A Visit to the Pacific Shore: California in the Age of Lincoln

California State Archives

President Abraham Lincoln was one of the most influential individuals in our country's history. While this great man never set foot in California, he expressed a fascination with the newly-forged frontier state. On March 21, 1865, just weeks before he died, Lincoln voiced this interest to his friend Charles Maltby, Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California:

“I have long desired to see California; the production of her gold mines has been a marvel to me, and her stand for the Union, her generous offerings to the Sanitary Commission, and her loyal representatives have endeared your people to me; and nothing would give me more pleasure than a visit to the Pacific shore...”

Catapulted to statehood in 1850 as a result of the Gold Rush, California during the last fifteen years of Lincoln’s lifetime wrestled with many of the issues facing the rest of the Union – slavery, reliable transportation and communication, the Civil War – as well as challenges specific to the new state, such as flooding, mining, and the development of its government. The following exhibit explores the Golden State as it existed between 1850 and 1865, illustrating some aspects of the state that Lincoln may have observed had he ever made his much hoped-for “visit to the Pacific Shore”.

Gold Fever
James Marshall’s discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill along the American River in January 1848 forever transformed California.  Tens of thousands of migrants from across the globe rushed to the Mother Lode region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in search of riches.  In March of 1848, California's population consisted of approximately 150,000 Native Americans, 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican descent), and 700 additional people, most of whom were Americans.  By the end of 1849, the non-native population had soared to over 100,000, and the numbers kept growing.  By the mid-1850s, approximately 300,000 new arrivals called California home.           

The changes brought to California by the discovery of gold were nowhere more apparent than in San Francisco. The city in 1847 numbered only about 800 residents, featuring little but a few buildings, streets, and small wharves, as shown by this lithograph. As gold fever swept the world, fortune seekers descended on the city by the thousands.

One newspaper correspondent described San Francisco in 1848 as full of “buildings of all kinds, begun or half-finished…with all kinds of signs in all languages. Great quantities of goods were piled up in the open air, for there was no place to store them. The streets were full of people, hurrying to and fro, and of as diverse and bizarre a character as the houses.”

By 1851 (the date of this lithograph), San Francisco’s population swelled to over 30,000 people. Miners, merchants, gamblers, and speculators from around the globe arrived daily with hopes for a better future. Empty ships, abandoned by sailors rushing to the gold fields, crowded the city’s waterfront. The demand for new buildings was so great that the hulls of some of these ships were even brought ashore and used as offices, stores or hotels.

Placer gold, or surface gold, was relatively abundant in California’s waterways when the Gold Rush first began in 1848. Early prospectors initially used primitive tools such as picks, pans, and shovels to break up and wash riverbed gravel in their quest for riches.

This photograph shows miners using a gold pan, one of the most common implements seen in the early mines. Crouching on the riverbanks, placer miners swirled water and gravel in these shallow pans, loosening heavy gold flakes from river bottom soil. Miners often blackened their pans over campfires in order to make gold flakes more visible.

Hoards of gold seekers quickly exhausted surface supplies of the precious metal. Miners then turned to more invasive and technologically advanced mining techniques. Diverting waterways, blasting, and forms of hydraulic mining quickly replaced placer mining methods.

This photograph illustrates "ground sluicing," a precursor to hydraulic mining which entailed washing gravel through a series of sluices. Water diverted through the sluices carried lighter soil away, leaving the heavier, gold-bearing gravel to sink to the bottom of the sluice where it could be recovered by the miner.

By 1850, the substantial increase in the number of miners present at the diggings meant that claims became smaller and more difficult to obtain. The pressure of a growing population, coupled with the mounting costs and complexity of mining operations, produced rising tensions among the miners. This strain was often expressed as anti-foreigner sentiment on the part of the American miners.

The California State Legislature passed the Foreign Miner’s License Tax in April 1850 (chapter 97). The law required people not “native to or natural born citizens of the United States” to pay a monthly $20 fee for the right to mine in California. The Legislature repealed the law in 1851, but later reinstated a monthly $4 tax on foreign-born miners. The tax forced many foreigners out of the gold mines entirely.

By 1857, California’s gold production stabilized at roughly $45 million annually. President Lincoln later speculated that gold from California’s mines would significantly ease the heavy burden of national debt that had skyrocketed due to the immense costs of the Civil War. In April 1865, President Lincoln told a friend about to depart for California:

Tell the miners from me, that I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability; because their prosperity is the prosperity of the nation, and we shall prove in a very few years that we are indeed the treasury of the world.

One of the largest producers of gold in the state during the nineteenth century was the North Star Gold Mining Company. This company mined the so-called North Star (or French Lead) vein, discovered in 1851 in the Grass Valley area. The mine ultimately reached 4,000 feet of vertical depth, making it the deepest mine in the Grass Valley Gold District. This drawing shows the company's properties as they existed in 1868.

Wonderful Falls and Fabulous Trees
California’s natural assets included not merely her gold fields, but also the great beauty of her environment.  President Lincoln himself was apparently fascinated by accounts of California’s wealth of natural splendor.  An 1865 newspaper article quoted him as declaring, “California…about those Arcadian valleys of yours, those wonderful falls and fabulous trees, we can never hear enough”.

In particular, many considered Yosemite Valley and the giant sequoia trees of the Big Tree Grove as national treasures worthy of protection. To that end, President Lincoln signed the Yosemite Park Act, arguably his most lasting contribution to California.

Passed by Congress in 1864, this bill granted Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to the State of California. The act mandated that the land “be held for public use, resort, and recreation,” in essence protecting Yosemite from private land claims and preserving the park for future generations. Although Lincoln signed this law eight years before the establishment of the first national park, it can be said that California in general and Yosemite in particular was the birthplace of the idea of a national park.

California Governor Frederick Low signed this proclamation in 1864, appointing several individuals as commissioners to oversee Yosemite Valley. Among the commissioners was famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the father of New York City’s Central Park.

Not all of California's natural features were friendly to her new settlers. Catastrophic floods periodically ravaged the state, costing lives, destroying livestock, ruining crops, and causing millions of dollars in property damages. Two of these immense floods occurred during President Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime, inundating communities along the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers.

Storms on January 7, 1850 transformed the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada Mountains into raging torrents. Swollen by these waters, the Sacramento River flooded the new city of Sacramento for a mile back from the river. This print depicts the city as it looked on January 10th, its streets full of water and navigable only by boat. A small steamship plied the flooded streets delivering freight, replacing inventory washed out of doors and windows.

The floods of December 1861-January 1862 were even more severe, making news around the world (as shown by this page from the Illustrated London Times). This deluge created an inland sea that spread over thousands of acres, deep enough that boats could sail over the tops of telegraph poles in the Sacramento Valley. The waters carried hydraulic mining tailings that settled on the flatlands, creating what one observer described as a “desolate waste” in the flood’s aftermath.

Disastrous floods still plague California. Their impact is lessened, however, by an intricate system of flood control works, including protective levees, weirs, and bypass corridors.

Governing the New State
The rapid influx of miners and other fortune-seekers during the Gold Rush necessarily accelerated the development of political infrastructure in California.  Even as '49ers were flooding into the gold fields of the Sierra Nevada, delegates in Monterey were drafting a constitution and applying for admittance to the United States as a full state rather than a territory.      

California’s first Constitutional Convention met for thirty-seven days in Monterey, from September 1 to October 13, 1849. The constitution was approved by the delegates on October 10-11, 1849 and ratified by the electorate one month later (12,061 in favor; 811 against). The first State Legislature met December 15, 1849, in San Jose, and petitioned Congress to admit California to the Union. California was admitted to the Union on September 9, 1850.

Much of the 1849 Constitution was based heavily upon the constitution of Iowa, and to a lesser degree, the constitution of New York. John Hamilton, West Point Class of 1847, enrolled the Constitution on parchment. He wrote steadily for three days and nights to complete the laborious task. He was paid $500 for his efforts.

The enrolled Constitution is written on both sides of nineteen parchment (animal skin) pages, each measuring 12 1/2" by 15 1/2". The last page (shown here, at right) is devoted to the signatures of the delegates.

Section 21, Article XI of the 1849 Constitution decreed that all laws must be published in Spanish and English. Thus, for its first 30 years, California was a bilingual state. This provision was not included in the 1879 Constitution.

W.E.P. Hartnell was the official translator for the 1849 California Constitutional Convention. The Spanish translation of the Constitution, the first two pages of which are shown here, was written on 45 pages of heavy white paper, measuring 7 1/2" x 12".

The Constitution of 1849 was amended only three times in thirty years - in 1856, 1862, and 1871. In comparison, during the first thirty years after the adoption of the 1879 Constitution, eighty-six amendments were proposed and fifty-two were adopted.

The original 1849 Constitution, both English and Spanish versions, is housed at the California State Archives.

To learn more about the 1849 California Constitution, please visit the California State Archives' Constitutions webpage.

"A Structure That the Future Will Be Proud Of"  
California's State Legislature first provided for the construction of a state capitol building in 1856, creating the Board of State Capitol Commissioners to handle contracts and oversee the construction.  Crews broke ground on December 4, 1856.  Various delays periodically interrupted construction, but the Legislature was able to occupy the building in 1869.  

The California Constitution of 1849 stipulated that the first session of the new State Legislature be held in San Jose. In subsequent years, both Vallejo and Benicia served as the state’s capital, but the Legislature found the accommodations of all three locations inadequate. Legislative proceedings moved to Sacramento, which became the permanent state capital on February 25, 1854.

Sacramento County allowed the State Legislature to convene in the county courthouse for the next fifteen years, while a permanent state capitol building was constructed. The front elevation shown here comprises one of the many proposals submitted to the Legislature. Ultimately, the Board of State Capitol Commissioners adopted the plans of M.F. Butler.

Unfortunately, the plans created for the present-day state capitol building are no longer in existence, having been destroyed in a fire.

Construction crews broke ground for California's state capitol building on December 4, 1856. Unfortunately, ensuing fiscal obstacles brought the entire project to a halt within eleven days, not to resume for another four years.

Work on the structure resumed in September of 1860, and continued for many years. A series of floods, beginning in 1861, delayed construction and prompted the building's planners to raise the foundation to its present-day level.

While the Board of State Capitol Commissioners had accepted the plans of architect M.F. Butler, they appointed Reuben Clark to the post of Supervising Architect. Clark served in this capacity for five years.

In 1865, approximately a month after the assassination of President Lincoln, the Union League sent a report to the Board of State Capitol Commissioners concerning Clark’s loyalty to the Union. The Union League alleged that Clark made inflammatory statements to state capitol employees regarding Lincoln’s election to a second term in 1864. The League also charged that Clark “knowingly employed and retained outspoken secessionists as workmen on the aforesaid State Capitol building”

A few months after the Union League made its accusations of disloyalty, Clark requested a leave of absence because of an ongoing illness. When he did not return by January 1, 1866, the Commission appointed a new architect to fill Clark’s vacated position.

On February 5, Reuben Clark was committed to the Stockton State Hospital for “violent burst[s] of passion” that threatened his family, caused by “too close attention to the building of the State Capitol,” as seen in this patient registration page. Clark died of “general paralysis” on July 4, 1866. The Commission denied his final request to be buried on the grounds of the state capitol, and he was laid to rest in the Masonic Cemetery in San Francisco.

Although occupied for the first time in November 1869, the state capitol building was not completed until early spring of 1874. In justifying of the issuance of bonds to complete the structure, California Governor Leland Stanford stressed the importance of the building to future Californians:

In a young state like our own, poor in comparison to what its future promises, the conviction has become strong in my mind that coming generations should share with the present in the erection of any great and permanent building. And while thus calling upon the future for aid an edifice should be constructed that will be satisfactory to the grandeur of the coming time.

The building ultimately cost an estimated $2,600,000. Landscaping of the grounds surrounding the state capitol, known as Capitol Park, did not commence until the mid-1870s and continued until the 1890s.

Liberty and Justice For All
The 1849 California Constitution banned slavery, and California was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1850.  Despite this, the slavery debate raged in California until being put to rest by the 1865 ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery throughout the nation.  

The national debate over slavery did not bypass California. Southern slaveholders transported hundreds of slaves into the gold fields to work the mines. In addition, many free African Americans chose to join the Gold Rush. By 1852, approximately 2,000 African Americans called California home, a number that had doubled by 1860. Free or slave, however, state law remained ambiguous in terms of the civil rights of African Americans for many years.

In 1850, the California State Legislature restricted the right of all African Americans to vote, and their right to testify in a court case involving a white person. In addition, the Legislature enacted California’s Fugitive Slave Act in 1852, providing for the return of fleeing slaves to their Southern masters.

The Fugitive Slave Act was challenged the very same year it was enacted. That year, the California Supreme Court decided the fate of Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones, three African Americans who, despite claiming to be free men, were ultimately remanded to the custody of a slave owner from Mississippi. The document presented here is the opinion written by California Chief Justice Hugh Murray in regard to the Perkins case.

Several other California court cases, most famously that of Archy Lee in 1858, saw slave owners attempt to return free African Americans to servitude. Local communities rallied to support these defendants. Petitions like this one were circulated in an attempt to convince the Legislature to increase the legal rights of African Americans.

Southern plantation owners submitted petitions of their own, such as the one shown here. In this petition, which contains language and concepts commonplace in the mid-nineteenth century but which are abhorrent and offensive to most modern readers, a group of Southern plantation owners requested permission to "colonize a Rural District" with at least two thousand "African Domestics, they will bring with them the agricultural skill and experience in the cultivation of Cotton, Rice, and Sugar, with all the appliances necessary to prepare those productions for market." The State Legislature did not approve the formation of such a colony.

Fortunately, the Fugitive Slave Act expired in 1856, never to be renewed. Finally, in 1865, the State Legislature voted to ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery. Although African Americans still often encountered prejudice and hostility in California, they could no longer legally be subjected to involuntary servitude.

Transportation and Trade
A healthy economy relies on transportation and commerce to maintain and improve the living standards of its populace. To that end, within the first fifteen years of its existence the Golden State had provided legal protections for companies and trademarks, and had made huge steps toward linking its citizens and markets with the rest of the nation.

Chapter 128 of the Statutes of 1850 required stock-issuing companies in California to file articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State. The first company to do so, the California State Mining and Smelting Company, filed its documents (shown here) on May 27, 1850. Since that time, hundreds of thousands of articles of incorporation have been submitted to the Secretary of State, many of which are located at the California State Archives. These records provide invaluable insight to California’s economic, cultural, and social life.

In addition, since 1861 California’s Secretary of State has maintained an official trademark register whereby manufacturers can record and protect their brand names or product symbols. Creative packaging and labeling played an important role in the development of nineteenth century merchandising.

The first trademark filed in California is presented here. Registered by Delahanty, Skelly & Co. in 1861, the mark identified soda water bottles.

To view other nineteenth century trademarks registered in the Golden State, please visit the California State Archives' Trademarks website.

During President Lincoln’s lifetime, Americans who wished to visit California had to endure months of difficult and sometimes dangerous travel, either across the continent by horseback or wagon, or by ship across the sea. Even within the state, rough landscapes between widely scattered communities hindered communication and commerce. Starting in the late 1850s, this desperate need for better transportation was answered by development of the railroads.

California’s first railroad began operating in 1856, but widespread rail transport did not appear until the 1860s. Most significantly, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act in 1862, authorizing the construction of the transcontinental railroad.

The Union Pacific Railroad began work on the eastern half of the transcontinental railroad, but the western half of the work fell to the Central Pacific Railroad. Incorporated in 1861 by the “Big Four” (Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins) among others, the Central Pacific laid tracks east from Sacramento though the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Central Pacific Railroad began laying track for the western portion of the transcontinental railroad in 1863. President Lincoln took a great interest in this project, both as an asset to the nation and also from a personal perspective – he expressed an interest in visiting California by rail after he left the presidency.

In July of 1864, Lincoln appointed three men, including California Governor Frederick Low, as Commissioners to report to the President on the progress of the railroad’s construction (as put forth in this letter). The upheaval of the Civil War delayed progress somewhat, but by 1865 the pace of laying track had increased.

By the year of Lincoln’s death, over two hundred of miles of track had been built in the state. At this time, the Central Pacific relied in large part on the labor of over five thousand Chinese immigrants. Chinese crews forced the rail lines through the difficult terrain of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and to Promontory Point by 1869. The transcontinental railroad was complete, and California linked to the rest of the nation.

Over the next two decades, rail networks spread throughout the state, forever transforming California, its population, and its economy.

Civil War and the Golden State
Article VII of the 1849 California Constitution allowed the State Legislature to organize a militia, that the Governor then had the power to call upon "to execute the laws of the State, to suppress insurrections, and repel invasions."  Furthermore, in 1850 the Legislature passed laws allowing for the formation of volunteer militia groups at the local level.  Prior to the Civil War, these militia groups primarily served in the so-called "Indian Wars," a series of conflicts between white settlers and California's native population.  When the Civil War began, thousands of Californians volunteered for service in the militia, some heading to the East Coast and most serving in the western states.  

Several individuals who lived in California before the Civil War became famous Union or Confederate generals, including Ulysses S. Grant, Albert Sidney Johnson, and William Tecumseh Sherman. Sherman, for example, was appointed a Major General of the California State Militia in 1856. He penned the letter shown here to California Governor J. Neely Johnson that same year.

When the Civil War broke out, most Californians strongly supported the Union. Over 16,000 California residents volunteered to serve in the military from 1861 to 1865. Several hundred of these men fought in the great Civil War battles along the East Coast.

Most of these soldiers, though, served in California and throughout the western United States, filling the void left when President Lincoln recalled the regular army to fight the Southern secessionists. California’s militia volunteers established forts and guarded mail routes across a vast stretch of territory as far north as Canada, as far south as Mexico, and as far east as Texas.

In addition to securing the western United States, California’s citizens provided Lincoln and the Union with substantial financial support. The state’s great mineral wealth allowed for money in the form of taxes and private contributions to flow steadily to the war efforts in the east, including relief organizations such as the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

This letter is the only known example within the California State Archives of an original document penned by Abraham Lincoln himself.

In February of 1864, President Lincoln wrote to California Governor Frederick Low stating that he would be “personally obliged” if Low would promote William Barnes, a soldier in a California regiment. Like all presidents, Lincoln dealt with innumerable requests for promotions and appointments. Private Barnes was the stepson of Washington, D.C. judge James Hughes, who presumably approached Lincoln on behalf of Barnes.

Three months later Barnes was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Sixth California Infantry. Lieutenant Barnes’ military career proved less than stellar – within eighteen months he deserted twice, faced two courts martial, and suffered demotion. A variety of factors led to about ten percent of California’s soldiers deserting at some point during the Civil War, a figure fairly typical of the Union Army as a whole.

After the Civil War, California continued to grow. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 provided a critical connection with the rest of the nation, allowing for even more population growth. Between 1860 and 1870, the Golden State's population swelled by over 180,000 people, from 379,994 to 560,247.

In the fifteen years between statehood and the conclusion of the Civil War, California's citizens had created a vibrant state with a stable government, an active economy, and a diverse populace. Hopefully, had President Lincoln made his much-anticipated visit to the Pacific Shore, he would have been encouraged by the progress made in creating what would eventually become the most populous state in the Union and one of the largest economies on the globe.

Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives.

Curation of physical exhibit by Jessica Herrick, Sebastian Nelson, and Jessica Knox, with assistance from Juan Ramos and Kevin Turner (2009)

Digital adaptation by Jessica Herrick (2016)

Imaging by Jessica Herrick, Sebastian Nelson, and Jessica Knox

California State Archives
A Division of the California Secretary of State's Office
1020 O Street
Sacramento, CA 95814
Email: ArchivesWeb@sos.ca.gov
Reference Telephone: (916) 653-2246
General Information: (916) 653-7715
Fax: (916) 653-7363

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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