Acquisition Of California
Author: Dawson, Henry B.

Acquisition Of California


In the history of the United States, the acquisition of California,
carrying with it that of New Mexico, was a peculiar and unusual event, and one
of immense significance in the expansion and development of the Republic.
Together with the annexation of Texas, it was the most important result of the
Mexican War. The California country, formerly an indeterminate territory of
vast extent, was settled by Spanish missionaries in the seventeenth century.
Their settlements within the present limits of the State of California date
from the first foundation of San Diego in 1769. In 1822 the entire region
called California became a part of the Mexican Republic, and it remained a
possession of Mexico until the time of the transfer described below.

At the beginning of 1846 the population of California included, with
about two hundred thousand Indians, six thousand Mexicans and perhaps two
hundred Americans. War against Mexico had been declared in May, 1845, and
already General Taylor had won the battles of Palo Alto and Resaca de la
Palma, and had compelled the surrender of Monterey. While these operations
were leading the United States forces to the rapid accomplishment of their
work in Mexico proper, other movements were undertaken, the execution and
outcome of which form the subject of Mr. Dawson's narrative. In 1848
California and New Mexico were ceded to the United States.

Immediately after the opening of hostilities in the valley of the Rio
Grande (March, 1846), among the expeditions which were organized by the
Federal authorities was one to move against and take possession of California
and New Mexico, two provinces in the northern part of the enemy's country. The
command of this expedition had been vested in General Stephen W. Kearney, and
the force under his command had rendezvoused at Fort Leavenworth; and the most
energetic measures had been adopted to insure its early departure and its
ultimate success.

Having completed all the arrangements, on June 26th the main body of this
expedition had moved from the fort; and after a rapid but interesting march of
eight hundred seventy-three miles, on August 18th it entered and took
possession of Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, the Mexican forces,
numbering four thousand, which had been collected to defend the town, having
dispersed, without offering the least opposition, as it approached.

While these operations in New Mexico and on the western frontier of the
United States were taking place, Brovet-Captain John C. Fremont, who had been
engaged in explorations on the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, had also
revolutionized the Province of California, and, to some extent at least, had
anticipated the movements of the expedition commanded by General Kearney. The
character of his mission being scientific and peaceful rather than warlike, he
had not had an officer or soldier of the regular army in his company; and his
whole force had consisted of sixty-two men employed by himself for security
against the Indians and for procuring subsistence in the wilderness and desert
country through which he had passed. For the purpose of obtaining game for
his men and grass for his horses, in an uninhabited part of California, he
had, during the winter of 1845-1846, solicited and obtained permission from
the Mexican authorities to winter in the Valley of San Joaquin; but he had
scarcely established himself before he received advices that the Mexican
commander was preparing to attack him under the pre-text that under the cover
of a scientific mission he was exciting the American settlers in that vicinity
to revolt.

In view of this threatened attack, and for the purpose of repelling it,
Lieutenant Fremont immediately occupied a mountain which overlooked Monterey -
although it was thirty miles from that city - and having intrenched it and
raised the flag of the United States he waited the approach of the enemy.
After remaining there until March 10, 1846, he retired to the northward,
intending to march, by way of Oregon, to the United States; but about the
middle of May, after he had quietly passed into Oregon, he had received
information through Samuel Neal and Levi Sigler, two hunters who had been sent
after him from Lassen's rancho, that the Mexican Governor of California was
pursuing him, while the Indians, by whom he was surrounded, instigated by the
enemy, had shown signs of hostility, and had killed or wounded five of his

Under these circumstances, on June 6, 1846, Lieutenant Fremont had
resolved to turn on his pursuers with the little party under his command, and
to seek safety, not merely in the overthrow of his pursuers, but in that of
the entire Government of Mexico in the Province of California. Accordingly,
on June 11th, Lieutenant Fremont, assisted by Captain Merritt and fourteen of
the settlers, had attacked and captured an escort of horses destined for
General Castro's troops - Lieutenant Arce, fourteen men, and two hundred
horses remaining in his hands as the trophies of his victory. On the 15th the
military post of Sonoma was surprised, and General Vallejo, Captain Vallejo,
Colonel Greuxdon and several other officers, nine pieces of brass cannon, two
hundred fifty stands of muskets, and other stores and arms were taken; and on
the 25th the military commandant of the Province, who had moved toward the
post with a heavy force to retake it, was attacked by Lieutenant Fremont and
twenty men, and completely routed. Having thus cleared that part of the
Province north of the Bay of San Francisco of the enemy, it is said that on
July 5th Captain Fremont had assembled the American settlers at Sonoma,
addressed them upon the dangers of their situation, and recommended a
declaration of independence and war on Mexico as the only remedy; and that the
hardy frontiersmen promptly accepted the proposal and raised the flag of
independent California - a bear and a star on a red ground.

While these revolutionary movements were destroying the power of Mexico
in the interior of the Province of California, and the expedition under
General Kearney - ignorant of the fact that the work had been done already -
was approaching its eastern borders for the same purpose, the naval force of
the United States in the Pacific, under Commodore Sloat, had been assisting in
the work of conquest. Having heard of the opening of hostilities on the Rio
Grande, the Commodore - then at Mazatlan - hastened with the Savannah to
Monterey in California, where he arrived on July 2d, and on the 7th he took
possession of the town without opposition; the custom-house was seized, the
American flag raised, and California declared to be "henceforward a part of
the United States."

Within a few days intelligence of the action of Commodore Sloat was
received by the revolutionary leaders at Sonoma; and a battalion of mounted
riflemen which had been organized among them was immediately moved to
Monterey, the flag of the United States was substituted for the "bear and
star," and the authority of the Commodore was immediately recognized. This
battalion of mounted riflemen on its arrival at Monterey, July 23, 1846, was
mustered into the service of the United States by Commodore Stockton, who had
succeeded Commodore Sloat in command of the squadron - Captain Fremont being
appointed its commandant, and Lieutenant A. H. Gillespie, of the Marines, its
second officer - and it was immediately despatched on the sloop-of-war Cyane
to San Diego for the purpose of cutting off the retreat of General Castro, of
the Mexican service, who had encamped and fortified his position near Ciudad
de los Angeles, while the Commodore with his sailors - who landed from the
Congress at San Pedro - moved against him in front. The expedition was
eminently successful, as the Mexicans on the approach of the Commodore
immediately evacuated their camp and fled in the greatest confusion - although
most of the principal officers were subsequently captured - and, on August
13th, the Ciudad de los Angeles was occupied, again without opposition, by the
American troops and seamen, and the conquest of California was apparently

A short time afterward Commodore Stockton appointed Captain Fremont
Governor of the Territory into which, by the proclamation of Commodore Sloat,
the Province had been transformed; while Captain Gillespie was left, with
nineteen men, in possession of Los Angeles; Lieutenant Talbot, of the
Topographical Engineers, with nine men, was left at Santa Barbara; and, with
his squadron, Commodore Stockton proceeded to San Francisco; while Governor
Fremont, on September 8th, also moved to Monterey.

The main body had no sooner left Los Angeles than the Californians - who
before the departure of the Commodore and the Governor had held secret
meetings for the purpose - rose in arms for the expulsion of the invaders of
their country. Indeed an attempt appears to have been intended before the
Governor left the city; but, by timely precautions, it had been prevented;
although the purpose and determination still continued and were called into
requisition at a more convenient season. The necessary preparations having
been made for that purpose under the directions of Jose Antonio Carrillo, a
professed conspirator of that vicinity, at an early hour on the morning of
September 23d, the quarters of Captain Gillespie were attacked by Cerbulo
Varela - a metamorphosed captain under Governor Fremont - at the head of
sixty-five men, under cover of a thick fog. The morning was auspicious for
such purposes, yet the Captain was not surprised; and the twenty-one rifles
which he controlled were quickly brought to bear on the assailants, who
retired soon afterward with three of their number killed and several wounded;
and at daylight the remainder were driven from the town, with the loss of
several taken prisoners, by a few men under Lieutenant Hensley, and Doctor
Gilchrist, of the navy.

The insurgents who were thus expelled from the city formed a nucleus
around which the disaffected gathered; and as the party gained strength day by
day, it harassed the little garrison and killed one of its number. There was
but little concert of action in its ranks, however; and as the rival aspirants
to power struggled for authority, while the numbers rapidly increased, the
efficiency of the insurgents was but slightly increased. At length, in a
spirit of compromise, Captain Antonio Flores was urged to take the command of
the party, and reluctantly accepted it; and he soon found himself at the head
of six hundred men armed with lances, escopetas, and a brass six-pounder,
light and well mounted.

In the mean time the little garrison had found an old honey-combed iron
six-pounder, and had drilled out the spike, cleaned and mounted it, and by
melting the lead pipes of a distillery had provided - unknown to the
insurgents - thirty rounds of ball and grape for it. Two other pieces having
been added to this, on the following day, the little garrison and its gallant
commander resolved to die rather than surrender, notwithstanding the extreme
efforts which had been made to strengthen its position, and the great fatigue
which was incident thereto. To render his little party still more secure,
however, on September 27th Captain Gillespie withdrew his command from his
quarters in the city and occupied a height which commanded it, when he
strengthened his position and prepared for an obstinate defence.

No sooner had this movement been effected than Captain Flores sent Don
Eulogeo Celis to inquire "on what terms Captain Gillespie would surrender the
city"; and that officer, after consulting with his subordinates, answered that
if the enemy would consent that he should march out of the city with the
honors of war, colors flying and drums beating; that he should take everything
with him; that he should be furnished with means for transporting his baggage
and provisions, at his own expense; and that the enemy should not come within
a league of his party while on its line of march to San Pedro, he would accept
those terms, and no others would be considered; and Captain Flores should be
held responsible for any damage which might ensue, in case they were rejected.
After some negotiations these terms were offered by Captain Flores and
accepted by Captain Gillespie; and, on September 29th, the garrison began its
march; reached San Pedro on the same evening, and on October 4th embarked on
the Vandalia, after spiking its three old guns - an exploit which, when the
circumstances under which Captain Gillespie's force, the strength of his
opponent, and the temper of the people among whom he moved are taken into
consideration, may well be ranked as one of the most brilliant feats of that
remarkable campaign.

While these difficulties were surrounding Captain Gillespie at Los
Angeles, Lieutenant Talbot, at Santa Barbara with his nine men, was not less
dangerously situated; and when the former had made terms with the insurgents,
Manuel Garpio with two hundred men moved against Lieutenant Talbot, surrounded
the town, and demanded his surrender, offering two hours for his deliberation.
As the men had resolved that they would not give up their arms, and as the
barracks were untenable with so small a force, the Lieutenant resolved to
abandon the town and push for the hills; and, strange to say, he marshalled
his men and marched out of the town without opposition - "those who lay on the
road retreated to the main force, which was on the lower side of the town."

Having reached the hills, he encamped, and remained there eight days,
when the Californians endeavored to rout him out, but were repulsed with the
loss of a horse. The insurgents then offered him his arms and freedom if he
would engage to remain neutral in the anticipated hostilities, but "he sent
word back that he preferred to fight." They next built fires about him and
burned him out; but in doing so they did not capture or injure him, and he
pushed through the mountains for Monterey; and after a month's travel, in
which he endured unheard-of hardships and suffering, he reached that place in

Intelligence of the insurrection having reached Commodore Stockton at San
Francisco and Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont at Sacramento, both took immediate
steps to check its progress and to punish the offenders. In conformity with
the Commodore's orders Lieutenant-Colonel Fremont hastened to San Francisco,
whence he embarked, with one hundred sixty men, on the ship Sterling, for
Santa Barbara, to which port the frigate Savannah (Captain Mervine) had
previously been ordered; while, on the same day, the Commodore in person
sailed for the same port in the Congress.

The latter vessel reached San Pedro on October 6th, and at sunrise on the
7th Captain Mervine landed with his seamen and marines; and after being joined
by Captain Gillespie and his brave-hearted little party, he found himself at
the head of three hundred ten men, "as brave and as valiant as ever were led
to battle upon any field." At eight o'clock the party commenced its march
toward Los Angeles, Captain Gillespie being in advance, and when the column
reached the hills of Palo Verde the insurgents showed themselves and opened a
fire with their escopetas. The march was rapid; and the jolly tars, unused to
such extended journeys, appear to have suffered from its effects; in
consequence of which, although the enemy gradually fell back before the
advancing column, between one and two o'clock, when near the Rancho de los
Domingos, fourteen miles from San Pedro, it became necessary to halt and
encamp for the night.

As may have been expected, the sailors and marines were ashore, and the
strict discipline which "the deck" had inculcated appears to have been left on
board the frigate. As a necessary consequence the camp displayed but little
of the order which such a locality should have insured; and many and marvelous
were the adventures of that night; while, on the other hand, the enemy
profited by the delay, by the moral effect of the disorder with which the
march had been conducted, and by the entire absence of any artillery.

On the following morning at daylight the column was again put in motion;
and with Captain Gillespie's men in front, in still greater disorder than on
the preceding day, it moved toward Los Angeles, twelve miles distant. It had
marched only three miles, when, posted behind a small stream which intersected
the line of march, the advance of the insurgents - seventy-six men, with a
small fieldpiece, under Jose Antonio Carrillo - was discovered in front; and,
as the column approached, a fire was opened on it, which was answered with a
characteristic shout. The volunteers - Captain Gillespie's command - pressed
forward; and by taking advantage of the neighboring shelter they drove the
enemy and compelled him to abandon his fieldpiece; but before it could be
reached and taken possession of, Captain Mervine gave orders to withdraw.
With great indignation, therefore, the volunteers discontinued the action, and
after picking up his killed and wounded - harassed by the enemy who pressed
after the column, and covered by the volunteers and sixteen marines, under
Captain Gillespie - Captain Mervine slowly and sadly fell back to San Pedro,
where he arrived about dark on the same day. "Thirteen noble tars were buried
on the island in front of San Pedro," the victims of this badly managed

On October 23d the Commodore reached San Pedro - Lieutenant-Colonel
Fremont meanwhile having returned to Monterey - and on the 31st he sailed for
San Diego, which had been invested by the insurgents and needed assistance. He
reached that port a few days afterward; and, with the assistance of Captain
Gillespie's command, the besiegers were repelled, and a fort was erected to
protect the town from similar troubles in future.

Strenuous efforts were made to obtain horses for the use of the troops,
with some degree of success; and Commodore Stockton sailed toward San Pedro
again. During this temporary absence of the Commodore the insurgents appear
(on November 18, 1846) to have moved against San Diego a second time, and were
again driven back by Captain Gillespie and the volunteers and marines under
his command; and on December 3d a messenger came into the town bearing a
letter from General Kearney, apprising the Commodore of his approach, and
expressing a wish that a communication might be opened with him that he might
be informed of the state of affairs in California.

It appeared that after the General had taken Santa Fe (on October 1st) he
had moved from that city with the regular cavalry which he had brought there.
Soon afterward (October 7th) he had reduced his force to one hundred men -
sending the remainder back to Santa Fe - and after an interesting march
overland, on December 3, 1846, he had reached Warner's rancheria, the outpost
of civilization in California. From there a letter had been despatched to San
Diego by Mr. Stokes, an Englishman who lived in a neighboring rancheria; and
on the 4th the command had moved fifteen miles nearer to the city.

On the receipt of General Kearney's letter, Commodore Stockton despatched
Captain Gillespie to meet him, with a letter of welcome. The Captain was
accompanied by Lieutenant Beale, Midshipman Duncan, ten seamen, Captain
Gibson's company of riflemen (twenty-five men), and a fieldpiece; and on the
5th he reached the General's camp; when, having learned on his way that the
insurgents were encamped at San Pasqual, nine miles from the camp, Lieutenant
Hammond was sent out by General Kearney to reconnoitre the enemy's position.

At a very early hour on the 6th the troops were put in motion, Captain
Johnston, with twelve dragoons, forming the advance-guard; the main body of
the General's party, under Captain Moore, following next; after which moved
Captain Gillespie, with Captain Gibson and his small company; and Lieutenant
Davidson, with the General's howitzers brought up the rear. When the column
had reached a hill which overlooked the valley of the San Pasqual, the
insurgents' encampment, it was halted, and the General gave the final orders
to his command: "One thrust of the sabre is worth a dozen cuts; and depend
upon them more than upon the carbines and rifles." Without further delay the
column advanced down the hill; and as soon as Captain Johnston had struck the
plain with his twelve dragoons, having mistaken the purport of an order from
the General, he uttered a yell, and, without waiting for the support of the
main body, dashed on the heavy ranks of the enemy; falling a victim of his own

The main body hastened, by a flank movement down the hill, to support the
charge of the advance, and received the enemy's fire from an Indian village on
its right flank; but the enemy waited to do no further mischief, and fled from
the charge of the advance before the line could be formed. Perceiving the
defection of the enemy, Captain Moore, with a portion of his command, pursued
the fugitives down the right of the valley, while Captain Gillespie, with his
volunteers, did the same on the left side - the latter taking prisoner Pablo
Beja, the insurgents' second officer. In this pursuit, however, the ranks of
the Americans were greatly broken; and as the Mexicans far outnumbered them,
they soon afterward made a stand, using their lances with good effect.
Captain Moore fell, pierced in the breast by nine lances; the General was
severely wounded, and his life was saved, from an attack on his rear, by a
ball from Lieutenant Emory. Captain Gillespie was attacked by seven
Californians, received three wounds, and saved himself with great difficulty;
Captain Gibson received two wounds; Lieutenant Hammond received nine lance
wounds in the breast, and many others were severely injured. For five minutes
the enemy held the ground; when, the main body of the Americans having come
up, he again turned and fled.

In this spirited affair about eighty Americans were engaged; while of the
Californians there is said to have been one hundred sixty, under Andreas Pico.
Of the former, Captains Moore and Johnston, Lieutenant Hammond, and sixteen
men were killed; and General Kearney, Captains Gillespie and Gibson,
Lieutenant Warner, and eleven men were wounded; while of the latter it is said
twenty-eight were killed and wounded.

The dead were buried as soon as night closed in; the wounded were
properly attended to by the single surgeon who was with the party; and
ambulances were prepared for their conveyance to San Diego, thirty-nine miles
distant; and on the morning of the 7th the order to march was given - the
column taking the right - hand road over the hills, and leaving the River San
Bernardo to the left - the enemy retiring as it advanced. A proper regard for
the comfort of the wounded compelled the column to move slowly, and it was
afternoon before it reached the San Bernardo rancheria (Mr. Snook's). After, a
short halt at that place the column moved down into the valley; and
immediately afterward the hills on the rear of the column (around the
rancheria) were covered with Californian horsemen, a portion of whom dashed at
full speed past the Americans to occupy a hill which commanded theroute of the
latter, while the remainder of the party threatened the rear of the column.
Thirty or forty of the enemy quickly occupied the hill referred to; and as the
column came up six or eight Americans filed off to the left, and, under
Lieutenant Emory, charged up the hill, when the Californians delivered their
fire and fled, five of their number having been killed or wounded by the
rifles of the assailants.

The wounded having been removed with great difficulty, the cattle having
been lost, and the danger of losing the sick and the packs being great, the
General determined to halt at that place and await the arrival of
reenforcements, for which messengers had been sent to San Diego on the morning
of the 6th. Accordingly the Americans occupied the high ground on which the
action had been fought, bored holes for water, killed their fattest mules for
meat, and awaited the arrival of their friends, until the morning of the 11th,
when they were joined by one hundred seamen and eighty marines, under
Lieutenant Gray, who had been sent out to meet them by Commodore Stockton;
and, on the afternoon of the 12th, the combined parties entered the town in

At this time commenced that memorable conflict between the two commanders
- General Kearney and Commodore Stockton - respecting the chief command, which
subsequently created so much trouble in the American ranks and throughout the
country. Commodore Stockton appears, however, to have retained the authority;
and, having organized a force sufficiently strong to warrant the undertaking,
and General Kearney having accepted an invitation to accompany the expedition,
on December 29th he marched from San Diego, with two officers and fifty-five
privates (dragoons, two officers and forty-five seamen acting as
artillery-men; eighteen officers and three hundred seventy-nine seamen and
marines acting as infantry; six officers, and fifty-four privates),
volunteers, and six pieces of artillery, against the main body of the
insurgents, near Los Angeles. The command appears to have been given, at his
own request, to General Kearney; and as the wagon train was heavily laden, the
progress of the column was very slow - the expedition reaching the Rio San
Gabriel on January 8, 1847 - although the enemy had offered no opposition to
its progress even in passes where a small force could have effectively kept it
back. At this place, however, he had made a stand to dispute the passage of
the river; and here the second action was fought between the Americans and the

The Rio San Gabriel, at the spot where this action was fought, is about
one hundred yards wide, the current about knee-deep, flowing over a quicksand
bottom. The left bank, by which the Americans approached, is level; that on
the right is also level for a short distance back, but beyond this narrow
plain a bank fifty feet in height commands the ford and the intervening flat,
while both banks are fringed with a thick undergrowth. On this bank, directly
in front of the ford, four pieces of artillery were posted, supported on
either flank by strong bodies of cavalry, while on the slope of the hill and
the flat in front were posted the sharpshooters.

Against this position the American column moved; the second division in
front, with the first and third divisions on the right and left flanks; the
cattle and the wagon train moved next; the volunteer riflemen and the fourth
division brought up the rear. As the head of the column approached the bank
of the river the enemy's sharpshooters opened a scattering fire; and the
second division was ordered to deploy as skirmishers, cross the river, and
drive the former from the thicket; while the first and third divisions covered
the flanks of the train, and, with it, followed in the rear. When this line
of skirmishers had reached the middle of the stream and was pressing forward
toward the opposite bank, the enemy brought his artillery to bear, "and made
the water fly with grape and round shot"; and the American fieldpieces were
immediately dragged across the river and placed in counter-battery on the
right bank in opposition to those of the enemy. The fire of the Americans
appears to have caused considerable confusion in the ranks of the insurgents;
and under its cover the wagon train and cattle, with their guard, passed the
river, during which time the enemy attacked its rear and was repelled.

Having safely crossed the river the American column appears to have
deployed under cover of the high ground - the Californian grape and round shot
rattling over the heads of the men - and the enemy immediately charged on both
its flanks simultaneously, dashing down the slope with great spirit. With
great coolness the second division was thrown into squares, and after a round
or two drove off the enemy from the left flank; the first division received a
similar order, but as the assailants on the right hesitated and did not come
down as far as their associates on the opposite flank, the order was
countermanded, and the division was ordered to charge up the hill, where the
enemy's main body was supposed to be posted. With great coolness this
movement was executed and the heights were gained, but there was no enemy in
sight. He had abandoned his position, and although he pitched his camp on the
hills in view of the Americans, when morning came he had moved still farther

The strength of the Americans in this action (the action of the Rio San
Gabriel) had been shown already; that of the Californians was about six
hundred, with four pieces of artillery. The loss of the former was one man
killed and nine men wounded; that of the enemy is not known.

On the following morning (January 9, 1847) the American column resumed
its march over the Mesa - a wide plain which extends from the Rio San Gabriel
to the Rio San Fernando - surrounded by reconnoitring parties from the enemy;
and when about four miles from Los Angeles the enemy was discovered on the
right of the line of march, awaiting its approach. When the column had come
abreast of the enemy the latter opened fire from his artillery on its right
flank, and soon afterward deployed his force, making a horseshoe in front of
the American column, and opening with two pieces of artillery on its front
while two nine-pounders continued their fire on the right.

After stopping about fifteen minutes to silence the enemy's nine-pounders
the column again moved forward; when, by a movement similar to that employed
on the Rio San Gabriel the day before, two charges were made simultaneously on
its left flank and on its right and rear. Contrary to the positive
instructions of the officers, in the former of these chargers the enemy was
met with a fire at long distance; yet, although he had not come within a
hundred yards of the column, several of his men were knocked out of their
saddles, and a round of grape, which was immediately sent after him,
completely scattered his right wing. The charge on the right and the rear of
the column fared little better; and the entire force of the insurgents was

The strength of both parties was probably as on the preceding day at the
Rio San Gabriel; the loss of the Californians is not known; that of the
Americans was Captain Gillespie, Lieutenant Rowan, and three men wounded. The
troops encamped near the field of battle; and on the following morning
(January 10, 1847), the enemy surrendered, when the city of Los Angeles was
occupied by the Americans without further opposition.

"This was the last exertion made by the sons of California for the
liberty and independence of their country," say the Mexican historians, "and
its defence will always do them honor; since, without supplies, without means
or instructions, they rushed into an unequal contest, in which they more than
once taught the invaders what a people can do who fight in defence of their
rights. The city of Los Angeles was occupied by the American forces on
January 10th, and the loss of that rich, vast, and precious part of the
Mexican territory was consummated."

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