Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets
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Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
Even though the Mexican-American War had been controversial, Americans were feeling pretty good about the Democrats and all the new territory President Polk had added. But Polk had promised during the election of 1844 that he would not seek a second term. In his place, the Democrats nominated Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, who had endorsed popular sovereignty for the Mexican cession. Frustrated over his pro-slavery leanings, prominent anti-slavery Democrats stomped out of the nominating convention and formed the Free Soil party with Martin Van Buren as their candidate.
Even though the Democratic Party had fractured, they seemed assured a presidential victory because of surging nationalism following the war. Knowing they needed to take advantage of this tide rather than fight it, the Whigs once again passed over Henry Clay and chose war hero General Zachary Taylor as their candidate. The fact that he was a slaveholder appealed to Southerners, but his 40 years of national military service made him stand in opposition to sectionalism and states' rights, which was a plus for Northerners. Taylor eked out a victory in the 3-way race. Nicknamed 'Old Rough and Ready,' he took a no-nonsense approach to governing the nation as one might expect of a military man, and set about letting Congress and the people know that he was in charge.
But there was one tide that even 'Old Rough and Ready' couldn't stem. Earlier in 1848, California was part of the land added to the U.S. in the Mexican cession, but the debate over slavery had stalled any decision-making about organizing the territory as far as Americans were concerned. It was a difficult time for the former Mexican residents and one Californian seemed to be at the end of his luck.
James Marshall had left Missouri in 1845 and traveled to California for his health. He found work as a carpenter overseeing the construction of a sawmill for John Sutter, a colonial magistrate for the Mexican government. Just a week before the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was finalized, Marshall was inspecting the creek as it left Sutter's Mill and saw something shiny. He said, 'I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively, and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this--sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken.' As it turns out, the metal that James Marshall found in Sutter's Mill was gold.
At first Sutter and Marshall tried to keep it a secret. Unfortunately, neither of them knew much about mining, so Sutter hired some men to work for him. These employees were more successful than they let on - stealing most of the gold and spending it around town. This got the attention of a local newspaper publisher who proclaimed to the world that there was gold in Sutter's Mill. Marshall and Sutter were literally forced off the land by the influx of people. Before the gold rush subsided in a few years, 300,000 prospectors from nearly every continent had overrun California. Short of sending in the army against its own people, there was nothing the federal government could do to stop them. Even Sutter's land rights were challenged and overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Sutter's only compensation was that the courts agreed if the land hadn't been his, then he shouldn't have had to pay taxes on it. He moved back to Pennsylvania and lived off the tax settlement; he had lost everything else. James Marshall ended up in a cabin in the California hills and tended a subsistence garden to feed himself.
In 1849 alone, the rush of nearly 90,000 so-called 'forty-niners' brought California's rural ranching lifestyle to an abrupt end. Tiny San Francisco, with its deep-water port, became the landing point for half of the prospectors from around the world, growing from a settlement of 200 people to a booming metropolis of nearly 35,000 in 1850. The arrival of families meant the development of towns and roads, schools and protestant churches. Greedy settlers challenged Mexican and Spanish land grants. If the claim couldn't be proven in court within two years - an expensive and nearly impossible task - the property was sold by the state, almost always to white immigrants. Ranches across the Mexican cession that had been in families for as many as 250 years were gone overnight if they didn't have the original land deed still legible with an intact signature that they could present in court speaking English. In just one year, California was filled with Americans wanting statehood.
And that brings us back to President Taylor. Always the pragmatist, he devised a plan for the new lands of the Mexican cession. It was the territory stage that had created the slavery debates over adding new land. But at the point of statehood, the new government simply wrote a constitution that indicated whether they allowed slavery or not. So President Taylor urged settlers in New Mexico and California to jump straight to the second step - just draft constitutions and apply for statehood, bypassing the territorial stage.
Southern leaders knew both states would ban slavery and threatened to secede. Not one to back down from a good fight, President Taylor promised that he himself would ride out with the army to enforce the laws and personally oversee the hanging of anyone in rebellion against the Union. If Taylor had been president for another term, the crisis over slavery might have been squashed for good. Unfortunately, 'Old Rough and Ready' suffered a heat stroke during a 4th of July celebration and died within a week. No official decisions had been made about the newly acquired land. His successor, Millard Fillmore, would have to settle the issue.
Let's review. In 1848, the Whig Party nominated General Zachary Taylor - the hero of the Mexican-American War - as their candidate for president. The Democratic Party had split in two over the issue of slavery in the land from the Mexican cession, creating the Free Soil Party. Taylor won the election, and proceeded to run the country as he had run the army. But shortly before the treaty ending the war was finalized, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California. The immediate result was chaos, and even Sutter was forced off his land. The following year, 1849, thousands of people flooded the western territory. Within a year, the landscape was transformed from quiet, family ranches into the international port of San Francisco. In 1850, the people of California wanted to become a state. It had been President Taylor's suggestion that they skip the territorial stage and go straight to writing a constitution, so that they could avoid the contentious Congressional debate over slavery. Southern lawmakers protested and threatened to secede if the plan were carried out. The president bristled, and told the Southerners in no uncertain terms that the plan was legal and he would see it carried out. Unfortunately, 'Old Rough and Ready' died before any decisions were made.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 127 lessons | 5 flashcard sets
Next LessonPrimary Source: New York Daily Herald Article on Gold Discovery in California