The Taking Of California

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The great battles of the Mexican War were played out a long distance from both the city where war had been declared and the land for which it was fought. It was America’s first major expeditionary war, and men struggled, marched, and sweated out the long agony of conflict in places with names unfamiliar to the American experience: Monterrey, Buena Vista, Veracruz, Resaca de la Palma, Chapultepec. It ground on for nearly two years and at its end had killed 13,283 Americans (most of them by disease) and uncounted Mexicans and had cost a hundred million dollars. Seen against the backdrop of the very real war going on in the valleys and plains of Mexico, the California conflict appears as a parody of warfare. The irony is heightened by the fact that this gray comedy was futile by any standards of military, political, or diplomatic necessity.

With all deference to the risks of historical speculation, there seems little reason to doubt that the province’s inexorable drift toward the United States would simply have been accelerated once news of war reached its inhabitants. After all, for all their bluster and self-importance the Californio leaders had always demonstrated a decent respect for the arts of survival and an ability to accept and adjust to the inevitable—providing that their honor could also be satisfied, by no means an impossible task. If American occupation had been entrusted to reasonable men, the chances were excellent that the transition would have been as slick and peaceful as anyone might have desired. As it turned out, a handful of small men with large ambitions managed to sabotage this possibility and create a bitter, pointless little farce that only an unjustifiably charitable view of history could dignify with the title “Conquest.”

The meaningless character of the affair was established even before war broke out between the United States and Mexico. It began in December, 1845, with the arrival of Captain John C. Frémont and a force of sixty hand-picked, well-armed men, most of them weathered, hard-bitten veterans of various wilderness exploits. His ostensible mission was to expand and correct some of the findings of his previous explorations, but the private mission he carried in his head went far beyond that prosaic if necessary task. He had competently accomplished some of the most extensive, well-reported, and useful exploring expeditions in the nineteenth century and had reaped more than a fair share of the country’s official and unofficial gratitude. But this was not glory enough for him. He was beginning to see himself as a Great Man, an image nourished by the artful prodding of his wife, Jessie—who was herself beautiful, brilliant, ambitious, and trapped in a time and place that robbed her of any alternative way to make her mark in a world ruled by men. To both of them—and to Frémont’s father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton—California appeared as a promising arena for the further development of an aspiring young man’s career.

So, leading his small band of sharpshooters, Frémont entered California in December, 1845, with a palpable thirst for greatness. It got him into trouble almost immediately. After making a verbal promise to General José Castro in Monterey that he would sit out the winter in the San Joaquin Valley and then leave the country in the spring, Frémont loitered instead in the Santa Clara Valley until March, 1846. Then he set out—not east across the mountains, but south back toward Monterey. When Castro demanded that he keep his word and leave, Frémont’s response was to compose a screed of high-toned outrage, send it to Castro, retire to Gavilan (now Fremont) Peak near Mission San Juan Bautista, erect a jerrybuilt fort of logs, whittle a pole, nail the American flag to it, plant it with appropriate ceremony, and vow to defend it to the last man. Castro’s honor required that he pelt the region with belligerent circulars in the finest Californio style, round up a troop of volunteers, and maneuver them in various aggressive poses within range of American telescopes but not American rifles.

Consul Larkin was aghast and worked frantically to prevent an exchange of gunfire that would start a war he considered neither necessary nor profitable. His intercession kept the two forces apart long enough for the situation to cool. After three days the wind toppled Frémont’s brave little banner. The captain announced that this was an omen to move on, and the party retired across the mountainsandup the Central Valley, arriving at Sutler’s Fort on March 21. He then wandered north, apparently on his way to Oregon.

Behind him Frémont left a wellroiled California. Already a stewpot of rumor, the province now positively vibrated with the Gavilan Peak incident. Larkin did his best to placate Castro and the other Californio authorities, while clusters of settlers, squatters, adventurers, and con men gathered in Yerba Buena, Monterey, and Sutler’s Fort and gossiped, heightening the general lension.