San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


NEW California has always been a distinct country from the rest of the Mexican provinces, having nothing in common but that its few early white settlers were descended from the same race. Locally it was separated by vast deserts from the peopled parts of the same empire—in its constitution and government it was sui generis—in its productions, climate and general character of country there was no resemblance to any other portion of Mexico. In the very feelings of the inhabitants there was little sympathy with those of the Mexicans. Mexico never could become a naval power: its mineral, pastoral and agricultural wealth were very great, but it wanted the ports and the facilities for procuring ship-building timber and other marine stores which California has within a comparatively small space of territory. California possesses an equable, mild and healthy climate—excellent harbors—(one of which is equal, in capacity, safety, and ease of entrance and departure to any other on the globe)—a soil extremely fertile, capable of producing every kind of grain and vegetables, except a few tropical varieties—and extensive forests and other tracks of land which yield most kinds of marine stores, such as timber, resin, &c. These things—if it only had population, would necessarily, at all times, have rendered it independent of Mexico, which is deficient in many of them. Accordingly, the free white settlers early began to show that they cared little about the Mexican Government, and that, sooner or later, they were determined to be independent. This consideration was always present in the minds of the Mexican people, and a secret jealousy of the consequences generally prevented them from heartily encouraging the immigration into California of new white settlers.

We have seen that so early as 1836, and when the gente de razon did not exceed, if they amounted to five thousand, the people of Monterey declared themselves independent of Mexico, and that their example was followed by the other inhabitants of the country. This desire for independence was soon much increased by the continual inroad of immigrants which now began to come from the United States of America, and from many of the islands and ports of the Pacific.

In 1812, the Russians, without asking leave of the Spanish authorities, had formed a small settlement at Bodega Bay, between fifty and sixty miles to the north of San Francisco. Some years afterwards, they established another small station, called Ross, about thirty miles farther north than Bodega. These settlements were founded chiefly in order to supply the Russian-American Fur Company with agricultural supplies, but also as fishing stations for procuring the skins of seals and otters, which animals abounded on the coast and on the adjacent rocky islands. The Russians, however, were very jealously eyed by the Spanish and Mexican authorities, and were compelled to maintain strong forts and a large number of military to protect their settlers. In 1841, therefore, they judged it expedient to relinquish their possessions. They accordingly disposed of their stations and property to Captain John A. Sutter, an adventurous Swiss gentleman, whose name is closely connected with the later history of California and will again occur in our pages. The Russians then altogether retired from the country.

But previous to 1826 there were comparatively few other foreign settlers in California than the Russians. When, however, in that year, the Columbia and North American Fur Companies had united their interests, several hundred trappers and fur traders were always wandering about the borders of the country, and occasionally even penetrated as far as San Francisco Bay and Monterey. Their visits were in general coldly received by the Californians; and much suspicion of their ulterior views being raised in the Mexican Government, laws were occasionally passed by Congress for the removal of all foreigners from California. Notwithstanding, the flow of immigration gradually increased, and trappers, fur traders, whalers, and adventurers of all nations, but particularly from the American States, began to throng the harbors, and to settle down in the more fertile parts of the country. Soon the majority of merchants in the ports were of American, or else of English or French extraction while many of the land squatters, and the shop and tavernkeepers and artisans in towns were adventurous immigrants from every country on earth. They had perhaps roamed over the wide Pacific for years, and now, tired of their vagabond career, had chosen California as a pleasant resting place, and a home for the remainder of life. Runaway seamen and stragglers from Columbia and Missouri swelled the number of white settlers. The indolent Spaniards stupidly looked on, while the prestige of their name, their wealth and influence were quietly passing into other and stronger hands.

Occasionally indeed they seemed to make a desperate struggle against their fate; but it was like the useless splash of the unwieldy whale when the harpoon has struck his vital parts. In 1840, a violent outrage was committed, under the instructions of Don Juan B. Alvarado, then governor of the Californias, upon many of the most respectable settlers of foreign extraction. In April of that year, nearly one hundred individuals, American and British subjects, of every rank and profession in life, were seized, and carried to Monterey, where they were imprisoned, some of them in irons, for a short time. No charge was made against these people, yet they were treated as vilely as if they had been condemned felons. A few were released, without explanation, at Monterey, and the remainder carried as prisoners to Santa Barbara. There a few more were released, again without explanation, while the rest proceeded, still prisoners, to San Blas. There several others were discharged, and left to find their way back to Monterey, without money, passports or any assistance whatever. Those who were still left were imprisoned for an indefinite time at San Blas, or sent to other Mexican towns. A considerable number died from the severe treatment they experienced; while it was fifteen months before the last of them was set at liberty. And still no reason was alleged for this worse than Turkish or Russian despotism. Nor has it ever been fairly known why such outrageous proceedings had been adopted by the Mexican authorities, although it was suspected that they considered the foreign settlers in California were engaged in some revolutionary movement. This, however, was a most unlikely thing. The prisoners in conversation all denied, while the Mexicans ridiculously failed, or perhaps never seriously attempted to establish it. Probably a better reason might be found in the fact that the Mexicans had got so fretfully jealous and alarmed at the progress of foreign immigration, that they were determined to disgust the present settlers with the country, and to frighten all others from entering into it. Besides the people mentioned, there were many other foreign settlers of large property who were arrested, though Governor Alvarado thought it prudent not to imprison them. No redress seems ever to have been obtained from the Mexican Government for this daring attack on the liberty of American subjects, and for all the losses, pecuniary and otherwise, sustained by the victims of these violent, arbitrary and unlawful proceedings. At that period, there was no regular United States ship-of-war stationed on the coast, nor any consul appointed, to whom the injured could appeal, and who, in his official capacity, could have enforced some compensation for such manifold wrongs. As it was, indeed, Mr. Thomas O. Larkin, afterwards our respected consul at Monterey, in his private character as a merchant of the place and an American subject, exerted himself strenuously to preserve the honor of the United States flag and the lives and properties of his fellow subjects; but without effect. Several commanding officers of United States ships in the Pacific likewise interested themselves in the matter, when they happened to approach the coast; but as they were but transient visitors, having no proper commission effectually to interfere, the few steps they took led to no settlement of the business.

In 1842, a premature attempt was made by an American officer forcibly to take possession of the country. In that year, Commodore Jones, then in the Pacific, having fancied that the Mexican and American States were at war on the Atlantic side of the continent, sailed with his frigate, the United States, and the sloop-of-war Cyane, to Monterey, where he arrived on the 19th of October. He immediately took possession of the town and hoisted the American flag, publishing proclamations over the whole country, declaring it a portion of the United States. After only twenty-four hours possession, the commodore received intelligence which altered his views of matters. He therefore revoked all his recent orders, hauled down the “stripes and stars,” and restored the place to its former owners, with as handsome an apology as he could make for his extraordinary proceedings.

Sutter's Fort, New Helvetia.So early as 1837, several societies were formed in the American States to promote emigration to Oregon and California. In the following years, and particularly in 1843, 1844, 1845 and 1846, many thousand emigrants journeyed across the Rocky and Snowy Mountains, enduring much suffering by the way, to settle in California and the adjacent territory of Oregon. Other large numbers proceeded thither through Mexico, across the Isthmus, or by way of Cape Horn. The Valley of the Sacramento, where Captain Sutter, already mentioned, possessed, under a grant from the Mexican government, an extensive tract of country, called by him New Helvetia, was the general resort of the larger number of those immigrants whose wishes were directed towards an agricultural life. Many, however, distributed themselves over other parts of the country, and those whose views were turned more to trade and commerce flocked to the towns on the coast, where they soon became the most influential part of the community, and in some instances formed even the numerical strength of the white population.

Meanwhile the Mexican Congress, alarmed at an imnaigration so steadily increasing and so powerful, fulminated proclamation after proclamation against the intruders, and instructed the governor of the province to take steps for their immediate expulsion. Such a measure, however, was now too bold an undertaking for the whole Mexican power to execute. There the stubborn settlers were, and would remain; the squatter on his land, the merchant in his office, the artisan, shopkeeper and trader at the posts they had severally selected. Accordingly, the commandante-general of California contented himself merely with publishing, in their order, the impotent ordinances of Congress as they reached himself, without daring or taking the least trouble to enforce them. It was felt by all parties that a silent revolution was rapidly going on, the effect of which was thoroughly to Americanize the whole province. It was barely possible that England might have delayed this movement somewhat, if she had received, as was at one time seriously proposed by many influential personages, the territory of California from the Mexican Congress, in lieu of the large public debt which her subjects held against the insolvent republic. But even such a political cession of the country to England would scarcely have stopped the onward progress of American settlements, or removed the profound feeling that California was destined, one day very soon now, to pass under the protection of the “star-spangled banner.” The pear was ripening, and, if not plucked a little earlier by impatient hands, would certainly soon fall at the feet of the watcher. Matters were in this condition, when the war of 1846 broke out between the United States of America and the Mexican States, which brought matters to a crisis, and finally settled the destiny of California. The origin of the war was shortly this: —

In 1835, Texas, like California and many other provinces of the Mexican republic, dissatisfied with the overthrow of the federal constitution, revolted and declared itself independent. War was accordingly proclaimed by the general government, and an army, under the command of Santa Anna, was forthwith sent to the rebellious province to compel obedience. But the Texans, who were now chiefly of American descent, and who had no sympathies with the Mexicans, having flown to arms, defeated and captured Santa Anna himself, on the 21st April, 1836. In the power of the enemy, and fearing the machinations of political foes in the capital, Santa Anna was glad to sign a treaty with the Texans, in which he acknowledged the independence of the province. Meanwhile, another party had come into power in Mexico who refused to confirm the proceedings of Santa Anna, and still claimed Texas as an integral part of the republic. The disordered state, however, of the general country prevented active measures being taken to establish this claim; and Texas governed itself; and was acknowledged as an independent power, by several European and other nations.

In the interval, the Texans applied to the American Congress for permission to be received into the Union. This, for various reasons, was refused on the part of Congress; and similar applications made during the next eight or nine years were likewise declined. At last, in 1845, the American Congress saw reason to change its opinion, and on the 1st of March of that year, passed resolutions sanctioning the annexation of Texas, upon certain preliminary conditions, with which, as it happened, Texas was ultimately found ready to comply. Five days after the passing of these resolutions, the Mexican ambassador, at Washington, protested against them, and demanded his passports. Generally such a course is only adopted where there is good reason to suppose that war is shortly about to follow. In the present instance, war was not immediately declared, nor did any hostilities take place. However, the Mexican people were much embittered against the American States when they reflected on the course of these events, and every where a popular feeling was produced inimical to America, and which insisted on immediate war.

To complicate matters, the Mexican Government had acknowledged itself indebted to American subjects in a large sum, (some millions of dollars), which it never could or would pay; and the mere consideration and fixing the amount of which had occupied some tedious years. This sum was the amount of damage (assessed under the formal arbitration of mutual commissioners), done to Americans, by reason of various seizures of and outrages upon their ships and goods, which the Mexicans had made during many previous years, partly, perhaps, through malicious wantonness, and partly to replenish their impoverished exchequer. Successive weak and poor governments among the Mexicans pretended to acknowledge the justice of this debt, and faithfully promised payment, though always at some future day; until the injured Americans got tired of remonstrating on the subject, and indignantly clamored for warlike measures being adopted against Mexico, to compel redress of their own and the national grievances. Thus the popular mind in both countries was ripe for war; while both governments secretly began preparations to carry it to extremities. The Mexicans made great levies and collected numerous forces around their capital and on the Texan border. On the other hand, the American Congress dispatched a considerable fleet to the gulf of Mexico to be at hand when wanted, and likewise ordered large forces to be assembled and to quarter themselves on the Rio Nueces in Texas. That river was held by the Mexicans to be the south-western boundary of the province, while the Texans themselves, and the United States taking up their cause, claimed the Rio Grande, some one hundred and thirty miles farther to the south-west, as the true and proper limits of their territory. Thus the murderous train was laid which a spark was to fire.

It is not our province further to develope the causes of the war which ultimately broke out between the contending powers. Suffice it to say, that, in April, 1846, war was formally declared between the two countries; and that, after a brilliant series of battles and victories upon the Rio Grande, under General Zachary Taylor, and a still more triumphant progress, bloody but decisive, from Vera Cruz to Mexico, under General Winfield Scott, the modern Cortez, the Americans were enabled, in the capital itself, to dictate their own terms of peace to the Mexicans—one of which was the cession of Upper California by the latter. Previous to this time, however, American subjects had conquered and held in possession the last named country itself; and to a short summary of their proceedings in that quarter we will now direct the reader.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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