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The Wars that Affected California’s Statehood

Updated on September 19, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

California’s statehood was forged out of war -- in particular, the Mexican-American War. Even today, in a state that has a tendency to bulldoze its historical landmarks to make way for freeways and urban sprawl, there are a few constant reminders of this war’s influence on the golden state.

Landmarks can be found along the highways, country roads, and city streets. Many of these markers are on the site of battles fought in California during this war. One particular monument, Fort Moore Memorial – a huge mural near downtown Los Angeles — depicts a pivotal moment when Los Angeles (then a pueblo) became the property of the United States.

While this war was the most important war to affect California, there was another major war that nearly altered the state’s border, political position, and possible secession from the United States.

Although no official battles of the Civil War were ever fought in California, the war did have a profound effect on the state. On top of that, the Union and Confederates prized California for its access to gold and the Pacific Ocean. In fact, the Confederates considered -- and put into action -- an invasion from Texas.

The importance of California

Powerful empires wanted California. The Spanish were the first to arrive and establish a colonial system in the guise of the California Mission system. Others such as England and Russia were laying claims. Reasons vary for their claims; however, the state had two natural harbors, grasslands and fertile fields that any empire could exploit.

Spain and England were at war with each other during the 16th century. They were also in a race to colonize the Americas. While Spain succeeded in colonizing Mexico, they barely made waves in “Upper California” as it was known. Spain prized the San Diego and San Francisco Bays. They also saw the opportunities to Christianize the Native Americans through their mission system, as well as take advantage of some of the future state’s resources.

England never established a colony in California; however, Sir Francis Drake claimed the San Francisco Bay area for Queen Elizabeth. The move was most likely an attempt to antagonize the Spanish Empire – at the time, the greatest power in the world.

The Russians were more interested in pelt from otter than anything else. They sailed the coast looking for these valuable aquatic mammals. Even so, they managed to establish a fort in Northern California.

The Spaniards had staying power. By the late 1700s – at the time the United States won its independence and began to forge its new and current constitution - pueblos or towns, ranch lands, the missions and its road system (El Camino Real) were established. The first was San Diego, then Los Angeles and later San Francisco.

After the Mexican War of Independence (1810-1821), Mexico assumed control of the region. But, its grip on the region was precariously weak. Settlers from the United States were moving into its territory.

The Mexican-American War

In 1846, tensions caused by border disputes, the annexation of Texas, and President James Polk’s desire to expand the US territory to the Pacific Ocean led to war.

California had been on the minds of several politicians in the United States and England. In 1842, American minister in Mexico, Waddy Thompson Jr. reported to then President John Tyler that Mexico might be willing to cede California to settle debts.

Thompson saw this as a great opportunity. He felt California had more resources to offer the United States than any other territory in the west at the time. British minister in Mexico, Richard Parkenham, wrote in 1841 to Lord Palmerston about the opportunity of acquiring the region – in particular the San Francisco Bay – and turning it into an English colony.

In 1846, California settlers in Sonoma revolted – with the help of American Major John C Fremont’s expeditionary force - and declared themselves a republic (often known as the Bear Flag Republic). This republic never set up its own government. It lasted 26 days in which, by that time, the United States invaded.

If the revolt was nonviolent, the battle for the rest of California wasn’t. Major battles were fought on land while U.S. Navy conducted blockades and amphibian attacks with the Marines.

The pueblo of Los Angeles proved to be a pivotal part of the California campaign. Occupation of the city changed several times until the U.S. won a decisive victory in the Battle of La Mesa outside San Diego.

The California campaign lasted until January 13, 1847 when hostility was ended by the Treaty of Cahuenga. By that time, most of the fighting had shifted to Mexico. The war would eventually end in 1848 resulting in a U.S. victory.

Despite its status, California was viewed as a “border” state. Northern and Southern sympathizers immigrated there. Also, Native Californians – essentially, Mexicans who became U.S. citizens – were still divided by allegiance to the country or Mexico.

Map of U.S. during the Civil War
Map of U.S. during the Civil War | Source

The Civil War

A year later, gold was discovered. The Gold Rush would cause a huge influx of immigration from within the United States and beyond. It resulted in California becoming a state in 1850.

California’s admittance was not an easy transition. It spurred the long-drawn debate on slavery. Eventually, California became a free state.

Despite its status, California was viewed as a “border” state. Northern and Southern sympathizers immigrated there. Also, Native Californians – essentially, Mexicans who became U.S. citizens – were still divided by allegiance to the country or Mexico.

The state was run by the Democrats (not the same party in existence today) which most of the Southern states were. Surprisingly, the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won support in California. Governor Downey, a Democrat - as well as most of California – chose to stay in the union.

Still, the state assembly had its fair share of secessionists. Also, there was some resistance in southern California. Things became so contentious, that the assembly voted to split California. Southern California was to become the state of Colorado (of course, this was before the present-day state of Colorado was admitted to the United States).

When war broke out, the state remained unified. The legislation to separate the state was shelved.

Not all accepted California’s stance; the Los Angeles Mounted Rifle – a multi-ethnic unit - became the only militia from a “free state” to join the Confederates. They helped General Albert Sidney Johnston — who would eventually become the second in command in the Confederate Army — to escape from Los Angeles at the outset of the war.

Still, in a state with a population of 430,000, approximately 15,725 Californians volunteered.

The re-enactment of the battle
The re-enactment of the battle | Source

War in the West

California was in the midst of a crisis. The Confederates threatened to invade. Secessionists in the state were taking to the streets (especially around Los Angeles), and some Native American tribes were on the warpath.

Still, in a state with a population of 430,000, approximately 15, 725 Californians volunteered. Many volunteers companies were sent to protect the various overland routes in the western territories from Confederates and a few Native American tribes. Others fought in the east and served with distinction.

It didn’t take long for the Confederates to react. Texan troops easily swept through the New Mexico and Arizona territories. Led by Captain Robert Hunter, they captured Tucson and pushed as far as the Colorado River.

The war never crossed the river. In April 1862, Colonel James H. Carleton, a 20-year veteran of the Army who had fought in the Mexican-American War, led the California Column from Fort Yuma into the territory.

Eighty miles along the Gila Trail near Grinnell’s Ranch, advance scouts came across some of Capt. Hunter’s soldiers. A skirmish broke out, but proved to be indecisive. This minor battle would become the westernmost conflict of the Civil War.

The conflicts in the territory lead to the Battle of Picacho Pass (north of Tucson). In this minor skirmish (with a total of three dead and three wounded on the Union side and three Confederates captured and two wounded), the Californians managed to snatch victory from defeat. Although the small Union cavalry unit led by Lt. James Barrett (who was killed in the fight) was forced to withdraw, the opposing Confederate forces, known as the Arizona Rangers, went back to warn the larger Confederate forces occupying Tucson.Instead of fighting, the Confederates retreated from the town, allowing the California Column to take the city without firing a shot.

It was a victory on many levels. This action left New Mexico open to the Union and possibly a chance to push the Confederates back to Texas. However, the Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederates in the Battle of Glorieta Pass near Pecos, New Mexico This victory ended the Confederate threats in the Southwest.


California’s first 15 years as a state of the Union was contentious. The Mexican-American War brought the region to United States. The Gold Rush and mass migration helped to make it a state. But, it was the nearly forgotten events and contributions during the Civil War that solidified it as an important state of the Union. California’s existence and progress as an important state is its own “landmark” and legacy


© 2016 Dean Traylor


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