Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
9 September is the anniversary of California’s admission as the 31st state in the Union in 1850. It was, for many years, a date that was celebrated with all kinds of pomp and circumstance, but is virtually ignored today.
This post isn’t being written to discuss whether that is good, bad or indifferent. In fact, there is a significant difference between celebration and commemoration. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition of “to commemorate” states: “to exist or be done in order to remind people of (an important event or person from the past).”
That idea of “remind people of (an important event or person from the past)”, it seems to me, is a more apt way to think about Admission Day. Rather than to employ parades, speeches, pageants and other elements that tended to celebrate American progress as represented through California, as most Admission Day events tended to focus on for many years, the commemoration by reminder might be a more fitting way to think about the day.
After all, the progress cited in earlier celebrations, while often based in a real sense of accomplishment in terms of the economy, technology, public works, education, and many other areas, tended to ignore or downplay the negative consequences of the conditions that led to California’s conquest by the United States and the immediate and sudden appearance of the Gold Rush.
It is obvious that the fallout from both those signal events of California’s 19th century were largely devastating to most of the native indigenous people (Indians) and to a great many Latinos (be they native-born or raised Calfornios or recently arrived Mexicans and Central and Southern Americans) and Chinese.
Even under the best of circumstances, the addition of tens of thousands of miners and settlers from China, the Spanish-speaking Americas, the United States and Europe would have meant extraordinary tension and violence due to the intensity of bigotry, economic competition, land squabbles and other variables that would be expected to exist.
California was left to military rule for three years after the 1847 conquest while Congress battled fiercely about what to do with its new possession in the context of admitting states on the basis of alternating north and south instances due to the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
The problem there was that California was both north and south. While Congress debated the question and the Gold Rush erupted, many of the military rank-and-file simply went AWOL to dig for gold and military control really only extended in the coastal areas where most of the 10,000 or so non-Indians resided before gold was found.
In the Sierra Nevada gold country, there basically was no overarching government structure in 1848 and 1849 and the many communities that sprung up had to create their own systems for maintaining some semblance of order. All too often, though, disorder ruled the roost and the levels of violence and mayhem that erupted in this particularly distinctive environment have been well documented and discussed.
Los Angeles may have been at a distance from those conditions, but as a major supplier of fresh beef from local cattle ranches and as a major point on the southern route to the gold mines, it was hardly immune from many of the same issues. While the levels of violence have been greatly exaggerated, largely due to Horace Bell’s published assertion in his Reminiscences of a Ranger (1881) that there was a murder a day in Los Angeles in 1853, during the height of the Gold Rush, there were still dozens of homicides in a given year in a community and region of just several thousand residents. By any standard, Los Angeles was an extraordinarily violent place in an exceptionally violent territory.
In addition, and there was sometimes a direct connection to the violence here as well, Latinos often felt discriminated against by Americans and Europeans, who, in turn, sometimes were prone to believing that a revolt by Latinos was being plotted. The population of native Indians plummeted as disease, alcoholism and violence consumed their community and animosity against them grew.
Frustration with the inertia in Washington led citizens in California, many of them new arrivals, to convene a convention to draft a constitution, ratified at the end of 1849, and then to establish systems of government that began operation in the following spring. This remarkable situation contributed as a spur to politicians in Congress, who finally enacted the Compromise of 1850.
Enacted that September, the compromise involved five pieces of legislation, including an amendment of the controversial Fugitive Slave Act, allowing for the return of slaves who escaped to free states back to their masters; the abolishing of slavery in the nation’s capital; the creation of the territory of Utah; the settling of a dispute concerning the boundary between Texas and New Mexico; and the admission of California as a free state.
The goal of the compromise, spearheaded by Kentucky senator Henry Clay, was to find a way to deal with these several issues and avert a further deterioration in the relations between northern and southern states. President Zachary Taylor, military hero of the Mexican-American War, was firmly opposed to the compromise but his sudden death in July and the ascension of Vice-President Millard Fillmore, who was amenable, opened the door to its passage.
The Compromise of 1850, however, could not be expected to alter the course towards war between the north and south that became all but inevitable by the later part of that decade. California’s admission did give official sanction to the government already put in place months before the 9 September decree, though the ferment of the Gold Rush and the after-effects of the war made it very difficult for local and state government to respond adequately to the huge transformations underway.
There was another under-discussed element to California’s admission. The federal census of 1850, which was conducted during the summer. Because of its September admission, California’s census was not conducted until early in 1851. Even then, it was poorly organized and enumerated–a job made very difficult by the rough conditions in the gold fields and the frequent movement of people throughout the new state. The count was considered so low that California conducted its one and only state census in the summer of 1852. As an example of the problem, Los Angeles County’s official 1850 count was about 3,500 people (and only a couple hundred Indians), but the 1852 census showed nearly 8,000 (and just under 4,000 Indians–so a majority of the undercount was in that population.)
This has just been a brief summary of some of the many issues that were ongoing at the time that California was admitted as a state on 9 September 1850. While celebrations, promoting progress and advancement, were common for many years, the date has largely been forgotten. Perhaps more commemoration, as a reminder of the issues that existed at the time, would be a way for us to recognize, rather than celebrate, California’s admission as an important component of American history.