Conspiracy Theory of the Week-Special California Edition


Today’s conspiracy theory comes to you from sunny California (well, not actually sunny at this moment—it’s raining) where I happen to find myself for this whole week. Therefore, in the spirit of that, here is a special, California edition of the CTW.

We’re going with a blast to the past on this one, harking back to the 1840s. Ah, those were the days, when, thanks to the Louisiana Purchase, massive immigration from Ireland and Germany, and the continued genocide of the Native Americans, America was rapidly growing from a cluster of agricultural and maritime states bordering the North Atlantic into a continental powerhouse.

Of course, for much of the West, the U.S. was not only opposed by the indigenous tribes, but by other nations, as well. Despite losing a chunk of its territory to the temporarily independent state of Texas (which, due to gross fiscal mismanagement, was forced to join the U.S. in 1845 to cover their national debt), Mexico still held part or all of the territory currently comprising the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and perhaps most importantly, California. In addition, Mexico, along with Great Britain and Russia, claimed part or all of the Oregon Territory that the U.S. was currently flooding with settlers via the Oregon Trail.

History books describe the Mexican-American War as defensive. Mexico never liked the fact that they lost Texas in 1835, and they liked it even less when Texas joined the U.S. A series of border disputes in the Oregon Territory and over the exact location of the Texas-Mexico border escalated until, on April 25th, 1846, the war began.

You know the rest of the story. After a brief war, involving heroics from many young officers who would become generals in the next war, including Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jackson (He wouldn’t become “Stonewall” until 1861), Winfield Scott Hancock, and Ulysses S. Grant, Mexico City fell, and ultimately surrendered what is now known as the “American” West to the victors in exchange for fifteen million dollars.

Ordinary, run-of –the mill greed explains this war pretty well. The U.S. wanted the Western states, not only because of their intrinsic value, but because they guaranteed access to the Pacific and Asian markets for American products. By this point America was already pushing into the Pacific, with American furs fetching exorbitantly high prices in China and Nantucket whalers stripping the Offshore Grounds of the South Pacific of their sperm whales. Visions of a transcontinental railroad were already taking shape in the minds of many Americans (including, notably, sometime Congressman and career railroad lawyer Abraham Lincoln), visions inconvenienced only slightly by the fact that the West Coast wasn’t part of the U.S. yet. A conflict between Mexico and the U.S. was probably inevitable.

But this isn’t the whole story (of course--there had to be more), not without mentioning one more commodity: gold. According to popular accounts, the California Gold Rush began when gold was found at Sutter’s mill, and that gold was reported found in January, 1848, less than a month before the signing of the treaty ending the war. This discovery began California’s transformation from one of the more thinly populated sections of the country into the largest state in the union, and the lure of gold and easy riches lured thousands from all over the world, not only to mine the gold, but to supply the newly arrived population with the necessities for life and business.

But what if gold wasn’t discovered then, but much earlier? Sutter himself immigrated to California long before the war, and set up his business (more about him; references). But really, who was he? We know relatively little about this mill owner and prospector (not exactly true , any questions/complaints, see here . Much of what we do know is romanticized hagiography, glorifying the man as a pioneer instead of attempting to accurately portray his life.

But of course, we can speculate. And speculate we will. Was he a pawn, a convenient person to reward with the notoriety of “discovering” gold? Or was he a ringleader, a man with numerous connections back east, who could, without too much trouble, get word to New York and Washington that any war with Mexico should come sooner rather than later. His early career was dogged by numerous total failures and bankruptcies--perhaps, as payment, he tipped certain influential creditors and agreed to keep mum until certain arrangements were made. Perhaps many knew of the gold, including the new administration of President Polk, who was elected on the promise of solving “The California Question.” The discovery of a large deposit of gold would have advanced the timetable and affected the form of any “resolution” of the California Question. Once gold was discovered, Sutter could not have been the only one who knew about the gold; or at least, he would not be the only one for long. Gold deposits are rarely confined to the landholdings of one person, regardless of the vastness of his holdings; and the temptation to exchange any gold for currency would have led many to ask inconvenient questions about where it came from. Gold for the taking is not the kind of secret that keeps.

Gold retrieved by the Mexican government would enrich their coffers; and, over time, could potentially enhance the economy of the Mexican state to the point where they could successfully resist an American attack. More short-term, it could put Mexico in a position to purchase foreign aid, or otherwise compel a European power (such as France, which during the 1860s expressed a strong interest in Mexican politics) to aid them in any conflict. If war was going to come anyway, the discovery of large gold deposits would make it essential that war occurred before the Mexican government could get their hands on them. So Polk sent Zachary Taylor across the border, the Mexicans eventually obliged by attacking him, war was declared, and the rest is history.

Californian gold fueled the growth of the American, instead of the Mexican, economy. Its sale to European firms and governments generated windfall levels of capital which was in turn used to fuel the expansion of American industry. It made possible much of the massive economic growth which characterized the ascension of the U.S. into a global superpower. And so it goes.

No comments: