We are about to commemorate the beginning of the end of an era of lawlessness nearly unprecedented in American history. But the anniversary also marks the origins of our most self-destructive war.
On Thursday, Sept. 9, our golden state celebrates its 160th birthday.
The Great Seal of the state of California features an outline of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the image of a grizzly bear and the Roman goddess Minerva (Greek: Athena). Minerva was born full grown from the mind of Jupiter. California was born as a state without ever becoming a territory of the United States. From July 7, 1846, to Dec. 20, 1849, California was formally governed by the United States War Department.
That meant that from 1846 to 1850, local government in San Luis Obispo was on a temporary basis, with ultimate authority resting in the hands of War Department officials in Washington, D.C. During that same period, a major shift took place in the political and economic geography of America’s new possession on the Pacific shore.
“Southern California,” beginning just south of Monterey County along the coast, and at the Tehachapis in the interior, was the vital economic core of Mexico’s remote and unruly province after 1820.
The most sought-after ranchero properties were in the Los Angeles basin, followed by what are now San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Riverside and San Diego counties.
Following the Gold Rush, this territory became a wild and remote portion of the state, avoided by most travelers and especially neglected by the San Francisco- and mother lode-dominated legislators in Sacramento. This remained true until after 1869.
Californians were anxious for statehood. Although California did not officially become a state until Sept. 9, 1850, the state constitution written at Monterey’s Colton Hall went into effect on Dec. 20, 1849. Only on Feb. 18, 1850, did the new state Legislature create the first counties. San Luis Obispo was one of those 27 original counties with boundaries that are only slightly different from the present, enclosing 3,250 square miles.
Achieving statehood was vital to crime-infested parts of California, most especially the Central Coast where the first mass murder in the territory had taken place on Dec. 5, 1848. Among the 11 victims were the son-in-law and daughter of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, a “jefe politico” of Mexican California.
Mitigating against statehood was the issue of slavery. The republic of Mexico had banned “the peculiar institution” in 1829.
The majority of residents of California wanted a “free” state. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 and admission of Iowa in 1846 and Wisconsin in 1848 kept numerical equality between free and slave states.
California’s admission as a “free state” would upset that balance.
The dying senator from South Carolina, John C. Calhoun, regarded losing the richest of the former Mexican territories to the abolitionists as an intolerable defeat for the South.
After a nine-month debate, Sens. Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas worked out the Compromise of 1850.
Like many compromises, it left many participants less then happy. Its consequences included the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which forbade the admission of the testimony of a person accused of being an escaped slave into evidence in a court of law.
Courts throughout the United States were compelled to authorize the arrest of any person of color on the affidavit of a slave owner.
On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision denying the petition for freedom of a former slave named Dred Scott.
The Fugitive Slave Act polarized Americans and led to the rebellion of the South. The Civil War followed, and at least 618,000 Americans died.
Our statehood came at a great price.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.