Conquering California, Part 17 of 17: The Conquerors After Conquest
This is the final part of a 17-part series. At last, it’s over. What’s over? Well shit, if you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.
To start at the beginning, and read this entire series like a history book, follow this link.
President James K. Polk
James K. Polk had promised he would only be a one-term president, when he was elected in 1844. Sound familiar? Every presidential candidate seems to promise this. Yet he’s one of the few who kept that promise, opting not to run for re-election in 1848.
He’d entered office full of energy, and eager to fulfill his mandate of Western expansion. But apparently, expanding the size of the United States is not as easy as it may seem. Those four grueling years in office exhausted his health, and he left weak and frail.
He contracted cholera just three months after leaving office, and died on June 15, 1849, at the age of 53.
U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin
Thomas O. Larkin had been the first, and only, U.S. Consul to Alta California. After the war ended he was free to buy land in California. And buy he did. Real estate was glowing hot in the Golden State at that time, and Larkin made a fortune from his land speculations. By the late 1850’s he was possibly the richest man in America.
But he didn’t have long to enjoy his good fortune. On October 27, 1858, he contracted typhoid fever, and died at age 56.
Major Archibald H. Gillespie
Archibald H. Gillespie survived his lance wounds suffered at the Battle of San Pasqual. But he remained a major asshole, and thus never rose beyond the rank of major. He resigned from the Marine Corps in 1854, at age 42. He died on August 16, 1873, at the age of 60, in San Francisco.
Commodore Robert F. Stockton
In 1849, Charles Weber laid out a town located at a supply point for gold miners, on the San Joaquin River. He named it Stockton, after Commodore Stockton. Today, with a population of around 300,000, Stockton is California’s 13th largest city.
Commodore Stockton resigned from the Navy in May 1850. In 1851, he was elected U.S. Senator from New Jersey, and as a senator he sponsored a bill to abolish flogging as a Navy punishment. He was a delegate to the Peace Conference of 1861, that unsuccessfully attempted to avert Civil War. He died in 1866, at age 71.
General Stephen W. Kearny
Kearny was welcomed back to Washington D.C. as a hero of the Mexican-American War. He was appointed military governor of Veracruz and Mexico City, during the post-war occupation of Mexico.
In September 1848, President Polk promoted him to Major General, over the angry objections of John Fremont’s powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas Benton. But Benton had no need to feel upset. The month after Kearny’s promotion, in October 1848, Kearny contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 54.
Kit Carson was romanticized and popularized by John Fremont, in Fremont’s writings of his Western exploits. Mentions of massacres and murders were glossed over, or spun to make Carson look like a great Western hero.
During the Civil War, Carson led a regiment of Hispanic volunteers on the side of the Union, in the Battle of Valverde. This battle took place in Confederate Arizona (now part of New Mexico). His regiment performed well, but the Union general in charge employed poor tactics, and the Confederates won.
After the Confederate threat to New Mexico was finally eliminated, Carson led forces that suppressed the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche peoples, by destroying their food sources.
Kit Carson died in Fort Lyon, Colorado from an aortic aneurysm, on May 23, 1868. He was 58.
John C. Fremont
After the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, Commodore Stockton quickly appointed Fremont military governor of California. But then orders came from Washington that gave General Kearny the authority to appoint a governor, rather than Stockton.
Kearny changed the governorship appointment to Colonel Richard B. Mason. But Fremont hated Mason, and got into a pissing match with him, refusing to obey his orders, and challenging him to a duel.
Kearny responded to Fremont’s contumacious behavior by ordering him to accompany him on Kearny’s return march back east.
On August 22, 1847, Kearny and Fremont arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There Kearny had Fremont arrested and court-martialed for a variety of military offenses, including mutiny and disobeying orders.
On January 31, 1848, Fremont was acquitted of mutiny. But he was convicted of disobedience toward a superior officer, and of military misconduct. He was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge.
But by this time, Fremont was very popular in the United States. The press and public hailed him as a hero of the American West. The press followed his court-martial closely, and news of the verdict made headlines everywhere.
The verdict sparked popular outrage. President Polk approved of the verdict, but he feared the public sentiment. So he quickly commuted Fremont’s sentence and reinstated him into the Army. But he did not give Fremont a full pardon.
Fremont felt incensed that he had not received a full pardon and soon after, resigned from the Army in protest and returned to California.
There, Fremont became a multimillionaire in the Gold Rush, and also became one of California’s first two U.S. Senators.
His hero status continued, and it propelled him to the Republican Party’s nomination to president of the United States, in 1856. This made him the first Republican nominee for president, as the Republican Party had only recently been formed, in 1854. But he lost to Democrat James Buchanan.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Fremont to command the Department of the West, which was headquartered in Missouri. Fremont became the first in the American command to recognize and promote the fighting abilities of Ulysses S. Grant. But the headstrong Fremont got into a dispute with Lincoln and defied orders from the Commander-in-Chief, by trying to emancipate Missouri’s slaves. Lincoln fired him on November 2, 1861.
Fremont went on to dabble in speculative investments, and went broke during the financial Panic of 1873.
He was appointed Governor of the Arizona Territory in 1878, but showed little interest in the job, and resigned in 1881. He ended up living with his wife as a poor pensioner in Staten Island, New York. At age 77 he contracted peritonitis, dying on July 13, 1890.
Fremont was the instigator behind California’s Bear Flag Revolt, and made the conquest of California easier than it would have otherwise been, for the U.S. military.
He was a man of contradictions:
He was audacious, aristocratic, and charismatic. But he was also a cruel man, of low cunning, and capable of double-crossing his friends.
He murdered Native Americans, but treated surrendering Californios with generosity. He lived a life of celebrated adventure, but secretly colored it with deception, blood, and terror.
And he died on the East coast, a hero of the American West.
Congratulations! You made it to the end of this marathon 17-part series. I think I might do more series like this on other subjects. Unless this has been torture for you. If so, please say, “Ouch” in the comments. Otherwise, keep your running shoes on for more marathon unicorn chases, in the future.