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The War With Mexico, Volume I (of 2) By Justin H. Smith Characters: 32957

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Under Mexican rule California, the Golden West, was anything but golden. It was poor, shiftless and pitiful; unprotected, undeveloped, unenlightened, unconsidered; helpless and almost hopeless. Although the province extended from the Pacific to the Rocky Mountains, only a strip some fifty miles wide was occupied by white men, and but a small part of that fraction consisted of farms regularly owned. The famous missions, wrecked by the Mexican government, lay in ruins. In ten degrees of latitude there was but one considerable seaport, Monterey, a village of about one hundred small houses; and the only other sizable town, Los Angeles, contained some 1500 persons, with perhaps an equal number in places depending upon it. The total population in 1845 amounted probably to something like 10,000 whites, 5000 Indians in the stage of civilization represented by the breech-clout, and 10,000 other savages. The real inhabitants were the countless horses and cattle, which roamed for the most part at will. More than half bore the mark of a branding iron; but probably the greater number even of these rendered no service to humanity, and many had not even a technical owner.[4]


The Californians were genial, kindly, hospitable, faithful in their married life and gracefully polite; but in the view of many, if not the majority, courage and truthfulness were either follies or luxuries, and no element of practical efficiency entered into their composition. A man got up some time before noon. He would not work or even walk. He neither read nor thought. A monotonous diet of beef, beans, wine, brandy and chocolate, supplemented with cigarettes and a guitar, satisfied his appetite perfectly. What he demanded next was a horse. As an infant he had begun life with a ride to be baptized, and the saddle was his real home.[4]

Given a dashing steed with a long, flowing mane, an arching neck, a broad chest, full flanks, slender legs and the gentle but fiery eye that proved its Arabian descent, the Californian was fairly on the road to happiness; and when dressed up in his dark, glazed sombrero with a conical crown, wide brim and betasselled silver cord, his close blue jacket, flashy shawl (serape) and red sash-possibly fringed with gold-his loose trousers, decorated like his jacket with silver buttons and slashed below the knee to reveal snow-white drawers, his buckskin leggins and his mammoth spurs-as big as a small plate-he felt completely satisfied.[4]



He could lasso the foot of a running steer, ride one hundred and forty miles a day for a week at a time, or check a full gallop and turn round on a bullock's hide; and anybody less polite, gaudy, dexterous and lazy he pitied. That a cow could be milked without the aid of a calf, he was unable to imagine; but he could ride five hundred miles to a family reunion, and dance two days and nights without stopping except for something to eat and drink. A glass window and a board floor were usually beyond his means; but he could afford to pay 24 per cent interest, and throw his borrowed money away on cards and horse-races. The women were counterparts to the men. They were affectionate, loyal, generous. An orphan had its choice of mothers. But, had you entered the open door of a California house, you would probably have found its mistress either smoking on the bed with two or three dirty children about her, or dressed up with an extravagance that made her lord's game of monte seem economical.[4]


There was, however, a very different element in the population, composed of several nationalities but commonly named, and naming itself, "the foreigners." Some French and Germans could be found among them; the British-almost all of them naturalized-were still more numerous; but at the end of 1845 about three out of four were Americans. In 1822 a Boston trading vessel had, so to speak, discovered California, and from that date the business of collecting hides and bartering for them such manufactured articles as the people needed or could be induced to buy, was almost monopolized by New Englanders.[1] This naturally led a few shrewd, enterprising Americans-among whom were Thomas O. Larkin of Monterey, Abel J. Stearns of Los Angeles and Jacob Leese of Sonoma-to establish themselves in this new country as traders. Runaway sailors from the ships, hunters and trappers from the mountains, and occasional adventurers from almost anywhere, gradually introduced themselves.[4]

By 1836 the foreigners had become an important, if not always highly esteemed, element. In the autumn of 1840 some two hundred emigrants are said to have gone there from the Platte country, and in May, 1841, we know that about one hundred men and thirty women and children set out in that direction from Independence, Missouri. Many who undertook to settle in Oregon decided to exchange that wilderness for the more hospitable region close at hand. By August, 1844, our people were described by Larkin as "flocking" to California; and Whittier sang,

"By many a lonely river, and gorge of fir and pine,

On many a wintry hill-top, their nightly camp-fires shine."[4]


Probably by the end of 1845 there were about eight hundred American residents-men, women and children-in the province.[2] Quite a number pushed on to the shore of San Francisco Bay, but most of them lived in the Sacramento valley, because immigrants from the United States naturally came to that region first, and because the Mexicans were too much afraid of the savages to settle there; and as a sort of base they had the fortified trading post of New Helvetia,[3] situated about a hundred miles from the coast on the site of the present Sacramento City, where Captain John A. Sutter-a German naturalized in Switzerland-received the wayfarers with an open purse, an open countenance and an open, hazy head.[4]

Some of the Americans took the trouble to go through the process of acquiring citizenship, and so could become the legal owners of land; but far the greater number were mere squatters, or else hung about the ranches of other Americans, working a little, hunting or trapping more, but mainly waiting for something to turn up. They were in general a rough-looking set: the vicious, devil-may-care sailor, the gaunt, awkward, ragged immigrant, and the heavily bearded, leather-coated hunter with his long hair turbaned in a colored handkerchief; and while some had excellent brains and hearts of gold, the scale ran down to a very low point. Little work and less law was the motto of not a few. Some of the lowest were out-and-out for blood and plunder; some of the best had practically the same thought-regarding California as a new Canaan, out of which they were appointed by Providence to drive the new Hittites, Hivites and Jebusites; and probably almost all agreed in despising the inefficiency of the native, his passion for dress and dancing, his guitar, his bland smile and his dainty politeness.[4]

With such and so meagre a population, scattered from San Diego to Sacramento, an air-line distance of about four hundred and fifty miles, the outlook for progress appeared uncertain enough; and California was also hampered by a state of chronic misgovernment and rebellion. In 1836 the people, aided by a few Americans and other foreigners, took up the same battle-cry as Texas, and raised the same blue flag illumined with a single star. The Mexican troops were expelled; and J. B. Alvarado, M. G. Vallejo and José Castro, all of them natives, assumed the control of the province. Two years later Bustamante recognized their government; but in 1843 Santa Anna sent up General Micheltorena, with soldiers that were mostly convicts and officers that were mostly debauchees, to restore the national supremacy. Countenanced and protected by their commander these men, instead of repressing the savages, harassed the people with insults, outrages and murders. At length, in November, 1844, Alvarado and Castro took up the sword;[5] and the following February, after some almost bloodless fighting, the Mexicans were driven out.[9]

Once more the government abjectly accepted a revolutionary situation, recognizing as governor the senior member of the provincial assembly, Pio Pico, and as comandante general José Castro, who had appointed himself to that position; and meantime her destroying the missions and selling their property (1835–44) seemed to emphasize these hints that California was virtually to be thrown away. It has practically been abandoned, wrote the German traveller, L?wenstern, in 1843; and this fact was rendered still clearer by the proposal of May, 1846, that England should take military possession of the province, which Bankhead, the British minister, described as "an indirect offer of sale," and by an explicit suggestion that Prussia occupy it. Mexico had substantially abdicated.[9]

In such a state of things the country could not advance. Indeed it was going backwards. The only source of revenue was the duties collected at Monterey, and this-amounting to $80,000 or $100,000 a year, and signifying the virtual confiscation of about one third of all the property in California-mostly disappeared in official pockets. No military force able to cope with the savages was maintained. In consequence of their incursions farms were being abandoned, and they even raided within the settlements. The laws were openly disregarded. There were practically no courts and no police, and each man had to defend his own person and property. No sort of regular postal facilities existed, and even communication with Mexico was rare and mostly by chance. The only carriage in the country had been one belonging to Micheltorena. There were no real schools, not a single newspaper, and of course hardly any books except in a very few hands.[9]

With gold in sight and actually seen, people did not look for it. In a region where the wild clover grew several feet high and a single grapevine would yield a barrel of juice, the government did nothing, and the citizens could do little, to promote the cultivation of the soil. With all the boundless coast of the Pacific waiting for horses, beef and lumber, droves of unbroken colts tossed their manes in a wilderness, beeves were slaughtered for their hides, and huge trees crashed to the ground amidst the stillness of an untenanted forest. Six-cent muslins cost fifty cents, and the coarsest of straw hats paid a duty of three dollars. If a man wanted a kettle mended, he looked for some one trained abroad; and even a child's torn skirt could not be patched without first getting a hank of thread from Boston.[9]


Naturally the people felt dissatisfied, and their complaints reached far beyond the misbehaving soldiers. Every official professed intense loyalty in public, but that signified nothing. The people were determined to shake off Mexican authority. California will soon declare its independence, wrote the British minister at Mexico in 1841, while his French colleague, who was in close touch with the situation, believed it would merely be a question between England and the United States. California is almost ready to separate from the mother-country, concluded Sir George Simpson, governor-in-chief of the Hudson Bay Company, who was there a year later. As a rule the people are disaffected, it was directly reported in June, 1844. The principal men have decided, wrote Forbes, the British vice consul, in September, 1844, that progress under Mexican rule is impossible, and they will not have it. The Californians are unanimously determined to be rid of the Mexican military government, declared the British consul at Tepic, under whom Forbes acted, a few months later; and of course all Mexican rule was military. A separation is probably inevitable, concluded Lord Aberdeen, head of the British Foreign Office, at the end of the year. California "must change owners," said a letter from that coast in July, 1845. "The people hardly care what Flag is exchanged for their own," stated a competent American observer two months later, while a Californian was predicting that the Stars and Stripes would certainly go up there.[9]

"The situation of Upper California will cause its separation from Mexico before many years," predicted Wilkes's book in 1845. The people of southern California are agreed to cut loose from Mexico, wrote a British admiral. "Mexican rule had become intolerable," concluded Walpole, a British officer in 1846. It had long been "only a shadow," said a young American, afterwards famous as General William T. Sherman; but it was a shadow that blighted. Another Mexican expedition would not be tolerated, said Larkin; and in fact a commissioner from California so notified the government. To get on at all with the people, a Mexican had to become Californian in head and in heart, and even then he was less welcome than an Englishman or an American.[9]

Nor were such opinions merely expressed-they were made known to Mexico. Many warnings, both official and private, went from California, and the province maintained commissioners at the capital, who presented information regarding the wholly unsatisfactory conditions existing there. That part of the country has been "forgotten for more than twenty years," wrote one of these commissioners to the war department in 1844; and the following year he said that it had been "injured by every one of our administrations." Alarms were sounded publicly in such newspapers as the London Times and London Chronicle. Notices regarding the danger of American encroachment-particularly by the method of emigration, a declaration of independence and early annexation-were received over and over again from the Mexican minister at Washington, the Mexican consul at New Orleans, Pakenham, the British minister, and Bankhead, who succeeded him. This peril was notorious, declared General Mora y Villamil near the close of 1845; and the government itself recognized the gravity of the situation. In March of that year the minister of war and the minister of relations admitted publicly that California had been grossly misgoverned and was liable to slip away.[6] Yet the government did nothing, and confessed that nothing could be done.[9]

Virtually, we say again, it was abdication. Both morally and physically Mexico had thrown away and forever lost her control of the province. She had nothing left except the bare thread of legal proprietorship; and in certain cases legality is, according to enlightened modern ideas, nothing. It is our conviction that human welfare is the supreme test; and the welfare, not merely of California but of all the world, certainly required that so rich a portion of the earth should be developed and occupied. In our opinion a child, neglected and abused by drunken parents who are always fighting each other, has good grounds for leaving home, though not legally independent. We believe in the right of revolution, which means that when a country misgoverns persistently a considerable part of the population, it forfeits all claims to domineer over them; and California, though her weakness led officials to practice a lip service that deceived nobody, had more than once rebelled, had made good her cause, and entertained no thought of accepting Mexican rule again.[9]

She was, therefore, being in every way unable to establish herself as an independent nation and gain the recognition of the world as such, quite adrift. The province is now "at the mercy of whoever may choose to take possession of it," wrote the nearest British consul in 1845. Californians, Mexicans, Britons, French and Americans, who were qualified to judge, agreed on that. She was the homeless child, whom any kind, intelligent and well-to-do person may, and some kind, intelligent and well-to-do person should, provide for. Any one of the nations then leading the march of civilization, if disposed to perform a parent's duty toward California, could rightfully have taken charge of her, and some one of them was under obligation to do so.[7] Of those nations the United States was more favorably situated than any other to fulfil the trust,[8] and she felt ready to accept it.[9]


Indeed our people were profoundly interested in the matter. As early as 1839

a Congressional report on Oregon said enough about the territory farther south to excite attention; and Forbes's history of California, published the same year, did much to fix it and create the fear that European powers might encroach there. The seizure of American residents in 1840, the appearance of Dana's "Two Years Before the Mast," and the incidents connected with Jones's landing at Monterey deepened these impressions. By 1842 glowing letters from American settlers began to appear in our newspapers, and the suspected purposes of England received ample notice. Gold existed there, it was reported; the country was attractive, salubrious and rich; the port of San Francisco had a value that words could not represent, and the British already held a mortgage on the country. Our Pacific whaling fleet was said by the New Bedford member of Congress to include before the end of 1844 six hundred and fifty vessels, which had cost twenty millions and employed 17,000 men; and not only was this harbor most important, since the bar at the Columbia River hampered navigation, but American control was needed there, for the uncertain and vexatious Mexican regulations caused great annoyance. Besides, it was pointed out, we required a fortified port on that coast, else in case of war with England our whalers would be unable to avoid capture.[10]

All these ideas took root, and in the spring of 1845 the press from New York to St. Louis and New Orleans broke into quite a furore about California. Its value became a popular subject; the known fact that English holders of Mexican bonds had their eyes upon it was recalled; the designs of the British government seemed to be clear; and annexation was not only urged, but represented as near at hand. So keen became the fear that England would forestall us, that in January, 1846, the ease with which she could acquire California was dwelt upon in our national Senate, while in the House the enormous advantages of our holding the territory attracted attention.[10]

Our government was even in advance of the people. In 1835 an attempt was made to purchase the Bay of San Francisco. The next year Ellis, who represented the United States at Mexico, expressed the opinion that northern California would be of "immense importance" to us. Four years later a personal letter to President Van Buren pointed out that England, as a great creditor of Mexico, was likely to appropriate the territory, and steps were taken to obtain information regarding it for the use of Congress and the Cabinet. Daniel Webster felt strongly by this time that we should acquire it. In 1842, while he was secretary of state, our minister at Mexico not only expatiated on the value of the territory, but reported that England had taken steps to anticipate us; and the minister was instructed to ascertain whether an offer from this country would be acceptable. Our strained relations with Mexico and especially Jones's occupation of Monterey made it unwise to follow up the matter that year; but after an interval, Tyler and Webster planned an arrangement which-had it been carried through-would have given us the port of San Francisco.[11]

The expansive course of Great Britain, remarks dropped by English writers, repeated warnings from our diplomatic and consular agents at Mexico, and the consensus of opinion in California, Mexico, France and the United States were quite enough to warrant suspicions of England, and the circumstances connected with the visit of Duflot de Mofras, attaché of the French legation at Mexico, to California, and the publication of his book by order of the king, hinted of danger from another quarter; but neither country took any positive action, and our government-doubtless noting that a tide of emigration to the far west had begun-refrained from every move that could excite the jealousy of Mexico or Europe. Early in 1843 Larkin, who was deficient in education but not in shrewdness, activity or patriotism, was appointed consul at Monterey; but the value of American commerce fully justified the step. During 1845 he did not receive one letter from the state department, and for a long time no American war vessel could be seen on the coast.[11]


Early in 1845, owing to the annexation of Texas, a breach with Mexico had seemed probable, and the danger that she would somehow dispose of California in order to place it beyond our reach had been deemed acute. But our government did not intend to have war, the tide of emigration to that quarter was rising, and Polk warned off European interference by re-asserting the "Monroe Doctrine." On July 10, 1845, however, Larkin wrote that England was maintaining there a vice consul without consular business, and that, according to the universal belief in his vicinity, she was promoting a new Mexican expedition to California; and at about the same time as this letter, news of an extensive British plan to colonize in that province arrived from London.[11]

The question was then maturely considered at Washington. Apparently the American emigrants, unless checked, were sure to bring California into the Union. That was natural and logical; such a peaceful invasion had given us Texas; and in the opinion of the best qualified observers it seemed likely to be efficacious again. Larkin, the Californians, the British vice consul, the Mexican consul at New Orleans, the Mexican minister at Washington, and Mexican, British, French and American journals agreed on this. Larkin believed the matter would be settled in that way by 1848. "Without striking a blow and without incurring any expense," wrote Vice Consul Forbes, the United States will obtain a secure foothold in the coveted region. The Americans do not need to fight for California, said Le Constitutionnel of Paris. "No more convenient mode of conquest was ever devised," remarked the Baltimore American. To suppose that Polk and the Cabinet failed to see what was not only obvious but often pointed out, would be absurd. The condition and political feeling of California, which were quite well known through Larkin and others, fully warranted a procedure so amicable and so beneficial; and it only remained to guard against European interference, which our government now considered a real danger.[11]

On October 17, 1845, therefore, confidential instructions, based upon the fact that British and French consuls having no commercial business were maintained in California, were issued to Larkin, who was now to be confidential agent as well as consul. "The interests of our commerce and our whale fisheries in the Pacific Ocean demand," he was informed, "that you should exert the greatest vigilance in discovering and defeating any attempt, which may be made by foreign governments to acquire a control over that country," Against such an attempt the United States would "vigourously interpose"; but "should California assert and maintain her independence, we shall render her all the kind offices in our power"; and "whilst the President will make no effort and use no influence to induce California to become one of the free and independent states of this Union, yet if the people should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as brethren, whenever this can be done without affording Mexico just cause of complaint. Their true policy for the present in regard to this question, is to let events take their course, unless an attempt should be made to transfer them without their consent either to Great Britain or France." On the same day instructions to ascertain the designs of those powers were issued to Commodore Sloat, commanding the Pacific squadron, and Lieutenant Gillespie of the Marine Corps was ordered to California as a co-agent with Larkin.[11]

All this has been called an intrigue; but, if that word is in fairness applicable, the "intrigue" was only designed, so far as it concerned Mexico and California, to rescue with a gentle hand the neglected, abused and lost; so far as it concerned England and France, to ward off an interposition which, if attempted, would probably have led to war; and, so far as it concerned the United States, to safeguard and advance most important national interests while promoting the general good of the world. Such "intrigues" are among the most legitimate achievements of true statecraft.[11]

This leads us to the more serious charge, that Polk brought upon two nations the curse of war and endangered the peace of the world, for the purpose of tearing California from the parent stem; and we find ourselves here at the best point of view from which to consider it. Not only, then, have we no sound evidence in support of the charge; not only was he personally unfitted to play the r?le of conqueror; not only did he exert himself to restore friendly relations with Mexico; not only did he virtually forbid Slidell to work for the sale of California, if so doing would militate against this endeavor; not only did his taking certain other important steps and refraining from still others imply the same intentions; but it appears that he looked forward to obtaining the territory without war, should he be unable to purchase it, by a method peculiarly suited to his characteristics and to those of Buchanan. We therefore do not need to consider one of our Presidents a wretch unhung, as many Americans have seemed eager to do, and should finally dismiss the charge.[12]


While the instructions to Larkin were on their way, the year 1846 came in, and to California it brought fresh perplexities. The desire to escape from what a citizen described as "a positive state of anarchy" was more pronounced than ever. One plan contemplated a French protectorate; but the men of that nationality were few, their government did nothing, and their consul exerted himself only to acquire unpopularity. A much greater number favored American control. Probably all of the foreigners thought such a régime preferable to the existing state of things. Even the British vice consul admitted that his personal judgment pointed in that direction. Some of the Californians also leaned our way. They recognized the merits of our institutions and the growth of our power. The good order maintained by Commodore Jones's forces had left a favorable impression, and so had the conduct of our naval officers who went ashore from time to time.[16]

But the participation of Americans in the California revolts had excited suspicion and fear. Our acquisition of Texas, as described by Mexicans writers, had been resented, and probably it was known that Mexicans residing there had fared none too well. American hunters-or men believed to be such-had sometimes helped themselves to property. In consequence very likely of misdeeds committed by our sailors the Americans were generally disliked at Monterey. The constantly increasing immigration despite Mexican laws appeared intrusive and menacing. All the faults of our people, who were better known than other foreigners, came to be understood. Their brusque, overbearing, strenuous ways impressed the polite, indolent Californians as almost ferocious. Indeed a natural antipathy-social, religious and racial-made harmony well-nigh impossible. Finally, doubts were felt whether we should be able to offer immediate and effective protection against Mexico and the Indians, and whether our flag would not go down after a time, as when Jones had raised it, leaving our friends to settle with the mother-country as best they could.[16]

The British, on the other hand, while in every way as free and as responsible as the Americans, were comparatively exempt from such objections; their government had a strong fleet in the Pacific; and hence, as was natural, most of the substantial citizens-especially in the south-desired the shelter of her flag. But Forbes could not meet their views. Warned not to meddle, save to hinder any other nation from establishing a protectorate, he could make no promises and give no encouragement. He conveyed to the government of California the declaration of England that she would feel greatly displeased to have the province pass under the control of any other power, but his only advice was to elude American rule by declaring unqualified independence; and this plan, as all thoughtful men understood, could not be carried out.[16]

Governor Pico, a fat, swarthy, good-natured farmer of tolerably good sense but little ability, and educated only about enough to write his name, was the chief of the British party, and wanted no Americans in the country. Vallejo-who was now inactive but had great influence-favored the Americans, for he believed that we held the winning cards, and foresaw, like many other landowners, that American rule would enhance the value of real estate. Castro, a man of quick but not profound intelligence and more ambitious for power and fame than for wealth, probably desired independence with himself as the autocrat; but he knew the time had not arrived, and felt that his grip on the customhouse must not be loosened. For the present, therefore, while he showed much amiability toward the Americans and occasionally masked his real views behind cordiality toward France, he posed at Mexico as an ardent patriot. In order to save his responsibility, whatever might happen, and perhaps fortify his position, he urged the need of preparing for war against the United States, and called for plenty of money and a few soldiers-not more than he could be sure of handling. At the same time, holding that Pico was only an acting governor, he recommended that during the crisis, at least, the civil authority should be united with the military. In March he invited a number of leading citizens to discuss the situation with him,[13] but no agreement on a line of action could be reached.[16]

Forbes congratulated himself that no American of commanding influence, familiar with the language, customs and prejudices of the people, resided in California; but Larkin seems to have been on good terms with all the officials at least. His firm chin, ample brow and correct side-whiskers inspired respect, while his notable energy, hospitality and public spirit gained him esteem; and when Gillespie, after crossing Mexico to Mazatlán in the guise of a mercantile agent and then sailing perforce to the Hawaiian Islands,[14] arrived at Monterey on April 17, and repeated to him from memory Buchanan's instructions of precisely six months before, which it had not been thought safe to bring in writing, he promptly bestirred himself. The main points of his instructions were transmitted in confidence to friends at other towns; here and there an official had an opportunity to see a good argument, written out in Spanish, for American rule; and Castro was assured that he and his friends might derive personal advantages from such a change.[16]


As if all these currents and cross-currents did not produce commotion enough, civil war now loomed up. Both Los Angeles and Monterey desired to be the capital and possess the customhouse. Herrera had assigned two thirds of the revenue to Pico and one third to Castro; but Paredes reversed this arrangement, and Castro improved still further upon it by taking the whole. In April the comandante general and his officers repudiated Herrera, on whom Pico's authority depended, came out for Paredes, and resolved to propose, on the ground of Mexico's threatening relations with the United States, that the governor should place himself in Castro's power by coming to Monterey-the latter, in case of a refusal, to act according to his discretion.[16]

Pico, who doubtless knew as well as others, that Castro was aiming to upset him, appealed to the people and summoned a general convention, which was to meet at Santa Barbara on June 15, and avert the "external and internal disasters" that were threatening California. The promoters of the scheme intended to audit Castro's use of the public funds, declare for independence, and invite foreign protection-preferably that of England. Castro denounced it as treasonable, defeated it by preventing the northern delegates from going to Santa Barbara,[15] and proclaimed martial law; and about the middle of June Pico advanced against him with all the forces he could raise. It seemed as if a crash would have to come; and a crash did come.[16]

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