Published: April 27th 2009April 27th 2009
MEXICAN CUSTOMS HOUSE-MONTEREY
Where Commodore Sloat proclaimed all of California for the United States
(Excerpted from my book OUR SUMMER IN CARMEL, Amazon.com)
Although it took Spain almost three hundred years to get off their galleons and settle California, in a space of only seventy more years Spain would lose California and sovereignty would change twice over that vast rich area. During the early 1800s Spain, like much of Europe, was embroiled in the Napoleonic wars. Her increasingly scanty resources and accelerating loss of control over her vast overseas empire resulted in a weaker nation, compared to two centuries earlier. Not only were wars in Europe causing Spain much distress, but taking advantage of her weak position, rebellion in her Latin American Empire was widespread. Thus, the small outpost on Monterey in far off Alta California received little attention and even less of Spain's resources. When the French pirate Bouchard, flying under Argentine's revolutionary colors, sailed into Monterey Bay the dozen Spanish soldiers quickly retreated to Salinas and let the pirate and his 300 men ransack the town and hang around for a week before sailing on. Therefore, it came as no surprise that Spanish rule over California ended without a protest, a scant 52 years after the solemn founding Mass said under the great oak.
On April 11, 1822 the Governor read a proclamation that Mexico had declared her Independence from Spain. The Spanish flag was furled and the Mexican hoisted. Guns were fired in salute, oaths of allegiance were administered, and that was that. Really! As easy as that the Spanish outpost in Monterey and all of present day California, became part of the newly independent country of Mexico. The ensuing 25 years of Mexican rule is confusing even to the most dedicated historian. Mexican governance resembled a comic opera of revolts, counter-revolts, intrigues, nepotism, the secularization of the church and the confiscation of most church property, land grabs and a confusion of land claims. During this period of inept Mexican rule, two events occurred that are worth mentioning from the perspective of the United States.
In 1841, the first organized expedition with the intention to settle in California, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, crossed the Sierra's. Having shown the way and lack of Mexican resistance, they were followed by many more, for example the one led by seven foot Kentucky frontiersman Robert Semple, who later would preside over the California Constitutional Convention. Another, more serious, incursion was led by the noted adventurer, explorer and self-promoter John Charles Fremont, son-in-law of the powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton, chairman of the Military-Affairs Committee, on a so-called mapping survey. These were men of action, with little patience for the Californios method of governance. They were determined men, ready to risk all in carving out their future, and unabashedly intent on seeing the United States flag fly over California. These were the implementers of the philosophy, prevalent at the time by men such as Senator Benton, of Manifest Destiny.
A little over four years passed when, on May 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. Following standing orders in case of such an eventuality, the Pacific Squadron, under the command of Commodore John Sloat, a 65 year old cautious and ailing sailor, nearing retirement, sailed into Monterey Bay. The weakness of the Mexican defenses was revealed when Sloat, following protocol and wanting to fire a salute to the Mexican flag, was informed that there was not only no Mexican flag to fly above the Presidio, but no powder to return the salute. On July 7, Sloat landed 250 marines and seaman, read a proclamation that henceforth California was a territory of the United States, fired a 21 gun salute, and raised the flag of the United States. That was that!( More on these auspicious events in the next posting.)