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Early California Immigration

Roy Christman is a retired political science professor and has a farm in Pennsylvania.

A major problem for Spanish authorities (and later Mexican authorities) in California was not Russians moving down the coast or the mainly peaceful Indians, but the Americans who kept trickling in. The first non-Spanish white American settler was John Gilroy, who jumped ship in Monterey and was given a land grant. If you know California place names, you can probably figure out the approximate location of his ranch.

Most of the early American immigrants were "Mountain Men" traveling across the Rockies looking for furs; one of them, Jedidiah Smith, was jailed briefly at Mission San Jose, then let go. (I'm guessing because he probably hadn't bathed in months.) John Sutter, a Swiss citizen who hoped to start his own little empire, was given a grant in 1838 and built a fort in downtown Sacramento, now visited by California school groups. Sutter bought cannons for his fort from the Russians at Fort Ross.

In 1841, John Bidwell brought a party of settlers across the Sierras and established a successful farming community in the Sacramento Valley. The Bidwells were among the few settlers who treated the Indians as human beings. You can tour their home located next to the Chico State campus.

John C. "the Pathfinder" Fremont and a contingent of soldiers managed to cross the Sierras, but they ran out of food and had to eat their pet dog. (Fremont did find Lake Tahoe.) In 1845, he visited the Salinas ranch of William Hartnell, another land grant recipient, and toyed with the idea of seizing California from the Mexicans with his force of 68 men. He climbed to the top of a hill (now Fremont Peak) and ran up a flag, but the American Counsel in Monterey intervened, and Fremont left peacefully.

These Americans were troublesome. In 1846, a small group of ruffians seized the home of Gov. Mariano Vallejo in Sonoma, declared independence, sewed a flag with a bear that looked more like a pig, and proclaimed the Bear Flag Republic. Three weeks later, Navy Commander John Sloat captured Monterey, took possession of California for the U.S., and ended the saga of the Bear Flag Republic. (John was a very popular name.)




The California constitution was completed in Colton Hall in Monterey in October 1849. It outlawed slavery, although Indians and "half-breeds" were not allowed to vote. The writers included some Spanish-speaking delegates; the first California constitution was a bilingual document. Voters approved the document 12,000 to 800, and the first legislature met in San Jose in 1849.

In the meantime, gold had been discovered in Coloma (not Colma; that's south of San Francisco where the cemeteries are located) in a millrace owned by Sutter. Word spread, and as the title of a well-known history put it, "The World Rushed In."

This early tide of immigrants established at least four precedents for later California development. The first was the misuse of the environment. You can visit the Malakoff Diggins, a pile of tailings left over from hydraulic mining and one of the few state parks devoted to an environmental disaster. Placer mining (with pans or sluice boxes) wasn't too bad, but mining with water hoses eroded the hills and silted up the rivers. Mercury, mined in New Almaden near San Jose and used in processing gold, is a toxic metal still polluting gold rush areas.

The second precedent was the transient quality of life. Towns sprang up and disappeared within a few years; in some cases weeks. People simply packed up and moved to the next big thing. They still do.

Third, violence and cruelty were commonplace. Early California saw an amazing amount of mayhem, much of it related to ethnic or racial hatred.

Finally, California had a varied population from its earliest days of statehood. Mexicans, Frenchmen, Swedes, Chinese, New Englanders, Blacks–everybody was here, although harmony was often elusive.

As events recede into history, they are often painted with a soft nostalgic glow. History is better taken straight up, undiluted, the same way the Mountain Men drank their whiskey.

~ Roy Christman





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