"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
California Gets a Constitution

by Don Baumgart

Not much more than a year after the discovery of gold, California sent delegates to Monterey to approve a state constitution. As is sometimes the case in politics, work mixed freely with pleasure.

In the days of gold Monterey was one of California's major cities, having served as headquarters for the Mexican government in California until 1846. It was there the constitutional convention was convened.

The mining season was drawing to a close for the year and it was time to tend to political business. The rainy season was expected momentarily and miners were heading toward towns, thinning the populations of the mining camps as winter approached.

Fears were voiced for the safety of wagon trains still enroute from the East. Oxen and mules were beginning to suffer from a lack of grass on the trail. Memories of the Donner Party's tragedy in 1846 prompted the discussion of plans to rescue unfortunate travelers headed for the Gold Rush but ensnared by winter weather.

As the cold and rain approached, delegates headed for sunny Monterey, California's constitutional convention, and several weeks of word wrangling.

A story in a newspaper of the time, datelined October 14, 1849, reported "A gala ball last night celebrated the close of the convention which wrote a constitution for California. The affair was given by the delegates for the citizens of Monterey who have entertained them so hospitality for the past six weeks."

The convention hall was cleared to make a dance floor for the gentlemen ladies in their finest attire to waltz and dance the quadrille. Two violins and two guitars kept feet moving until past 2 a.m., with only a brief break for midnight supper.

Then the bill came.

"Expenses of the constitutional convention have run high," one paper reported. The 48 delegates started by voting themselves a wage of $16 a day, plus $16 a mile for travel to the convention and back. They hired a secretary and an interpreter, paying them each $28 a day.

Before they left town the delegates created a state seal featuring the Greek motto "Eureka" meaning "I have found it." Shown on the seal along with the motto were to be the Greek goddess Minerva, a bear, and a miner at work.

The state's central guiding document prohibited slavery and set the eastern boundary to follow the Sierra Nevada mountains, despite the efforts of some delegates to draw that line beyond the Salt Lake.

The constitution was approved by the delegates and signed on October 13, 1849. As signatures were affixed the American flag was hoisted and guns began booming a salute. At the 31st shot a cry arose from the delegates, "That's for California!"

Voters approved the document a month later. By September of the next year Congress had approved statehood for the very new, very rich 31st state in the Union, California.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2007


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