November 2004 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The Making of a Golden State

by Cecile Page Vargo

          The cry, "gold!" was shouted from Sutter's Fort in January of 1848 and the rush to California was on soon after. Within three years the non-Indian population swelled from 18,000 to 165,000. Immigrants from the eastern United States, Mexico, South America, Europe, Asia, Hawaii, Australia, and more, journeyed by land and by sea, enduring great hardships along the way just "to see the elephant". Some turned back after seeing the elephant's tracks or tail, and claimed that just the view was enough for them. Others struggled with a new way of life and helped to build the California that we know today.

Dreams of Statehood

          With the on rush of argonauts, it became inevitable that the golden land that had been seized by Americans during the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846 would begin dreaming of statehood. The first U.S. military governors happily left the acaldes in rule, but the new American Californians soon decided the Mexican system was not sufficient for them. On June 3, 1849, military governor, Brigadier General Bennet Riley, called for a state constitutional convention. Forty-eight delegates were chosen to convene at Colton Hall in Monterey on September 1, just for that purpose.

          Amongst the 48 delegates to this constitutional convention, 37 were Americans, seven were Californios of Mexican descent, and four were foreigners. All were males, primarily between the ages of 30-50. Dr. Robert Semple, the founder of the city of Benicia and of Bear Flag Revolt fame, was elected to preside over the convention. Other notables were: John Sutter, the owner of the sawmill where the gold rush began; native Californian and former Northern California Mexican military commander, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo; rich land speculator and former Mississippi congressman, Dr. William Gwin; Don Abel Stearns of Southern California, and Henry W. Halleck, Secretary of State under the military regime and future commander of Union armies during the Civil War.

Issues of Importance

          Some of the issues the delegates discussed during the convention were: slavery, suffrage, state boundaries, women's properties rights, dueling, and where the state capital would be. It was unanimously decided that slavery would be prohibited, and free African Americans would be allowed in the state. The decision was easily met, primarily because miners in the gold fields firmly believed that every man should dig for his own future, and did not want to compete with slaves. So far as suffrage, only white males would be allowed to vote, although Indians or their descendants could be granted the right by special legislature act. Women could not vote,  but they were allowed to hold their own separate property, provided that they were married, of course. Dueling was voted against, and all persons charged with criminal offenses, be it dueling or any other, were to be tried by a jury of their peers. After argument over whether the state boundary should be the great Rocky Mountains, or somewhere near Utah's Salt Lake, the more natural boundaries of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Colorado River were favored. Although the state capitol would be moved a few times in the future, the pueblo of San Jose was chosen at this particular time.

"That's for California"

          On October 10, 1849, the California constitution was adopted. The afternoon of October 13th, it was signed, and the convention was adjourned soon after. In his book "El Dorado: Or Adventures in the Path of the Empire", traveling journalist, Bayard Taylor told of the historic event, which he personally had witnessed:

            The windows and doors were open, and a delightful breeze came in from the bay, whose blue waters sparkled in the distance. The view from the balcony was bright and inspiring. The town below--the sipping in the harbor--the pine-covered hills behind--were mellowed by the blue October haze, but there was no cloud in the sky and I could plainly see, on the northern horizon, the mountains of Santa Cruz and  the Sierra de Galivan. 

             The citizens…as well as the members, were in an excited mood. Monterey never before looked so bright, so happy, and so full of pleasant expectation.

             About one o'clock …they proceeded to affix their names to the completed Constitution.

            At this moment a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the government buildings, and streamed out on the fort, and its stirring echoes came back from one hill after another, till they were lost in the distance.

            As the signing went on, gun followed gun from the fort, the echoes reverberating around the bay, till finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout:  "That's for California!" and every one joined in giving three times three for the new star added to our Confederation.

           Eight thousand copies of California's first constitution were printed, 2,000 of which were in Spanish. An election was set for November 13, in hopes of a good turn out before the rainy season would come. However, in 1849, the rains came early and only 15 percent of the eligible electorate turned out. The rains weren't the only deterrent, many were not even aware of an election in the first place. Regardless, the constitution was ratified and a man by the name of Peter Burnett was elected as first governor of California .

Down to Business

          December 15, 1849 was chosen as the date for California's first legislature to convene in San Jose. Once again the rains came, and they were heavy, as they are prone to do at times. All roads to the pueblo were nearly impassible and not enough people showed up for a quorum to be reached. By December 17th, enough legislators showed up that business could begin, and the inauguration of Peter Burnett and other government officials was set for December 19th. By the time the 19th showed up, the weather was bad once again, and the inauguration was postponed once again. At last on December 20, 1849 , Peter Burnett took the oath of office, as did the others.  General Bennet Riley proclaimed the existence of the new State of California, and handed the government over to civilian administration. 

          Now that the inauguration was completed, the legislature began organizing the new state that had been created. The United States of America had not yet officially acted on California 's petition for statehood, and would not do so for another ten months. Californians did not waste any time, however, and elected John C. Fremont and William Gwin as their first United States senators. They also approved legislation allowing the Secretary of State to collect historic documents to be set aside for public archives. English common law was set up as the law of the land, a court system, and  taxation, judicial and government codes were also established. 

The Great Compromise

          The United States Congress was in deep conflict over issues of slavery during this time period in history. The country was divided into the 15 slave states of the South and 15 free states of the North. The admission of California as 31st state created heated debates. Should it be admitted as a free state, a slave state, or perhaps not at all?  The great senators, Henry Clay of Kentucky, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, helped to decide the issue by creating the Compromise of 1850 which would admit California as a free state provided the territories of New Mexico were organized with no reference to slavery. President Zachary Taylor, unfortunately, was against compromise, and wanted California immediately admitted to the Union as a free state. This created even more havoc to the situation. Nine Southern states threatened to secede if the free state of California was admitted. Zachary Taylor died in office in July and was succeeded by Millard Fillmore, who favored the Compromise and helped move things along.

"California Is A State"

          It was 11 months after the creation of the California Constitution, but at last on September 9, 1850 , the golden state of California was officially accepted as the 31st state of the United States of America. With over one thousand land miles separating the Eastern states from the newly formed one on the Western coast, the news was slow to get out.  On October 18, 1850, the steamer Oregon sailed into the San Francisco Bay proudly bearing a banner from her rigging that proclaimed "California Is A State." Places like San Francisco and Sacramento celebrated at last. As for those "who saw the elephant" and pursued their dreams, they barely put down their shovels to notice.  



They Saw The Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush

by Jo Ann Levy

University of California Press


Archives & California State History Museum


A Zigzag Path Led to Statehood


California Becomes a State

Constitution and California Statemaking 1849-1850


Early California

California 's Constitutional Convention of 1849

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