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The Status of Mexican California

Alta California, while a part of the Mexico, was always a fringe province (in 1845, it was technically a "department," electing an advisory legislature, but ruled by a governor appointed in Mexico City), both geographically and politically. The Mexican population was small, with roughly 7,000 people, sparsely spread across a narrow strip along the coast. Mexican military deployments were pathetic at best. The presidio at San Francisco had but ten decrepit guns that were forged during the 17th Century. In one instance, Mexican authorities had to row out to a visiting man-of-war in order to borrow the powder with which to fire a salute. Troop deployments were likewise negligible. There was a bloated corps of officers in the department, theoretically enough to lead an army of 3000 men, but few of these gentlemen where actually willing to offer military service.

Communication between Mexico and California were limited. The violent Mojave Indians had long since effectively severed land communication between Mexico and her northern department, and communication by sea was infrequent. Lack of lines of communication further hampered political control over California, and the department proved a rebellious one. If the governor appointed by Mexican authorities displeased the locals, a minor, if bloodless, revolution would ensue.7 Between 1831 and 1836, the Californios rejected three out of eleven governors. In 1836, Juan Alvarado threatened to succeed from Mexico altogether, but was assuaged by being made the departmental governor instead. In 1844, the Californios, fed up with the rowdy behavior of Mexican troops, sent recently arrived governor Michloeterra packing back to Mexico and elevated native born former governor Pío Pico in his place, an act of defiance that Mexico City met with indifference.

Meanwhile, Americans had been steadily migrating into California, so that by 1845 there were roughly 1000 within the department. Some of these were American merchants and ranchers who had entered legally, converted to the Catholic faith and become naturalized Mexican citizens. Others were transient mountain-men, content to trap beaver in the Sierras and foothills, drifting around the state but making no attempt to actually settle there. However, increasingly, Americans entered the state with the intention of settling in the Central Valley, most notably the Ide party, consisting of 150 settlers. These were effectively illegal immigrants, and they were allowed to squat on Mexican territory by virtue of the utter disorganization of the California government. However, fears of being evicted weighed heavily on these settlers' minds, and most viewed the Mexican government with considerable distrust.

Thus, at best, California in 1845 was an underdeveloped, disorganized and mismanaged department of a young nation that was itself seething with political unrest and instability. Some observers felt that California would declare its independence from Mexico in the near future, a thought which offered both hope and uncertainty to American policy makers, as an independent California would be easier to annex, yet also far more vulnerable to British intrigue.

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