by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In this third part of a post covering a remarkable 8 August 1848 House of Representatives report on claims made against the United States for expenses incurred during the American invasion of Mexican California, we turn to documents involving Colonel Richard B. Mason, who became military governor of the seized territory at the end of May 1847, succeeding Lieutenant Colonel John C. Frémont.
As noted earlier, Frémont, appointed to that position by Commodore Robert F. Stockton, before the latter left California, decided to contract for supplies and cash from California residents. He did so, however, without instructions from Washington about raising funds any other way than normal military channels.
Once Mason took office and Frémont was on his way back east, the new governor wrote, on 18 June 1847 to Brigadier General Roger at Catesby Jones (whose Navy commodore brother, Thomas, seized Monterey in 1842 under the mistaken belief that war between the U.S. and Mexico had commenced.) Jones was adjutant general from 1825 until his death in 1852 (the longest serving person in that role) and was responsible for maintaining personnel records among other duties.
Mason asked Jones to assist with a major issue in his administration, this being “the speedy payment of the various claims in California against the United States, created since the hoisting of our flag in this country.” He added that “these claims are for horses and other property taken, and supplies furnished for the use of the troops that were at the time hastily collected,” along with pay for these men and operational debts.
The soldiers were discharged in April, “but from bad counsel, or from some other cause, they refused to be mustered into service” under laws governing volunteer service “and therefore could not be paid by the army paymasters at all.”
Meanwhile, Mason maintained, “the claimants, native and foreigners, are loud and clamorous, and excite a great deal of dissatisfaction and bad feeling in the country towards our government,” because of perceived bad faith and broken promises concerning these claims.
The governor claimed that
a speedy payment of these claims will do more towards reconciling the Californians to the change of flags, and be worth more to the United States, than ten times the money it will take to pay the debts.
Consequently, he urged “that some discreet citizen [original italics], who is in no way interested in these claims be appointed . . . to investigate and adjudicate upon all claims presented against the United States.” Of course, those disbursing the monies needed “ample funds” from the federal government immediately.
One problem was that “many of these claims . . . are only evidence by the receipt or certificate given” and not by those “in the service of the United States.” Rather these “were sent out by the authority of the land or naval commander, at the time, to collect horses, saddles” and the like.
The officers and men of the California battalion of volunteers had due claims from bills signed by paymasters and quartermasters of that entity. Additionally, “a very great many claimants assert, and I believe truly, that their property was taken, and no receipt or certificate given.” Treasury drafts were discounted 20$ of their par value, so Mason suggested that these be paid off so that “disbursing officers can obtain money here for their drafts at par, and the people will become reconciled and satisfied.”
But, three days later, Mason dashed off another letter to Jones, which he hoped would “reach you at the same time” as the first missive. It concerned a claim brought to Mason that was “of so extraordinary a nature” that it had to be brought to Jones’ attention immediately. The governor added, “you will perceive it is for money borrowed at an enormous rate of interest, by Lieutenant Colonel Frémont, from one Antonio José Cot” but also that Frémont did so while as governor, but also under the command of General Stephen W. Kearny.
Moreover, Mason continued, Frémont “gave orders and caused the collector of customs at San Pedro to receive, in payment of custom-house dues, a large amount, say about $1,700, of depreciated paper, signed by individuals in no way responsible to the government.” Kearny was on his way back to Washington “prepared to lay all the facts” about this situation to the Department of War. Mason asked that Frémont be held personally liable for the $1,700 “that the treasury of California has thus lost by his illegal order” because these funds were “wanted to defray the expenses” of the government.
As evidence, Mason sent Frémont’s note, dated 4 February from Los Angeles, acknowledging receipt of $2,000, to which the Lieutenant Colonel agreed to repay the funds within two months paying 3% per month, or $120, though there was an option to extend the loan to four months with $160 in interest owned to Cot. Sixteen days later, Cot advanced another thousand dollars to Frémont on the same terms. On 12 April, Cot acknowledged receipt of $180 in interest from the then-governor.
On 9 October, Mason sent Jones another long letter concerning a contract entered into by Frémont with Eulogio de Celis, a native of Spain living in Los Angeles (Celis later owned most of the former lands of the Mission San Fernando). In this case, Frémont borrowed just under $7,000 in the form of 600 head of cattle from Celis, but, when he left California, he did so “giving no notice to General Kearny or myself, of the existence of such a contract.” It was only when Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson, who led a company of New York volunteers to California, arriving just after hostilities had ceased, upon which he became garrison commander at Los Angeles, brought the matter up did Mason learn of the arrangement.
Yet, Mason went on, none of the six hundred cattle mentioned in the Frémont-Celis contract, were delivered by the latter. Rather they were delivered to an American named Steavens, a resident of Los Angeles on 6 July, after the California volunteer battalion was discharged. Apparently, Frémont made a deal with Steavens for the latter to care for the animals “to breed on share for the term of three years” and that Steavens considered the cattle “the private property of Lieutenant Frémont.”
Archibald Gillespie, who was mentioned in the first part of this post and was ignominiously unseated as Los Angeles garrison commander after the first seizure of the City of Angels by American forces, a navy midshipman and a civilian were said to be witnesses to the transaction. The midshipman, however, denied knowledge of the affair, while the other two men were accompanying Stockton back to Washington.
Mason was presented with the Celis claim for “six hundred breeding cows now in the hands of a private individual, not one of which has been used for public purposes.” He added that the note held by Celis was due on 18 December “and bears an interest of 24 per centum [2% per month] after that date.”
This was in addition to a debt of $2,500 contracted by Frémont, due eight months after the agreement date of 3 March “or, in default thereof, that the note shall bear an interest of 24 per cent, per annum.” Yet, Mason went on, this was done “when a quarter master at Monterey had been more than a month in the country, with a supply of money applicable to the proper expenses of the army in California.”
Celis told Mason “that it was partly to secure this loan of money that Lieutenant Colonel Frémont made with him the liberal bargain for the cattle, for which the price is about 40 per cent. higher than the market price at that time.” With all of this, the governor concluded,
as the whole transaction, as shown by the accompanying papers, appears to me of such a character that I shall not order payment of the money to Mr. Celis, but refer all the papers to the department for such action as they may consider proper in the case.
Part four of this post continues with this remarkable series of correspondences, so look for that in a couple of days.