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“To A Distant And Perilous Service”
Westward with the course of empire Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson took his way in 1846. With him went the denizens of New York’s Tammany wards, oyster cellars, and gin mills—the future leaders of California.
June/July 1979 | Volume 30, Issue 4
The lumpy peninsula now called San Francisco was humanized at some unrecorded moment of prehistory by brown-skinned Californians of the Costanoan strain. It was Europeanized in the eighteenth century by a small delegation of Spanish cavaliers, camp followers, and missionary priests; and it was Americanized seventy years later by a succession of commodores and company commanders, among whom was a mercenary swaggerstick named Jonathan Drake Stevenson, who propelled himself into the westward course of empire in the spring of 1846, the year the United States went to war with Mexico.
Then, as now, many Americans regarded the Mexican War as an expansionist adventure, and nothing gave more substance to this opinion than the official participation of Colonel J. D. Stevenson, the living personification of Manifest Destiny. Seen in the meanest light, the colonel was a bottom-rank New York City politician—a minor functionary of Tammany Hall with a demonstrated skill in advancing his own political fortunes and a manifest sense of his personal destiny. He had a vulturous nose and a hawkish brow, a hyperventilated chest and a gusseted waistline. Despite his ripe age (forty-six), he always held himself guts-up, like a musketeer at present arms, and his words rolled out in magnificently cadenced phrases, punctuated with exclamations of “My good man!” and “You, sir!” Had he stayed in Manhattan, he undoubtedly would have wound up a high sachem in the wigwam of Fernando Wood or Bill Tweed, dispensing street-repair contracts and saloon permits with winsome partiality. Instead, he made his way to Washington, D.C., on a crucial spring day in 1846 and succeeded in having himself appointed commander in chief of a seventeen-thousand-mile expedition to carry Anglo-Saxon civilization to the far Pacific coast.
The point of the expedition, as President James Knox Polk saw it, was to recruit a regiment of volunteers—skilled artisans, sturdy young farmers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, and others—and send them by ship around Cape Horn to California. Enlisted in the East under the militia statutes of New York, trained and disciplined by a respected army officer, the men would be mustered out on the Pacific coast as colonists of a new American province. Admittedly, California was an uninviting place—a desert shore, visited a few times each year by Yankee trading ships that unloaded cheap mirrors, combs, and leather shoes and came back with cattle hides and tallow; but a well-selected group of young Americans, nurtured in the traditions of the Republic, soon would transform this wilderness into a thriving commonwealth.
The President never explained why he chose Stevenson, a civilian, to command the regiment. Stevenson liked to think it was because he personally had secured the Democratic nomination for Polk. Since nobody else, including Polk, ever gave him credit for that accomplishment, the real explanation probably was less flattering to the colonel. Perhaps it was because he had called that day at the home of Postmaster General Amos Kendall, the Man to See in Washington, and had reminded Kendall of various services that he, Stevenson, discreetly had performed among the contentious Democrats of Manhattan. Perhaps it was because Stevenson knew Folk’s Secretary of War, William L. Marcy—and Marcy, who is remembered for his succinct enunciation of the guiding principle of nineteenth-century American politics, “To the victors belong the spoils,” was a man who never slighted his friends. Or perhaps it was because the President’s brother-inlaw, who was commandant of cadets at West Point, had turned down the assignment.
In any case, Polk wanted a commander and Stevenson wanted a job. The result was a colonial enterprise that left a deeper mark on California than had any Costanoan tribe or Spanish fort or covered-wagon cavalcade. The men of Stevenson’s regiment became the mayors, legislators, congressmen, judges, sheriffs, tax collectors, and county clerks of the new state. Seven of the regimental officers were among the forty-eight delegates who drafted the first California constitution. The first millionaire in San Francisco was from the regiment. So were the first sheriff, the first port collector, the first published author, and the first editor of the first important newspaper. The colonel himself found a niche in history as the first grand master of the Masonic Lodge in California; one of his subordinates made it as the first authentic English-speaking highwayman. Names from the roster adorn the lesser streets and alleys of San Francisco—Folsom, Stevenson, Leavenworth, Rausch, Green, Naglee, Gilbert, Hardie, Shannon, Russ—and the regiment abundantly supplied the underpopulated territory with gunfighters, knife throwers, ballot-box stuffers, and disturbers of the peace.
In short, Colonel Stevenson and his New York volunteers were the founding fathers of American California, although they were not at all the type of colonists the President had in mind.