California by Kevin Starr: A Troubled Territory – Mexican California

california (1)In November of 1836, Juan Bautista Alvarado and a group of both Mexican and American nationals along with many native born Californios rebelled against the Mexican government and declared California an independent nation.  So why didn’t California end up a second Texas?

In the period between the first mission settlements and the Bear Flag Revolt which made California an American territory, Mexican California was a backwater, a place very few people wanted to settle.  Those who did formed the rancho system, living in extended family groups on land grants some as big as 80 square miles.

The lives these families lived were darn close to utopian, large, comfortable homes, with three feasts a day.  But during this period the non-Indian population never numbered more than 7,000 people; only 1,000 of them adult males.

One goal of the mission system had been to “civilize” the native population– Christianize them and turn them into Mexican citizens.  By the 1830’s, after 60 years of trying, this mission had failed.  Native Americans who should have been transferring to the civil population had either fled, died off or become permanent wards of the missions.  Native Americans revolted against the missions several times including a Miwok revolt that was never effectively put down.

So rather than put down Alvarado’s revolt, Mexico made him the governor of California.

Things wnet along at a more-or-less peacefully pace until the outbreak of the Mexican-American War and the arrival of John C. Fremont, Kit Carson and their ilk.  California was on the verge of joining the United States anyway when various Americans began agitating in favor of revolt.  With such a small population, a large number of whom wanted California to become part of America anyway, it didn’t take much more than a single ship load of American soldiers to capture all of California.  A small ship at that.

Mr Starr writes:

Historians have been wont to see the annexation of California by the United States as an act of conquest, a sideshow in the larger drama of Manifest Destiny and the Mexican War.   Any close reading of Mexican California, however, suggests that even if the United States had never invaded Mexico or seized California by force of arms, California–as Richard Henry Dana, Jr. first put it–would in one way or another have become American.  At the very time that war broke out, the Californios were negotiating with the United States regarding the possibilities of a peaceful annexation.  From this perspective, Josiah Royce, writing in 1886, considered the forcible conquest of California as the original sin of American California history.  What was taken by force, Royce argued, had been on the verge of being peaceably surrendered.

This was news to me, as I’m sure it would be to most people who live in California.  I won’t say that the Bear Flag Revolt is presented as heroic in California schools, but the fact that the territory was on the verge of peaceful transfer to the U.S. is a lesson we all should learn.  What was written in blood could very easily have been written in ink.  Mr. Starr has me interested enough to learn more.  I’m sure there is a book on this topic out there somewhere.  He may have even written it himself.

Today’s fruit crate reflects this militaristic side to California’s history.  I don’t see anything in this one particular to California except for the orchard just under the tip of the knight’s lance.  The mountains in the background could be California but have neither knights nor castles like this one, unless you count the Society for Creative Anachronism.  I wonder if it’s supposed to reference Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland.

 

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2 Comments

  1. This post sent me to the shelf to fetch Starr’s California and the American Dream, which I bought at the Huntington bookstore on 9 March 1988 (note in book.) I read the whole book before I left Pasadena and have now read all the rest in Starr’s series. History at its finest. Of course, California history is so full of incident and amusement, that helps. A series on the history of Wyoming might not have the same panache.

    1. Once I finish California, I intend to dive into the series in order. I’m taking them all quite slow, though, because I’ll be more likely to remember the details if I do a “slow read”.

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