Rushed by the Gold Rush

When we left off on the Road to War, blank slate Zachary Taylor of the Whigs won the presidency in November of 1848 and the question of slavery in the Mexican Cession hung unresolved over the nation despite nearly three solid years of Wilmot Provisos, Alabama Platforms, Conscience and Cotton, and Popular Sovereignty. In part to avoid having to settle the issue immediately, Congress left California under military government after taking possession with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2 of 1848.

Sutter's Mill in 1850, with the foreman who found the gold in the foreground.

Sutter’s Mill in 1850, with the foreman who found the gold in the foreground.

Nine days earlier, on January 24, a foreman working at Sutter’s Mill found shiny yellow metal in the channel beneath the mill’s waterwheel. Further investigation confirmed Sutter’s fears. Despite his best efforts to suppress the news, word got out and in March a newspaper editor, after prudently setting up a shop to sell prospecting supplies, marched through the streets of San Francisco (population about 1,000) holding a vial of the stuff aloft and announcing that he held gold from the American River.

San Francisco ceased to exist. So did Sutter’s operation, his employees deserting to pick up the free money laying on the ground. Hundreds of ships in San Francisco Bay stood empty, their crews joining the often violent feeding frenzy.

News reached the East Coast in August to general indifference. Wild stories about the West prompted much the same reaction as a chain email would today. Polk’s message to Congress, what we would call the State of the Union but submitted in writing by every president until Woodrow Wilson, changed that with a few short words:

It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.

James K. Polk

James K. Polk

Just two days later, those officers in the public service arrived in Washington with a Chinese tea caddy full of 320 ounces of gold that soon went on display in the War Department. Eighty thousand people arrived in California during the following year. San Francisco swelled to 25,000 residents. By 1850 California would have 92,567 residents, more than Delaware or Florida.

The rush of humanity overwhelmed the military government before the East Coast believed in the gold and it called a constitutional convention in June of 1849, which worked through September and October. That convention set up a government and made California a free territory by unanimous vote. Most delegates lived in California before the Gold Rush. Those from the South held that the climate and terrain simply did not favor slavery. The convention adopted a compromise border for the presumptive state, leaving outside its bounds modern Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah despite their inclusion in the Mexican province of Alta California. This removed the state from any conflict with Texas over that state’s western bounds.

By all reasonable standards, California deserved statehood. It had the population. Its convention drew borders that did not conflict with those of another state. It certainly needed more than the military government that threw up its hands and called the constitutional convention. But California did not stand alone on the Western frontier. New Mexico with its population of Mexicans and Indians, growing Mormon settlement, and unsettled border with Texas need organization as well.

The sections hardly lived together peacefully before the Gold Rush. Tempers ran high on both sides. But the Gold Rush gave the already dire issue of slavery in the territories a new surfeit of urgency.

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