El Dorado County and California Statehood
The County of El Dorado and its citizens played several important roles in the creation of the 31st State in the Union, California. The most obvious one, of course, is James Wilson Marshall’s discovery of gold at Coloma, which started the great Gold Rush of 1849, and increased the population of California from a few thousand to around a quarter million in just a few short years.
That many ungoverned people on American soil, that was neither a territory or a state, was a problem to president Zachary Taylor, and later Millard Fillmore, both of whom favored statehood. But, that was not enough to generate congressional action granting California statehood or, for that matter, even the status of a territory.
The ongoing debate over free and slave states was the major factor holding up the admission of California as either a territory or state.
It would take serious pressure from the residents of California to force any action by congress. The source of this needed pressure may have originated right on the streets of what is now Placerville, through first the pen and then the actions of a young news reporter.
In 1846 Edward Gould Buffum was a young man of twenty working as a correspondent for the New York Herald. He was the youngest son of a Quaker family in Rhode Island who were well known abolitionists and a major part of the Underground Railroad, which helped escaped slaves reach Canada and freedom. When the Herald carried the announcement of the formation of the New York Battalion to serve in the war with Mexico, young Edward immediately joined the unit. He, like many others, was probably not there for the fight, but for the adventure since they would be taken to California and, if they wished, be paid and discharged there. When the New York Battalion arrived in California the war with Mexico was all but over and in the fall of 1848, now Lieutenant Buffum, was discharged at Santa Barbara.
Still working for the Herald as a correspondent, albeit long distance, Buffum easily obtained similar employment with San Francisco’s biggest newspaper, the Alta California. Mining and writing, he worked his way into the foothills of central California, stopping for some time in a town known as Weberville, which was located on Weber Creek in El Dorado County, between today’s Placerville and Diamond Springs.
According to his book, “Six Months in the Gold Mines” and articles in the Alta California and Herald, he was in the town of Old Dry Diggings on a Sunday morning in late January of 1849 when something unexpected happened. There he witnessed the first reported executions for murder in California, the hangings which gave the town its notorious name of Hangtown.
In his book he gives a lengthy account of the event and mentions that he “mounted a stump” and protested the proceedings, but, fearing for his own life, ceased voicing his objections.
It is obvious that the lack of an organized government which allowed these hangings to occur, seriously offended his very moral values since his correspondence to the two newspapers immediately took on a different tone.
In addition to his reports of the news from the mines, he now constantly pushed the need for civil law, local government and statehood for California. He also often voiced his disfavor with General Bennett Riley, the military governor of California, since he believed that a military governor had no constitutional power outside of wartime and, there being no war, civil law was non-existent.
Within just a couple of months after the hangings in “Hangtown,” Buffum and several others had organized a mass meeting of the citizens of San Francisco in favor of a convention for forming a state government.
An advertisement was placed in the Alta California announcing the meeting and on June 12, 1849, a large group of citizens gathered in San Francisco’s Portsmouth Square.
A committee was appointed, consisting of Peter H. Burnett, Esq., who would become California’s first American governor, William D. M. Howard, Myron Norton, Edward Gilbert and E. Gould Buffum “to correspond with the other districts and fix an early day for the election of delegates and the meeting of the convention…”
When General Riley, who now claimed to be not only the military governor of California but also the civil governor, received word of the proposed mass meeting he immediately reacted and called for the same thing – a constitutional convention to form a state government for California. This was his attempt to squelch what he believed was outside of the law.
Riley’s early reaction to the meeting called by the citizens defeated their further action. As General Riley had given no hint of his desire to turn over California to its citizens before this time, the a chain of events starting in a little mining town in the foothills may well have forced him to set in motion the wheels of statehood.
Under General Riley’s direction, elections were held around the state in districts delineated by him. The Sacramento district included what would become El Dorado County and the following delegates were elected from that district: John A. Sutter, Jacob R. Snyder (an attorney from Sacramento), Winfield Scott Sherwood (an attorney from Mormon Island) and W. E. Shannon (an attorney from Coloma).
On September 1, 1849, the 15 delegates elected to the Constitutional Convention, along with numerous supernumeraries, met at Colton Hall in Monterey. It was a difficult task, but they were obviously up to it since, in little more than two months they had produced a constitution for California and had it printed and distributed in both in English and Spanish. In addition, they produced a list of candidates for state offices.
On November 13, 1849, everything they had done was put to a vote of the people and the California Constitution was adopted with 12,065 votes for it and only 811 against.
Sixteen senators and thirty-seven assemblymen were elected to the State Legislature and Peter H. Burnett, an attorney and former real estate agent for John Sutter, Jr., was elected Governor. John McDougal was elected Lieutenant-Governor; William Van Voorhies, Secretary of State; Richard Roman, Treasurer; J. S. Houston, Comptroller; Edward J. C. Kewen, Attorney General; Charles J. Whiting,Surveyor-General; S. C. Hastings, Chief-Justice; A. Lyon and Nathaniel Bennett, Assistant-Justices and Edward Gilbert and George W. Wright to represent California in Congress.
On December 15, 1849, California’s legislature met and, after a few days of debate, elected two United States senators, Dr. William M. Gwinn and Lieutenant-Colonel John C. Fremont.
Realizing the people had spoken, although he openly disagreed with their legal right to do so, on December 20, 1849 General Riley declared the renunciation of the administration of civil affairs and California assumed the character of a State, skipping entirely the preparatory condition of a territory.
At the opening of the 31st U. S. Congress on December 3, 1849, the issue of statehood for California immediately came up. It was obvious to everyone there that tired of waiting for action from congress, California had itself decided statehood. But congress still balked.
The Constitution of California forbid slavery, which did not set well with southerners such as Calhoun, Foote and Jefferson Davis. That issue, was not up to the citizens of California, they argued. Senator ...