- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
By the 1840’s this program of neglect (not particularly benign) had nurtured a civilization that may have had no parallel in its own or any other time. Largely confined to a narrow strip of coastal valleys and plains, it was a massive pastoral society whose land was checkerboarded by kingdoms of grass; a society dominated by fewer than ten thousand people of Spanish, Mexican-Indian, and Negro mixtures who ostensibly ruled over fifteen thousand missionized Indians and, spread over California’s 158,693 square miles, at least ninety thousand other Indians who had not embraced the glory of the Cross; a society whose internal government was a loose collection of family alliances crippled by almost constant (and generally bloodless) political squabbling.
Given California’s many attractions, her indifference to what the nineteenth century called progress, and her notorious political instability (as well as that of Mexico herself), it should not be surprising to learn that the province was eyed speculatively by other nations—particularly the United States, whose westering was beginning to people the Pacific coast with Americans by the early i84o’s. Most of these pioneers struggled across the rocks and hard places of the continent to Oregon, but between 1841 and 1845 some four hundred had been diverted from the Oregon Trail to spill across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. This influx swelled the province’s foreign population to perhaps one thousand, including a number of American traders and merchants who had settled down to do business in her coastal towns during the 1820’s and 1830’s.
Officially, the United States had displayed a continuing interest in California since 1835, when President Andrew Jackson had offered to buy San Francisco Bay from Mexico, but it was not until suspicions of British intentions began to haunt the American government that a somewhat casual interest was translated into vigorous policy. Great Britain was still the bête noire of a young America. There were thousands who could remember the sound of musketry during the Revolutionary War and millions who could remember when British soldiers had burned the national capital during the War of 1812. Moreover, with a self-consciousness that suggested a certain insecurity, the adolescent Republic preened and blustered in an extraordinary fashion in these years, most of the posturing directed against her erstwhile parent. England, in turn, tended to view the antics of the United States with an unconcealed and frequently snide condescension, all of which merely nourished the flames of resentment.
Chief among this country’s paranoid anxieties was the fear that England was simply waiting for California to fall into her lap like one of the golden apples of the sun. Superficially, at least, this was a distinct possibility. Mexico’s influence on California’s internal affairs had degenerated so badly by the 1840’s that had the government of the Californios been inclined to cast its lot with Great Britain or any other nation, there would have been little that Mexico could have done about it. Exactly such a scheme had been loudly (if unofficially) promoted by one Britisher or another ever since the publication of George Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in 1798 , in which the author took pains to describe the ludicrously inadequate defenses of the port of San Francisco (two 3-pounders, one mounted on a log). And by 1840 a small but rabid group of Californios , disgusted with both the Mexican government and local politicos, were advocating a similar arrangement.
In reality the British government was singularly uninterested in the whole idea. Quite correctly gauging the intensity of America’s continental urge, Prime Minister Robert Peel and his foreign secretary, the Earl of Aberdeen, knew that any such move would propel the pugnacious young America to the brink of war—a war they were unwilling to undertake without a French alliance. And France, riven by internal strife throughout the 1840’s, was too busy fighting herself to fight anyone else.
The British government, however, was quite as good at concealing its true intentions as any other nation was. As a result, what England thought, what it was thought she thought, what she did, what it was felt she might do, what she said, what it was said she said—all were factors that profoundly influenced the course of this government’s involvement in California. Nothing more thoroughly typified this fact than the clownish incident involving an unfortunate American commodore—Thomas ap Catesby Jones.