- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
While Stockton drilled his sailors and Frémont gathered horses, General Stephen Watts Kearny, a veteran Army officer sent west to bolster Stockton’s forces, marched into California with one hundred dragoons from Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the morning of December 6, before they ever made contact with Stockton, the dragoons attacked a troop of insurgent horsemen under Andres Pico near the little Indian village of San Pascual, some thirty miles northeast of San Diego. Exhausted from their long march and badly mounted, the dragoons were no match for the lances of the Californios ; Kearny and his men held the field, but by the battle’s end twenty-two Americans were dead and sixteen injured, including Kearny. Two men were sent through the lines to San Diego for help from Stockton, who sent a relief force to escort Kearny’s mutilated Army of the West to safety.
After Kearny and his men recovered and Stockton had completed his preparations, they launched a joint attack on Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. The assault was more of a protracted skirmish than a genuine battle, but it had the desired results; Los Angeles was recaptured. The remnants of the insurgent army galloped north toward Cahuenga Pass. There they encountered Frémont’s California Battalion. Frémont graciously accepted their surrender with the Capitulation of Cahuenga on January 13 and forever after billed himself as the Conqueror of California.
The conquest was ended, but the comedy lingered on. Kearny had marched into California with orders from the War Department to act as the military and civil governor of the conquered province. Stockton, who had no such orders, nevertheless considered himself to be in supreme command, presumably because he had arrived first. He ignored Kearny’s authority and appointed Frémont (now a lieutenant colonel) governor of California, a position the explorer accepted cheerfully. Stockton sailed for Mazatlán, and Frémont began his short reign as governor, issuing proclamations, orders, and appointments. Patiently Kearny pointed out that in spite of what Stockton had said, Frémont was utterly without authority in anything he did. He pointed this out several times, but Frémont very much wanted to be governor of California. He continued to defy Kearny, and in the end the general was forced to arrest him and escort him back to Washington in the summer of 1847. In Washington Frémont was brought before a court-martial and in January, 1848, was found guilty of disobedience of orders and dismissed from the Army. President Polk remanded the dismissal, but Frémont’s burgeoning pride had been assaulted; he huffily resigned his commission.
There is little in his short career of conquest to bring credit to Frémont’s memory, but if most of his actions qualified him as the deserving butt of history, he did accomplish one thing in 1846 for which that history should thank him. He told it himself in his memoirs: “The Bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges. Looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap, resembling a mountain pass. This is the entrance to the great bay, and is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country. … To this gate I gave the name of Chrysopolae, or Golden Gate. …”
If nothing else, Frémont had given the future a name.