The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1983, Volume 29, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Editor

Book Review

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

California Conquered: War and Peace on the Pacific, 1846-1850. By Neal Harlow, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. Bibliography. Notes. Illustrations. Index. 499 pages. $24.95.

Reviewed by Dennis E. Berge, Professor of History at San Diego State University, who specializes in westward expansion and the Mexican War period.

This well executed study focuses upon the agents and actions of the United States contributing to the act of possession of California by this nation in the late 1840s. It is a story that has been told before in other settings, usually as part of the more comprehensive histories of the Mexican War, the several histories of California, or biographical studies of figures such as John Charles Frémont, James K. Polk, and Robert Stockton. What Harlow has done is to redefine the subject to make the entire process of the takeover his main story. He has drawn extensively from primary sources, and while he has come up with very little that is unusual in fact or interpretation he has produced a thorough and judicious treatment of the American acquisition of California.

James K. Polk entered the presidency in 1845 with the avowed intention of gaining California for the United States. This has been widely admitted among historians, but what has been debated is the extent to which Polk was willing to go in order to acquire the province. Outright purchase would be honorable, perhaps, and even acquisition as a result of a “just” war with Mexico could be clothed with a certain hard-handed legitimacy. The accusation against Polk, however, is that he went further than this—that he conspired to provoke a war of conquest with Mexico, and that he worked to promote rebellion and secession in California. Supporting the latter proposition is the known fact that Polk appointed Thomas Larkin, the U.S. consul at Monterey, as his confidential agent assigned to conciliate the Californians toward accepting peaceful annexation.

Other controversial Polk appointments appeared in California in the months preceding the opening of the war with Mexico, and during the war itself. John Charles Frémont arrived in December, 1845 at the head of a supposed survey party comprised of a burly crew that stayed around to support the Bear Flag Revolt, which was carried out by another bunch of American toughs. Commodore Robert Stockton, who replaced the cautious John Sloat as commander of the California fleet in July, 1846, was possessive about California from the day he arrived. Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, another of Polk’s confidential agents, arrived in California in May, 1846 as presidential message-bearer to Larkin and Frémont, and the subsequent bellicose actions of Frémont have led to the suspicion that Gillespie had come to California to coordinate a takeover from within. Harlow argues against this proposition. Frémont’s involvement in the Bear Flag Revolt, he argues, came from weaknesses in his own character and judgment. His frequently embarrassing actions were representative of the problem with California, where military commanders, far removed from home, had to exercise independent command.

Frémont acted irresponsibly, angering native Californians and contributing to an armed revolt centering in Los Angeles, while Stockton mismanaged the countering blow and Gillespie, caught with a small force in Los Angeles, proved himself to be Stockton’s equal in tactical ineptitude.

Another problem emerged with the arrival in California of Stephen Watts Kearny and his overland expedition as Kearny, Stockton and Frémont wrangled over jurisdiction and Frémont blazed a trail to his own court martial. A contrast to this chaos was achieved with the arrival of Colonel Richard Mason in February, 1847, with orders which straightened out the chain of command and placed Mason in eventual control of military government in California. Harlan credits Mason with bringing stability to California, and has an even more favorable assessment of his successor, General Bennet Riley, who demonstrated tact and perceptive management in paving the way to constitutional government and statehood for California. The military peacemakers Polk sent to California, it turned out, were more effective than those who made war.

Despite the fact that this period of California history is a well-worked area, Harlow’s redefinition of his subject, his solid research, careful analysis, and skillful writing make this a work that will be a standard in its field. His footnoting format, meanwhile, appears to have been devised by a demented cryptographer, and the bibliography, while understandable, is also in unusual format. These peculiarities are offset by his index, which is excellent, as is the book as a whole.