Few Californians today would recognize their state one hundred and fifty years ago. In fact, in the summer of 1850, California was still, technically, not a state. Californians had drafted and approved a constitution, and a civil government had been put in place. Congress, however, still debated the compromise between slave and free states that would admit California to the Union. Meanwhile, the explosive growth that had begun with James Marshall's discovery of gold at Coloma on January 24, 1848, continued unabated.
In the years immediately following the American seizure of California from Mexico, nothing much had changed. While army officers governed, alcaldes and other offices from the Spanish/Mexican period continued in existence at the local level. California remained largely rural, with the large ranchos dominating the countryside. The discovery of gold altered everything and brought the days of pastoral California to an end. As word of the find spread, immigrants by the thousands from the eastern United States, as well as from Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii and Australia poured in, turning remote California into a new land of cities, towns, mines and farms.
During the first part of the Gold Rush, United States Army officers administered California as a conquered province. As the population of gold seekers swelled, it became apparent that military edicts and the old Mexican political institutions could not provide adequate government. The recent settlers, most of who had migrated from the United States, quickly began clamoring for a change in their status. They believed California would become a territory, but proceeding down this path had the potential of upsetting the balance of slave and free states in the east, and Congress refused to act. On the West Coast, however, the military governor, Brigadier General Bennet Riley, realized that if something were not done soon to resolve the province's status, he would have a very difficult time maintaining public order. Accordingly, he took matters into his own hands, and on June 3, 1849, issued a call for a convention to draft a state (not a territorial) constitution, for submission to Congress. General Riley set August 1 as the date for the election of delegates.
Following a brief, but spirited, campaign, the elected delegates convened at Colton Hall in Monterey on September 1, 1849. Those attending the convention comprised a diverse and young group. Thirteen considered as Californios were both Hispanics and Anglos who identified themselves with the interests of the ranchero class. These included former Northern California Mexican military commander Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Southern California patron, Don Abel Stearns. John Sutter attended, as did Henry W. Halleck, the Secretary of State under the military regime and future commander of the Union armies during the Civil War. The oldest of the delegates was fifty-three, and youngest twenty-five. The convention included recent arrivals, such as Mississippian William Gwin, who had come west with the expressed purpose of becoming a United States senator from California.
When the convention concluded on October 13, the delegates had addressed a number of issues, including slavery (California would be a free state), suffrage (the vote would be given only to white males, although Indians or their descendants could be granted the right by special acts of the legislature), the eastern boundary (the border would not extend into Utah, women's property (married women could hold property separate from their husbands—a holdover from Mexican law) and dueling (it would be outlawed in California. The delegates debated where the state capital would be located, finally settling on the pueblo of San Jose. An army officer, Major Robert S. Garnett, developed a design for the state seal, but because his political persuasion differed from that of most of the delegates, he allowed another man, Caleb Lyon to submit the idea as his own. Caleb Lyon's description of the seal can be found with the 4th grade lesson plans.
Traveling journalist Bayard Taylor witnessed the signing of the constitution at Colton Hall and recorded it in his 1850 book
El Dorado: Or Adventures in the Path of Empire:
The windows and doors were open, and a delightful breeze came in from the Bay, whose blue waters sparkled in the distance. The view from the balcony was bright and inspiring. The town below—the sipping in the
harbor—the pine-covered hills behind—were mellowed by the blue October haze, but there was no cloud in the sky and I could plainly see, on the northern horizon, the mountains of Santa Cruz and the Sierra de Galivan.
The citizens ... as well as the members, were in an excited mood. Monterey never before looked so bright, so happy, and so full of pleasant expectation.
About one o'clock ... they proceeded to affix their names to the completed Constitution. At this moment a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the government buildings, and streamed out on the air. A second afterward the first gun boomed from the fort, and its stirring echoes came back from one hill after another, till they were lost in the distance.
As the signing went on, gun followed gun from the fort, the echoes reverberating around the bay, till finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout: "That's for California!" and every one joined in giving three times three for the new star added to our Confederation.
One month later, an election ratifying the compact and choosing a legislature, governor and other state officers was held. The constitution fashioned in 1849 would remain in effect for thirty years, before another convention drafted a replacement document.
December 15, 1849, had been the date set for the convening in San Jose of California's first legislature, but heavy rains made the roads to the pueblo almost impassible. When the roll was called, a quorum could not be mustered. Not until the morning of the 17th had enough legislators arrived to allow the business of government to begin. The December 19, inauguration of the elected governor, Peter Burnett, and other officials also had to be postponed for a day because of bad weather. Finally, on December 20, Governor Burnett and the rest took their oaths. General Riley proclaimed the State of California to be in existence and tuned over the government to civilian administration.
Following the inaugurations, the legislature got down to the business of organizing a state—this despite the fact that Congress had yet to act on California's petition for statehood. It would be another ten months before legislation formally admitting California to the Union was passed. In the meantime, members of the new State Senate and Assembly elected two United States Senators (the explorer John C. Fremont and the ambitious William Gwin), approved legislation calling upon the Secretary of State to collect the historic documents of California (thereby providing for a public archives), established English common law as the law of the land, set up a system of courts and wrote the taxation, judicial and government codes needed to run the state.
Over the spring and summer of 1850, the debates in Congress of California's admission to the Union were long and bitter. In the end, it came down to the political wills of three great statesmen at the twilight of their careers: John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Aged and near death, Calhoun argued strongly that if California was admitted as a free state, the north would have an unfair advantage over the slaveholding south, and that Californians possessed no legal authority to draft a state constitution. At first, Henry Clay favored California's free state admission, but when southerners began grumbling about secession if that occurred, he sought a compromise. Clay's solution, supported by Webster, would, among other things, admit California s a free state if the Utah and New Mexico territories were organized with no reference to slavery. Known as the Compromise of 1850 the bills gained enough support for approval. The act admitting California passed the Senate on August 13, 1850, and House of Representatives on September 7. Two days later, President Millard Fillmore signed it into law.
Because of the remoteness of the new state, however, Californians did not immediately know of their success. Not until October 18, 1850, when the steamer Oregon sailed into San Francisco Bay with the banner reclaiming "California Is a State" hanging from her rigging did they learn that they were now citizens of the thirty-first state. Lively celebrations followed in San Francisco and Sacramento, although in the mining camps of the Mother Lode, the news did not elicit much interest. There, the pursuit of gold, not statehood, consumed most people's time and attention.