Political Climate in California 1850-1870
presented by Brad Schall (report by Gary Yee)
People came to California to mine for gold, get rich and then return home. Most ‘49ers were young
bachelors and constituted 95% of all who immigrated to California. Being young, they had no sense
of mortality and most were inclined towards violence. As many saw themselves as transitory, they
had little interest in the community. There were very few older males to be role models for them and
in the absence of women, very little civilizing influence upon them. They cared little for the political
system as they did not believe that they would be there long. Since they were young and were very
sensitive to a perceived or real slight, mortality was higher and they were quick to duel. Even without
duels, there were an average of five suicides a year in San Francisco.
John Charles Fremont. He did badly in California because he was not ethical. He was involved in
an incident with Kit Carson. He messed with the Berryessa family which held a grudge against him
for the rest of his life. He lost the presidential election by 300k or 400k votes because he was for
freeing the slaves. The fear of secession scuttled his bid for the presidency as the South voted
against him. Even in California, Lincoln won by a landslide with 711 votes. All the other candidates
combined had only sixty votes total against Lincoln. Fremont was one of two California senators.
While incorrectly thought of as a graduate of West Point, he was a math instructor at the Naval
Academy and was married to the daughter of Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Fremont served as a
second lieutenant in the topographical engineer service. He became the third military governor of
California and he refused to be removed from it. He had to be arrested and sent to Washington, DC
to be court-martialed. As governor, he sold Alcatraz to himself before the Federal Government
developed it for a fort. The Federal Government objected to the sale and took him to court to nullify
its sale. He was one of four political major generals appointed by Lincoln at war’s outbreak. He
was lucky to marry Benton’s daughter and she wrote his memoirs for him. Naturally, she had her
biases and wrote glowingly of him and very poorly of anyone who was disliked by him.
Edward Baker. He was also involved in Oregon politics. He had too few votes and even if he had
more from California, Lincoln would have won anyway.
William Gwin. A native of Tennessee, he became a medical doctor and practiced his profession in
Mississippi. He became a congressman but really wanted to be a senator. Since Jefferson Davis
would not yield his seat to Gwin, Gwin moved to California in hopes of become a senator of that
state. He succeeded and was senator from 1850-55. Gwin lost to Broderick but served again in
1857-1861. Pro-slavery, he tried to influence the political climate in California. He went into gold
mining and emerged from the war wealthy. Up until 1860, Gwin was the head of the Chivalry Party
in California. California was a Democratic state up until 1860. Gwin dueled with McCorkle and the
weapons of choice were rifles at thirty paces. Both men paced off, turned and fired and missed each
other, but managed to kill a poor donkey at some distance. Gwin was close friends with Secretary
of State Seward and during the war tried to arrange a compromise to prevent the dissolution of the
Union. He failed. While in Europe during the war, he met with Napoleon III and discussed with
him the settling of slave owners and their slaves in Mexico. This couldn’t be done because Mexico
renounced slavery. After the war, Gwin returned to California and became a gentleman farmer. He
visited New York and died there. Gwin is buried in Mountain View cemetery in Oakland, CA.
Rose O’Neal Greenhowe. Most successful Confederate spy. She married Dr. Robert
Greenhowe of the State Department. He went to California and died there around ’48-’49. She
had eight children with him, of whom four died before attaining five years of age. One daughter
reached adulthood and married an officer, Capt. Seymour Moore. In Washington, DC, she had
many male friends and from them learned of McDowell’s movements prior to the Battle of
Manassas. She wrote it down and sent it via an emissary to Beauregard. Supposedly the message
was concealed in the emissary’s hair bun. This allowed Beauregard to move his troops to meet
McDowell. A second message followed and this allowed Johnston to move his men into an offensive
position. The detective, Allan Pinkerton, soon figured out she was a spy and she was arrested. She
made her capture easy as she had bragged about her accomplishments and it was the talk of the
town. After being arrested, she sent one daughter to California to live with the daughter who was
married to Capt. Moore. She herself was feted with a dinner complete with toasts. She was given
passage to Richmond where she wrote of herself and published her story in a book. Greenhowe
went to Europe and did a book tour there and lived off her royalties. On her return from Europe, the
water was too rough for the ship to approach land so she and other passengers were put into a row
boat that was to bring them to shore. The boat capsized and she drowned. Supposedly, she was
weighed down by all the gold made from her book sales that she had hidden in her dress.
Eliza Farnham. A New Yorker, she was born angry. She became the matron in charge of Sing-
Sing but despite this, was very progressive. She believed in the humane treatment of prisoners. Her
husband, who had moved west, died there and left her a farm. She took a ship to California and had
a maid to help her care for her children. Before she left New York, she tried to recruit 130
"intelligent, virtuous, single women who are not below the age of 25." She recruited only three, all of
whom were married. Aboard ship, her maid began running around with a sailor and, to the captain’s
chagrin, Eliza herself tries to order the crew around. The captain thought she was troublesome and
suggested that she secure the services of another maid. She agrees and at Valparaiso, she is let off
to find one. The captain then sailed off with her children and the maid, leaving Eliza stranded in
Valparaiso. Eventually, she reached California and her husband’s farm. She wrote a book,
returned to the East and, seeing how horrible the war was after Antietam, became a nurse. She
contracted a soldier’s disease and died during the war.
Mary Pleasant. Also known as Mammy Pleasant, she was born a slave, her father being the
youngest son of the governor of Georgia. She became rich in California and took up the cause of
Archie Lee, a slave. She hired an attorney, Crocker, for him. In 1858 Archie needed to get out of
California and she went off to Canada with him. She also gave John Brown $30,000 and is with him
at the farm near Harpers Ferry. Before Brown set off on his raid of Harper’s Ferry, she went in
advance to spread the word of his coming, so as to prepare the slaves to rally to Brown when the
rebellion starts. Unlike Brown, she was not caught and after it is over, she returned to California
where she was a caterer. As a caterer, she earned $500 a month and by 1870, she has $30 million
in assets. Her boarding house helped her to get involved with men and from them she learned how
to invest her money.
Thomas Starr King. The finest man in California. A Unitarian minister, his father was a pastor who
died when he was only fifteen. At thirteen, one of his sermons was published. He is unable to attend
college because, with his father’s death, he had to work at the Charlestown Naval Yard in
Massachusetts. He was self-taught and always said he got his education from the Charlestown
Naval Yard. He took over his father’s church in Charlestown and later moved to the Hollis Street
Unitarian Church in Boston. It was a church with a dwindling membership and threatened with
closure. He was able to raise its membership five-fold and swelled its coffers. Unitarians believe
that God is too good to damn people forever and that God’s spirit is both inside and outside of the
Church. It is in the arts as well as secular life. When Thomas Starr King spoke in San Francisco,
40,000 people showed up. A big Lincoln supporter, after the disaster at Bull Run, he became
involved in the Senatorial Commission. By Antietam, he sent $125,000 east to help the Union. He
died in 1864 and there is a statute of him in Sacramento.
Case laws in California. In 1849, a white man wanted to sue a black slave for money that was
owed. If the slave couldn’t pay, then his master was to pay. California was not a state yet so
Mexican law was the law of choice. The court held that there was no need to pay nor was the
master liable for the slave’s debt. A slave, Frank ran away. Federal Fugitive Law was asserted for
his return but California decided that Frank did not cross the state line (because his master had
brought him into California lawfully). Frank was not very smart and even testified that he was a
runaway slave (thereby establishing his master’s status as a slave-owner). The Court in California
held that since Frank was a non-white and non-whites could not testify, it could ignore Frank’s
admission that he was a slave. Second, the Court held that the Federal Fugitive Law did not apply
and therefore he was not subject to the law. Frank was therefore ordered free by the Court.
Another slave, Archie Lee, was brought in by his owner, a teacher. His owner rented out Archie’s
services and demanded that Archie give him his wages. Archie refused and was arrested. He was
arrested eight times and Mary Pleasants not only hired an attorney for him, but when it got too hot
for him in San Francisco, she helped him leave town. Archie was later found drowned in Northern
California. His death was never explained.
In 1858, State Senator Warfield pushed an anti-immigration bill in California. The California lacer
gold was running out and miners didn't’t want competition from either blacks or Chinese. All blacks
had toregister and many left the state. The bill passed in Assembly but was stopped in the senate.
Gold was found in Canada and folks were more interested in wealth.
Before the war, 90% of all newspapers in California were pro-south. The population at that time
was about 360,000. The Knights of the Golden Circle in California, a pro-southern group, was very
active. They constituted about 6% of the male population. However, when the flag was fired upon
at Fort Sumter, that changed; from 39% pro-south, it dropped to 12%.