Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alta California, filibusters, and the exceptional nation

A little California history. Mentioning General Vallejo, by Allan Rosenus, and 75 Years in California, by William Heath Davis.

Is the US exceptional, and exceptionally good? Are we the exceptional nation just because we have the biggest navy, or for some more positive attribute? Are we generous, or greedy? Do we confer democracy and good government on other nations and stand as a beacon of hope to the downtrodden, or do we confer kleptocracies and rob the downtroden of the little mite they have through pernicious trade deals and relentless consumerism?

We have shown many faces to the world over the years, and the recent JFK assassination anniversary was a chance to reflect on some of them. Oswald was apparently incited to some degree by the (true) stories he had heard in Mexico of the plots carried out by the US to assassinate Fidel Castro of Cuba, over and above the Bay of Pigs invasion. Our history in Latin America generally is a rather uninspiring one of rampant meddling and empowerment of the worst elements available. If one looks up the term "filibuster" on Wikipedia, one is met with a cavalcade of such instances of "manifest destiny", where Americans tried, with more or less success, to take over various Latin states, which must have seemed ripe for the picking, in an imperialist kind of way. For filibustering is unlawful predation, hostage taking, free-booting, meddling, etc. in another country, only later becoming that parliamentary gridlocking device.

The history of California is a fine example of this tradition. I have been reading two books: "General Vallejo", an excellent biography by Alan Rosenus, and "Seventy Five years in California", a beautifully written and very detailed memoir by William Heath Davis, an early merchant.

Spain set up a trail of missions up the California coast starting in 1769, enslaving the native indians with the Catholic church's one-way ticket to heaven, forming ranchos where the padres were in charge, each had a small military detachment to maintain control, and a vast flock of "conversos" to do the work. Who incidentally a died like flies from the treatment, the novel diseases, diet, etc. Mexico revolted from Spain in 1821, and the departments of Baja California and Alta California came under Mexican control, the missions were divided up and granted to, typically, former military officers. Such grants gradually encroached inland, past the coastal areas where the missions were originally confined. General Mariano Vallejo, who commanded the Presidio at San Francisco in 1833, among other posts, was granted large ranchos in the Sonoma area, north of the bay.

The rancheros slaughtered a portion of their stock each fall for hides and fat alone, leaving the rest of the carcasses, which attracted bears, which gave rise in turn to the excitement of roping and killing bears. California now has no grizzly bears, and maybe 30,000 black bears.
Mexico's hold over California was remarkably tenuous. Its own post-revolutionary government was tumultuous and unstable in the extreme, so its capacity to pay for or pay attention to the far-away province of Alta California was meagre. Mexicans looked down at their Northern rustic brethren, who used their enormous ranchos to run thousands of cattle and horses, their hides and tallow being pretty much the sole export of the province for the pre-US period, along with the furs of wild animals such as otters. The racheros carried on the Padre's practice of enslaving the native Americans, paying them solely in clothes and food, which was sometimes served from common troughs.

Indeed, it was a close-run thing whether California was going to side with the South or the North in the brewing Civil war. However, the predominant cultural influence from the US came from Boston, whose merchants (including William Davis) had traded up the coast since the Mexican accession,  (Richard Dana's Two Years Before the Mast is another great book in this historical literature), and married into the Californio social system.

"The native Californians [Californios, not Indians] were about the happiest and most contented people I ever saw, as also were the early foreigners who settled among them and intermarried with them, adopted their habits and customs, adn became, as it were, a part of themselves." - William Heath Davis, 75 years in California.

The exception was Sutter's fort. John Sutter was a Swiss/German adventurer and neer-do-well who after various failures around the world arrived in California (1839) with a small German entourage and enough charm to buy up Fort Ross, the Russian outpost North of San Francisco which was shutting down for lack of otters, which they had hunted to extinction. Sutter promised payment in goods (to be sent to Sitka, the remaining Russian outpost) to be raised around his land-grant near what is now Sacramento, also obtained with a good bit of charm from the Mexican authorities. While far from the coast, Sutter's fort (equipped with the materiel from Fort Ross) was still on navigable waters (the American and Sacramento rivers, and strategically placed at the foothills of the Sierras to intercept immigrants coming overland from the East. It soon became a hotbed of Americans and pro-American sentiment.
"Having accomplished my purpose of landing Captain Sutter at the junction of the American and Sacramento rivers with his men and his freight, the following morning we left him there, and headed the two vessels for Yerba Buena [now San Francisco]. As we moved away Captain Sutter gave us a parting salute of nine guns- the first ever fired at that place- which produced a most remarkable effect. As the heavy report of the guns and the echoes dies away, the camp fo the little party was surrounded by hundreds of the Indians, who were excited and astonished at the unusual sound. A large number of deer, elk, and other animals on the plains were startled, running to and fro, stoping to listen, their heads raised, full of curiosity and wonder, seeming attracted and fascinated to the spot, while from the interior of the adjacent wood the howls of wolves and coyotes filled the air, and immense flocks of water fowl flew wildly about over the camp. 
Standing on the deck of the 'Isabel' I witnessed this remarkable sight, which filled me with astonishment and admiration, and made an indelible impression on my mind. This salute was the first echo of civilization in the primitive wilderness so soon to become populated, and developed into a great agricultural and commercial center."

Enter John C Fremont, Major in the US army, whose assignment was to find the source of the Arkansas river. While the US was heading to war with Mexico over Texas, government policy at the time was to be a nice as possible to the Californians and not give any cause for grievance. But greed and glory were overwhelming temptations, and Fremont, who was evidently a persuasive and charismatic figure, led his troop of some 50 soldiers through surveys through the West, into Oregon, and down into California. There he began agitating for a takeover of California, under what seems to be a general sense of imperialism, manifest destiny, ambition, greed, etc. And perhaps competition with the other imperial powers of England and France. At first he kept the US out of it by not using his own soldiers, rather inciting a rabble of malcontents around Sutter's fort to start the proceedings.

Led by William Ide and the stuttering Ezekiel Merritt, this posse descended on General Vallejo's ranch in Sonoma in June, 1846 and took him prisoner, back to Sutter's fort. As Vallejo was the leading figure of Northern California at the time, this esentially decapitated local resistance, in case any was contemplated, which it was not. The Californios had had several revolutions against their governors from Mexico, and other political disagreements, but never were blood shed or manners forgotten. In contrast, Vallejo and several other prisoners were treated poorly, losing a great deal of weight, and the Anglo rabble stole countless horses and other livestock throughout the area. Along the way, they proclaimed a somewhat comical "California Republic", complete with flag, whose mascot was mocked as looking more like a pig than a bear. Fremont took increasing control, and on a foray out to Marin county, ordered three Californios captured in San Rafael to be shot in cold blood.

The original "bear" flag of the bear flag revolt.
It all created a great deal of bad blood between the Anglos and the Californios, and was completely unnecessary, as the direction of the political winds had long been clear. Leading Californios, especially Vallejo, were pro-American, favored development and competent government for the state, and preferred the nearby Republican power to a European imperial monarchy such as England or France. Indeed, U.S. Commodore Thomas Jones had captured the capital of Alta California, Monterrey, in 1842, holding it for a day before, amid a flurry of apologies, lowering the US flag once again when it was made clear that his belief that war had been declared between the two countries was in error. Not a shot had been fired, let alone a drop of blood spilled.

As it happened, while the Bear flag revolt was developing, war had indeed broken out between the US and Mexico over the Texas territory. US Commodore John Sloat pulled into Monterrey on July 7, 1846 and this time proclaimed California a US posession for good, and without any trouble. Upon meeting Fremont, he chewed him out for his filibustering, against orders. Eventually Fremont was court-martialed for his various departures from orders and policy, but let off the hook through his political connections and returned to service in the Civil war, only to be dimissed again by President Lincoln for corruption and insubordination. Vallejo for his part was eventually impoverished through a combination of bad business decisions, excess generosity, chicanery by Anglo partners, and finally a callous decision by the Supreme Court against some of his land claims.

The adventures and meddling of the sort that Fremont engaged in are by no means isolated in US history, under either official or unoffical auspices. The exceptional nation, with manifest destiny, muscular Christianity, a white man's burden, family values, and occupying a shining city on a hill, can do whatever it takes to remake the world in our image, which is naturally the best image imaginable.

Surely we have very beneficial things to offer others. But looking back, we have also run brutally roughshod over so much in the drive to conquer- natural, native, and foreign- that some grief and humility is also called for.

No comments:

Post a Comment