By Steve Wiegand
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998
Some visitors to Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park at Coloma are content to view the site of the epochal find from a distance.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
If California was truly born in the Gold Rush, it had a short childhood.
On Jan. 1, 1848, the non-Indian population stood at 18,000 and the land at least technically belonged to Mexico. Less than three years later, the population had swelled to 165,000, and California was an American state.
As with so many things Californian, the road to statehood was a most unusual path.
"Most new communities develop gradually," wrote historian Joseph Ellison. "California sprang at once to full stature."
The springing began shortly after the land was ceded to the United States from Mexico in early 1848. The American military governors sent to California were at first content to leave in place the Mexican system of law, in which "alcaldes" functioned as administrators and judges. But to the American Californians, the Mexican system was inadequate and inefficient. Even the newly appointed American alcaldes had no idea where their powers began and ended.
Moreover, there was no overreaching government in place to provide for roads, schools and other services, and local efforts at government were shaky. In San Francisco, for example, voters managed to elect two city councils at the same time, then threw them both out and elected a new body, which was promptly declared illegal by the military governor.
So federal officials sent to oversee the area asked Congress to designate California as a U.S. territory and establish a government. But Congress went home in 1848, and again in 1849, without acting. Newly elected President Zachary Taylor was of a mind to let Californians sort it out for themselves.
That suited California fine. In fact, some were ready to go it alone.
"Suppose California should form an independent government," mused an editorial in the Pacific News. "What a spectacle she would present. We should indeed be a nation "born in a day,' the wonder and admiration of the world!"
Unenamored of that idea, military Gov. Bennet Riley instead called for a "state" constitutional convention in Monterey for September 1849.
The 48 delegates hastily elected were a uniquely California collection: 37 Americans, seven "Californios" of Mexican descent and four foreigners. Nine of them were under 30 years old, and only four were over age 50. All were males.
Some visitors to Marshall Gold Discovery State Park at Coloma take pan in hand and wade into the south fork of the American River to try their luck. A full-scale replica of Sutter's Mill was built at the 150-acre state park in 1996.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
Among them was John Sutter, whose desire for a sawmill indirectly started the Gold Rush; Dr. Robert Semple, the founder of Benicia, who was elected president of the constitutional convention and at 6 feet, 8 inches tall literally towered over the other delegates; Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, a native Californian, and Dr. William Gwin, a rich land speculator who had been a Mississippi congressman and didn't arrive in California until June 1849.
In drafting the constitution, the delegates reached agreement with relative ease on the issue that was threatening to tear the rest of the country apart: slavery. The convention voted unanimously, and with almost no debate, to prohibit it. Delegates also voted down a proposal to ban free African Americans from the state.
The no-slavery decision was based not so much on ideology, but on a philosophy that had sprung up in the gold fields that every man should dig for his own future. Simply put, miners did not want to compete with slaves.
"There is now a respectable and intelligent class of population in the mines," said a delegate recently arrived from Louisiana. "Do you think they would dig with the African? No, sir, they would leave this country first."
'Discovery,' John A. Sutter, Hutchings' California Magazine, November 1857
A much bigger issue than slavery was where to draw the state's eastern boundary. Some delegates thought the Rocky Mountains made sense. Others favored a line near Salt Lake. But eventually delegates agreed to bite off a smaller portion, and settled on the "natural" boundaries of the Sierra Nevada and Colorado River.
There were other issues. Dueling was outlawed, and women who brought property to a marriage were allowed to keep it in their own names. All persons charged with a criminal offense were to be tried by a jury of their peers, prompting one delegate to shout, "What do we want with peers? This ain't no monarchy!" A suggestion to divide California into two states, north and south, was voted down.
By mid-October, the delegates were done. Eight thousand copies of the new constitution were printed, 2,000 of them in Spanish. Hoping to beat the rainy season, they called for a Nov. 13, 1849, election. But the rains came early, and only 15 percent of the eligible electorate turned out, in part because many of them didn't know there was an election.
"When I left home, I was determined to go it blind," one miner was quoted in a San Francisco newspaper. "I voted for the constitution, and I've never seen the constitution. I voted for all the candidates, and I've never seen a damned one of them."
An oval of stones and a simple cross mark a miner's grave in the cemetery at North Bloomfield near Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park, a monument to the damage caused by hydraulic mining near Nevada City.
Bee Photo: Dick Schmidt
The constitution was overwhelmingly adopted, and Peter Burnett, a former Oregon judge, was elected governor. In December, the newly elected Legislature met in San Jose and selected John C. Fremont and William Gwin as U.S. senators. California had a state government. Now all it had to do was convince Congress it was a state. That wasn't easy.
In the spring of 1850, the United States was evenly, if uneasily, divided into 15 slave and 15 free states. Sectional passions that had simmered for years burst into a rhetorical war of words as to whether California should be admitted as a free state, a slave state, or not at all.
Sens. Henry Clay of Kentucky and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts pleaded for a compromise. But President Taylor, who was adamant that California be admitted as a free state without delay, opposed any deal. And representatives from nine Southern states met in Nashville in June 1850 and declared they would leave the Union if California were admitted as a free state.
Fortunately for California, however, Taylor died in July. He was succeeded by Millard Fillmore, who favored a compromise. With White House support, the deal was struck. Under it, California was admitted as a free state, while the rest of the territory wrested from Mexico would be open to slavery until its voters decided otherwise. On Sept. 9, 1850, California became the 31st state.
It proved to be a good deal for the Union. In 1860, California helped elect Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, California mines produced more than $170 million in gold, propping up the value of federal currency and greatly enhancing the war effort. In addition, the state's private contributions to the national "Sanitary Fund," which supplied hospital and medical supplies to the Union Army, was more than $1.25 million, a fourth of the fund's total contributions.
The baby born with a golden spoon in its mouth proved a valuable addition to the American family.
Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo
Bold, well-educated, tolerant and hospitable, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo saw three nations rule California during his lifetime. He was among the first of the leading "Californios," or California Mexicans, to embrace American control of the state -- and was all but wiped out financially as a result.
Born into a wealthy Monterey family in 1808, when California still was under Spanish rule, Vallejo became a Mexican army officer and led several victorious expeditions against California Indians. Even though he rose to become military commander of Northern California, Vallejo was critical of the autocratic Mexican government. He supported the idea of an independent California, and saw the area's "liberation" during the Mexican War as a welcome change.
Despite this, Vallejo was imprisoned at Sutters' Fort by Gen. John C. Fremont for several months during the fighting, and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to his estates. After the war, Vallejo was one of a handful of Californios to become a delegate to the constitutional convention, and later was elected to the state Senate.
Like most other Californios, however, Vallejo's claim to vast land holdings was washed away by the flood of 49ers. By the time he died in 1890, he was left with a modest 200-acre ranch near Sonoma. But he did not die bitter.
"The inhabitants of California," he wrote in his memoirs, "have no reason to complain of the change of government, for if the rich have lost thousands of horses and cattle, the poor have been bettered in condition."