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The Footsteps of the Stranger
At no point does the early history of California come in contact with that of the colonies of the Eastern coast of the United States. The nearest approach to such contact was in the year 1789, when Captain Arguello, commander of the presidio of San Francisco, received the following orders from the governor of the province: -
"Should there arrive at your port a ship named Columbia, which, they say, belongs to General Washington of the American States, you will take measures to secure the vessel with all the people aboard with discretion, tact, cleverness, and caution." As the Columbia failed to enter the Californian port, the Spanish commander had no chance to try his wits and guns with those of the Yankee captain.
It would seem as though the Californians lived for a time in fear of their Eastern neighbors, since prayers were offered at some of the missions that the people be preserved from "Los Americanos;" but after the coming of the first two or three American ships, when trade began to be established, there arose the kindliest feeling between the New England traders and the Californians. The ship Otter, from Boston, which came to the coast in 1796, was the first vessel from the United States to anchor in a California port.
La Perouse, in command of a French scientific expedition, was the first foreigner of prominence to visit California. Of his visit, which occurred in the fall of 1786, he writes in his journal: "The governor put into the execution of his orders in regard to, us a graciousness and air of interest that merits from us the liveliest acknowledgments, and the padres were as kind to us as the officers. We were invited to dine at the Mission San Carlos, two leagues from Monterey, were received upon our arrival there like lords of a parish visiting their estates. The president of the missions, clad in his robe, met us at the door of the church, which was illuminated as for the grandest festival. We were led to the foot of the altar and the Te Deum chanted in thanksgiving for the happy issue of our voyage."
La Perouse's account of the country, the people, and the missions is of great value in giving us a picture of these times. In regard to the Indians he said that he wished the padres might teach them, besides the principles of the Christian religion, some facts about law and civil government, "Although," said he, "I admit that their progress would be very slow, the pains which it would be necessary to take very hard and tiresome."
Captain Vancouver, with two vessels of the British navy, bound on an exploring voyage round the world, was the next stranger to visit California. So much did he enjoy the courtesy of the Spanish officers that when his map of the coast came out it was found that he had honored his hosts of San Francisco and Monterey by naming for them two leading capes of the territory, one Point Arguello and the other Point Sal.
As early as 1781 Russia had settlements in Sitka and adjacent islands, for the benefit of its fur traders, and in 1805 the Czar sent a young officer of his court to look into the condition of these trading posts. Count Rezanof found the people suffering and saw that unless food was brought to them promptly, they would die from starvation. San Francisco was the nearest port, and though he knew that Spain did not allow trade with foreign countries, the Russian determined to make the attempt to get supplies there. Loading a vessel with goods which had been brought out for the Indian trade of the north coast, he sailed southward. The story of his visit is well told by Bret Harte in his beautiful poem, "Concepcion de Arguello."
Rezanof was warmly welcomed and generously entertained by Commander Arguello of the presidio of San Francisco, but in vain did he try to trade off his cargo for food for his starving people. The governor and his officers dared not disobey the laws of Spain in regard to foreign trade. While they were arguing and debating, however, something happened which changed their views. The Count fell in love with the commander's beautiful daughter, Concepcion. Then, as the poem has it, -
". . . points of gravest import yielded slowly one by one,
And by Love was consummated what Diplomacy begun."
It seemed to the governor that the man who was to be son-in-law in the powerful family of Arguello could not be considered as a foreigner, and therefore the law need not apply in his case. Thus the Count got his ship load of food and sailed away, promising to return as soon as possible for his betrothed wife. One of the most interesting pictures of early California is the poem which tells of this pathetic love story.
Count Rezanof was so pleased with the beauty and fertility of California that his letters interested the Czar, who decided to found a colony on the coast. An exploring expedition was sent out, and the territory about Russian River in Sonoma County was purchased of the Indians for three blankets, three pairs of trousers, two axes, three hoes, and some beads. Fort Ross was the main settlement, and was the home of the governor, his officers and their families, all accomplished, intelligent men and women. Besides the soldiers there were a number of mechanics and a company of natives from the Aleutian Islands, who were employed by the Russians to hunt the otter. Up and down the coast roamed these wild sea hunters, even collecting their furry game in San Francisco Bay and defying the comandante of the presidio, who had no boats with which to pursue them, and so could do nothing but fume and write letters of remonstrance to the governor of Fort Ross. Spain, and later Mexico, looked with disfavor and suspicion upon the Russian settlement, but the people of California were always ready for secret trade with their northern neighbors.
In 1816 Otto von Kotzebue, captain of the Russian ship Rurik, visited San Francisco and was entertained by the comandante, Lieutenant Luis Arguello. With Captain Kotzebue was the German poet, Albert von Chamisso.
The Russian captain, with brighter faith and keener insight than any other of the early visitors to the coast, says of the country: "It has hitherto been the fate of these regions to remain unnoticed; but posterity will do them justice; towns and cities will flourish where all is now desert; the waters over which scarcely a solitary boat is yet seen to glide will reflect the flags of all nations; and a happy, prosperous people receiving with thankfulness what prodigal nature bestows for their use will dispense her treasures over every part of the world."
In the writings of Albert von Chamisso can be found a most interesting description of his visit. To him is due the honor of giving to our Californian poppy its botanical name.
In 1841, the supply of otter having become exhausted, the Russians sold their property and claims about Fort Ross to the Swiss emigrant, the genial John Sutter. In 1903, through the agency of the Landmarks Society, this property and its still well-preserved buildings came into the possession of the state of California.
As early as 1826 there were a number of foreigners settled in California. These were mostly men from Great Britain or the United States who had married California women and lived and often dressed like their Spanish-speaking neighbors. Captain John Sutter, the Swiss who bought out the Russians of Fort Ross, came to California in 1839. He obtained from the Mexican government an extensive grant of land about the present site of Sacramento, and here he erected the famous Sutter's Fort where all newcomers, were made welcome and, if they desired, given work under this kindest of masters. Around the fort, which was armed with cannon bought from the Russians, he built a high stockade. He gained the good will of the Indians and had their young men drilled daily in military tactics by a German officer.
Governor Alvarado, at the time of his revolution in 1837, had in his forces, under a leader named Graham, a company of wandering Americans, trappers and hunters of the roughest type. Although there was no real war, and no fighting occurred, yet when Alvarado and his party were successful, Graham and his men demanded large rewards, and because the governor would not satisfy them they began to persecute him in every way possible. Alvarado says: "I was insulted at every turn by the drunken followers of Graham; when I walked in my garden they would climb on the wall and call upon me in terms of the greatest familiarity, 'Ho, Bautista, come here, I want to speak to you.' It was 'Bautista' here, 'Bautista' there."
To express dissatisfaction they held meetings in which they talked loudly about their country's getting possession of the land, until Governor Alvarado, having good reason to believe that they were plotting a revolution, expelled them from the territory and sent them to Mexico.
The United States took up the defense of the exiles and insisted on their being returned to California. It does not seem that the better class of Americans who had been long residents of the country sympathized with Graham and his followers, but from this time there were less kindly relations between the Californians and the citizens of the United States who came into the territory.
We come now to the story of the conquest.
At the beginning of the year 1845 the United States and Mexico were on the verge of war over Texas, which had been formerly a Mexican province, but through the influence of American settlers had rebelled, declaring itself an independent state, and had applied for admission to the American Union. Because the question of slavery was concerned in this application, it caused intense excitement throughout the United States. The South was determined to have the new territory come in as a slave-holding state, while the men of the North opposed the annexation of another acre of slave land.
Eight Northern legislatures protested against its admission. Twelve leading senators of the North declared that "it would result in the dissolution of the United States and would justify it." On the other hand, the South resolved that "it would be better to be out of the Union with Texas than in it without her." The South won its point. Texas was admitted, and at once a dispute with Mexico arose over the boundary lines, and war at length followed, being brought on in a measure by the entrance of United States troops into the disputed territory.
During the long discussion over Texas the United States was having trouble with Great Britain over Oregon, which was then the whole country lying between the Mexican province of California and the Russian possessions on the north coast (now Alaska). Before the invention of steam cars and the construction of railroads, the Pacific coast region had been thought of little value. The popular idea was expressed by Webster when he said: "What do we want of this vast, worthless area, this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?" But now the United States was waking up, and things looked different. Of Oregon the Americans were determined to have at least a portion. California, so far away from Mexico and so poorly governed, they would like to take under their protection, - at least the region around the great Bay of San Francisco.
As early as 1840 the United States government urged its consul at Monterey, an American named Larkin, secretly to influence the leading Californians to follow the example of Texas, secede from Mexico, and join the United States, where he was to assure them they would receive a brother's welcome. Just as he felt he might be successful his plans were overthrown.
One morning in 1842 there came sailing into Monterey Bay two American men-of-war. Suddenly, to the consternation of those watching from the shore, one of the ships was seen to fire upon an outgoing Mexican sloop. After making it captive the three vessels proceeded to the anchorage. Great was the excitement in Monterey. Neither the comandante nor the American consul could imagine the reason for such strange conduct. It was soon explained, however, by the arrival of a ship's boat bringing an officer who delivered to the authorities a demand for the surrender of the fort and place to the American commander of the Pacific fleet, Commodore Jones, who was on board one of the newly arrived vessels.
The Mexican officials and the officers of the army were astonished; so, too, was the United States consul. They knew of no war between these countries. Since he had neither men nor arms to resist this strange demand, Alvarado, who was acting for the absent governor, gave orders to surrender, and the next day the Mexican flag and forces gave place to those of the United States.
After the ceremony of taking possession, Commodore Jones had a talk with the American consul, Mr. Larkin, and learned to his dismay that the letters upon which he had acted and which indicated that war had been declared were misleading, and from the latest news it was evident that there was peace between the two countries.
The commodore saw at once that he had made a serious mistake, "a breach of the faith of nations," as it was called, which was liable to involve the United States in grave difficulties. How best to undo his rash action was now his thought.
He apologized to the Mexican commander and gave back possession of the fort. Next, he had the unhappy task of taking down the American flag and replacing it with the cactus and eagle banner of Mexico, to which the guns of his vessels gave a salute of honor. From Monterey he sailed away to San Pedro. There he waited while he sent a messenger to Governor Micheltorena, who was living in Los Angeles, asking permission to call upon him and apologize in person. This request was granted, and Commodore Jones and his staff came up to Los Angeles, where they were the guests of their countryman, Don Abel Stearns, who, as he had been working with Consul Larkin to win the Californians to the United States, was most anxious to undo the mischief of the flag raising. For the benefit of this history, Dona Arcadia Bandini, who was the beautiful Spanish wife of Mr. Stearns, tells the story of the visit: -
"We gave a dinner to the governor, the commodore, and their attendants. Everything was very friendly; they seemed to enjoy themselves, and the uniforms of the two countries were very handsome. On the next day but one the governor gave a ball. It was to be at his home, which was the only two-story house in Los Angeles. To show the Americans how patriotic the people of California were, the governor requested in the invitations that all the ladies wear white with a scarf of the Mexican colors, - red, green, and white. Of course we gladly complied, though some of us had to work hard to get our costumes ready.
"The day of the ball came, but with it came rain, such a storm as I never had seen. As it drew toward evening the water came down faster and faster. The governor had the only carriage in California, and this he was to send for the commodore, Mr. Stearns, Isadora, and myself; but the poor young officers had to walk, and their faces were long when they looked out at the rain and then down at their fine uniforms and shining boots."
"Our California horses were not trained to pull loads and would not work in the rain, so when the carriage came for us it was drawn by a number of the governor's Cholo soldiers. We got in quite safely, and it was only a short distance we had to go, but as I was getting out the wind suddenly changed and down came a torrent of water on me. It was clear that I could not go to the ball in that condition, but the governor immediately ordered the soldiers to pull the carriage back to my home, where I soon made another toilet. The ball was delightful. The governor and the commodore vied with each other in exchanging compliments and courtesies."
It was a sad fact, however, that in spite of apologies, dinners, and balls, Consul Larkin now found it difficult to persuade his California neighbors that the United States looked upon them as brothers, and they began to regard with suspicion the host of American emigrants who were coming into the territory.
In 1842 Lieutenant Fremont, under orders from the United States government, made the first of his wonderful journeys over deserts and rough mountain ranges into the great unknown West. Soon he was to become famous, not only in his own country but in Europe, as the "Pathfinder," the road maker of the West. Already many an Oregon emigrant had blessed the name of Fremont for making plain the trail for himself and his loved ones.
In 1846 Captain Fremont, conducting an exploring and scientific expedition, entered California with sixty men and encamped in the valley of the San Joaquin. Later he moved down into the heart of the California settlements and encamped on the Salinas River. Possibly, knowing that war would soon be declared between his country and Mexico, he had determined to see as much of the enemy's position as possible, not caring particularly what the Mexican authorities might think.
As a natural result, General Castro, commander of the California forces, objected; Fremont defied him, and there seemed a likelihood of immediate war. There was no actual fighting, however, and in a day or two Fremont continued his journey toward Oregon.
He had gone but a little way when he was overtaken by a captain of the navy named Gillespie, bringing him letters from the officers of the government at Washington. Upon reading these, Fremont immediately turned about and marched swiftly back to Sutter's Fort, where he encamped. Just what orders the messages from Washington contained, no one knows; but it is thought that perhaps they informed Fremont that war would be declared very soon and that the government would be pleased if he could quietly get possession of California.
If this was so, he had the best of reasons for his later actions. If not, then in his eagerness to obtain for his country the valuable territory he so well appreciated and in his desire to win for himself the honor of gaining it, he brought on a war that caused the loss of many lives and much property, and the growth of a feeling of bitterness and distrust between Americans and Californians that has not yet entirely passed away. Still it is by no means certain that California could have been won without fighting, even had Fremont and the American settlers been more patient.
Soon many Americans were gathered about Fremont's camp; but though there were a number of rumors as to what General Castro was going to do to them, there was no action contrary to the previous kindly treatment all had received from the hands of the Californians. Still the emigrants felt that as soon as war was declared an army from Mexico might come up which would not be so considerate of them and their families as had been their California neighbors.
Having good reason to feel certain that Fremont would stand back of them if they began the fight, a company of Americans attacked one of Castro's officers, who, with a few men, was taking a band of horses to Monterey. Securing the horses, but letting the men who had them in charge get away, they hurried them to Fremont's camp, where they left them while they went on to Sonoma. Here they made prisoner General Vallejo, commander of that department of the territory, together with his brother and staff.
General Vallejo was one of the leading Californians of the north, a man of fine character, quiet and conservative, generous toward the needy emigrants and favorable to annexation with the United States. When he saw the rough character of the men surrounding his house that Sunday morning, he was at first somewhat alarmed. A man named Semple, who was one of the attacking party, describing the event in a Monterey paper sometime afterward, says: "Most of us were dressed in leather hunting shirts, many were very greasy, and all were heavily armed. We were about as rough a looking set of men as one could well imagine." When they assured the general that they were acting under orders from Fremont, he seemed to feel no more anxiety, gave up his keys, and arranged for the protection of the people of his settlement. He was first taken to Fremont's headquarters, then for safe keeping was sent on to Sutter's Fort.
Meanwhile the party which had been left in charge of affairs at Sonoma chose one of their number, a man named Ide, as their leader. Realizing that they had begun a war, they felt the need of a flag, and not daring to use that of the United States, they proceeded to make one for themselves. For their emblem they chose the strongest and largest of the animals of California, the grizzly bear. The flag was made of a Mexican rebosa or scarf of unbleached muslin about a yard in width and five feet long. To the bottom of this they sewed a strip of red flannel; in one corner they outlined a five-pointed star, and facing it a grizzly bear. These were filled in with red ink and under them in black letters were the words "California Republic." The temporary government of the followers of the Bear Flag is generally known as the "Bear Flag Republic."
As soon as it seemed probable that the Californians under General Castro were marching to attack the Americans, Captain Fremont joined his countrymen, and from that time the United States flag took the place of the banner of the bear. A little later Captain Fremont took the presidio and port of San Francisco, and to him is due the honor of naming beautiful Golden Gate.
About two weeks after the capture of Sonoma, Commodore Sloat, with two vessels of the United States navy, entered the harbor of Monterey. Although he had come for the purpose of taking the territory for his country, and had orders to see to it that England did not get possession of California ahead of him, yet he had been cautioned to deal kindly with the Californians, and he hesitated to take decided steps. It took him six days to make up his mind, and then he came to a decision partly on account of the actions of Fremont and his men. Slowly up the flagstaff on the fort of Monterey rose the Stars and Stripes. Unfolded by the sea breeze, the beautiful flag of the United States waved again over the land of the padres, and this time to stay. A few days later Commodore Stockton reached California to take command in place of Commodore Sloat, who returned home. Stockton appointed Fremont commander of the American forces on land, and together they completed the conquest of the territory.
It was unfortunate that Commodore Stockton had so lately arrived from the East that he did not fully understand the state of affairs. As he believed the wild rumors which, falsely, accused the Californians of treachery and cruelty, his proclamations were harsh and unjust to the proud but kindly people whom he was conquering. Many of the late historians find much to blame in the treatment given by the Americans to the people of California. Severity was often used when kindness would have had far better effect.
Los Angeles and San Diego were taken by Stockton and Fremont without any fighting, and leaving a few troops in the south, both commanders returned to Monterey. They were soon recalled by the news that the people of Los Angeles had risen against the harsh rule of Captain Gillespie, who had been left in command; that the Americans had surrendered but had been allowed to retire to San Pedro, and that all the south was in a state of active rebellion.
Landing at San Pedro, Stockton waited a few days, then fearing the enemy was too strong for his forces, sailed away to San Diego. Here the Americans received a hearty welcome, and much-needed assistance, from the Spanish families of Bandini and Arguello.
Mr. Bandini escorted a body of the United States troops to his home rancho on the peninsula of Lower California, where he gave them cattle and other food supplies. For this aid to the invaders he was forced to remove his family from their home there, and on the journey up to San Diego. Mrs. Bandini made what was probably the first American flag ever constructed in California. As they neared San Diego the officer in command discovered that he had neglected to take with him a flag. He did not wish to enter the settlement without one, and when the matter was explained to Mrs. Bandini, who was journeying in a carreta with her maids and children, she offered to supply the need.
From the handbag on her arm came needle, thimble, thread, and scissors, and from the clothing of her little ones the necessary red, white, and blue cloth. Under the direction of the young officer she soon had a very fair-looking flag, and beneath its folds the party marched into the town. That night the band of the flagship Congress serenaded Mrs. Bandini in her San Diego home, and the next day Commodore Stockton called to thank her in person. The flag, it is said, he sent to Washington, where it is still to be found with other California trophies.
The most severe battle of the war in the state of California was fought on the San Pasqual rancho in San Diego County. The forces engaged were those of General Andres Pico, who commanded the Californians, and General Stephen Kearny, who had marched overland, entered the territory on the southwest, and was on his way to join Stockton. Hearing that the country was conquered and the fighting over, the American officer had sent back about two hundred of his men, but he was afterward reinforced by Captain Gillespie and fifty men sent by Stockton to meet him. Several American officers were killed in the battle of San Pasqual, and their brave commander severely wounded.
Commodore Stockton, on his march from San Diego to Los Angeles, twice engaged the enemy, once at the crossing of the San Gabriel River and once on the Laguna rancho just east of the city. The Californians behaved with great bravery. All of them were poorly armed, many having only lances and no fire-arms, and what powder they had was almost worthless; yet three times they dashed upon the square of steadily firing United States marines.
This was the last battle in the territory. The Californians retreated across the hills to the present site of Pasadena. Here, at the little adobe house on the banks of the Arroyo Seco, they separated. General Flores, their commander, was to ride with his staff through the stormy night, down El Camino Real toward Mexico. General Andres Pico, upon whom devolved the duty of surrender, was to ride with his associates to the old Cahuenga ranch house, the first station on the highway from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. There he met Captain Fremont, and the treaty was signed which closed hostilities. The terms proposed by Fremont were favorable for the Californians and did much to make way for a peaceful settlement of all difficulties.