In 1846 – as the Mexican-American War brought U.S. troops into conflict with Santa Ana’s forces – the Mexican province of Alta California found itself drawn into the political storm. Caught between Mexico’s mercantilism and the United States’ “Manifest Destiny,” Californians questioned their future. Would it be better to stay a neglected satellite, become a territory of a new country, or seize complete independence?
California’s past relations with Spain and Mexico had alternated between laissez-faire and pushy colonization. Americans were not “unknown persons” to the Californios in mid-19th Century. Both the neglect from Mexico and the welcoming hands from America set the stage of a momentous moment in Western, California, and American history.Discovered in 1542 by Juan Rodrigo Cabrillo and claimed for Spain, California remained a pristine wilderness – only inhabited by native peoples – for about 200 years. Other Spanish explorers sailed the coastline, making maps and searching for the elusive (and non-existent) Northwest Passage.
In 1769, an imaginary threat from Russian fur-trappers prompted the Spanish governor to organize colonization of California. The result was the Sacred Expedition, led by Captain de Portola and the Catholic missionary Junipero Serra. Establishing military presidios (forts) and religious missions, this expedition was the first known European group to reach Alta California by land. Eventually, a chain of 21 religious missions were built in an attempt to “Christianize” the native peoples and teach them “civilized” skills – including farming, cattle ranching, brick making, and leather tanning.
Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810, but it took time for them to establish that freedom and their new government. During that period, Alta California continued under the control of governors without much direction from the southern country. More settlers continued to arrive; the pueblos expanded and large ranchos divided the best open land for livestock herds. Cattle became a foundation of the territory’s economy, and tanned leather was a valuable product.
From the North American east coast, the United States’ sailing ships circled the globe, bringing home foreign treasures and practical trade items. California had a market of leather and beef, and the Americans were willing to do business. Perhaps one of the most famous primary sources in California’s saga and American maritime history is Two Years Before The Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr. While detailing the hardships, injustices, and adventures of a common seaman on merchant ships, the account highlights trading for leather hides along the California coast. The book was published in 1840, and records voyages and trading accounts from the late 1830’s.
The Americans didn’t just come by sea. In 1826, a group of fur trappers led by explorer Jedidiah Smith stumbled into California, seeking refuge at Mission San Gabriel. They had crossed the deserts between Salt Lake, Utah, and the Pacific Ocean. The governor of California frowned suspiciously, and sent the trappers packing…or so he thought. In reality, they traveled north, exploring and hunting. And they returned the following year to retrieve their cache of furs and a few members who had been forced to stay behind.
In 1833, the golden age of the California Ranchos began while the Mission bells tolled. Mexico passed the Secularization Act of 1833, removing all missions and their extensive land grants from the control of the Catholic church. The lands were divided into large ranchos and the adobe churches and courtyards were partially dismantled as the rancheros took the materials to build their own dwellings.
During the 1830’s, some American businessmen and adventurers received permission to settle in California and became naturalized citizens. Thomas Larkin built the first known two-story house in Alta California and took his place in society as an influential business owner and U.S. consul to Mexico. A few American men were granted ranchos, took positions in California’s local government, or married into prominent families. Others just came, settled, and prospered without permission from the Mexican government.
Observing American prosperity and the good character of their new neighbors from the east, some families in California began wondering if they would have a stronger economy, more responsive government, and more opportunity if they broke away from Mexico. Certainly, Alta California was not a favored province of the mother country.
Meanwhile, some of the American immigrants started whispering about the possibility of somehow seizing California and making it a new state in the American union. The land was mostly undeveloped and held great opportunity for agriculture, logging, and other 19th Century economic pursuits. (Gold had not been discovered yet.)
Could California secede from Mexico? Should it remain an independent republic like Texas? Or petition immediately for statehood in the United States? If the latter, should it be a slave or free state? The questions swirled. The Californios grumbled about the neglect from Mexico, but continued to maintain their idyllic rancho or pueblo lifestyles.
The American settlers watched the local situation and followed reports of the war with Mexico. If the opportunity came and they could have military support, they would seize California for the United States. In the late spring of 1846, settlers’ frustration increased when the Alta California government refused to sell or rent land and issued threats of expulsion since the pioneers had arrived without special permission.
While U.S. troops fought along the Texas border and invaded Mexico, the Americans in California prepared to create a revolt and a new state. June 14, 1846 – a small group of Americans crept toward the town of Sonoma, ready to raise a new flag. The Bear Flag Revolt was underway…and it would alter the course of history, eventually bringing California’s land, opportunity, and still-hidden wealth to the United States as a free state. A decade and a half later, California gold would be financing the Union cause during the Civil War.
However, that was still in the future on the shadowy morning as the Americans made the first move to conquer California, persuading their neighbors to leave Mexico’s neglect and join the United States.