The Price of Gold

Looking Back at California’s First Constitution

By California State Archives

California State Constitution (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

A High Price to Pay?

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 precipitated the adoption of California first constitution in 1849. This attempt by Californians to define themselves and their values occurred during a period of massive immigration and change. 

While wealth and opportunity benefited some, others ended up suffering a high price for the gold of California. 

Raising of the bear flag (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Raising the Bear Flag

California changed in the years before and after the state’s admission to the Union on September 9, 1850. Spanish settlement was followed by Mexican and American rule. The raising of the Bear Flag at Sonoma on June 14, 1846 occurred during the Mexican-American War.

The flag raised at Sonoma on June 14, 1846 included a grizzly bear, a five-pointed star and other elements. The design of this Bear Flag formed the basis of the State Flag adopted by the legislature in 1911.

Battle of San Pasqual (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Battle of San Pascual

Upon the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo on February 2, 1848, California became a part of the United States. The organization of civil government and admission to the Union would follow rapidly as gold was discovered and the world beat a path to California.

James Marshall discovering gold (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

James Marshall Discovering Gold

James Marshall’s discovery on January 24, 1848 changed California forever. In March news appeared in print. Merchants and farmers fled their shops and fields, and hundreds of ships abandoned by their crews  filled the wharfs of San Francisco.

James Marshall and John Sutter testing the gold (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

James Marshall and John Sutter Test the Gold

In July there were 4,000 miners in the gold fields. The merchants who supplied the mining camps with equipment and drink were more likely to get rich quick than were the miners themselves. By 1853 twelve million ounces of gold had been extracted from the earth.

Immigration to California by ship (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Immigration to California by Ship

Rapid immigration would have a devastating impact on California’s population. Around 157,000 people lived in California in 1846, of whom about 150,000 were Native Americans. In 1850, this indigenous population fell to 100,000. 

Immigration to California by wagon train (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Immigration to California by Wagon Train

An estimated 415,000 individuals lived in California in 1860, including only about 35,000 Native Americans. California’s population had doubled in less than fifteen years, but three-quarters of her indigenous community had been wiped out.

Panning for gold (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Panning for Gold

More than 20,000 Chinese immigrants arrived in California by 1853. Some American miners resented what they perceived as foreign competition. A law passed by California’s legislature in 1850 aimed to reduce their numbers. 

Blank Foreign Miner's License (1853) by Records of the California State LegislatureCalifornia State Archives

Foreign Miner's License

Since Chinese immigrants could not legally become U.S. citizens, this and later laws taxing foreign miners increasingly targeted this community. In 1856 alone, income from foreign miners’ licenses accounted for about a quarter of all State tax revenue.

Sweet Vengeance Gold and Silver Mining Company (1860) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Sweet Vengeance Gold and Silver Mining Company

Free Black men and women arrived during the Gold Rush. Some who were brought while enslaved purchased their freedom with profits they earned from mining. Black miners in Browns Valley in Yuba County formed their own mine: the Sweet Vengeance Gold and Silver Mining Company.

Rare Ripe Gold and Silver Mining Company (1860) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Rare Ripe Gold and Silver Mining Company

Edward Duplex arrived in 1855 and served on the board of directors of the Black-owned Rare Ripe Gold and Silver Mining Company in Browns Valley. Duplex served as mayor of Wheatland in later years, becoming the first Black mayor west of the Mississippi.

Colton Hall (1948) by California Centennials Commission RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Colton Hall

Congress did not form a government in California. US military officers and officials appointed or elected during the Mexican period maintained rule. Military Governor Bennet Riley called for an election in 1849 to select delegates to attend a Constitutional Convention. 

California State Constitution (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

California State Constitution

Over 43 days, 48 delegates crafted this document and struggled with big and small questions. Only 7 had been born in California, and most of them came from New England or the South. There were lawyers, ranchers, merchants, printers, surveyors and a man “of elegant leisure.”  

Constitution signature page (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Constitution Signature Page

The delegates’ average age was 37, and most of them had been in California for less than 3 years. Most of them had to search for suitable accommodations while attending the Convention at Colton Hall in Monterey (some even had to resort to sleeping outside under the trees). 

Draft preamble (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Draft Preamble

The Constitutional Convention's working papers show the changes made by the delegates. They used copies of the US Constitution and some states’ constitutions. California’s 1849 Constitution is very similar to Iowa’s 1844 Constitution because delegate William Gwin worked on both.

Declaration of rights (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Declaration of Rights

The Declaration of Rights includes parts of the Bill of Rights from Iowa’s constitution pasted onto the document. The final language in both is almost identical, including the right to enjoy and defend life and liberty, and the right to pursue and obtain safety and happiness.

Spanish language state constitution (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Spanish Language State Constitution

Eight of the delegates were Hispanic, and the proceedings of the convention were translated into Spanish. The Constitution is written in English and Spanish, and it required that laws be published in both languages.

Rights of suffrage (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Rights of Suffrage

California’s borders and voting rights were two issues considered by the convention. William Gwin proposed to push California’s eastern border as far as Colorado. Another proposal recommended excluding “Indians, Africans and the descendants of Africans” from the ballot.

California’s borders (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Delegate José de la Guerra argued that Native Americans are a “proud and gifted race...it was the duty of the citizens...to elevate them and better their condition in every way, instead of seeking to sink them still lower.” It was decided that only white men could vote.

California state bond (1860) by California Adjutant General RecordsCalifornia State Archives

California State Bond

The Convention left the issue of Native American rights unresolved (8 years later delegate Manuel Dominguez was barred from testifying in a court case due to his Native American ancestry). Tragically, California’s indigenous population were frequently subjected to violence.

Select Committee on Indian Affairs (1860) by California Adjutant General RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Select Committee on Indian Affairs

H.L. Hall spoke to the Legislature in 1860 about killings in Mendocino County's Eden Valley: “we killed…8 male Indians...all the squaws were killed because they refused to go further…the infants were put out of their misery and a girl 10 years of age was killed for stubbornness.”

Detail of the State Constitution (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

The Convention paid $500 to John Hamilton to write the final version of the Constitution. It took him 3 days and nights the write the text on 19 pieces of parchment, or animal skin. The first page even features an illustration of a vaquero, or horseman, lassoing a steer.

Detail of the State Constitution signature page (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

John Hamilton wrote Pedro Sainsevain's name on the Constitution’s signature page in pencil. Sainsevain, a delegate to the Convention, was absent on the day of the signing due to a family illness.

Election ballot (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Election Ballot

On October 13, 1849, Monterey celebrated the end of the convention. An attendee wrote “the band consisted of 2 violins and 2 guitars, whose music made up in spirit what it lacked in skill.” The Constitution was signed the next day and was voted on the following month.

Santa Barbara County election results (1849) by California Secretary of State RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Santa Barbara County Election Results

It was ratified by a 10-to-1 margin: 12,061 to 811. California’s admission to the Union threatened to upset the balance of power between free and slave states. A package of Federal legislation known as the Compromise of 1850 was needed before California became the 31st state. 

California’s fugitive slave act (1852) by California State LegislatureCalifornia State Archives

California's Fugitive Slave Act

On September 9, 1850, California entered the Union. Slavery was outlawed, but the Legislature passed a fugitive slave law in 1852. If an enslaved person “shall escape into this State, the person to whom such labor…may be due…is…empowered to seize…such fugitive.” 

Carter Perkins (1852) by California Supreme Court RecordsCalifornia State Archives

Carter Perkins, Robert Perkins, and Sandy Jones, 3 enslaved men brought from Mississippi to mine for gold, were returned to bondage by state authorities. The right to pursue and obtain safety and happiness promised in the Constitution would remain unfulfilled for many people.

Credits: Story

All images from records of the California State Archives.

Digital exhibit by Sebastian Nelson (2022)

Imaging by Thaddeus McCurry and Brian Guido (2022)

California State Archives
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