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Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California

Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California

by J. S. Holliday

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In this vivid account of the birth of modern California, J.S. Holliday frames the gold rush years within the larger story of the state's transformation from the quietude of a Mexican hinterland in the 1840s to the forefront of entrepreneurial capitalism by the 1890s. No other state, no nation experienced such an adolescence of freedom and success. By 1883


In this vivid account of the birth of modern California, J.S. Holliday frames the gold rush years within the larger story of the state's transformation from the quietude of a Mexican hinterland in the 1840s to the forefront of entrepreneurial capitalism by the 1890s. No other state, no nation experienced such an adolescence of freedom and success. By 1883 California was hailed as "America, only more so."

Holliday's boldly interpretive narrative has the authority and immediacy of an eyewitness account. This eminent historian recreates the masculine world of mining camps and rough cities, where both business and pleasure were conducted far from hometown eyes and conventional inhibitions. He follows gold mining's swift evolution from treasure hunt to vast industry; traces the prodigal plunder of California's virgin rivers and abundant forests; and describes improvised feats of engineering, breathtaking in their scope and execution.

Holliday also conjures the ambitious, often ruthless Californians whose rush for riches rapidly changed the state: the Silver Kings of the Comstock Lode, the timber barons of the Sierra forests, the Big Four who built the first transcontinental railroad, and the lesser profit-seekers who owned steamboats, pack mules, gambling dens and bordellos—and, most important for California's future, the farmers who prospered by feeding the rapidly growing population. This wildly laissez-faire economy created California's image as a risk-taking society, unconstrained by fear of failure.

The central theme of Rush for Riches is how, after decades of careless freedom, the miners were finally reined in by the farmers, and how their once mutually dependent relationship soured into hostility. This potential violence led to a dramatic courtroom decision in 1884 that shut down the mighty hydraulic mining operations—the end of California's free-for-all youthful exuberance.

Unique in its format, this beautiful book offers not only a compelling narrative but also almost two hundred fifty illustrations, one hundred in full color, that richly illuminate the themes and details of the text: daguerreotypes, photographs, paintings, lithographs, sketches, and specially drawn maps.

Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction Book of 2000

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University of California Press
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8.50(w) x 11.25(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chapter One


At the outer edge of exploration, so far on the periphery as to be mapped in 1738 as a huge island, California eluded European colonization for over two centuries, from tentative probing by a Spanish sea captain in 1542 to belated settlement in 1769. Thereafter Spain held her Pacific outpost until 1822 when newly independent Mexico began its brief rule. Impressed by California's natural resources and "a climate like that of Italy," European visitors (geographers, naval officers, traders) judged the Spanish and Mexicans to be unworthy of such a potentially rich colony. The captain of a French frigate in 1837 expressed his astonishment that "this country, so beautiful, so fertile, and at the same time so easy to take, has not yet become the prey of the great nations of the Old World." More surprising, as late as the 1840s this salubrious land had attracted fewer than ten thousand Spanish-Mexican settlers, while the native people, so long safe from civilization, died by the scores of thousands, struck down by the epidemic diseases of the white man and his arrogant culture. Thus, neglected and depopulated, California remained a remote curiosity until the time when the United States, the newest of grasping nations, would have the ambition and the power to reach across the continent.

    How lucky the Americans! Not only did they easily acquire California in 1847, they immediately discovered the vast wealth that had so long escaped the notice of their predecessors. How could gold, in great abundance when found by the Yankees, havebeen overlooked through many centuries by the native people and not have been discovered by the Spanish, so skilled in looting treasure from the Aztecs and Incas, and have remained hidden from the ever-needy Mexicans? Protestant preachers declared it was God's plan.

    Apart from the will of a Protestant divinity, it is certain that a remarkable convergence of international rivalries, devastating epidemics, cultural conflicts, and governmental blunders contrived to preserve California for its American future. During the seventy-eight years from first Spanish settlement to United States occupation, those fateful forces so retarded California's progress that French, English, Russian, and American travel reports commonly scoffed at the "backward" Indians oppressed by the Spanish mission system and the primitive economy of the Mexican rule, symbolized as late as the 1840s by the only transport—the creaking, lumbering oxcart.

    In 1841 U.S. Navy commander Charles Wilkes led an expedition that explored the San Francisco Bay area. His report reflected how little California had changed since similar descriptions written by explorers in the 1780s. "Although I was prepared for anarchy and confusion, I was surprised when I found a total absence of all government in California and even its forms and ceremonies thrown aside." Like his predecessors, Wilkes also reported to his government the impotence of what military force he could find.

    Unprotected from the imperial powers that rampaged around the world, undeveloped by her Spanish and Mexican colonists, California languished until the Americans' westward expansion—they grandly called it Manifest Destiny—encompassed the Pacific shore. And what a twist of fate it was that those Americans, so impatient yet so late on the scene, should be the ones to discover vast quantities of gold that, if found earlier, might well have financed an entirely different history for this far frontier.

IN ALL THE WORLD'S QUEST FOR GOLD, all the conquering and cruelty driven by dreams of wealth, no nation gained so much treasure, or sought even more, so mercilessly, as did Spain. With Columbus reporting Indian tales of golden kingdoms in the New World, Spain began its searching, first rewarded in 1521 by the wonder of Aztec treasure plundered by Cortés, then in 1533 by Pizarro's looting the Incas, whose king sought to ransom himself by filling a room seventeen by twenty feet with stacks of gold. But even ships laden with treasure could not cover the immense costs of Spain's worldwide struggle with England and France. Decade by decade Madrid's need for gold increased. Each viceroy in Mexico (New Spain} knew that his king expected—demanded—new sources of gold and silver.

    Stories of vast wealth in a place called El Dorado and imaginative reports of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, shining with gold, sent conquistadores into unexplored jungles and deserts. Of all those expeditions, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led the most ambitious in 1540, to search for the Seven Cities, with their streets paved in gold, women adorned with necklaces of gold, and men wearing girdles of gold. But his long desert quest led only to mud villages (in what is now New Mexico)—no treasure, and scarcely enough maize for his starving horses. Desperate, but refusing to accept such disappointment as an omen, Coronado led his men still northward in 1541-42. He hoped to find a newly reported wonder, Quivira, where even common folk were said to drink from golden bowls; where there was so much gold it would take not just horses but wagons to carry away. Lured by this vision, Coronado's ragged band wandered all the way to the prairies of Kansas, where at last he conceded the wreckage of his dreams.

    In such a time of myth and avarice, California came to the attention of the viceroys through a widely read novel published in Seville in 1510, Las Sergas de Esplandián by Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo, which pictured an island of "bold and craggy rocks ... named California.... The island everywhere abounds with gold and precious stones and upon it no other metal is found. There ruled over that island of California a queen of majestic proportions ... in the very vigor of her womanhood" whose name was Calafía.

    By the 1540s the name "California" had come to identify the arid, forbidding peninsula (or was it an island?) known today as Baja California. In 1542 Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza ordered an exploration of the coastline north of this craggy finger, sending three ships under the command of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo to search for the long-sought "Strait of Anián," the wished-for passage connecting the Pacific with the Atlantic. The narrative of that expedition reported landings at San Diego Bay and on several of the Channel Islands. Cabrillo's parties explored the California coast as far north as 42 degrees (Oregon), recording many meetings with Indians. Thus for the first time Europeans visited the region we now know as California. What they saw turned them back, disillusioned by the realities of Indian poverty in a land apparently without value to their king's needs or the dreams of his greedy officers.

    There remained only the hope that California could provide a haven of greenery and fresh water where surviving crews of the Manila galleons (plump with the luxuries of the East—brocades, silks, spices, musks, rubies, porcelain) could find surcease from the horrors of their six-month, scurvy-ravaged voyages across the Pacific. The search for such a harbor—and for the still hoped for Strait of Anián—included the most notable expedition, led by Sebastián Vizcaíno, who in 1602 rediscovered San Diego and wrote glowing descriptions not only of "the best port that could be desired" (Monterey Bay) but also of a land that "is fertile, with a climate and soil like those of Castile." He found "many pines for masts and yards ... and much wild game . . . most fertile pastures, good meadows for cattle and fertile land for growing crops."

    And yet following this voyage, California was ignored, even by homebound galleons, whose captains feared the coastal fogs and storms that wrecked the San Augustín in 1595. So long the focus of golden dreams, this temperate region would be a place of distant memories for 167 years—until 1769.

    Exhausted by her wasteful military ventures in Europe, her New World colonists too few to settle even such a fertile land, Spain could not spend her scarce resources to control a place that offered so little of what was needed, not even evidence of the Strait of Anián. And so California remained Spanish only through the diligence of the kings' mapmakers who showed that remote place as an island, still shrouded in mist and myth, as it had been in the fable of Queen Calafía.

    During those sixteen decades while California remained beyond the grasp of Europe—from Vizcaíno's exploration in 1602 until Spain finally sent a colonizing party in 1769—other imperial powers (England, France, and Russia) might have challenged, even brushed aside, the Spanish cartographic claim. But these competitors, also strained by wars and overextended by their monarchs' excesses, chose to leave that most distant coast for later attention.

MILITARY DISTRACTION AND CARTOGRAPHIC illusion obscured from kings and queens, viceroys and admirals, what has since been made known by modern archaeologists, anthropologists, and ethnologists. Their scholarship reveals that for many thousands of years California had nurtured a burgeoning population, that as early as 2000 B.C. some 25,000 to 30,000 people lived in the valleys and foothills of California. Increasing skills in fishing, hunting, and food storage begot larger settlements, and by A.D. 1000 the population had expanded to 100,000 to 150,000. Distinct tribes established independent territories. By the time of Spain's first colonizing effort in 1769, the Indians of California may have numbered 300,000—the most dense concentration of Native Americans north of Mexico.

    From the wide-ranged oak trees the Indians gathered huge quantities of acorns, from which they shelled the bitter kernels to dry and pulverize into a thin meal, which when leached and cooked made a high-calorie mush. Where oaks were scarce, mesquite pods or pine nuts served as the staple food. Fish from streams, shellfish from coastal waters; elk, deer, rabbits, and quail; wild fruits, berries, nuts, seeds, and roots—all were hunted and harvested in such abundance that most tribes never attempted to cultivate crops. The fecundity in each region provided such a dependable food supply that local populations, self-sufficient and content, seldom ventured beyond their valley-sized territories.

    Millennia passed as these tribes of native Californians lived in comfortable balance with their fertile environment, at relative peace with neighboring villages, without need for leagues or conferences, alliances or governing councils. They had no wheel, no domesticated animals, little agriculture, no metal tools or weapons.

    In the usually mild climate, men were naked most of the year, women skirted with skins or rushes. They built their dwellings with a framework of poles covered by reed matting or bark, and sometimes dug living spaces partly underground or in a hillside. They made bows and specialized arrows as well as wooden spears and clubs for hunting, and sometimes for fighting or war. Their baskets, tightly woven to hold water and large enough for storing acorns and other foods, were often elegantly adorned with feathers and shell beads.

    Unchallenged from within and without, through uncalendared centuries, these Californians remained remarkably isolated. Tribes developed their own discrete social and ceremonial customs from region to region, often with different languages. Twenty-one "language families" have been identified, encompassing some 135 dialects, most of them mutually unintelligible.

    Peaceful, comfortably divided, these three hundred thousand Indians were ill prepared to oppose the intrusion of the Spanish when they arrived on horseback, bearing iron weapons and the cross of their God. Nor would the far fewer survivors of that first devastating contact with Europeans be any more ready or able to overcome the later onslaught of goldseekers who, by the many thousands, would invade their once quiet foothills and canyons.


BY 1769 SPAIN HAD CONQUERED OR ACQUIRED by treaty a hemispheric empire that extended from the tip of South America through New Spain and west from the Mississippi River to the Pacific shores of Baja and Alta California. In its relentless advance by conquest and diplomacy, Spanish success masked a deep conflict between greed and conscience—conquistadores pressing for fortune and power, Catholic priests striving to save native souls. This conundrum was perfectly expressed by a common soldier: "We came here to serve God, but also to get rich." The source of those riches—the mines, vast haciendas, and cattle herds—depended on the coerced labor of native peoples. A cruel alchemy converted human wealth into material treasure by consuming hundreds of Indian lives for every ingot of gold and silver shipped to Madrid. A holocaust of slavery, atrocities, and disease reduced New Spain's native population from eleven million at the time of Cortés to six million by 1550.

    To constrain, and if possible prevent the blatant cruelties and unholy lusts of the conquistadores, and to Christianize the native peoples of the New World, the Catholic Church, with the support of the Crown, developed and established during the sixteenth century the Indian mission, "Spain's sword of the Spirit." This frontier institution was carried by the missionary orders (Jesuits, Dominicans, and Franciscans) to the farthest reaches of the empire—southern Chile, central Paraguay, along the Orinoco, through the lowlands of Guatemala, north across Mexico to Florida and Georgia, and along New Spain's northern frontier from Texas to Baja California. With a guard of only five or six soldiers, a pair of friars would advance into a new region known to have a large Indian population, sufficient water, arable land, available timber, and proximity to supply routes. There they built a simple church and outbuildings and then enticed local people to settle close around. Gardens were planted at each of these missions, and as more Indians gathered, they helped to construct new buildings, all protected by soldiers billeted at a nearby presidio.

    With medieval fervor to save heathen souls for Christ, the mission padres indoctrinated their wards in Christianity and the ways of "civilized" and agricultural life. Through training and discipline they sought to prepare the "unenlightened" to become faithful Catholics, subjects of the Crown, and eventually self-sufficient settlers who would pay taxes. If such progress could be attained, the buildings, cultivated fields, and domesticated animals of each frontier community would be divided among the Christianized Indians, and the missionary fathers would move on to establish another frontier outpost. That was the plan. But human frailties—Spanish and Indian—seldom allowed its fulfillment.

    Beyond the church imperative of "civilizing" Indians and saving souls for Christ, economic and practical necessity motivated Madrid and Mexico City to invest in this mission-presidio system. Because so few Spaniards were willing to emigrate to the New World to become settlers and frontiersmen, the empire could not survive without Hispanicizing the natives. At the bottom of the colonial hierarchy, the Indians provided labor for the mines and great haciendas and in such frontier towns as Santa Fe, founded in 1610, San Antonio (1718), and Tubac (Arizona, 1751). Taught to worship Christ and to speak Spanish, Indian women filled the demographic void created by the reluctance of Spanish women to leave home for the uncertainties of New Spain. Mestizos, produced by the union of Indian women and Spanish soldiers, would eventually become the dominant population of New Spain.

    By the 1760s the mission system had gained a tenuous foothold even amid the rocks and thorns of Baja California, where its wards were described in 1768 as "half-fed, wholly naked, devoured by syphilis [spread by presidio soldiers]."

    To the north of these tormented outposts of Christendom, the Indians of Alta California fished and hunted amid natural abundance, unaware of their mission future.

    Much farther north, along the coast of Alaska, Russian hunters and traders gathered the pelts of sea otters. And worlds away in Madrid, the king and his advisors fretted that these Muscovites might move south and plant a colony at Monterey Bay, described so tantalizingly by Vizcaíno as a perfect port. Circumstances would now contrive to wrest California from its eons of isolation.

    In a joint dispatch to the king, the viceroy and inspector general of New Spain set forth the situation as of 1768: "It is known ... that the English, a nation that spares neither expense, diligence, nor fatigue in advancing her discoveries, and the Dutch have acquired a very particular knowledge of the ports and bays that we hold on the south coast, especially the peninsula of the Californias; so that it would be neither impossible nor indeed very difficult for one of these nations, or the Muscovites, to establish, when least expected, a colony in the port of Monterey. Wherefore, it behooves us ... to put in force what means are possible for warding off the dangers that threaten us."

    Without military or naval strength to establish bases at the two known harbors on the Alta California coast—San Diego Bay and Monterey Bay—the viceroy and inspector general turned to their only resource, the Indian mission and presidio system, even though that "sword" had fallen dull and rusty in Baja California.

    In 1769 (when England's American colonies along the Atlantic coast were well on their way to declaring independence), an expedition of two ships and two overland "divisions" (cannibalized from the impoverished missions in Baja California) managed to reach San Diego Bay and to construct the beginnings of a mission and presidio. The next year similar structures were erected at Monterey Bay, "to occupy and defend the port from the atrocities of the Russians." As spiritual leader of this courageous, ill-equipped colonizing effort, Franciscan Father Junípero Serra needed all his spirit and wisdom to cope with deprivations and near starvation on that mission frontier. Supply ships from San Blas and other mainland Mexican ports—delayed by adverse winds and currents—often took three and four months to make the hazardous voyage, their crews usually skeletal victims of scurvy on reaching San Diego. Some years not one ship eased the missions' deprivations. Sorely weakened by defeats in Europe and corruption in the New World, Spain was unable to support her ambitions for California.

    With only fourteen fellow Franciscans and a few Indian workers, Father Serra overcame deprivations and exasperations of every kind to erect three more log-structured missions, the fifth at San Luis Obispo in 1772. To protect these simple beginnings from the threat of Indian resistance (Mission San Gabriel suffered a brief uprising in 1771), the overworked friars had to rely on sixty-one soldiers, most of them based at the two presidios, at San Diego and four hundred miles to the north at Monterey. To strengthen this minuscule military presence, an occasional shipment of conscripts arrived from Sonora and Sinaloa—most of them drunkards, criminals, or deserters from the regular army. As these ruffians increased in number, they were housed at two new presidios, one at San Francisco Bay (1776) and the last at Santa Barbara (1782).

    The Siberia of the Spanish Empire, California could not attract even the most impoverished people of Mexico's northern states, Sonora and Sinaloa. By 1782 the province had fewer than one thousand non-Indians (Spanish, Creole, or mestizo) and some four thousand Indians at the nine missions. Determined to attract colonist-settlers, the provincial governor at Monterey developed a paternalistic plan to establish two agricultural communities, or pueblos, one at San Jose (1777) and the other at Los Angeles (1781).

    Despite offering potential settlers generous grants of land with livestock and equipment for farming, these attractions failed to lure immigrants from Mexico. By 1795 San Jose had only 187 residents ITL([pobladores])ITL, and Los Angeles at the end of its first year counted 44. Both settlements produced far more trouble than crops. As much as the governor resented the colonists' failures, the Franciscans despised them even more for their gambling, drinking, and licentious behavior. One outraged friar asserted that "these people are a set of idlers.... They pass the day singing. Their young men wander on horseback ... soliciting Indian women to immorality .... One is more likely to find in their hands a deck of cards than the spade or the plow."

    When the government in Mexico City resorted to shipping convicts and vagrants to serve as colonists, Father Serra rebelled. Faced with such wastrels as husbands for his Christianized, protected Indian women, he exhorted the viceroy "not to look upon California and its missions as the China of exile.... Being sent here should not be a form of banishment ... for worthless people who serve no purpose but to commit evil deeds."

    Despite his contempt for lazy, drunken colonists, his frustration in watching hundreds of Indian converts flee from the missions to return to "the old delights of savagism," and his helplessness in controlling epidemics of syphilis and other diseases spread by presidio soldiers and colonists, Father Serra never wavered in his determination to bring the Catholic faith to California's pagans. Less steadfast, one Franciscan poured out his frustration: "What liberties! What excesses! What irregularities! What ignorance! What disorders! How can Christian civilization and pagan barbarity give way to one another in the same Indian?"

    Father Serra persevered, no matter the disorder and barbarities. By the time of his death at age seventy-one in 1784, he had consecrated a total of nine missions. Under his successor that number would double and by 1823 finally reach a total of twenty-one.

    As the missions grew in number and their herds of free-grazing cattle, sheep, and horses multiplied over broad rangelands, the improving statistics underscored the complexity of the responsibility borne by the Franciscans as they prepared for the day when each mission's Indian "neophytes" would take over its management and operation. Most of these frontier settlements had only two friars to supervise hundreds of Indians. Some had one! Year after year these men struggled with an impossible array of ambitious tasks: to learn native languages in order to provide (twice each day) religious services and instruction; to teach Spanish to reluctant and distracted students; and to school the Indians in essential skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, masonry, and farming. Overtaxed friars faced the additional challenge of discouraging promiscuity, homosexuality, and abortion, among other "vicious pagan practices." Meanwhile, these dedicated padres were expected to explain and promote the use of beds, chairs, kitchen utensils, and privies.

    The friars believed the missions to be "enclaves of Spanish Catholicism, culture and civilization in an alien and barbaric world." Frustrated by what they saw as Indian stubbornness, friars often resorted to punishments common to the times—flogging, shackles, hobbles, confinement. In 1796 the governor of Alta California lamented that "at the rate the Indians are moving, not in ten centuries will they be out of tutelage."

    Comparable pessimism, tinged more often with scorn than sympathy, marked foreigners' appraisals of Spain's theocratic colonizing effort. Whether French, British, Russian, or Spanish, most visitors belittled California's Indians for their backwardness and "animal instincts." A few Europeans saw them as victims of mission slavery. A Russian in 1816 wrote with sorrowful vividness: "I have never seen a single one look anyone in the face. I have never seen any of them laugh. They have the air of taking no notice of anything."

    More than apathy, backwardness, and mistreatment sapped the strength of the mission system and Spain's colonial policy. European diseases caused appalling epidemics among the cloistered Indians. Between 1790 and 1800 the Franciscans succeeded in baptizing 16,100 neophytes, of whom 9,300 died—a 58 percent death rate. Ten years later this tragic toll reached 72 percent. In 1818, after the twentieth mission had been established at San Rafael on the northwest shore of San Francisco Bay, 86 percent of the Indians saved that year by Christianity perished from disease.

    One certain and direct cause of contagion arose from the Franciscans' pious habit of confining unmarried Indian women and girls to dormitories at night to preserve their morality. These ill-ventilated chambers became breeding sites for measles, smallpox, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Mission records listed the number of deaths, disease by disease. In 1806 an epidemic of measles killed 33 percent of all mission Indian children. Unknown to the Spanish, this epidemic also spread to the "wild" Indians of the Sacramento Valley, killing many thousands.

    Not apparent in the mission necrologies, but certainly contributing to the Indians' general susceptibility to disease, must have been the drudgery of their labor, the strangeness of their new diet, and the repression of old habits—in short, culture shock, compounded by the hopelessness of their circumstances. Whether converted to Christianity by the friars or born into the Franciscan system, mission neophytes were expected to be obedient, unquestioning servants of the church, their discipline enforced by the daunting alliance of God and garrison. The Indians' misery may well explain the high incidence of abortion and infanticide, also recorded by the anguished Franciscans.

    Of all the sorrows and hardships, venereal disease was certainly the most insidious, the most devastating, the most indicative of the social and moral decay of Spanish California. Foreign visitors, among them naval surgeons and other medical men, reported the prevalence of syphilis, as did the friars and their superiors. Father Ramón Abella in 1817 wrote that in his judgment the appalling decline in the mission Indian population "is chiefly due to Mal Gálico [syphilis], introduced among the natives by low grade soldiers recruited in Mexico." The superior of the missions, Father Vicente Sarría, declared that the Indian race was dying from syphilis.

    Disease, punishment, infanticide, virtual enslavement—each contributed to a tragic failure, despite Christian idealism and Franciscan sacrifice. Perhaps more willing than any other people on the continent to submit to the white man's dominion, California's Indians in a swift thirty years were swept into a pattern of self-degradation and premature death that accelerated beyond recovery. In another fifty years only a pathetic remnant of these coastal people would survive» while the more isolated tribes of the interior suffered severe declines that would lead eventually to the same fate.

    But long before the Indians' demise, the basic plan of the mission-presidio-pueblo system had failed, as evidenced by the Spanish governors' and Franciscan padres' reluctance to turn over a single mission to Indian management and ownership. Whether or not the neophytes could have fulfilled Father Serra's expectations, the missions' appalling mortality rates forced a desperate policy, decade by decade, of corralling "wild" Indians to be brought to the missions and in time baptized as replacements for those who had died or run away. These fresh recruits received training and indoctrination, and the cycle of death recurred, without one mission graduating to the status of a pueblo.

    Thus the principal institution that Spain established in California waned, a perpetual disappointment, dying slowly from within—failing to Hispanicize the native people so that they could serve as settlers in this vast northern land to which so few Mexicans would immigrate. The non-Indian population (meaning those with any trace of Spanish blood) had grown only to 3,270 by 1820—and of these, 700 were soldiers.

    A failure as a colonizing agent, the mission-presidio-pueblo system fared little better at its corollary purpose, to defend against imperial rivals. In 1792 and 1793 the captain of the British sloop-of-war Discovery, George Vancouver, visited the presidios at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco, where he observed that "the only defenses against foreign attack are a few poor cannon, inconveniently placed ..., the brass three-pounder [at San Francisco] lashed to a log instead of a gun carriage." This assessment of impotence proved sadly correct. When the cannoneers at the San Francisco presidio fired a salute to honor a new governor in 1816, one ancient weapon exploded, injuring two of its crew. On another peaceful occasion two cannon burst when the gunners lit off an answering salute. And one indignant Russian captain wondered why his cannonade was not returned, until "an ambassador from the presidio soon solved the mystery by coming to beg so much powder as would serve to answer my courtesy."

    While scoffing at military incompetence, dispatches sent by French, Russian, and English travelers shared a sense of disgust that Spanish rule had failed to develop this fertile land—no schools, no manufacturies, no skilled workers, no transport. In Vancouver's words: "There is not an object to indicate the most remote connection with any European or other civilized nation."

    And yet, all that foreign visitors admired and all that they scorned did belong to Spain. Her flag flew from the presidios; her many missions occupied the large regions of coastal plain and adjacent valleys. Vast herds of mission cattle, sheep, and horses roamed over a thousand hills, from San Diego to San Francisco Bay. That Spanish presence, however feebly defended, served for fifty years to divert rival claims of sovereignty northward, away from California, to the profitable fur trading coasts of Canada and Alaska.

    So it was that California was held in trust, saved from effective colonization through those vulnerable years, before slipping from the fumbling grasp of Spain to the neglectful stewardship of Mexico.

By 1800, Spain's renewed wars with France and England had drained her waning strength, both in Europe and the New World. Catastrophes climaxed in 1808, when Napoleon overthrew the Spanish sovereign, declared his own brother king of Spain, and cast the Spanish people into long and bloody years of struggle against French occupation. Across the Atlantic, colonial discontent was emboldened. Revolt erupted in Argentina and spread rapidly north. In 1810 a rebel priest, Miguel Hidalgo, ignited the struggle for Mexican independence with a challenge: "My children, ... will you make the effort to recover from the hated Spaniards the lands stolen from your forefathers three hundred years ago? ... The Spaniards ... are about to surrender us and our country to the French.... Will you become Napoleon's slaves or will you as patriots defend your religion and your rights?"

    For the next eleven years Mexico suffered guerrilla warfare, anarchy, and chaos, at last wresting independence in 1821, though it seemed an abstraction amid continuing years of civil war.

    Through all the smoke and tumult, California remained a vague shape in the distance, ignored and deprived, a place where the comandante of the San Francisco presidio had to beg from the governor clothing for his family. And yet there was no revolutionary ferment among the Franciscans or the ranching families. No Hidalgo spoke up against Spain or Mexico. California drifted, her necessities and few luxuries supplied by foreign traders.

    Predominantly merchant captains from Boston, these sea-roving opportunists didn't blink at sailing fourteen thousand miles around Cape Horn to reach a forbidden coastline. The first Yankee sails appeared off California in 1796, followed each year by more New England traders on their way to China, offering needed manufactured goods to Alta California's ranch families, mission padres, and the settlers of scruffy pueblos in exchange for sea otter pelts that could be sold in Canton at fortune-making prices. This trade flourished for several years, with the bostoños profiting gloriously and the Californios obtaining essentials and "extras" long denied by the infrequency and finally the absence of supply ships from Mexico. Though illegal under Spanish and Mexican laws, Yankee commerce was welcomed by everyone, especially Mexican officials who accepted bribes that compensated for years of unpaid salaries. As Governor José Argüello explained in a bow to Mexican pragmatism: "Necessity makes lawful that which by the law is illicit."

    From 1800 through the 1830s, ships from Boston traded along the California coast, bartering for pelts and later, after the sea otters were hunted to near extinction, for cattle hides. The New England merchant ships brought all kinds of goods: fish hooks, cotton cloth, woolen blankets, shoes, nutmeg, pepper, and more exotic temptations (from China and Europe) such as camel's-hair shawls, painted water pitchers, porcelain plates, Brittany linens, even pianos.

    Writing about these New England smugglers, one of California's last Spanish governors, José de Arrillaga, expressed his admiration for their business savvy: "Having personally witnessed the enterprise of these Americans, I do not wonder at their success. They flourish in trade and know its value. And who at present does not, except ourselves who pay for our neglect with our purse?"

    While Governor Arrillaga lamented his people's indifference, the Boston sea captains expanded their control by fitting out otter-hunting parties in sea-rigged canoes rather than depending solely on the Californios for supplies of pelts. In 1806-7 one Boston ship, the O'Cain, gathered 4,819 otter pelts. The New Englanders gained an even greater harvest when they formed the Russian-American Fur Company with Russian hunter-traders who had for years been gathering pelts along the north coast of California.

    Long feared as an imperial rival, the Russians entered California when Spanish control was too weak to prevent their illegal trade with the missions, exchanging otter pelts for the grain, potatoes, and meat desperately needed to relieve scurvy and famine at Sitka and their other suffering settlements along the Alaskan coast. To augment this vital source of food, the Russians in 1812 established two farming outposts on the California coast, one about fifty miles north of San Francisco Bay, the other farther north, which became known as Fort Ross. At this more northerly site they constructed a wooden stockade with cannon to protect a governor's residence and to shelter some one hundred Russian farmers and hunters. These end-of-the-world encampments, barely able to grow enough surplus to send to Alaska, represented the reality behind Spanish fears and Russian ambitions.

    The first foreigners to settle in Spanish California, the Russians held on at their fog-shrouded Fort Ross until 1841. They could have been evicted by order of the viceroy in Mexico City if that supposed authority had not been so distracted by more immediate concerns, like revolution and the decline of the royalist establishment. In contrast to the Russians and Spanish, the enterprising bostoños developed their opportunities and foresaw greater profits, all the while promoting California's prospects to the American people and their government in Washington. In 1808 one of the New England sea captains, William Shaler, published in a Philadelphia magazine an account of his lucrative foray from the Lelia Byrd to gather sea otter pelts—a total of 1,600—for the Canton market. More important than this impressive moneymaking, Shaler's widely read report presented the first perspective on how shortsighted and repressive the Spanish had been in managing what could have been a rich, prosperous colony. In this first phrasing of America's Manifest Destiny, Shaler asserted that the "very few white people" in California were ready for the enjoyments of liberty, property, and free trade. He deplored the backwardness and neglect of Spanish rule—not a single physician in all of California, not a single mechanized mill to grind flour from the abundant grain. In sum, "California wants nothing but a good government to rise to wealth and importance."


As the slaughter of sea otters in the early 1800s drastically reduced that source of profits, the Yankee merchant captains found another seemingly inexhaustible resource for a new market, one far closer than China: cattle hides for the shoe manufacturers of New England. In developing this trade, the "Boston men" were aided by a change of government in Mexico City.

    In August 1821 the royal establishment in New Spain collapsed, the viceroy resigned, and the Mexican people gained their freedom after 302 years of Spanish oppression and exploitation. Isolated and forgotten, California did not learn of this world-changing news for seven months. One of the first acts of the new government at Monterey was to remove the Spanish ban on foreign trade and to seek income from anchorage fees and import duties. But merchant captains preferred the traditional illegal operations of bribes and smuggling. Some twenty British, American, and Russian merchantmen worked the coast during 1822-23, exchanging a wide variety of manufactured goods for cattle hides. In addition, American whalers from New England (as many as thirty a tone time) put into San Francisco to take on fresh water and whatever vegetables they could purchase for their three-, even four-year Pacific voyages. This ever-increasing maritime trade exemplified once again how the Spanish and the Mexicans left profitable commerce to foreigners, among whom the Americans quickly achieved dominance.

    By 1823 a Boston company, Bryant and Sturgis, had gained almost total control of the California trade, muscling out their British competitors. To ensure sufficient supplies of hides for their ships—cleaned, dried, and ready to be packed into holds for the return voyage around the Horn to Boston—agreements were signed with the mission friars and ranch owners to exchange hides for merchandise. Called "California bank notes" or "leather dollars," each hide was worth from $1 to $3. Without a currency or monetary system, California remained dependent on barter for almost everything.

    Moving up and down a coast unimproved by docks or wharves, the Boston ships anchored offshore while friars, ranch folk, and people from the pueblos were rowed out in the traders' launches to look in astonishment at great displays of tempting goods—cigars, stockings, jewelry, combs, paints, furniture, cooking utensils, silverware, clocks, mirrors, paper, bolts of calico, boots and shoes, tools, ready-made clothing, grindstones, casks of rum, brandy, and wine, even an occasional billiard table—everything the Californios did not have. In the confusion of cultures created by the trade, silk wraps from China became so common in Mexican California that they were thought of as Spanish shawls, and what were called "serapes" also came from Canton workrooms, delivered by Yankee seamen.

    The comandante of the presidio at Santa Barbara, don Ignacio Martínez, had an eleven-year-old daughter who later recalled that when her father returned from visiting one of these trading ships, he brought home not only shawls and serapes, but fancy silk handkerchiefs, satin shoes, colorful bolts of silk cloth, and gleaming lacquers—all from China, more beautiful than anything they had ever seen.

    The American traders, seaborne merchants, made a profit of 200 to 300 percent on the products they carried from New England, Europe, and China. At the zenith of the hide trade, 1822-46, merchant ships carried away more than a million hides and many tons of tallow. The cowhide came back to California as shoes and other leather products, earning traders a second profit from the same skins, while the tallow returned as candles and soap. But of more lasting import than commercial profit, some ship captains, company representatives, and sailors also brought home vivid descriptions of California, its resources, balmy climate, and "lazy" Spanish-Mexican inhabitants, thus creating in New England an early appreciation of that Pacific province, predisposing support for American acquisition and a future enthusiastic reception of the news of gold.

    One of the laborers who helped transport the heavy, smelly hides from the beaches to the ships' holds became famous for his description of this trade and the Californios whose lives were shaped by it. Contrary to the title, Richard Henry Dana devoted two-thirds of Two Years Before the Mast (1840) to the sixteen months he lived on shore among a people he found wanting in "industry, frugality and enterprise." More than Shaler and other observers of these years, this educated Bostonian influenced American thinking about California with his widely read book. Echoing the opinion of sea captains like Shaler, Dana wrote: "There are no people to whom the newly invented word `loafer' is more applicable than to the Spanish Americans." And he, too, foresaw the future: "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"

    The Americans came to California not only by sea but through vast inland wildernesses, a feat that astonished the Californios and alarmed their government officials. The first of these overlanders, the trapper Jedediah Smith, explored a route from the Rocky Mountains across the Mojave Desert, arriving at Mission San Gabriel (east of Los Angeles) in late 1826. By spring 1827 he and his band of mountain men had trapped a bonanza of beaver in the foothill streams of the eastern San Joaquin Valley. Then they made the first known crossing of the Sierra Nevada to return to the Great Salt Lake area in July of 1827. Within ten days Smith and company were on foot again, heading back to California in an epic of trail blazing. Smith's ambition, energy, and curiosity were perfectly revealed by a casual comment in his 1828 diary. After a day's layover at a camp in northern California, he matter-of-factly noted that his band set out again because he had "become weary of rest."


Meet the Author

J.S. Holliday (1924-2006), author of The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (continuously in print since 1981), was the Director Emeritus of the California Historical Society and former Director of the Oakland Museum of California; Associate Professor of American History at California State University, San Francisco; and Assistant Director of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. A popular lecturer, he appeared in several television documentaries, including Ken Burns's series "The West."

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