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4.3: California Transformed

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    • Robert W. Cherny, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, & Richard Griswold del Castillo
    • San Francisco State University, Saint Mary's College of California, & San Diego State University via Self Published

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    The military conquest of California took less than six months but the social, economic, and cultural conquest was propelled by the Gold Rush and the subsequent economic development of the state. The cultural and social conquest of California’s oldest inhabitants continued over several decades as the newcomers asserted their dominance over the people and the land.

    Conquest of the Californios

    The Californio landholders also paid a price for the development of California during the Gold Rush. In 1846, roughly 10,000 Mexicans, including Hispanicized Indians, lived in California. Within a few years, they were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of newcomers, most of whom had little love for dark-skinned peoples with their strange language and culture. The Californios swiftly lost control of the courts and the government and soon their land.

    Within a generation, the Mexican Californians lost political influence and became an impoverished minority, victimized by racist attitudes and laws. In 1855, for example, the state legislature passed laws to control the Mexican population. A Sunday Law imposed fines ranging from $50 to $500 for engaging in “barbarous or noisy amusements,” which were listed as bullfights, cockfights, horseraces, and other traditional Californio amusements. At the same time, they passed what was widely called “The Greaser Law” to fine and jail unemployed Mexicans who were considered vagrants.

    Conquest of the Indians

    The modernization of California’s economy came at a cost, largely borne by the native and Mexican peoples, whose way of life was seen by the new immigrants as standing in the way of progress. The California Indians, who had been subject to the Spanish and Mexican attempts to change them, now fell victim to the new immigrants, most of whom thought of Indians as laborers, obstacles to settlement, or dangerous savages. During the early years of the Gold Rush, retaliatory massacres occurred when Indians occasionally killed whites—even though such killings may have been provoked by outrages against Indians. At Clear Lake in northern California in 1849, for example, 135 Indians were killed in retaliation for the killing of two white men who had enslaved local Pomo Indians. Indian massacres took place sometimes just because the Indians were living in the vicinity. In 1850, more than 60 Humboldt Indians—men, women, and children—were killed as they slept in their village because they occupied property thought to be rich with gold. The state legislature appropriated millions in funds to pay for militia operations against Indians.

    When the Indians fought back, their resistance was termed “war” by the American settlers. In 1851, the so-called Mariposa War resulted when the Indians of this northern California band fought to preserve their land and succeeded in defeating the local militia until reinforcements arrived from outside the region. During that conflict, American settlers first entered Yosemite Valley when they pursued the Indians into their stronghold. That same year, a rebellion broke out in southern California. This uprising was the result of an alliance between several Indian bands, perhaps protesting the American taxation of their lands and resenting the treatment of the Cupeño Indians by Juan José Warner. Their leader was Antonio Garra, an ex-neophyte Indian who sought an alliance with disaffected Californios. The Californios did not support his rebellion, however, and the state militia captured Garra with the help of rival Indian bands. He and six of his associates were tried and executed.

    Economic Transformation

    Without a doubt, the Gold Rush was one of the great turning points in California’s history, redefining the demographic, economic, and social future of the state. The lure of precious metal drew hundreds of thousands of immigrants to California and assured the rapid domination of the English-speaking peoples. By 1850, the population of California exceeded 150,000, allowing the territory to apply for admission as a state. California gold helped finance the north in the U.S. Civil War, stimulated the construction of the first transcontinental railroad, and encouraged the rapid agricultural and commercial development of the state. It is estimated that in the 25 years following the discovery at Coloma, miners extracted more than one billion dollars’ worth of gold from the mines—the equivalent of more than $100 billion at the end of the 20th century.

    The mining industry stimulated demand for food and materials, which in turn stimulated home industry and the creation of new cities and towns. Sacramento and Stockton owed their creation to the Gold Rush, and San Francisco became a major international metropolis. The newcomers and their exuberance created a boom mentality within the state. The expectation of quick riches, opulent displays of wealth, a fluid and open society, and colorful and eccentric individuals all became early hallmarks of California’s American era. California became the western leader in banking, agriculture, stock raising, industrial development, and trade—a lead that has lengthened over the decades.

    The Golden State

    During the hectic first two years of the Gold Rush, the military governed California, but the American residents protested this situation and held mass meetings to demand that a civil government be organized. Bowing to public pressure, military governor General Bennett Riley issued a proclamation calling for the election of delegates from 10 districts. These delegates were to assemble in Monterey on September 1, 1849, to work on constructing a state government for California. They were elected by popular vote on August 1, 1849. The result was a group as diverse as the territory. Of the 48 men who assembled in Colton Hall that fall, eight of them were native Californios, six were foreign-born European immigrants, and 13 had been living in California less than a year. Deliberations were in English, with translators available for the Spanishspeaking delegates. Votes on many of the issues split along north-south lines. The southern delegates wanted territorial status or, if that were not possible, to split California in two. They lost on both counts. The delegates were unanimous in wanting to exclude slavery from California and also to exclude free African Americans from the state. Many ex-slaves feared the threat of having to work as indentured servants in the mines. Finally, the provision specifically excluding them was deleted in order to get Congress to speedily approve


    This Bear Flag was designed by William Todd, one of the original Bear Flaggers and part of the group of Americans who took over Sonoma on June 14, 1846. The star was in imitation of the Texas lone star. The original was destroyed in the San Francisco fire of 1906. What is the significance of its similarity with the present-day flag?

    statehood. In dealing with this issue, delegates relied on the precedence of free states in the east.

    With regard to citizenship rights, native Californios were aware that many Mexican Californios who looked like Indians faced the prospect of racial discrimination. Ultimately, they argued for the protection of their people even though it meant endorsing the racist views of their Anglo colleagues toward Indians and persons of African descent. Mexico had granted citizenship to “civilized” Indians and to blacks, and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo clearly stated that former Mexican citizens were to be given the opportunity to become citizens of the United States. Following the biases of the time, the framers of the state constitution sought wording that would exclude African Americans and Indians while including Mexicans. Eventually, the first section of the state constitution limited the suffrage to “every white, male citizen of Mexico who shall have elected to become a citizen of the United States.” The convention agreed that Indians and African Americans might at some future date be given the franchise but that, because voting was not an absolute right of citizenship, they could be excluded. The constitution left open the question of Indian citizenship, stating that “nothing herein contained, shall be construed to prevent the Legislature, by a two-thirds concurrent vote, from admitting to the right of suffrage, Indians or the descendants of Indians. . . .”

    Ultimately the Mexican Californios became full-fledged citizens, at least in theory, when the Congress of the United States admitted California as a state in 1850. Under the provisions of the treaty, those who did not want to become U.S. citizens had a year to declare this intention; they were also free to go to Mexico. No one knows how many Mexican Californios returned, but during the early 1850s there were several colonization expeditions that went south and settled in Sonora and Baja California.

    Of course, the main issue in California was possession of the land, but the proposed constitution was silent in this regard. The former Mexican citizens had to trust their fate to the courts and their interpretation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. As Chapter 5 explains, their trust was quickly betrayed, as the U.S. government established complicated and lengthy procedures for verifying legitimate title to the land. Thus, most Californios had to mortgageor sell their lands to pay for litigation costs. Within a generation, most of the Californio rancheros joined the impoverished ranks of their former vaqueros.

    The Constitutional Convention also debated where to set the eastern boundary of the state. Mexican maps had never specified an eastern boundary, and some argued that California included the present states of Nevada and Utah. The southern delegates argued that this territory would be too difficult to administer and might prevent ratification by Congress. The final agreement established the present eastern boundary, roughly following the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

    Several sections in the state constitution showed Mexican influence. One provision, for example, required that all laws be published in both Spanish and English, in recognition of the Mexican minority. California also adopted the concept of community property, wherein married women had joint ownership of property along with their husband, as they had under Mexican laws. Mariano Vallejo, one of the Californio delegates, protested that the state flag and seal should not show a grizzly bear, a reminder of the Bear Flag Rebellion and his own personal humiliation, but his objections did not win a sympathetic hearing.

    California’s constitution was accepted by the U.S. Congress after a lengthy debate that resulted in the Compromise of 1850. The state government that was established by the admission of California on September 9, 1850, promised to bring some degree of law and order to the politically ambiguous situation created by military government, but the lawlessness engendered by the Gold Rush continued in many areas.

    This page titled 4.3: California Transformed is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Robert W. Cherny, Gretchen Lemke-Santangelo, & Richard Griswold del Castillo (Self Published) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.