September 9, 1850 – California Joins the Union as the 31st State


The Mexican-American War began in April of 1846 and ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo on February 2, 1848. Mexico was required to cede California and New Mexico to the United States and to recognize the Rio Grande as the southern and western boundary of Texas. The region collectively known as the Mexican Cession included all of present-day California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. In return, the United States paid Mexico $15,000,000 cash and assumed some $3,250,000 more in claims of American citizens on the Mexican government.

But there was an additional factor leading to unanticipated losses for Mexico and gains for the U.S. As the Smithsonian recounts:

. . . just six days before the treaty was signed, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. None of the delegates at the signing of the treaty could have imagined that the rivers and streams in California were soon to yield a fortune in gold. In reality, neither the United States nor Mexico thought much of California.”

The discovery led to the largest gold rush in the history of the United States. But unfortunately for Mexico, El Dorado was not part of Mexico anymore.

The gold was originally found at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada foothills about 40 miles east of Sacramento. As the Smithsonian reports:

Sutter swore his workers to secrecy, but within months the secret was out, and the Gold Rush was on. Newspaper reports on the discovery were initially met with disbelief, but once evidence of gold was brought into San Francisco the frenzy began.”

By mid-June 1848, three-quarters of San Francisco’s male population had left the city for the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in search of gold. But it took time for the news of gold to reach the East coast; it wasn’t until the beginning of 1849 that large numbers of gold seekers (known as “Forty-Niners”) began to arrive from across the U.S. and from other continents. Some 250,000 people arrived in five years – mostly male, and half younger than thirty. As late as 1880 males still outnumbered females two to one. But there were places to find women, such as in the brothels of San Francisco’s “Barbary Coast.” San Francisco, a hastily built wooden town, burned to the ground five times between 1849 and 1851.


Some of these Forty-Niners met in Monterey and petitioned for statehood, but Congress was deadlocked over how to apportion the territories acquired during the Mexican-American War between slave and free states. A year after their petition, Californians were finally given official statehood as part of the Compromise of 1850. (This was a package of five bills drafted by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky and promoted by young Democratic Senatory Stephen Douglas that included admission of California as a free state. It also strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, the enforcement of which further inflamed the tension between North and South. You can see a list of all the provisions of the Compromise here.)

One of the earliest settlers in California was Agoston Haraszthy, a refugee from the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. He imported some 200,000 cuttings of varietal grapes by mail, destined for Napa, Sonoma, and Santa Clara counties. (Years earlier he had planted grapes in Wisconsin. The cellars and slopes he developed are today home to the Wollersheim Winery, the second oldest winery in the United States.)

Agoston Haraszthy

Agoston Haraszthy

Like many others, Haraszthy was excited about the news of gold in California, and decided to move there and invest in gold as well as wine. He first tried to raise grapes in San Francisco but found the climate too foggy. Next he tried San Mateo County, again unsuccessfully. In the meanwhile, he began a business to refine gold. In 1857 he was indicted for embezzlement but was eventually exonerated. While the investigation was pending, he moved to Sonoma, bought a vineyard northeast of town, and renamed it Buena Vista. Today, still in operation, it is the oldest commercial winery in California.

Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma, California

Buena Vista Winery, Sonoma, California

Gradually Californians added other institutions besides prostitution and drinking. Jesuit universities in Santa Clara and San Francisco opened in the 1850’s. Governor Frederick Low (in office from 1863 to 1867) favored the establishment of a state university based upon the University of Michigan plan, and in 1867, he suggested a merger of the existing private College of California in Berkeley (chartered in 1855) with the proposed state university. The Organic Act, establishing the University of California, was signed into law by Governor Henry H. Haight (Low’s successor) on March 23, 1868. The university opened in September, 1869 with ten faculty members and nearly forty students using the former College of California’s buildings in Oakland as a temporary home while the new campus underwent construction. In 1871, the Board of Regents ruled that women should be admitted on an equal basis with men. When the Berkeley location was ready for occupancy, 167 male and 222 female students attended.

Opening day at Stanford, 1891

Opening day at Stanford, 1891

Stanford opened in 1891, founded by a former governor and U.S. senator Leland Stanford and his wife in memory of their son, Leland Stanford, Jr., who died of typhoid two months before his 16th birthday. By 1899, women were enrolling in growing numbers. Concerned that the institution named for her son would become largely a girls’ school, Jane Stanford amended the Founding Grant to limit enrollment to 500 females, or 40 percent of the student body. The stipulation was not eliminated until 1973.


California boasts other distinctions. California has more national parks than any other state, and in one of them, you can see Hyperion, a coast redwood tree (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Redwood National Park, California, estimated to be about 800 years old, is said to be the tallest living tree in the world at (reports differ) between 369 and 379 feet. (You can see a composite picture of it here.)

The world’s first McDonald’s restaurant opened in San Bernardino, California. But California is also known for more natural food choices. California grows 99% of all dates grown in the United States, produces over 80% of the global production of almonds, and is responsible for more than 95% of United States’ avocado production.


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