Paths to Empire: Constitutional Convention and Statehood
Exhibit Items

Exhibit Home | Acknowledgements | Introduction
Paths to Empire | The Way California Could Be | Hard Times, High Visions | Coming of Age

California's quest for statehood began at the end of the U.S.-Mexican War and with the discovery of gold in the territory. The flood of people arriving to seek their fortunes in the gold fields hastened the movement towards statehood. National issues also contributed to the situation. The Congress of the United States was deadlocked over the issue of slavery in the new territories and subsequently had provided no legal form of government for California from the end of the Mexican War in 1848 until the admission of California into the Union in September 1850.

After a succession of military governors following the Mexican War, General Bennet Riley became the "civilian" governor of California in April 1849. On June 3, 1849 General Riley called for a constitutional convention to meet in Monterey on Sept. 1, 1849 for the purposes of creating a government. During the convention assembled in Colton Hall at Monterey, it was determined that rather than organize as a territory (as had been the pattern with most other states since the original thirteen), the members of the delegation voted to organize as a state.

On November 13, 1849, Peter H. Burnett was elected Governor, and John McDougal Lt. Governor. In December 1849, Senators John Charles Fremont and William M. Gwin were elected. The state constitution had been drafted using elements of the laws of both Mexico and the United States, in order to accommodate the Mexican Californians who had chosen to stay and become part of this new territory. Via Mexican law, for example, women were granted certain rights not recognized in the United States.

Some of those distinctive aspects in the constitution will be examined in this exhibition along with a look at how these accommodations are interpreted to deal with the political and social realities of the day. With the state constitution in hand representatives from California arrived in Washington; the next step was to get a bill for statehood ratified in Congress. After a long debate, mainly focused on the issue of California entering the Union as a free state, the bill was approved, and on September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed the bill admitting California to the Union as the thirty-first state. On October 18, 1850, news reached San Francisco, and the event was celebrated in high style.

Proclamation. To the people of Upper California. The undersigned has the pleasure to announce the ratification of a Treaty ...
[San Francisco, 1848]

With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S.-Mexican War ended, and California became part of the United States. This Proclamation, executed on August 7, 1848, announces the ratification of "a Treaty of Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic, by which Upper California is ceded to the United States." Peace is prescribed, with Mexicans remaining in the territory to be "granted the privileges and rights of American citizens."

General Bennet Riley
Photographic reproduction of painting
Portrait collection

Distinguishing himself in the U.S.-Mexican War, Riley served as commander of the Pacific Division and following the war he held office as ex officio governor of California, serving from April 12-December 20, 1849. During Riley's term he called for a convention to create a constitution and to form the government for the new territory. In anticipation of this occurrence, Riley divided the state into ten districts for representation. After the convention, General Riley called for gubernatorial election, and Peter Burnett proved victorious.

Proclamation to the People of California, the Third Day of June, 1849, by Governor Bennet Riley, Monterey, California
[San Francisco, Printed by the Grabhorn Press, 1942]

The Congress of the United States had not provided any form of government for California after the U.S.-Mexican War, and General Riley responded to this uncertain situation. Presented here is a facsimile copy of the Proclamation issued by Governor Riley. The document calls for a Constitutional Convention to convene in September 1849 in Monterey and also details the selection process for delegates.

Personal memoranda on California, 1878
Dictation recorded for H.H. Bancroft

Samuel Hopkins Willey (1821-1914) came to Monterey in 1849 on behalf of the American Missionary Society and served as an army chaplain. Shortly thereafter he opened a school in Colton Hall and founded what was probably California's first public library. An organizer of the College of California in 1855, he served as the College's acting president before the institution became the University of California. In this handwritten copy of a "Personal Memoranda" the Reverend Willey tells of serious doubts as to whether the Constitutional Convention would indeed convene. "...even at the Governor's office in Monterey it was uncertain whether the elected members of the convention would come together." Nevertheless, at the office of H.W. Halleck, then Secretary of State, "measures were have all things as far as possible in readiness."

[Monterey, California], ca. 1850

[Monterey, California], ca. 1850
Hand colored engraving
Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material

At the time of the Constitutional Convention, Monterey served as the administrative capital of California, a role the city held under Spanish and Mexican rule dating to 1770. While both Sacramento and San Francisco surpassed Monterey in size soon after the Gold Rush, the city would continue to be an attractive place, one that reflected the cultures of both Hispanic and Anglo society.

Colton Hall, Monterey
Albumen photograph
From the Zelda Mackay Pictorial Collection, ca.1849-1870

This building is named for Walter Colton, who founded and edited The Californian, the region’s first newspaper. He later served as the first alcalde of the United States period. Colton Hall once served as a schoolhouse. A second story addition enlarged the earlier building, and in September the structure accommodated the deliberations of the historic Constitutional Conventional of 1849.

"Letter to Joseph Hooker, Aug. 30, 1849"
From the Bennet Riley Papers

Bennet Riley had succeeded Colonel Mason as "civil" governor in April 1849. In late May he received news that Congress had adjourned without dealing with the issue of territorial organization for California. Governor Bennet throughout this period of transition between the end of the war and Peter Burnett’s election as governor often found himself in compromising situations. He was many times forced to defend his actions and to test the limits of his authority in order to find solutions to problems and keep the territory functioning, as demonstrated by this letter concerning Customs House collections.

Proclamation to the People of California, December 12, 1849
From the Bennet Riley Papers

This proclamation notes Governor Riley's support of the recent ratification of the constitution by the people of California, with an overwhelming affirmative vote of 12,0161 to 811.

"Letter to his mother, ca. 1850"
From the James McHall Jones Papers

In correspondence with his mother, James McHall Jones, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, penned this insightful narrative of the day-to-day activities and discourse experienced during the "awful time" aboard the Brig Fremont. "We were five days coming a little more than 90 miles, with a drunken captain and an inefficient crew, and continually surrounded by fogs, so that, from the time we started till we stopped we never found out where we were." History records that clearer heads prevailed in Monterey.

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo
Albumen photograph
Portrait file

José Antonio Ezequiel Carrillo
Photographic reproduction of painting
Portrait file

The forty-eight delegates selected to attend the constitutional convention formed a disparate group that reflected various interests and constituencies: thirty-seven delegates hailed from the northern part of the state: eleven from the southern part; twenty-two arrived from free states, and fifteen had traveled from slave states. Seven of the representatives were California-born Mexicans, and four ventured to California from outside the United States. Two of the most important of the Mexican delegates were Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and José Antonio Carrillo.

Vallejo, who was appointed military commander of California by his nephew, Juan Bautista Alvarado, also served two months in jail at Sutter's Fort at the out-break of the Bear Flag Revolt. Vallejo sensed the changing destiny of California and after release from prison he worked to have California become part of the United States. Vallejo participated in the Constitutional Convention and was also elected to the new state's first Senate, where he sought to make Benicia the capital. An alcalde of Los Angeles, José Carrillo joined his brother Carlos in the 1831 revolt against Governor Victoria. During the U.S-Mexican War, Carrillo defeated American troops in their battle to seize Los Angeles, but later he capitulated and signed the Cahuenga Treaty.

Constitution of the State of California
San Francisco: Printed at the Offices of the Alta California, 1849

In California's efforts to develop a constitution and form a government, two components are of note: California chose to enter the Union as a free state; and its constitution was the first to provide for the separate property of married women. This right, granted by Mexican Law, is preserved in the newly drafted constitution and is stated as follows: "All property, both real and personal, of the wife, owned or claimed before marriage, and that acquired afterward by gift, devise, or descent, shall be her separate property, and laws shall be passed more clearly defining the rights of the wife in relations as well as to her separate property as to that held in common with her husband. Laws shall also be passed providing for the registration of the wife's separate property." These concessions, included to accommodate the concerns for the Mexican Californians in the territory, may also have appeared advantageous to new settlers who might marry into a wealthy, landowning Mexican family.

[Images related to John Sutter in Sacramento, California], ca. 1879?]
Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material

This image encapsulates key scenes related to the Gold Rush and the city of Sacramento, which became the state capital in 1854. Included are Sutter's Fort; Sutter's Mill, where gold was first discovered by James Marshall; Sacramento City, which was settled in 1839 by Sutter; Sacramento in the flood of 1853; and a portrait of John A. Sutter, who served as one of delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Peter H. Burnett
Albumen photograph mounted on an ambrotype plate
From the Zelda Mackay Pictorial Collection

Peter Burnett, Letter Sep 6, 1852 (San Jose, Calif.) to Lewis Jacob Cist Peter Burnett, Letter Sep 6, 1852 (San Jose, Calif.) to Lewis Jacob Cist [verso]

"Letter Sep 6, 1852 (San Jose, Calif.) to Lewis Jacob Cist"
From the Peter H. Burnett Papers, 1849-1885

A native of Tennessee, Burnett became a gold seeker in 1848, but soon quit the mines to serve as the business agent of landowner and Constitutional Convention delegate John Sutter. He enjoyed an appointment to a judgeship in the Superior Court by military governor General Riley. Under the new Constitution Burnett was later elected governor, serving from December 20, 1849 to January 9, 1851. In this letter of September 6, 1852 the ex-Governor rhapsodizes upon the importance of California. "Neither Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, nor the City of Rome in the days of the Caesars ever contained a greater variety of the human race than does California at the present moment. At this point representatives from all the nations of the earth are assembled. What will be the result of this new and wonderful state of things no one can certainly foretell."

John Charles Fremont
Photograph of a portrait attributed to Temple Block Portrait Collection

Fremont first ventured into California in 1845, guiding a survey party of U.S. Topographical Engineers. In the town of Sonoma, Fremont played a leading role in the Bear Flag Revolt against Mexican rule. He briefly served as California's military governor in 1847, although court-martial proceedings led to his termination from office. Charges were subsequently dismissed by a pardon from President James Polk. Following the discovery of gold on Mariposa Grant, property that he owned, Fremont became a wealthy man and was named to the U.S. Senate along with William Gwin. Although Fremont had received the larger number of votes, a drawing by lot gave him the shorter term (September 1850-March 1851), and Gwin enjoyed a term with four more years.

William McKendree Gwin
Portrait Collection

In 1849, following practice in law and medicine and election to Congress from Mississippi, the Tennessee-born Gwin settled in San Francisco. He served as a member of the Constitutional Convention in Monterey, and was elected by the Legislature as the new state's first U.S. Senator (1850-1855, 1857-1861).

Reminiscences of the Monterey Convention and other early incidents of California life, n.d.
From the Elisha Oscar Crosby Papers

California's efforts to develop a constitution and enter the Union were marked by the decision to join the nation as a free state. Motivations on this issue varied, with some individuals espousing abolitionist sentiments, while others feared the use of Black slaves in the mines. These sentiments arose not only from economic concerns, but also from sensitivity to outside perceptions about the worth of miners' labor. This annotated typescript of a reminiscence delivered by Elisha O. Crosby brings to life a firsthand account of the Monterey Convention and other early incidents of California life. In this portion of the interview Crosby recounts details of the slavery vote and credits William Gwin's influence for the delegates' adoption of a prohibitory clause against slavery. Interestingly, Gwin was from the southern state of Tennessee and he would convince his fellow Southerners in Congress to vote for California's statehood.

The Oregon

"The Oregon"
From Gold Rush Steamers
[San Francisco]: Book Club of California, 1958

Glimpsed in the distance from Signal (Telegraph) Hill with pennants flying and a lettered banner fastened to its masthead, the Oregon brought news of California's statehood to San Franciscans in the autumn of 1850. In 1869 owners removed the Oregon's engine and the bark was rigged for the lumber trade. In 1880 the vessel sank in the Strait of Juan de Fuca after a collision with the bark Germania. The original lithograph was probably issued in 1848, and this version is reproduced from the only known copy, held in the Eldredge Collection at the Mariners Museum, Newport News, Virginia.

Celebration on the admission of California into the Union, [ca. 1950]
Albumen print
Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material

This photograph of a painting by Francis Samuel Marryat depicts a parade on Montgomery Street which served as one of the citywide celebrations enjoyed by the citizens of San Francisco upon hearing of California's admission into the Union. The previous night huge bonfires burned triumphantly on the plaza, and on vacant lots and hills throughout the area. This image records the large crowds with men on horseback filling the square; soldiers, sailors, and others are seen in foreground. To the left, in the background, stands the San Francisco Customs House.

View of the procession in celebration of the Admission of California, Oct[ober] 29th, 1850, [ca.1850]
Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material

This view of the parade in Portsmouth Square to celebrate California's admission into Union is rendered by British artist J. Prendergast, who provides a stately and picturesque scene. Large crowds and men on horseback fill the square, with the El Dorado Hotel at left and the City Hotel visible in the right background.

California or the feast of gold

California or the feast of gold [Henry Valentine, Messrs. Carrol, Warde, Martin, Mills], [18-]
Engraving in color

This group of miners crowding along stream as they dig for gold includes African Americans, Indians, Chinese, Scottish, and various other nationalities. This diverse gathering reflects the population explosion generated by the Gold Rush and the great diversity of individuals who traveled from afar to California.

View of the town and harbour of San Francisco, [ca. 1849?]

View of the town and harbour of San Francisco, [ca. 1849?]
Hand colored lithograph
Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material

This view looking toward the harbor and city of San Francisco captures the modest size of a city that would drastically change with the impact of the Gold Rush. The commodious harbor and easy access to transportation and communication networks, along with the sheer energy and resources of its entrepreneurial citizens, would transform the city into the greatest commercial center of the North Pacific.

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