California State Military Department
The California Military Museum
Preserving California's Military Heritage
The Mexican War and California
The Acquistion of California
 
By
Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History
 
Thought of the acquisition of California by the United States dates back at least to the time of President Andrew Jackson. Under President Tyler, acquisition by purchase was actively considered. Upon the collapse of the Mexican Empire in 1824, which was followed by the Mexican Republic, President Polk entered upon his administration in 1835 with the definite resolution of winning the prize, offering to purchase northern California, including San Francisco Bay. His offer was refused. Yet, the slight tenure by which Mexico held California is clearly perceived –with some of the leading Californians even ready to welcome a change of flags.

Mexico's relations with the United States had become increasingly critical, largely because of the complex Texas question. California had come to be looked upon as a capital prize, sure to fall, in the course of a short period of time.

In an era of "Manifest Destiny," Colonel John C. Fremont is considered by some to be the actual conqueror of the California region in 1846. Encouraged, if not directly aided by Fremont, settlers at Sonoma, revolted against Mexican authority and on June 14, 1846, raised the Bear Flag, issued a proclamation declaring California to be free and independent.

When one considers the remarkable history of California in the stirring years immediately following the Bear Flag Revolt, and its consequential relationship to the great Republic of which it was about to become a part, the raising of the Bear Flag takes on added significance. The Bear Flag Revolt, as a small affair, was soon submerged in far deeper currents.

When Commodore John D. Sloat raised the United States flag over Monterey and claimed California for the United States on July 7, 1846, there is evidence that Sloat was dissatisfied and distressed when he learned that Fremont had acted on his own authority. Not knowing of "any formal declaration of war" between the two nations, Commodore Sloat "acted upon the faith" of Fremont's operations in the north.

The Bear Flag, which had flown over Sonoma for twenty-five days, was withdrawn and gave way to the United States flag on July 9, 1846.

Although the flag of the United States was raised over Monterey by Commodore Sloat, commander of the naval forces on the Pacific Coast, on July 7, 1846, it should be noted that the city of Los Angeles was then the capital of the Province of Upper California, and its was taken
possession of by the combined forces of Commodore Stockton and Colonel John C. Fremont on August 13, 1846, with Don Pio Pico, the Mexican Governor, having left the city on the 12th of August.

Commodore Stockton, who had succeeded Commodore Sloat as commander of the Pacific squadron, issued a proclamation to the people, signing himself "Commander-in-Chief and Governor of California" on August 17, 1846. He announced that the country was now the property of the United States and California would be governed like any other territory of that nation, but meanwhile by military law, though the people were invited to choose their local civil officers.

On the same date, August 17th, the Warren, anchored at San Pedro from Mazatlan, bringing definite news of a declaration of war.

California, as an unorganized territory, remained under military Governors for over three years –from the time of the change of sovereignty till December 20, 1849.

As Commander-in-Chief and Governor of California, Stockton, on August 22, 1846, ordered an election of Alcaldes and other local municipal officers to be help September 15th in the several towns and districts of the territory. On September 2nd, the last day of his stay in Los Angeles, issued a general order creating the office of Military Commandant of the Territory, which was divided into three departments, and appointing Col. John C. Fremont to fill the new command.

Despite orders from Washington brought by Col. Richard B. Mason, who arrived at San Francisco, February 12, 1847, that Gen. S. W. Kearny on his arrival in California was to be recognized as Civil Governor. But before these orders were received in California, Commodore Stockton, namely, on January 16, 1847, issued commissions to Fremont as Governor and to W. H. Russell as Secretary of State.

On January 22, Governor John C. Fremont issued a proclamation announcing the establishment of civil rule. His headquarters were at Los Angeles, where he won many friends, especially among the native Californians.

With General Kearny's arrival in California, Kearny appointed Col. Mason to succeed him in command and also as Governor on May 31, 1847.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which California was ceded to the United States by Mexico, was signed on February 2, 1848, and was proclaimed by the President on June 19, 1848, and news of the same reached California and proclaimed by Governor Mason on August 7, 1848.

Meanwhile, on January 24, 1848, at a small mill in the valley of Coloma, gold was discovered. The discovery of gold soon caught men's imaginations around the world. They came to California from South America, from Africa, Asia, and Australia, from Europe and the Orient. Within one year the population of San Francisco grew from about 850 to 35,000 and continued to grow.

General Persifer F. Smith soon arrived and superseded Governor Mason. His incumbency of the office of Governor was brief and unimportant; it only extended from February 26 to April 12, 1849. On the latter date, Bennett Riley, Lieutenant Colonel of the Second U.S. Infantry, arrived at Monterey, with instructions to assume the administration of civil affairs in California. Two months later, on the 3rd of June, 1849, Governor Riley issued a proclamation calling for an election, on August 1, of delegates to formulate a Constitution, who were to meet at Monterey on September 1, 1849.

In accordance with the proclamation of de facto Governor Bennet Riley, the Constitutional Convention had met at Monterey in September, 1849. Its forty-eight delegates, nearly all of them young and energetic men, engaged in the sober task of drafting a government. When the work of the convention was completed and the constitution was put to vote at the first general election held in California, on November 13, 1849.

The California Constitution was adopted by the people of California by a vote of 12,064 ayes to 811 noes; and on that same day Peter H. Burnett was elected Governor. Governor Riley's term was thus to end on December 20, 1849.

A state government was set up with Peter H. Burnett as its first Governor. Edward Gilbert and George Wright were elected as representatives to Congress and the legislature proceeded to elect William M. Gwin and John C. Fremont as U.S. Senators.

The overwhelming sentiment of the Constitutional Convention favored immediate statehood, completely by-passing all thought of territorial status. In this is seen the reason why California is known as the Minerva State, and the explanation of her appearance on the official great seal –full grown from the brow of Jupiter.

California was for all practical intents and purposes a state, and San Jose was its capital, followed by Vallejo, Benicia and finally Sacramento.
In Washington, however, the crucial issue lay with the first session of the 31st Congress, extended from the 3rd of December, 1849, until the last day of September, 1850. This extraordinary session of the legislature, extending through the long summer months, was without precedent.

Clay had introduced his great Compromise Bill on the 29th of January, 1850. In Washington, California's political leaders, elected to the Senate and House of Representatives, earnestly sought admission of their state into the union, playing an important part in the "irrepressible conflict" that plagued the nation. The question of admission had a fundamental significance in the historic, memorable debates of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun.

The California Bill, in one of the stormiest sessions of Congress on record, finally came to vote and was approved by the Senate on August 13, 1850, and after debate ratified by the House on September 7, 1850. Only two days later President Fillmore wrote the word "Approved" and affixed his signature under the bill signalizing the admission of California into the Union, thus adding the thirty-first star to the national ensign.

However, it should be remembered that it was President Taylor who had been chiefly instrumental in advancing the cause of California's admission –but his death on July 9, 1850, explains how the final approval of the California Bill fell to his successor.

Finally, the Golden State of California was clothed with full statehood –with its thousand-mile coastline along the Pacific, greatest of all the seas –predestined to have a profound influence upon world history.


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