From the earliest period Spain had discouraged foreign immigration into California. Her object was neither to attract settlers nor to develop the country, but to retain political control of it, and to make of it a possible asylum for her own people. Fifty years after the founding of the first mission at San Diego, California had only thirteen inhabitants of foreign birth. Most of these had become naturalized citizens, and so were in name Spanish. Of these but three were American!
Subsequent to 1822, however, the number of foreign residents rapidly increased. These people were mainly of substantial character, possessing a real interest in the country and an intention of permanent settlement. Most of them became naturalized, married Spanish women, acquired property, and became trusted citizens. In marked contrast to their neighbors, they invariably displayed the greatest energy and enterprise. They were generally liked by the natives, and such men as Hartnell, Richardson, David Spence, Nicholas Den, and many others, lived lives and left reputations to be envied.
Between 1830 and 1840, however, Americans of a different type began to present themselves. Southwest of the Missouri River the ancient town of Santa Fe attracted trappers and traders of all nations and from all parts of the great West. There they met to exchange their wares and to organize new expeditions into the remote territories. Some of them naturally found their way across the western mountains into California. One of the most notable was James Pattie, whose personal narrative is well worth reading. These men were bold, hardy, rough, energetic, with little patience for the refinements of life–in fact, diametrically opposed in character to the easy-going inhabitants of California. Contempt on the one side and distrust on the other were inevitable. The trappers and traders, together with the deserters from whalers and other ships, banded together in small communities of the rough type familiar to any observer of our frontier communities. They looked down upon and despised the “greasers,” who in turn did everything in their power to harass them by political and other means.
At first isolated parties, such as those of Jedediah Smith, the Patties, and some others, had been imprisoned or banished eastward over the Rockies. The pressure of increasing numbers, combined with the rather idle carelessness into which all California-Spanish regulations seemed at length to fall, later nullified this drastic policy. Notorious among these men was one Isaac Graham, an American trapper, who had become weary of wandering and had settled near Natividad. There he established a small distillery, and in consequence drew about him all the rough and idle characters of the country. Some were trappers, some sailors; a few were Mexicans and renegade Indians. Over all of these Graham obtained an absolute control. They were most of them of a belligerent nature and expert shots, accustomed to taking care of themselves in the wilds. This little band, though it consisted of only thirty-nine members, was therefore considered formidable.
A rumor that these people were plotting an uprising for the purpose of overturning the government aroused Governor Alvarado to action. It is probable that the rumors in question were merely the reports of boastful drunken vaporings and would better have been ignored. However, at this time Alvarado, recently arisen to power through the usual revolutionary tactics, felt himself not entirely secure in his new position. He needed some distraction, and he therefore seized upon the rumor of Graham’s uprising as a means of solidifying his influence–an expedient not unknown to modern rulers. He therefore ordered the prefect Castro to arrest the party. This was done by surprise. Graham and his companions were taken from their beds, placed upon a ship at Monterey, and exiled to San Blas, to be eventually delivered to the Mexican authorities. There they were held in prison for some months, but being at last released through the efforts of an American lawyer, most of them returned to California rather better off than before their arrest. It is typical of the vacillating Californian policy of the day that, on their return, Graham and his riflemen were at once made use of by one of the revolutionary parties as a reinforcement to their military power!
By 1840 the foreign population had by these rather desultory methods been increased to a few over four hundred souls. The majority could not be described as welcome guests. They had rarely come into the country with the deliberate intention of settling but rather as a traveler’s chance. In November, 1841, however, two parties of quite a different character arrived. They were the first true immigrants into California, and their advent is significant as marking the beginning of the end of the old order. One of these parties entered by the Salt Lake Trail, and was the forerunner of the many pioneers over that great central route. The other came by Santa Fe, over the trail that had by now become so well marked that they hardly suffered even inconvenience on their journey. The first party arrived at Monte Diablo in the north, the other at San Gabriel Mission in the south. Many brought their families with them, and they came with the evident intention of settling in California.
The arrival of these two parties presented to the Mexican Government a problem that required immediate solution. Already in anticipation of such an event it had been provided that nobody who had not obtained a legal passport should be permitted to remain in the country; and that even old settlers, unless naturalized, should be required to depart unless they procured official permission to remain. Naturally none of the new arrivals had received notice of this law, and they were in consequence unprovided with the proper passports. Legally they should have been forced at once to turn about and return by the way they came. Actually it would have been inhuman, if not impossible, to have forced them at that season of the year to attempt the mountains. General Vallejo, always broad-minded in his policies, used discretion in the matter and provided those in his district with temporary permits to remain. He required only a bond signed by other Americans who had been longer in the country.
Alvarado and Vallejo at once notified the Mexican Government of the arrival of these strangers, and both expressed fear that other and larger parties would follow. These fears were very soon realized. Succeeding expeditions settled in the State with the evident intention of remaining. No serious effort was made by the California authorities to keep them out. From time to time, to be sure, formal objection was raised and regulations were passed. However, as a matter of plain practicability, it was manifestly impossible to prevent parties from starting across the plains, or to inform the people living in the Eastern States of the regulations adopted by California. It must be remembered that communication at that time was extraordinarily slow and broken. It would have been cruel and unwarranted to drive away those who had already arrived. And even were such a course to be contemplated, a garrison would have been necessary at every mountain pass on the East and North, and at every crossing of the Colorado River, as well as at every port along the coast. The government in California had not men sufficient to handle its own few antique guns in its few coastwise forts, let alone a surplus for the purpose just described. And to cap all, provided the garrisons had been available and could have been placed, it would have been physically impossible to have supplied them with provisions for even a single month.
Truth to tell, the newcomers of this last class were not personally objectionable to the Californians. The Spanish considered them no different from those of their own blood. Had it not been for an uneasiness lest the enterprise of the American settlers should in time overcome Californian interests, had it not been for repeated orders from Mexico itself, and had it not been for reports that ten thousand Mormons had recently left Illinois for California, it is doubtful if much attention would have been paid to the first immigrants.
Westward migration at this time was given an added impetus by the Oregon question. The status of Oregon had long been in doubt. Both England and the United States were inclined to claim priority of occupation. The boundary between Canada and the United States had not yet been decided upon between the two countries. Though they had agreed upon the compromise of joint occupation of the disputed land, this arrangement did not meet with public approval. The land-hungry took a particular interest in the question and joined their voices with those of men actuated by more patriotic motives. In public meetings which were held throughout the country this joint occupation convention was explained and discussed, and its abrogation was demanded. These meetings helped to form the patriotic desire. Senator Tappan once said that thirty thousand settlers with their thirty thousand rifles in the valley of the Columbia would quickly settle all questions of title to the country. This saying was adopted as the slogan for a campaign in the West. It had the same inspiring effect as the later famous “54-40 or fight.” People were aroused as in the olden times they had been aroused to the crusades. It became a form of mental contagion to talk of, and finally to accomplish, the journey to the Northwest. Though no accurate records were kept, it is estimated that in 1843 over 800 people crossed to Willamette Valley. By 1845 this immigration had increased to fully 3000 within the year.
Because of these conditions the Oregon Trail had become a national highway. Starting at Independence, which is a suburb of the present Kansas City, it set out over the rolling prairie. At that time the wide plains were bright with wild flowers and teeming with game. Elk, antelope, wild turkeys, buffalo, deer, and a great variety of smaller creatures supplied sport and food in plenty. Wood and water were in every ravine; the abundant grass was sufficient to maintain the swarming hordes of wild animals and to give rich pasture to horses and oxen. The journey across these prairies, while long and hard, could rarely have been tedious. Tremendous thunderstorms succeeded the sultry heat of the West, an occasional cyclone added excitement; the cattle were apt to stampede senselessly; and, while the Indian had not yet developed the hostility that later made a journey across the plains so dangerous, nevertheless the possibilities of theft were always near enough at hand to keep the traveler alert and interested. Then there was the sandy country of the Platte River with its buffalo–buffalo by the hundreds of thousands, as far as the eye could reach–a marvelous sight: and beyond that again the Rockies, by way of Fort Laramie and South Pass.
Beyond Fort Hall the Oregon Trail and the trail for California divided. And at this point there began the terrible part of the journey–the arid, alkaline, thirsty desert, short of game, horrible in its monotony, deadly with its thirst. It is no wonder that, weakened by their sufferings in this inferno, so many of the immigrants looked upon the towering walls of the Sierras with a sinking of the heart.
While at first most of the influx of settlers was by way of Oregon, later the stories of the new country that made their way eastward induced travelers to go direct to California itself. The immigration, both from Oregon in the North and by the route over the Sierras, increased so rapidly that in 1845 there were probably about 700 Americans in the district. Those coming over the Sierras by the Carson Sink and Salt Lake trails arrived first of all at the fort built by Captain Sutter at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers.
Captain Sutter was a man of Swiss parentage who had arrived in San Francisco in 1839 without much capital and with only the assets of considerable ability and great driving force. From the Governor he obtained grant of a large tract of land “somewhere in the interior” for the purposes of colonization. His colonists consisted of one German, four other white men, and eight Kanakas. The then Governor, Alvarado, thought this rather a small beginning, but advised him to take out naturalization papers and to select a location. Sutter set out on his somewhat vague quest with a four-oared boat and two small schooners, loaded with provisions, implements, ammunition, and three small cannon. Besides his original party he took an Indian boy and a dog, the latter proving by no means the least useful member of the company. He found at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers the location that appealed to him, and there he established himself. His knack with the Indians soon enlisted their services. He seems to have been able to keep his agreements with them and at the same time to maintain rigid discipline and control.
Within an incredibly short time he had established a feudal barony at his fort. He owned eleven square leagues of land, four thousand two hundred cattle, two thousand horses, and about as many sheep. His trade in beaver skins was most profitable. He maintained a force of trappers who were always welcome at his fort, and whom he generously kept without cost to themselves. He taught the Indians blanket-weaving, hat-making, and other trades, and he even organized them into military companies. The fort which he built was enclosed on four sides and of imposing dimensions and convenience. It mounted twelve pieces of artillery, supported a regular garrison of forty in uniform, and contained within its walls a blacksmith shop, a distillery, a flour mill, a cannery, and space for other necessary industries. Outside the walls of the fort Captain Sutter raised wheat, oats, and barley in quantity, and even established an excellent fruit and vegetable garden.
Indeed, in every way Captain Sutter’s environment and the results of his enterprises were in significant contrast to the inactivity and backwardness of his neighbors. He showed what an energetic man could accomplish with exactly the same human powers and material tools as had always been available to the Californians. Sutter himself was a rather short, thick-set man, exquisitely neat, of military bearing, carrying himself with what is called the true old-fashioned courtesy. He was a man of great generosity and of high spirit. His defect was an excess of ambition which in the end o’erleaped itself. There is no doubt that his first expectation was to found an independent state within the borders of California. His loyalty to the Americans was, however, never questioned, and the fact that his lands were gradually taken from him, and that he died finally in comparative poverty, is a striking comment on human injustice.
The important point for us at present is that Sutter’s Fort happened to be exactly on the line of the overland immigration. For the trail-weary traveler it was the first stopping-place after crossing the high Sierras to the promised land. Sutter’s natural generosity of character induced him always to treat these men with the greatest kindness. He made his profits from such as wished to get rid of their oxen and wagons in exchange for the commodities which he had to offer. But there is no doubt that the worthy captain displayed the utmost liberality in dealing with those whom poverty had overtaken. On several occasions he sent out expeditions at his personal cost to rescue parties caught in the mountains by early snows or other misfortunes along the road, Especially did he go to great expense in the matter of the ill-fated Donner party, who, it will be remembered, spent the winter near Truckee, and were reduced to cannibalism to avoid starvation.
[1: See The Passing of the Frontier, in “The Chronicles of America.”]
Now Sutter had, of course, been naturalized in order to obtain his grant of land. He had also been appointed an official of the California-Mexican Government. Taking advantage of this fact, he was accustomed to issue permits or passports to the immigrants, permitting them to remain in the country. This gave the immigrants a certain limited standing, but, as they were not Mexican citizens, they were disqualified from holding land. Nevertheless Sutter used his good offices in showing desirable locations to the would-be settlers.
[2: It is to be remarked that, prior to the gold rush, American settlements did not take place in the Spanish South but in the unoccupied North. In 1845 Castro and Castillero made a tour through the Sacramento Valley and the northern regions to inquire about the new arrivals. Castro displayed no personal uneasiness at their presence and made no attempt or threat to deport them.]
As far as the Californians were concerned, there was little rivalry or interference between the immigrants and the natives. Their interests did not as yet conflict. Nevertheless the central Mexican Government continued its commands to prevent any and all immigration. It was rather well justified by its experience in Texas, where settlement had ended by final absorption. The local Californian authorities were thus thrust between the devil and the deep blue sea. They were constrained by the very positive and repeated orders from their home government to keep out all immigration and to eject those already on the ground. On the other hand, the means for doing so were entirely lacking, and the present situation did not seem to them alarming.
Thus matters drifted along until the Mexican War. For a considerable time before actual hostilities broke out, it was well known throughout the country that they were imminent. Every naval and military commander was perfectly aware that, sooner or later, war was inevitable. Many had received their instructions in case of that eventuality, and most of the others had individual plans to be put into execution at the earliest possible moment. Indeed, as early as 1842 Commodore Jones, being misinformed of a state of war, raced with what he supposed to be English war-vessels from South America, entered the port of Monterey hastily, captured the fort, and raised the American flag. The next day he discovered that not only was there no state of war, but that he had not even raced British ships! The flag was thereupon hauled down, the Mexican emblem substituted, appropriate apologies and salutes were rendered, and the incident was considered closed. The easy-going Californians accepted the apology promptly and cherished no rancor for the mistake.
In the meantime Thomas O. Larkin, a very substantial citizen of long standing in the country, had been appointed consul, and in addition received a sum of six dollars a day to act as secret agent. It was hoped that his great influence would avail to inspire the Californians with a desire for peaceful annexation to the United States. In case that policy failed, he was to use all means to separate them from Mexico, and so isolate them from their natural alliances. He was furthermore to persuade them that England, France, and Russia had sinister designs on their liberty. It was hoped that his good offices would slowly influence public opinion, and that, on the declaration of open war with Mexico, the United States flag could be hoisted in California not only without opposition but with the consent and approval of the inhabitants. This type of peaceful conquest had a very good chance of success. Larkin possessed the confidence of the better class of Californians and he did his duty faithfully.
Just at this moment a picturesque, gallant, ambitious, dashing, and rather unscrupulous character appeared inopportunely on the horizon. His name was John C. Fremont. He was the son of a French father and a Virginia mother. He was thirty-two years old, and was married to the daughter of Thomas H. Benton, United States Senator from Missouri and a man of great influence in the country. Possessed of an adventurous spirit, considerable initiative, and great persistence Fremont had already performed the feat of crossing the Sierra Nevadas by way of Carson River and Johnson Pass, and had also explored the Columbia River and various parts of the Northwest. Fremont now entered California by way of Walker Lake and the Truckee, and reached Sutter’s Fort in 1845. He then turned southward to meet a division of his party under Joseph Walker.
His expedition was friendly in character, with the object of surveying a route westward to the Pacific, and then northward to Oregon. It supposedly possessed no military importance whatever. But his turning south to meet Walker instead of north, where ostensibly his duty called him, immediately aroused the suspicions of the Californians. Though ordered to leave the district, he refused compliance, and retired to a place called Gavilan Peak, where he erected fortifications and raised the United States flag. Probably Fremont’s intentions were perfectly friendly and peaceful. He made, however, a serious blunder in withdrawing within fortifications. After various threats by the Californians but no performance in the way of attack, he withdrew and proceeded by slow marches to Sutter’s Fort and thence towards the north. Near Klamath Lake he was overtaken by Lieutenant Gillespie, who delivered to him certain letters and papers. Fremont thereupon calmly turned south with the pick of his men.
In the meantime the Spanish sub-prefect, Guerrero, had sent word to Larkin that “a multitude of foreigners, having come into California and bought property, a right of naturalized foreigners only, he was under necessity of notifying the authorities in each town to inform such purchasers that the transactions were invalid, and that they themselves were subject to be expelled.” This action at once caused widespread consternation among the settlers. They remembered the deportation of Graham and his party some years before, and were both alarmed and thoroughly convinced that defensive measures were necessary. Fremont’s return at precisely this moment seemed to them very significant. He was a United States army officer at the head of a government expedition. When on his way to the North he had been overtaken by Gillespie, an officer of the United States Navy. Gillespie had delivered to him certain papers, whereupon he had immediately returned. There seemed no other interpretation of these facts than that the Government at Washington was prepared to uphold by force the American settlers in California.
This reasoning, logical as it seems, proves mistaken in the perspective of the years. Gillespie, it is true, delivered some letters to Fremont, but it is extremely unlikely they contained instructions having to do with interference in Californian affairs. Gillespie, at the same time that he brought these dispatches to Fremont, brought also instructions to Larkin creating the confidential agency above described, and these instructions specifically forbade interference with Californian affairs. It is unreasonable to suppose that contradictory dispatches were sent to one or another of these two men. Many years later Fremont admitted that the dispatch to Larkin was what had been communicated to him by Gillespie. His words are: “This officer [Gillespie] informed me also that he was directed by the Secretary of State to acquaint me with his instructions to the consular agent, Mr. Larkin.” Reading Fremont’s character, understanding his ambitions, interpreting his later lawless actions that resulted in his court-martial, realizing the recklessness of his spirit, and his instinct to take chances, one comes to the conclusion that it is more than likely that his move was a gamble on probabilities rather than a result of direct orders.
Be this as it may, the mere fact of Fremont’s turning south decided the alarmed settlers, and led to the so-called “Bear Flag Revolution.” A number of settlers decided that it would be expedient to capture Sonoma, where under Vallejo were nine cannon and some two hundred muskets. It was, in fact, a sort of military station. The capture proved to be a very simple matter. Thirty-two or thirty-three men appeared at dawn, before Vallejo’s house, under Merritt and Semple. They entered the house suddenly, called upon Jacob Leese, Vallejo’s son-in-law, to interpret, and demanded immediate surrender. Richman says “Leese was surprised at the ‘rough looks’ of the Americans. Semple he describes as ‘six feet six inches tall, and about fifteen inches in diameter, dressed in greasy buckskin from neck to foot, and with a fox-skin cap.'” The prisoners were at once sent by these raiders to Fremont, who was at that time on the American River. He immediately disclaimed any part in the affair. However, instead of remaining entirely aloof, he gave further orders that Leese, who was still in attendance as interpreter, should be arrested, and also that the prisoners should be confined in Sutter’s Fort. He thus definitely and officially entered the movement. Soon thereafter Fremont started south through Sonoma, collecting men as he went.
The following quotation from a contemporary writer is interesting and illuminating. “A vast cloud of dust appeared at first, and thence in long files emerged this wildest of wild parties. Fremont rode ahead, a spare active looking man, with such an eye! He was dressed in a blouse and leggings, and wore a felt hat. After him came five Delaware Indians who were his bodyguard. They had charge of two baggage-horses. The rest, many of them blacker than Indians, rode two and two, the rifle held by one hand across the pummel of the saddle. The dress of these men was principally a long loose coat of deerskin tied with thongs in front, trousers of the same. The saddles were of various fashions, though these and a large drove of horses and a brass field gun were things they had picked up in California.”
Meantime, the Americans who had collected in Sonoma, under the lead of William B. Ide, raised the flag of revolution–“a standard of somewhat uncertain origin as regards the cotton cloth whereof it was made,” writes Royce. On this, they painted with berry juice “something that they called a Bear.” By this capture of Sonoma, and its subsequent endorsement by Fremont, Larkin’s instructions–that is, to secure California by quiet diplomatic means–were absolutely nullified. A second result was that Englishmen in California were much encouraged to hope for English intervention and protection. The Vallejo circle had always been strongly favorable to the United States. The effect of this raid and capture by United States citizens, with a United States officer endorsing the action, may well be guessed.
Inquiries and protests were lodged by the California authorities with Sloat and Lieutenant Montgomery of the United States naval forces. Just what effect these protests would have had, and just the temperature of the hot water in which the dashing Fremont would have found himself, is a matter of surmise. He had gambled strongly–on his own responsibility or at least at the unofficial suggestion of Benton–on an early declaration of war with Mexico. Failing such a declaration, he would be in a precarious diplomatic position, and must by mere force of automatic discipline have been heavily punished. However the dice fell for him. War with Mexico was almost immediately an actual fact. Fremont’s injection into the revolution had been timed at the happiest possible moment for him.
The Bear Flag Revolution took place on June 14,1846. On July 7 the American flag was hoisted over the post at Monterey by Commodore Sloat. Though he had knowledge from June 5 of a state of war, this knowledge, apparently, he had shared neither with his officers nor with the public, and he exhibited a want of initiative and vigor which is in striking contrast to Fremont’s ambition and overzeal.
Shortly after this incident Commodore Sloat was allowed to return “by reason of ill health,” as has been heretofore published in most histories. His undoubted recall gave room to Commodore Robert Stockton, to whom Sloat not only turned over the command of the naval forces, but whom he also directed to “assume command of the forces and operations on shore.”
Stockton at once invited Fremont to enlist under his command, and the invitation was accepted. The entire forces moved south by sea and land for the purpose of subduing southern California. This end was temporarily accomplished with almost ridiculous ease. At this distance of time, allowing all obvious explanations of lack of training, meager equipment, and internal dissension, we find it a little difficult to understand why the Californians did not make a better stand. Most of the so-called battles were a sort of opera bouffe. Californians entrenched with cannon were driven contemptuously forth, without casualties, by a very few men. For example, a lieutenant and nine men were sufficient to hold Santa Barbara in subjection. Indeed, the conquest was too easy, for, lulled into false security, Stockton departed, leaving as he supposed sufficient men to hold the country. The Californians managed to get some coherence into their councils, attacked the Americans, and drove them forth from their garrisons.
Stockton and Fremont immediately started south. In the meantime an overland party under General Kearny had been dispatched from the East. His instructions were rather broad. He was to take in such small sections of the country as New Mexico and Arizona, leaving sufficient garrisons on his way to California. As a result, though his command at first numbered 1657 men, he arrived in the latter state with only about 100. From Warner’s Ranch in the mountains he sent word to Stockton that he had arrived. Gillespie, whom the Commodore at once dispatched with thirty-nine men to meet and conduct him to San Diego, joined Kearny near San Luis Rey Mission.
A force of Californians, however, under command of one Andres Pico had been hovering about the hills watching the Americans. It was decided to attack this force. Twenty men were detailed under Captain Johnston for the purpose. At dawn on the morning of the 6th of December the Americans charged upon the Californian camp. The Californians promptly decamped after having delivered a volley which resulted in killing Johnston. The Americans at once pursued them hotly, became much scattered, and were turned upon by the fleeing enemy. The Americans were poorly mounted after their journey, their weapons were now empty, and they were unable to give mutual aid. The Spanish were armed with lances, pistols, and the deadly riata. Before the rearguard could come up, sixteen of the total American force were killed and nineteen badly wounded. This battle of San Pascual, as it was called, is interesting as being the only engagement in which the Californians got the upper hand. Whether their Parthian tactics were the result of a preconceived policy or were merely an expedient of the moment, it is impossible to say. The battle is also notable because the well-known scout, Kit Carson, took part in it.
The forces of Stockton and Kearny joined a few days later, and very soon a conflict of authority arose between the leaders. It was a childish affair throughout, and probably at bottom arose from Fremont’s usual over-ambitious designs. To Kearny had undoubtedly been given, by the properly constituted authorities, the command of all the land operations. Stockton, however, claimed to hold supreme land command by instructions from Commodore Sloat already quoted. Through the internal evidence of Stockton’s letters and proclamations, it seems he was a trifle inclined to be bombastic and high-flown, to usurp authority, and perhaps to consider himself and his operations of more importance than they actually were. However, he was an officer disciplined and trained to obedience, and his absurd contention is not in character. It may be significant that he had promised to appoint Fremont Governor of California, a promise that naturally could not be fulfilled if Kearny’s authority were fully recognized.
Furthermore, at this moment Fremont was at the zenith of his career, and his influence in such matters was considerable. As Hittell says, “At this time and for some time afterwards, Fremont was represented as a sort of young lion. The several trips he had made across the continent, and the several able and interesting reports he had published over his name attracted great public attention. He was hardly ever mentioned except in a high-flown hyperbolical phrase. Benton was one of the most influential men of his day, and it soon became well understood that the surest way of reaching the father-in-law’s favor was by furthering the son-in-law’s prospects; everybody that wished to court Benton praised Fremont. Besides this political influence Benton exerted in Fremont’s behalf, there was an almost equally strong social influence.” It might be added that the nature of his public service had been such as to throw him on his own responsibility, and that he had always gambled with fortune, as in the Bear Flag Revolution already mentioned. His star had ever been in the ascendant. He was a spoiled child of fortune at this time, and bitterly and haughtily resented any check to his ambition. The mixture of his blood gave him that fine sense of the dramatic which so easily descends to posing. His actual accomplishment was without doubt great; but his own appreciation of that accomplishment was also undoubtedly great. He was one of those interesting characters whose activities are so near the line between great deeds and charlatanism that it is sometimes difficult to segregate the pose from the performance.
The end of this row for precedence did not come until after the so-called battles at the San Gabriel River and on the Mesa on January 8 and 9, 1847. The first of these conflicts is so typical that it is worth a paragraph of description.
The Californians were posted on the opposite bank of the river. They had about five hundred men, and two pieces of artillery well placed. The bank was elevated some forty feet above the stream and possibly four or six hundred back from the water. The American forces, all told, consisted of about five hundred men, but most of them were dismounted. The tactics were exceedingly simple. The Americans merely forded the river, dragged their guns across, put them in position, and calmly commenced a vigorous bombardment. After about an hour and a half of circling about and futile half-attacks, the Californians withdrew. The total American loss in this and the succeeding “battle,” called that of the Mesa, was three killed and twelve wounded.
After this latter battle, the Californians broke completely and hurtled toward the North. Beyond Los Angeles, near San Fernando, they ran head-on into Fremont and his California battalion marching overland from the North. Fremont had just learned of Stockton’s defeat of the Californians and, as usual, he seized the happy chance the gods had offered him. He made haste to assure the Californians through a messenger that they would do well to negotiate with him rather than with Stockton. To these suggestions the Californians yielded. Commissioners appointed by both sides then met at Cahuenga on January 13, and elaborated a treaty by which the Californians agreed to surrender their arms and not to serve again during the war, whereupon the victors allowed them to leave the country. Fremont at once proceeded to Los Angeles, where he reported to Kearny and Stockton what had happened.
In accordance with his foolish determination, Stockton still refused to acknowledge Kearny’s direct authority. He appointed Fremont Governor of California, which was one mistake; and Fremont accepted, which was another. Undoubtedly the latter thought that his pretensions would be supported by personal influence in Washington. From former experience he had every reason to believe so. In this case, however, he reckoned beyond the resources of even his powerful father-in-law. Kearny, who seems to have been a direct old war-dog, resolved at once to test his authority. He ordered Fremont to muster the California battalion into the regular service, under his (Kearny’s) command; or, if the men did not wish to do this, to discharge them. This order did not in the least please Fremont. He attempted to open negotiations, but Kearny was in no manner disposed to talk. He said curtly that he had given his orders, and merely wished to know whether or not they would be obeyed. To this, and from one army officer to another, there could be but one answer, and that was in the affirmative.
Colonel Mason opportunely arrived from Washington with instructions to Fremont either to join his regiment or to resume the explorations on which he had originally been sent to this country. Fremont was still pretending to be Governor, but with nothing to govern. His game was losing at Washington. He could not know this, however, and for some time continued to persist in his absurd claims to governorship. Finally he begged permission of Kearny to form an expedition against Mexico. But it was rather late in the day for the spoiled child to ask for favors, and the permission was refused. Upon his return to Washington under further orders, Fremont was court-martialed, and was found guilty of mutiny, disobedience, and misconduct. He was ordered dismissed from the service, but was pardoned by President Polk in view of his past services. He refused this pardon and resigned.
Fremont was a picturesque figure with a great deal of personal magnetism and dash. The halo of romance has been fitted to his head. There is no doubt that he was a good wilderness traveler, a keen lover of adventure, and a likable personality. He was, however, over-ambitious; he advertised himself altogether too well; and he presumed on the undoubtedly great personal influence he possessed. He has been nicknamed the Pathfinder, but a better title would be the Pathfollower. He found no paths that had not already been traversed by men before him. Unless the silly sentiment that persistently glorifies such despicable characters as the English Stuarts continues to surround this interesting character with fallacious romance, Fremont will undoubtedly take his place in history below men now more obscure but more solid than he was. His services and his ability were both great. If he, his friends, and historians had been content to rest his fame on actualities, his position would be high and honorable. The presumption of so much more than the man actually did or was has the unfortunate effect of minimizing his real accomplishment.