The Fight for California

John Fremont. Photograph: Mathew Brady. Engraving: J.C. Bottre.

President James Polk, prior to the beginning of the Mexican-American War, had an idea for how to gain new territory for America. He was not going to limit the acquisitions solely to what could be gained with Mexico through military conflict south of Texas. He had his eyes on California and New Mexico, and he had a plan for how to get those two territories.

With the war imminent, President Polk dispatched Commodore John Sloat to occupy San Francisco and Captain John Fremont to California. See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 753. As the Mexican-American War progressed, they and their followers were to occupy as much land as possible, so that when America signed a peace treaty, it would be able to acquire all land occupied. Id.

Just when Mexicans began to be suspicious of Fremont, he started a small rebellion, which would become somewhat of a revolution culminating in Fremont and his group creating a flag with a bear depicted on it and declaring the independence of California from Mexico. Id. at 754 citing Neal Harlow, California Conquered (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1982), 97-114.

Sloat arrived in California and proclaimed that he was not engaging in any wartime occupation, but rather, this was permanent annexation of California to the Americans. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: Transformation of America, 1815-1848, 755. He had no authority to make this proclamation, but he was cutting short the possibility of an “independent California Republic.” Id.

Not long thereafter, Robert Stockton arrived from Texas and calmed the tension between Sloat and Fremont. Id. at 756. Then, Stockton and Fremont took on the task of conquering as much of California as possible. Id. The residents of the territory would not capitulate, however, stirring up conflict throughout the territory. See id. Ultimately, Fremont and Stockton quelled the widespread violence. See id. at 756-57.

President Polk appeared to be achieving his objective, but an unintended consequence emerged. Fremont had become a celebrity, despite being dismissed from the military. See id. at 757. Just a decade later, Fremont would challenge the Democrats in the Election of 1856 in the presidential election.

The style of governing can have significant consequences for a political party and for the future of the country. President Polk’s focused approach on acquiring territory was reckless, but it was also endangering his treasured political party’s future.

Further, with the benefit of retrospection, modern Americans can understand the ulterior motives that may underlie a war or a conflict. While many Americans were focused on the war with Mexico, President Polk was putting the pieces in place to create a miniature war in California and acquire even more territory.

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