On September 9, 1850, California became the 31st state in the union, just two years removed from Mexican control and joining a nation in expansion mode.

The original and makeshift flag, shown here, bore the likeness of a grizzly bear, a star, and a red bar, was destroyed by fire following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.
The original and makeshift California flag, shown here, was destroyed by fire following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco.

After Spain ruled Mexico and the West for 300 years, Mexico gained its independence in 1821 and with it, control of California among its realm. With the United States and Mexico at war in 1846, the Mexican governor in California proclaimed that land purchases in California by foreigners would be considered null and void, and that the Mexican government could expel the intruders at its discretion.

Hence, a group of California men seized the town of Sonoma in 1846. The so-called Bear Flag Revolt, aided by U.S. Army Captain John C. Fremont, gave the movement control of most of California north of San Francisco Bay. It put Mexico’s claims of territory ownership into question and paved the way for the U.S. to soon take control of the entire Pacific Coast.

The Mexican-American War ended with Mexico signing the Treaty of Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, completely unaware gold had been discovered nine days earlier at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma on January 24.

A photograph of diggings at the American River during the Gold Rush, Men, women and children are standing near a body of water with their tools.
The American River during the Gold Rush.

The news brought thousands upon thousands of gold seekers to California, and with them came their politics and social beliefs. When California sought statehood as a free state in 1849, the proposal roiled a debate in Washington, D.C. that centered on the balance of free and slave states as the nation expanded. The result, bargained by Senator Henry Clay, was the Compromise of 1850. The Compromise admitted California as a free state, amended the Fugitive Slave Act and abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C. It also established a territorial government in Utah and led to the creation of New Mexico as a territory as well.

Consequently, California became a state without first formally becoming a territory. So how did Californians celebrate their newfound statehood on September 9, 1850?

They didn’t for more than a month, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story. Word traveled by ship from Washington, D.C. to Panama, and was toted over land to the Pacific Ocean. A mail steamer carried it the rest of the way. The news arrived in San Francisco on October 18, 1850, adorned with “flying flags and an enormous banner announcing, “California Admitted!”

A black and white photograph of Mary Helen Crosby dressed in all black taken sometime around 1880s.
Mary Helen Crosby during her later years.

A woman named Mary Helen Crosby carried the official documents in her umbrella. A day later, Peter H. Burnett – the state’s first civilian American governor – made a mad dash in a stagecoach from San Francisco to San Jose, “shouting at the tops of our voices, ‘California is admitted into the Union!’”

San Jose became California’s first state capital, with brief interludes at Vallejo and Benicia before moving permanently to Sacramento in 1854.

While it is not a legal state holiday, you have to admit it’s an historic one.

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