California was a world in itself. As large as Italy, a country that it
resembles significantly, in length, with a spine of mountains often
covered with snow, adjoining the sea, troubled with earthquakes, and
endowed with a Mediterranean climate that merges into a
Northern less-warm climate, there was a latent promise that
California would grow to the population of Italy.
Whether they would be as comfortable, well-fed,
picturesquely distributed, socially adjusted, and cultured -
all this would be asking too much.
The natural regions of California confronting the human species
were the hot Southern coastal area, the interior
South Mohave desert merging into the Arizona desert, the
central coast running from above Santa Barbara to North of San
Francisco (Marin County) and then the Northern Coast Area (the
Modoc), while, along the center of the state, South to North, after
leaving the Southern desert, one found a Central Valley, highly
fertile if its water supply were stored and controlled. The central
coast was settled first, and it was not until the twentieth century that
the Southern areas and central valleys came into their own.
The North is still remarkably wild in appearance.
Actually the history of California - Indian, of course, but also the
European - is as old as the history of the Eastern colonial states. It did
not get sucked into the central vortex until its gold was exposed in
1849. Also the great population rush into the state did not begin until
the 1920's. There is a Golden Age of the "Golden State" stuck in its
history somewhere, but prying it out is difficult.
There was always some deficiency.
Even, in the very beginning, the Indian tribes of California belonged
to the least civilized tier of Indian nations. (Nota bene: civilized
does not mean perforce happy: in the lovely setting and benign
climate of Inverness Bay there dwelt a tribe by an endless source of
oysters, whose void shells grew into hills from which one could
have an ever-prettier vantage point to view the oyster beds
as one ate oysters. I imagine that they were happy.)
As a hint of what grew to be a monstrous problem for later
Californians, the region did not present adequate water supplies for
even a modest population until one arrived above San Francisco.
Irrigation would have worked elsewhere, but,
as I said, the Indians of California... etc.
The Spanish government had sent a fleet to warn away Russian
intrusions into Northern California late in the 1700's, and had
constructed a fort at San Francisco. Traders of several nationalities
were already there, including the Russians of Russian Hill. The
Presidio got its start then. American boats appeared from time to time
to purchase hides and tallow from the ranchers or their agents. They
would sell or exchange what they had brought from the East or
Spanish America or the Orient.
Also in the late 1700's Father Junipero Serra and his Franciscan
followers proceeded to build a chain of missions beginning at San
Diego and ending at San Francisco. The missions acquired and worked
large tracts of land with Indian help. The Indians in many cases
acquired skills as farmers and artisans, but, too, they often might
justifiably feel that they were really serfs. The architecture and method
of construction of the missions would serve as a model for a great
many structures to be built in California and elsewhere in the
West for two centuries.
There were not half a hundred large ranches in the State but they
owned most of the private land and operated much on the style of the
Southern planter, compete with arrogance and imperiousness.
They were reinforced by a number of additional land grantees,
beneficiaries of an 1824 law of the new Mexican republic. Ever
avaricious for labor, these oligarchs inveigled the government in
1833 to confiscate the missions and expel the Franciscans, to free
the Indians from obligations to the church, to privatize and dispose
of the lands. Seven hundred huge ranchos resulted from the
confiscation of church lands and the freed Indians were promptly
subjected to the brutal and harrowing conditions of
serfdom on the rancho grande.
In 1846 there were an estimated eight to twelve thousand Hispanics,
about 800 Americans, and some thousands of Indians in California.
The Americans were shipping agents, traders, trappers, ranchers,
adventurers, mariners, outlaws, and employees of Spanish interests.
The Spanish capital was at Monterey down the coast a ways from
Into this scene stalked John Fremont, politician, explorer, author,
and adventurer. He had moved around most of the West from his
base in Missouri. He appeared now in California as leader of a band
of sixty men who to all appearances were mountain men, but whom
he referred to as his exploring party. He was ordered out of Spanish
territory by the governor and left apparently for Oregon.
Another group of Hispanics and Americans then took over the office
of the government in Sonoma, and declared the independence of
California (with the Texas case in mind). They raised a flag with a
bear emblazoned upon it.
Neither the Republic nor the Bear lasted long, because news of the
Mexican-American War arrived and an American fleet appeared and
landed marines. The Mexican authorities escaped to the South. A
Commodore Stockton appeared and pronounced himself Governor of
California and Commander-in-Chief of whatever armed forces might
be available; he could at least count on his fleet.
Fremont had reappeared and was designated Commander-in-Chief of
Northern California. Next, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles were
Meanwhile, Stephen Kearney, with an Army brevet, left Fort Bent and
took the Santa Fe trail to Sante Fe, arriving on the heels of the
Governor of New Mexico. He now decided to march with a large
company to California. On the trail, he met Fremont's favorite
scout, Kit Carson, also a man with a large Eastern public, and
learned from Carson of the occupation of California.
He sent part of his force South, and continued westward. Upon
arrival in the San Diego area, he discovered that a popular revolt
had restored the Mexicans to power in Los Angeles. So he joined up
with the Commodore's forces and together they overcame the
Loyalists, and restored American control. The date was January 13
An interested observer of the excitement was a certain John A. Sutter,
a Swiss-American who had been a trader in Missouri and
Oregon before setting up shop in the Sacramento area. He had
obtained from the Mexican government a permit to construct a
utopian village of New Helvetia (usually called Sutter's Fort) for Swiss
immigrants, whom he proposed to obtain. All sorts of people
found his Swiss village attractive, and it was soon filled. It later
became the city of Sacramento. He owned much land, including a
stretch up-river that proved to carry gold.
The area around became the scene of the greatest gold rush known yet
to history. It was an arena of wild greed, theft and murder. Yet men
thought and acted to set up rules of fair play, of trial and judgement.
The Puritan ethic was dug out of the recesses of the mind. The
philosopher, Josiah Royce was there in 1849, and long
afterwards wrote, "In the air,..the invisible net of social duties
hung, and descending, enmeshed irresistibly all these gay and
careless fortune-hunters even while they boasted of their freedom."
In these transient communities - there had been and would be
thousands of them around the country, the consensus among the
people seemed to be that good law was self-evident, that the law was
there to be discovered, that the law was in the Bible, and that the
law was in every man's heart.
Perhaps this should be regarded as the code of the good vigilantes.
California was the largest most enduring center for vigilantism,
particularly San Francisco, where the "best men" of the community
were volunteer members of the committee to maintain order in the
midst of chaos. Vigilantism was needed - there can be little question
- in circumstances where public authority was absent or non-existent, a
crime has been committed, and the culprit was sure to get beyond the
reach of any law very soon.
Many thousands of men left their homes and jobs around the country
to board ships that circumnavigated South America or ride whatever
combination of land vehicles was possible, in order to arrive at the
gold fields before all the gold was gone. For most, the gold never
panned out. For a few it did. Largest profits were made by men like
Sutter who sold panning equipment, picks and shovels and grub to the
prospectors. An estimated 100,000 immigrants descended upon the
region, with the usual representation of New England
"school teachers," and most of them stayed,
having no home or job elsewhere.
Californians were most eager to become a territory and then a state.
They had now to deal with a Mexican war hero, General Zachary
Taylor, for he had wasted no time in running for the presidency and
getting elected. He cannily advised them to apply directly for
admission as a state, by-passing the status of territory. They did so and
within a year Congress had granted statehood.
Many Southerners were unnerved at the procedure, particularly
since Taylor was himself a slave-holder. They would have felt even
worse if they could have foreseen that California's Central Valley
would become the richest cotton-growing area in the world.
The North and West are supposed by
many to have been creatures of
the railroads, that, without them, they would have remained frontiers.
Actually they were rapidly filling up without a single railroad, and
should probably have continued to do so. Even the Civil War did
nothing to staunch the flow of humanity and animals. The terrible War
might as well have not been happening.
Besides the old trails that now carried streams of wagons, pack
animals, pushcarts, and plodders, there were regular clipper ships
between East and West coasts; both the Panamanian portage route
and the around-Cape Horn route were heavily employed. In 1858 a
stagecoach between East and West entered service, the Butterfield
and Overland Express.
Several years later Wells-Fargo Company unleashed the Pony
Express to carry mail expensively, but it lasted only eighteen
months, except in the mythology of childhood, because telegraph
lines were posted across the nation and, when they were not cut by
Indians or varmints, they could provide instant communication from
coast to coast. By 1860 50,000 miles of wire were humming.
But there was no stopping the railroad in the imagination of
continental expansionists. It stormed along on the rails snorting of
manifest destiny. The transcontinental railroad company that was
blocked by Southern Congressmen before the Civil War was able to
begin work promptly, war or no war.
Union Pacific Railroad Company promoters received a
congressional charter (note the use of a congressional power -
unexpressed in the Constitution- to charter corporations for
transportation and to subsidize them); they were given the right of
way for the track, free cutting of timber and mining of minerals
occurring on any public land useful in competing their job, and ten
square miles of land along the right of way for every mile of track laid,
a generous grant soon to be doubled.
Moreover, Congress agreed to award the Union Pacific thousands of
dollars for every mile built. They were to begin in Nebraska and
proceed to the California border. Similar terms were given the
Central Pacific to begin in California and connect up with the UP.
In May 1869 the connection was made near Ogden, Utah. Other
companies entered the game, and soon several lines
crossed the nation.
A few men made millions of dollars knowing little of railroading. They
even grafted huge amounts, making contracts with themselves to
supply materials to themselves at large profits, and selling stocks and
bonds to the public at fraudulently inflated prices.
A great many Chinese and Irish and other ethnic and native laborers
knowing little of railroading worked for wages that in many cases
covered the cost of bringing a loved one from the Old Country.
Many workers died from accidents, violence, or disease. Every
milestone could be called a gravestone.
Chicago soon became the busiest railroad center in the world, just as
three political generations later it would house the busiest airport in
the world. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe and the other trains
could now stop along the way and pick up the hordes of cattle driven
on the hoof to the railhead, and the beasts could ride rapidly in
discomfort for the rest of their short unhappy lives.
But the age of the great cattle drives was nearing an end. Not
because of the railroads alone, reaching out to wherever the herds
were gathered; in 1874 the first barbed wire appeared. Soon
everyone could fence out cattle, and did.
The railroad bosses could do much more. They could make deals with
foreign agents to round up immigrants and transport them to a point
on the right of way, where the railroaders could sell them land
and supply all of their needs at a profit. They could charge ruinous prices
for carrying goods and animals, if they pleased. They could pass up a
disfavored location in order to stop at a favored location.
There were more of such tricks.
A great many people - passengers, workers, farmers, suppliers, towns
and villages, stockholders - were cheated, discriminated
against, driven out of business; but the railroads grew at a tremendous
speed, laying more track than could be found in all of
Europe. It was the American way: make haste, get the job done,
tolerate no interference, lay the costs on others, hope for a large
profit, live it up - on your private train.
Actually, most railroad inventions were European,
even down to the standard gauge tracks,
4 feet, 8.5 inches, which descended from the axle span of
Roman war chariots via wagon wheels,
via English rail tracks, via imported English builders.
American locomotives were faster and less durable than their
European counterparts; they had more crashes, and more workers
were killed and disabled, 30,000 brakemen a year at the
prideful height of railroading. But men gloried to be
railroaders, even when engaged in the violent strikes that
sometimes occurred. The glamour lasted for a hundred years,
until about 1947 and the age of the airplane.
Scholars have lately pointed out that the West was always a land of
urban centers, with never more than a few people in between. Salt
Lake City, Kansas City, and San Francisco come to mind. In 1847 San
Francisco was a quiet Hispanic village of 500 persons, yet by 1880
contained 233,000 residents, one of the top-ranking cities of the
nation. It had a wealthy elite living in palatial homes. A pioneering
group of merchants built up the city and led it in all of its various
voluntary and governmental institutions through the 1850's after which
a more general elite infiltrated.
A separate Chinese population and merchant leadership also
developed. Japanese tended more to farm labor, numbering half the total working
the land by 1909. They organized themselves into oligarchic work groups that
brought them the best conditions of any farm workers in the nation, a total adapted
collective life. A young immigrant, George Shima,
came to control by 1913
85% of the California potato crop.
Only about 15% of California adult males
were domiciled with wives in 1852. By
1880 the sex ratio was even. Obviously, with such a
seven-to-one in-migration rate, women of all kinds were
skipping into the state in search of mates.
No more than one percent of the population constituted a recognized
elite. Among these were already national figures of wealth and power:
Charles Crocker, Leland Stanford, Colles Huntington, Mark Hopkins
- all of the railroads; James Fair, James Flood, William O'Brien, and
John Mackay - all miners. The major part of the early elite was
otherwise composed of merchants and industrialists. A political
generation later capitalists, company executives, politicians real estate
dealers and professional men had taken over
half the top rankings.
The elite was open, by contrast with the Boston and Charleston
(pre-Civil War) elites. Although Jews were present to the number of
7% of the population, they were much more evident in the elite, where
they constituted about 20% of the total listings. Several of the top
Jews such as Levi Strauss - he of the canvas pants - were in the
Christian rather than the Jewish list of addresses, suggesting perhaps
that they were asked to choose which list to belong to and opted out
of the Jewish ranks. Yet anti-semitism was part of the City's
heritage, too, and not until a century later were the last Clubs to lose
their Christians-only designation.
As the city grew large, rich, and productive, the lot of the working
class changed not at all. The rich who ruled the city did not save
their incomes but spent lavishly in consumption. When Dennis Kearney
extended the proscription list of his workingman's party to include,
besides the Chinese, the rich, capitalists, manufacturers and
importers, the rich formed a vigilante Committee of Safety, armed
with the latest weapons and aided by mercenaries. The mostly
unarmed gangs of workers disbanded under the threat.
Despite all the glamour attendant upon its location and supposed
opportunities to get rich quick, after the first merchants had their
two decades, the city afforded no more chances to rise
economically, and therefore otherwise, except to a degree in
politics, than any Northern city in the East. Indeed, one scholar
theorizes that the activities of the Vigilance Committees over three
decades indicates a large sense of frustration among the old and
aspiring merchant class who had lost their pre-eminence.
Racial and ethnic animosities were strong throughout, and anti-semitic
and anti-Catholic discrimination continuous until after World War II.
Breakthroughs were made infrequently, by individuals among the
German-Jews, by persons such as the banker A.P.Giannini who had
been born in Italy and founded the Bank of
Italy that became later the largest bank in the country, the Bank of
America, and by attorney-politicians and leading
professionals and professors.
Amadeo Peter Giannini, in fact, would offer stiff competition to
John Jacob Astor, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and the like for
the all-American entrepreneurial crown: He began farm labor at 13
for an adoptive father, became a well-to-do produce dealer, opened
his bank, then, spurred on by the Earthquake, took to the road
literally with wagonloads of cash to lend to disaster-stricken farmers
and ranchers. His policy of lending to the small farmer and
businessman, his method of extending banking by setting up branches
wherever the demand existed - finally moving beyond
California - usually in the face of opposition by local banks, large
conservative banks, state bank regulators and later federal officials -
became universal practices in America a half-century later.
His bank financed much of the growth of the Hollywood film
industry. He disbursed shares and assets as he aged, never direction,
and when he died, a mythical figure, he left an estate of under half a
million dollars. It may be remarked that the fathers both of Giannini
and a second "California's greatest son" of the next generation,
Governor and Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Earl
Warren, were murdered by maddened workmen on the job, when
the sons were mere boys.
The beautiful city of San Francisco attracted a culture of poor artists
and musicians, of a rewarding, remarkable Chinatown and Little Italy,
of close relations with exotic Pacific peoples,
of Jewish-endowed public institutions, and finally a quickly superior
quasi-democratic university at Berkeley across the Bay and another
one, of less consequence, Stanford University, at Palo Alto, so that, in
the face of rather weak competition, it could boast of being
at the top among American cities in life-style, and in
popular and sophisticated culture.