The Making of American California

Essay by Ronald W. Kirk

Imagine a vast, empty California! Alta California, under Spanish rule through the American colonial era remained virtually empty and undeveloped. The Spanish finally established missions to the Indians, the first in 1769 in San Diego, to counter Russian colonization on the northern coast. The Russians sought furs. Then came the rancho land grants.

Under the occupation of a handful of very large Spanish land grant ranchos, and later around 600 Mexican land grant ranchos, California continued essentially idle until near the mid-1800s. Imagine the entire state of California divided into only about 600 private properties, where a small contingent of aristocrats employed a permanent peasant class of workers pacified with fiestas.

From the 1820s, immigrants from the United States trickled into California. In 1848, as a collateral fall out to the war between the U.S. and Mexico, Mexico relinquished claim to California. Before this moment, California could have gone under Russian rule and Orthodox Christianity, English and Episcopal Christianity, or Mexican and Roman Catholic Christianity. Rather, events coalesced into the placing California into the hands primarily of Americans of the United States, with their Calvinistic sensibilities for Christian liberty and the American covenantal, republican form of government.

Suddenly, one of the most amazing immigration in history occurred when John Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. Not well known to most is that, after an initial wildness of characters and conduct, even the gold rush camps settled into improvised governments based in American principles of property rights, equal justice, and even philanthropy. Bret Harte captures this rough charity in his fictional short stories on the Gold Rush era.*

As people poured into California from the United States, carrying their faith and Christian republican sensibilities, civilization began to reign in the wildness. Many of the Mexicans grew to appreciate and adopt American ways.

According to Dorothy Dimmick in The Making of American California:

In Monterey in 1849, Alcalde Walter Colton wrote: “Thursday, March 8. The town-hall on which I have been at work for more than a year, is at last finished. It is built of a white stone, quarried from a neighboring hill, and which easily takes the shape you desire. The lower apartments are for schools; the hall over them, seventy by thirty, is for public assemblies. The front is ornamented with a portico, which you enter from the hall. It is not an edifice that would attract any attention among public buildings in the United States; but in California it is without a rival. It has been erected out of the slender proceeds of town lots, the labor of the convicts, taxes on liquor shops, and fines on gamblers. The scheme was regarded with incredulity by many; but the building is finished, and the citizens have assembled in it, and christened it after my name, which will now go down to posterity with the odor of gamblers, convicts, and tipplers. I leave it as a humble evidence of what may be accomplished by rigidly adhering to one purpose, and shrinking from no personal efforts necessary to its achievement.”

On Monday, September 3, 1849, in Colton Hall in Monterey, forty-eight delegates met to draw up California’s first constitution…Organization was completed by naming the chaplains: Samuel H. Willey, Protestant, who was to alternate with two Catholic Fathers for prayer.

Here was a unique Constitutional Convention. Of different nationalities, those of American birth were in the majority. It was to frame an American constitution that the delegates had come together. Their task was difficult: To form a constitution for a recently conquered, almost wholly unorganized territory; with Congress in a state of violent debates about California, and with repeated failures to legislate concerning them; with a province of vague boundary in a highly upset condition due to the gold rush, increased population, and fast-growing economy, demanding the utmost skill. Theirs was an extremely delicate situation.

However, the delegation was up to the task. There were seven Spanish-Californian delegates, who were treated with great respect. General Vallejo was better acquainted with American institutions and laws than his Spanish peers.

Of the four foreign-born delegates, Captain Sutter, a Swiss, stood prominent (at whose mill the Gold Rush began).

Of the Americans, twenty-two represented a substantially larger number from the Northern states rather than the fifteen from the Southern slave states. The fourteen lawyers formed the largest single occupational group. One delegate, B. F. Moore, gave his occupation as “elegant leisure.” About one-half of the members were less than 35 years old.


Walter Colton made an appeal to the Christian community of California:

“With the Christian community California has higher claims than those which glitter in her mines. The moral elements which now drift over her streams and treasured rocks will ere long settle down into abiding forms. The impalpable will become the real, and the unsubstantial assume a local habitation and a name. Shall these permanent shapes, into which society is to be cast, take their plastic features from the impress of blind accident and skepticle apathy, or the moulding hand of religion? These primal forms must remain and wear for ages the traces of their deformity or beauty, their guilty insignificance or moral grandeur. Through them circulates your own lifeblood; in them is bound up the hopes of an empire. Not only the destiny of California is suspended on the issue, but the fate of all the republics which cheer the shores of the Pacific. The same treason to religion which wrecks the institutions of this country, will sap the foundations of a thousand other glorified shrines. It is for you, Christian brethren, to prevent such a disaster; it is for you to pour into California an unremitted tide of holy light. The Bible must throw its sacred radiance around every hearth, over every stream, through every mountain glen. The voice of the heralds of heavenly love must be echoed from every cliff and chasm and forest sanctuary. On you devolves this mission of Christian fidelity. It is for your faith and philanthropy to say what California shall be when her swelling population shall burst the bounds of her domain. You can write her hopes in ashes, or stars that shall never set. Every school-book and Bible you throw among her hills will be a source of penetrating and pervading light, when the torch of the caverned miner has gone out.”

In an article which prefaces a 1965 edition of THE ORIGINAL CONSTITUTION OF THE STATE OF CALIFORNIA, 1849, is written:

“Walter Colton sensed the commonness of the faith in which all believed even if it was a faith represented by different churches. This faith they proudly declared in the PREAMBLE to the Constitution. For here is a declaration representing the confluence of two cultures of Western Civilization. The PREAMBLE incorporated the philosophy that individual liberties are traced to a dependency upon God and as such could be suspended in proportion to the degree that Faith subsides.”

The PREAMBLE reads:

“We, the people of the State of California, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom, in order to secure and perpetuate its blessings, do establish this Constitution.”


“There was a great absence of books of reference in Monterey. There may not have been more than fifty books of law or history in the whole town. Copies of the Iowa and New York State Constitutions were on hand, thoughtfully brought to the Convention by Mr. William Gwinn. That is probably why California’s first constitution so closely resembles that of Iowa. Iowa had become a “free” State in 1846.The first regular session was “opened with prayer to Almighty God for His blessing on the body, in their work, and on the country.” Provision was made whereby the convention should be opened each day with prayer. They first determined to create a constitution for a state government, not a territorial government.


In A SELF-GOVERNING DOMINION, we read: “Although it was not finally passed until October 10, it is worthy of note that these delegates of the new frontier made a bill of rights the first burden of their thoughts and actions.”

Please consider the absurdity of irreligion and increasing trouble in the world we now live along side of the remarkable God-centeredness revealed in the foundations of American California. Ironically, a 1960s cult-classic movie shockingly seems to have foreboded the tyrannical implications of godlessness. The second essay of this newsletter focuses on that absurdity and irony. Today, God’s wonderful mercy and grace once more is giving Americans the opportunity to bring goodness out of sinful chaos, a chance to rebuild the old waste places (Isaiah 58:12).

* My family and I lived in Murphys, California, a gold rush town in Mark Twain’s Calaveras County. Under the fictitious name of Wingdam Hotel, Harte features what is actually the Murphys Historic Hotel, where my son, at age 15, launched his hospitality business career. The Murphys Hotel, host to such luminaries as Mark Twain, Horatio Algiers Jr., John Jacob Astor, Daniel Webster, Thomas J. Lipton, J.P. Morgan, and Ulysses S. Grant, has been in operation since 1856. Calveras County is also home to Dr. R. J. Rushdoony’s family and his Chalcedon Foundation, as well as Dr. Jay Grimstead and his Coalition on Revival.

The content of this article comes primarily from Dorothy Dimmick’s The Making of American California (A Providential Approach), copies available from Nordskog Publishing on the Jerry’s Bookshelf.

Ron Kirk is manuscript review and theology editor for Nordskog Publishing. Ron has spent his career studying the Biblical foundations for applying the faith to every area of life, including the pioneering and crafting of a Biblical form of education with historic Christian roots toward making the Biblical Christian worldview a reality. Nordskog Publishing soon plans to publish Ron’s new book Thy Will Be Done on Earth: When Nations Call the Lord Blessed.

© 2013

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