Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This day, 9 September, comes and goes every year with hardly a mention anywhere of the fact that today is Admission Day, commemorating the admission on this date in 1850 of California as the 31st state in the Union. So, the least we can do at the Homestead is offer at least this modest blog post!
One of the more interesting and little-known outgrowths of the state’s admission had to do with what to do to get California included in the 1850 federal census. After all, the rest of the country had the enumeration of residents taken in the summer, prior to the admission of the new state. For example, the family of F.P.F. Temple, husband of Antonia Margarita Workman, whose parents William and Nicolasa established the Homestead in 1842, was counted in the census on the first of August.
However, among its many important functions, the federal census determines the number of members each state can elect to the House of Representatives in Congress, a critical matter of practical politics, and something had to be done quickly to get a census count going in California to address that and other matters.
Further complicating the situation was the unprecedented environment of the California Gold Rush, which erupted two years prior and was in its full throes of excitement, turmoil and fluidity at the time of the state’s admission. People were pouring into the new state by land and sea, most of them heading into the gold fields where new towns and mining camps were being formed and abandoned with regularity.
Government services in these often hard-to-reach areas of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and surrounding areas were often minimal, if they existed at all. Extraordinary violence accompanied to motley assemblage of people from all over the world, so that Latinos from Mexico, Central America and South America; Chinese; Australians; British; French; Americans from the east; and many others lived in a state of flux probably unknown in world history. How were all these people to be counted in the census?
Meantime, local and state administrative systems were put into place prior admission, because residents of California, losing patience with federal inaction, wrote and approved their own constitution at the end of 1849 and then formed counties, held elections, and seated officials during the following months. But, any such undertaking being conducted in a newly developing territory with such massive changes underfoot would be, at best, a mildly chaotic enterprise. If anything, it is remarkable that this political transition worked as well as it did!As for the census, it was hurriedly organized in the last few months of 1850 and then conducted in the early months of the new year. In Los Angeles County, which spanned an enormous area from, just as two general points of reference, the Pacific Ocean to the Colorado River and from above the San Fernando Valley to south of San Juan Capistrano, the count was to be conducted by one lone census marshal: John R. Evertsen.
Evertsen, born about 1803 in New York, lived in Texas with his wife and three children, when the family made the migration to California. On the last day of November 1849, in a “Reminiscences of Mission San Gabriel” penned by daughter Laura and published in the 1920 edition of the Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, the Evertsens, accompanied by what the younger Laura called “two negro servants” (the first California constitution was completed weeks after their arrival and prohibited slavery, which the Evertsens, of course, could not have foreseen), straggled into Mission San Gabriel.
After resting for a period, they finished the last leg of the journey into Los Angeles and, notably, Laura made no mention of her father’s hiring as census taker, which must have happened almost immediately upon settlement in the town. Perhaps her omission was because the topic of her essay was about life in San Gabriel, although it is possible that it was because the census did not go particularly well.
It is easy to imagine that the small city and county of Los Angeles with very little funding in its meager coffers, most of which was swallowed up by criminal justice administration, salaries and so on, simply could not pay Evertsen a decent salary for his work. With little financial incentive, the enumerator, whose work began about the middle of January 1851 and continued just shy of two months, perhaps did not as diligently undertake his duties as he might have with better pay.
In any case, the result, as was to be the case, in all fairness to Evertsen, throughout the state, was a census that badly undercounted the county’s residents. When his work was finished, Evertsen counted 1,610 persons in Los Angeles and 3,530 in the county. Yet, his most glaring omission, and it is uncertain why this was so, was that he only listed about a couple hundred native Indians.
At Rancho La Puente, for example, the household of the Workman family, included William and Nicolasa, their ranch foreman, Juan Matias Sanchez, and three ranch workers. Yet, even though five years later, Henry Miller, an artist who designed the chapel established by the Workmans and named for St. Nicholas’ for Nicolasa, wrote that the edifice was built for the benefit of the Indians who worked for the family, Evertsen included none of them.
Because the census, which counted fewer than 100,000 persons and there were clearly many, many more than that, was so poorly conducted, the state legislature immediately called for a state census. Undertaken during a few months in 1852, within a year and a half of the previous count, the results were profoundly different.
For example, the Los Angeles County total population came in at just under 8,000 persons, well more than double Evertsen’s number. Even accounting for new migration, this is a huge difference and no example tells the tale better than the fact that the 1852 enumeration counted nearly 4,000 native people, rather than the 200-odd aboriginals tallied by Evertsen.
Strangely, though, that 1852 state census is almost completely ignored by those who cite early population statistics in greater Los Angeles. Instead, references are virtually always to the 1850 federal census (again, really from January through March 1851), which is so clearly undercounted, if for no other reason than by the near absence of local Indians. Time and again we read that the city of Los Angeles had a tich over 1,600 residents in 1850 and the county had just over 3,500 people, but the numbers, based on the nearly unknown state tally, would show much larger populations for each.
As is often said, however, once something is established in print, it often becomes authoritative and generally nothing can be done to change the situation once it becomes ingrained. This has been the case so far with the totally inadequate 1850 federal census, statewide and locally.
With regard to poor John R. Evertsen, whatever problems he encountered with conducting the census all by his lonesome, his life got worse. Returning to San Gabriel and setting up residence, first in rooms in one of the decaying mission buildings and then in an adobe he built nearby in an olive orchard, he seems to have done well at first. His daughter wrote of her fond memories, observing “life was calm and pleasant now” after moving into the adobe, but problems quickly arose.
Laura detailed one issue, which is when Anglos arrived and set up stores in which they sold aguardiente (brandy) to the native peoples—the same indigenous Indians that Evertsen neglected to count in the census. In her writing, “then came the downfall of the poor Indian.” This included domestic (and other) violence and the ravages of smallpox.
Then, while the Evertsens were getting more settled and better established at San Gabriel, “all was peaceful until the water question arose.” Another common problem throughout California (and the western U.S. , for that matter) was about rights to the resource that could often be limited by drought.
According to Laura, a neighbor apportioned water outside of an agreement made in common by local residents, prompting a confrontation in which John Evertsen, who, remarkably, did not own a gun at a time when greater Los Angeles experienced extraordinary rates of violence, grabbed a sword to challenge his shotgun-wielding adversary. The much bigger opponent yielded the field for the time being, but Evertsen decided to leave for Nicaragua.
Laura didn’t say it, but it may well be that there were other reasons for her father’s departure. Filibusterer William Walker, who had grandiose visions for conquest of that portion of Central America, gathered forces and ventured to Nicaragua in the mid-1850s, where he did establish a short-lived regime that quickly fell apart and was vanquished. Evertsen wasn’t the only local to head to that part of the world. Horace Bell, who later wrote the well-known, but often factually challenged and embellished, memoir, Reminscences of a Ranger, was with Walker, too.
All Laura said was that her mother refused to go “saying that we children needed an education” but then improbably followed that with “she would remain with us until such time as he could send for us.” In any case, whatever was in the works was dashed:
In the next mail we received a letter telling of my father’s death of the fever of the country. We never knew where he was buried, or what became of his money.
The widow Evertsen and children remained at San Gabriel, but Laura’s mother lived only another decade or so. Laura married Andrew Jackson King, from a well-known El Monte family, that like hers, came from the southern American states. A.J. King, who became an attorney, newspaper publisher, and a judge, was also embroiled in some of the most notorious violent affairs of the pre-Civil War period in Los Angeles.
One involved the 1855 revenge killing he and his brothers conducted after the murder of their father. Then, a decade later, after A.J. was attacked by Robert Carlisle of Rancho Santa Ana del Chino because of a dispute over the estate of Carlisle’s sister-in-law, Merced Rains at Rancho Cucamonga, King’s brothers confronted Carlisle and a gunbattle erupted that led to the deaths of Carlisle and one of the King boys, and the wounding of the other brother and some bystanders. Yet, A.J. and Laura went on to live long and more quiet and settled lives–a far cry from the tumultuous early years partially and incompletely enumerated in the delayed 1850 federal census in newly admitted California.