” which was reproduced in the 15 March issue of Littell’s Living Age, a magazine that was a digest of pieces from journals and newspapers. The article is very interesting as a description of how Americans, just a few years removed from the seizure of Mexican California by the United States, moved towards solidifying the identity of the new state and its presumed birthday.
The unidentified author began with an introduction that deserves some significant quoting:
In order to appreciate the story we are going to subjoin, the reader must recollect that three short years ago the name of California conveyed no more impressive ideas to European or even American ears than that of Kamschatka [the Russian peninsula on the Pacific of Kamchatka] or Bhootan [the little kingdom of Bhutan between India and China.] The country itself was a vast unexplored desert, and the shores of the Pacific about San Francisco were scantily tenanted by a few scores of Russians and Spaniards, who lived without rivalry or suspicion . . . Nobody knew or cared whether the enormous tract beyond contained inhabitants or not, and a journey across its plains was considered as remarkable as a journey through Central Africa.
Of course, much of this description is nonsense. Spain and then México were concerned about the vulnerability of the territory that has been called the “Siberia of México” and there were designs of Great Britain and the United States, in addition to Russia’s small and tenuous foothold at Fort Ross in the far northwest, concerning California.
In 1842, not long after Pliny Temple and the Workman family settled in this area, a U.S. Navy vessel, on the misconception that war, which had long been rumored, had broken out with México, landed at Monterey and quickly and without much violence, taken the town and presidio as an American possession. Once the mistake was realized, Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones promptly apologized and left, but the idea that no one cared about California is a complete fiction.
Moreover, to the north, England and America very nearly went to war prior to the Mexican-American War over the boundary between British Canada and what became the territories of Oregon and Washington. The west coast was, in fact, oft-discussed as vital to the interests of an expanding United States with respect to the vast Pacific and America’s future role in it. In any case, the writer went on write that “this remote district is now the seat of a powerful and Independent State—a State which has been founded and constituted, from beginning to end, i about thirty months’ time.”
With respect to the Gold Rush, it was added that,
The treasures of California . . . have hitherto wrought their chief wonders in the land of their production, and, though they have not yet materially affected the currency of Europe, they have called into being at the extremities of the Pacific a community unparalleled in the manifold fusions of races or combinations of men.
The so-called birthday of California was, at least in San Francisco, determined to be 29 December 1850 and an event was held by residents of that incredibly rapidly-growing city “as a festival to be celebrated in honor of their admission to the American Union.” The Stars-and-Stripes was raised with a salute of artillery and “the echoes were taken up by the ships in the harbor, and the flags of every country under the sun found their appropriate place.”
A parade then wended its way through the streets and which included a “Chief Marshal” and his staff at the head, while “next followed the ‘Mounted Californians,’ who would, we are told, ‘have been stronger had they not been disappointed in horses.'” This is a notable comment because the Spanish-speaking Californios were renowned for their horsemanship, which was demonstrated during the late war when the defenders of their homeland overwhelmed a poorly positioned and deployed American force at San Pasqual near San Diego at the end of 1846. It appears that the steeds utilized by those participating in the parade were substandard in quality.
After this came the “California Pioneers,” which is a strange characterization for people who’d mainly only been in the region for a year or two (the actual “pioneers,” of course, were the indigenous people), though it was recorded that the carried “a device exhibiting a pioneer just landed, who strikes off a piece of rock with his hammer, and discovers the state seal of the community underneath. It was more than telling and a prediction of the future that this figure also mouthed the word “Eureka,” meaning “I have found it,” while next to this “stands a native in a genuine attitude of dismay.” Clearly, the organizers determined that this attitude toward the California Indians was desirable and necessary.
After a military guard, which drew a loud applause from those lining the streets, and then government officers filed by, there was
the civil portion of the procession, which was headed by a company of Englishmen, under the red cross of St. George, and attended by Germans, Italians, and Spaniards. Next came the settlers from the Celestial Empire [China], arrayed in the richest brocades of the East, who carried a banner of crimson satin, on which was an inscription of great length and elaborate calligraphy, but which, when interpreted, imported nothing more pretentious than “China boys.” In number they were about fifty, commanded by their own chief, and decorously obedient to his word.
A “triumphal car” was behind the Chinese contingent and it was drawn by a half-dozen white horses and had thirty boys, with white shirts, black pants and “Liberty caps,” representing each of the 30 states that were in the Union before California, which was represented by “a beautiful little girl, who stood in the middle, arrayed in white satin with a wreath of roses.” A banner on the car read, “The Union; it must be preserved,” significant given that, in a decade’s time, the Civil War would erupt.
San Francisco’s mayor and council members then marched by with the city’s police and volunteer firefighters, comprising a trio of companies, following them. One of these actually had a live eagle “captured that morning at the Mission [Dolores] by Alderman Green.” Finally, a vehicle brought up the rear and which had an operating printing press, from which “were thrown off copies of a laureate ode, composed by a lady for the occasion.” Once the parade was completed, there was an oration, a recitation of the ode by those present and “a general dance, and a universal banquet” to complete the celebration.
Aside from the colorful nature of the event, the writer concluded with the request that “the reader consider the extraordinary character of the facts it symbolized.” Namely,
Here was a community of some hundreds of thousands of souls collected from all quarters of the known world—Polynesians and Peruvians, Englishmen and Mexicans, Germans, and New Englanders, Spaniards and Chinese—all organized under old [Anglo-]Saxon institutions, and actually marching under the command of a mayor and aldermen. Nor was this all, for the extemporized state had demanded and obtained its admission into the most powerful federation in the world, and was recognized as a constituent part of the American Union.
Naturally, this assertion of the harmony of a wide variety of ethnic groups did not at all reflect the reality of the period. People of color were being forcibly evicted from many of the mines and those that remained became subject to an onerous “Foreign Miners Tax.” Violence was notorious in and out of the mining regions, with Los Angeles belying its name as likely the most deadly community in the nation for much of the ensuing years. The native people, especially in the northern part of the state, were being systematically removed from ancestral lands and hunted down in what has been termed a genocide, while disease, alcoholism and violence was visited upon native communities throughout California.
The celebration might have been viewed as advertised in this article by those who planned and executed it, as well as by most of those observing it, but there was a substantial contingent of California’s polyglot population who had no reason to be in a celebratory mood during the period. Their stories were largely untold or ignored in the mainstream press as represented by the likes of the Times or Littell’s Living Age.