“The Want of Money”: Documents from a Report on California Claims from the Mexican-American War, 8 August 1848

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A few days ago, a post here highlighted elements from a House of Representatives report from the Committee on Military Affairs dealing with claims of residents seeking reimbursement for funds expended to American military officers after the seizure of Mexican California.

The introductory pages constituted a fascinating narrative concerning the shadowy role of Captain John C. Frémont, who was in the midst of a third exploration of the western part of the American continent when he got involved in intrigues tied to the imminent invasion of Alta Calfornia by American forces.

Frémont then joined those forces by marching from the northern part of the territory to Los Angeles, where he arrived just after Commodore Robert F. Stockton seized the capital city of the Mexican department.  An opportunist by nature, Frémont took it upon himself to execute the Treaty of Cahuenga with General Andrés Pico, though he had no assigned authority to do so.

Stockton, moreover, before he departed for Mexico to aid in the further prosecution of the American invasion there, appointed Frémont governor of California in his stead.  When Colonel Richard B. Mason at the end of May 1847 and Frémont returned to Washington to face a court-martial concerning some of his acts as governor, a dispute arose, as covered in the report, about how Frémont contracted debts for a variety of issues, including paying the soldiers who remained in California and reimbursing California residents for funds remitted by them to Frémont and the military.

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The report includes three dozen supporting documents added to the summary, covered in the previous post, in which the committee decided to submit its report calling for the amendment of a Senate appropriations bill for claims made by Californians against the government because of Mason’s concerns about Frémont’s actions in incurring debts on behalf of the government for military purposes.

The committee did not take sides in that conflict, but noted that there needed to be a new committee to examine those debts and recommended attention be given to how officers were given authority to act on behalf of the federal government.  It then submitted an amended bill as a substitute for the Senate one.

Among the papers submitted with the report was a letter by Frémont to Secretary of State (and future president) James Buchanan, dated 6 February 1847, less than a month after the seizure of California was completed.  Frémont noted that with civil government “happily again in full and vigorous operation,” and offered to the Secretary his views on “our actual necessities” and his ideas on “such measures as the security of the territory and the public interest have rendered it urgently expedient to adopt.”

Unfortunately, he went on,

the great embarrassment that I at present experience as the principal representative of the United States government, is the want of money to enable to pay off the troops under my command, and to cancel such other obligations as I have been compelled to come under in prosecuting a war in a country where no supplies whatever were furnished me by my own government, and where most articles are scarce and extravagantly high.

Notably, the captain opined that “the temper of the Californians [is] decidedly favorable to annexation with the United States” and the only problem in promoting that goal was “but an adequate and regular supply of money.”  Because “the manners of the people are primitive and simple,” Frémont continued, “the credit system is but little understood.”

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Moreover, he added that “I have also been compelled to raise money at the most usurious rates of interest,” a strange comment given his belief in the “primitive” nature of Californians.  But, he went on, this contraction of debts was done “to avoid the falsification of pledges that I have made . . . [and] if not redeemed, to be likely to produce mutiny and dissatisfaction among the troops.”  This statement was to raise awareness of the immediate need for funds.

“In the absence of instructions from the United States” and in a “remote region, where a regular and uniform correspondence cannot exist,” Frémont continued that “I have considered an early meeting of the representatives of the people essentially prudent.”  This was to assure the people of America’s commitment to republican values and “to adopt some wholesome municipal regulations absolutely required by the late unsettled conditions of affairs.”

Consequently, Frémont called for such a gathering at the first of March, but, meanwhile, “with a view to conciliate the feelings of the people, and secure, at as early a day as possible, the adjustment of many vexed and harassing claims,” he created commissions “to institute inquiries, and audit all claims occasioned by spoliations committed by the American troops” in the quelling of the insurrection that led to the final seizure of Los Angeles and the subsequent cessation of hostilities in California.

Frémont lauded the “integrity and capacity” of the commissioners and urged a speedy approval of claims because “the large majority of the claimants are poor people, and payment cannot be long delayed to them, without creating great dissatisfaction.”  The captain sent one of his expedition members, Theodore Talbot, to Washington to deliver the letter and added, in his accustomed self-referential habit, that Talbot was sent because

my own situation being one of so much difficulty, and so much embarrassed by uncertainty, that I feel it impossible, in the midst of so many causes for anxiety, and through incessant interruptions and calls on my attention, to furnish you with a connected history of events here.

Frémont assured Buchanan that his “fullest regard to discipline and submission to the property constituted civil authorities at home” were such that, because he supported “the dignity of our government . .  by no stronger tenure than the will of the President”, he would lay down his authority as governor “or observe a contrary course . . . when the pleasure of the President is made known to me.”

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The captain again made reference to “my remote position,” his desire to meet “the interests and the approbation of my government,” and that “these great ends” meant his measures came from “the extraordinary powers I am called upon to exercise” and justified “the large discretion which must always be permitted to the governor of a province so remote as California.”

On 4 June, however Buchanan merely referred Frémont’s letter to Secretary of War William L. Marcy because “that officer ought to receive his instructions from the War Department.”

Another document from the report was a missive to Frémont to Secretary Marcy, dated 13 October 1847, when the captain was in Washington and soon to be on trial in a court-martial.  In the document, Frémont wrote Marcy that, when he was governor in California, he had “many liabilities,” chiefly paying volunteers for their services, including supplies and other necessities and “payment to citizens of that territory of money loaned me by them, and which was required and expended in administration of the government and partial payment of the troops.”

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Most of the money was due to “volunteer emigrants for services during the insurrection in the southern part of Upper California.”  He added that

these men were just arriving on the frontier of the territory, and, at the first call for their services, quitted their families, leaving them unprotected and exposed to the inclemencies of a rainy winter, and repaired to my camp, bringing with them arms, ammunition, wagons, and money, all of which they freely contributed to the public service.  These men returned to their families without money and without clothes, and the long delay of payment has consequently created much dissatisfaction.

One volunteer to the Army during the war in California was John Reed, a native of North Carolina who married Nieves Rowland, daughter of John Rowland, owner of the Rancho La Puente along with William Workman.  Rowland was among a group of Americans and Europeans captured at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino home of Isaac Williams in what is now Chino Hills and held prisoner in what became Boyle Heights until the end of hostilities in early January 1847.  Presumably, Reed, who died in 1874 in his home a few miles east of the Homestead in modern City of Industry, was among those lacking payment for his services.

Frémont referred to “paper given to them . . . as certificates of services” but which was devalued and sold, in many case, “at one-tenth of its true value.”  The captain included a statement by Patrick B. Reading, the paymaster of the battalion commanded by Frémont, indicating that over $85,000 was due to these volunteers.

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As for “amounts of money required for civil and military purposes . . . loaned to me,” he went on, “these sums of money were not large,” but high rates of interest “unusual in that country” meant that the “public interest is suffering by the delay.”  The sum involved here was about $40,000, but Frémont included with his letter “notices of protests” for $19,500 “which were yesterday dishonored by Mr. Buchanan.”

Marcy’s reply of two days later was succinct and direct.  He told Frémont “I regret to inform you, that I am not aware that any provision has been made for the payment of these claims” directly by the War Department. Rather, “the services of the members of the California battalion under existing laws can only be paid by the paymasters on rolls regularly made out.”  March added that “in anticipation that troops would be raised in California, an order was issued from this department for their muster, with a view to payment.”

“Vouchers which can be passed by the accounting officers” constituted “the only mode provided to pay accounts” for expenses incurred.”  Moreover, the Secretary went on, “any extraordinary expenses which cannot be met by the revenues or collections in California cannot be paid without special legislation.”  Additionally, “the same remark is applicable to the expenses of the temporary civil government.”  Marcy concluded by noting that “this subject will undoubtedly be presented to the consideration of Congress at its approaching session,” hence the Senate bill that led to this report.

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The problem for Frémont was that some of his contracted debts were, according to charges made by Mason, illegal and we’ll pick up the story from there in the next part of this post.

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