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Occupation of California


May 20,1939

My Friends:

The war between the United States and Mexico came in an era when it was the fashion for strong European powers to build up empires by hoisting their flags over weakly held territories in all quarters of the globe. Only a generation previously the Monroe Doctrine had been set forth with a view to preventing such encroachments within the Western Hemisphere. Yet rumor, suspicion and fear continued to play upon the American imagination while covetous statesmen in Europe did not cease to scheme for the control of more lands on the continents across the Atlantic.

This was particularly true with respect to Texas and California. Although Mexico considered both of these extensive regions as belonging to her, they were in fact too remote and too difficult of access for the mother country to have much control over them. The practice of sovereignty could not actually be exercised by the comparatively weak government which centered in distant Mexico City. Therefore, the virtually self-governing potential empires in the Northeast and the extreme Northwest were all the more tempting to aggressive nations seeking new colonies.

Mexico had enjoyed her own independence but a decade before she was faced with partially successful revolt by Californians in 1831. After a lapse of only four years more, Texans proclaimed a provisional government of their own and defeated Mexican troops sent against them. Texas became an independent republic in fact by 1836 and was formally so recognized in 1837 by the United States, Great Britain, France and Belgium.

In California, however, sectional and personal jealousies within the province prevented sufficient unity to consummate the independence that was constantly talked of and repeatedly striven for. The first rise against the clerical rule in 1831 was followed by a series of petty uprisings in which Governors were driven out of office. Despite temporary successes of this sort, a weak form of Mexican authority nevertheless remained. Incapable of united resistance from within and devoid of any protecting power from without, the vast territory of California lay an easy prize to any strong power that might wish to seize it. After 1836, it was generally assumed that Great Britain, France and Russia each entertained such designs. Our naval squadron in the isolated eastern Pacific therefore kept watch upon the men-of- war habitually maintained there by those European countries.

This four-cornered atmosphere of suspicion led the American Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones into a serious blunder in 1842. In September his squadron lay at Callao in compary with a British squadron. By a Mexican newspaper came the false word that war had broken out between Mexico and the United States. Almost simultaneously it was learned that a French fleet had taken possession of the Marquesas and other South Sea Islands. The British ships suddenly put to sea under secret orders.

Commodore Jones hastily conferred with the American Charge d'Affaires at Lima, Mr. Pickett, and the two concluded that the British were about to seize California, perhaps in accordance with a secret understanding with Mexico, and that the Washington authorities would want to forestall this coup.

Accordingly the Frigate United States, flagship of the Commodore, and the Sloop-of-War Cyane, crowded on sail to beat the British squadron to Monterey. Oddly enough Gunner William H. Meyers, whose interesting sketches of the subsequent genuine Mexican War are reproduced in this volume, was then on board the Cyane. Incidentally also Herman Melville, the famous author of "White Jacket" which aroused public sentiment against the institution of flogging in the Navy, was serving on the Frigate United States.

Arriving at Monterey on October 19th, Jones found no British ships, but an American merchant captain in port had heard a rumor that California had been ceded to Britain. The Commodore therefore sent ashore a summons of surrender and Governor Alvarado signed articles of capitulation on board the flagship the next morning without attempting any resistance. Before noon a landing force of seamen and marines were climbing the bluff to the blockhouse to hoist the American flag while the ships fired gun-salutes and all hands cheered, afloat and ashore.

As soon as Commodore Jones learned of his mistake he scrupulously restored Mexican authority and made such diplomatic amends as to leave no apparent local ill-feeling. Our government promptly disavowed the act and relieved Jones of his command. One consequence of the absurd blunder was to make Commodore Sloat extremely cautious in deciding upon the capture of Monterey when war with Mexico became a reality in 1846.

The political tension preceding this war became acute as early as 1843 when England and France persuaded Mexico to make a truce with Texas. Although the implications were somewhat obscure, most persons assumed that these European powers intended some form of control over Texas, jointly or otherwise, and that similar action in California was not unlikely. Thus the Monroe Doctrine seemed to be in serious jeopardy in respect to territories which were actually contiguous to our boundaries. These conditions, strengthened by an emigration from the United States to Texas, served to hasten the preliminates to the annexation of that republic, a step eagerly desired by that country. obviously such events threatened to lead us into war with Mexico.

Faced with these circumstances and even though Texas was not annexed until December 1845, President Polk took precautions in regard to California within a few days after his inauguration in March 1845. Instructions were sent to Commodore Sloat in the distant South Pacific to proceed to Mexican ports and, as soon as he had positive information of the expected declaration of war by Mexico, to seize San Francisco and other places.

The actual outbreak of hostilities in the east therefore found Commodore Sloat's Pacific Squadron distributed among the west coast ports of Mexico and California. The Flagship Savannah together with the Warren (Commander Joseph B. Hull), had been held for some months at Mazatlan, as the place best suited to the receipt of information. The Portsmouth (Commander John B. Montgomery), Cyane (Captain William Mervine), Levant (Commander Hugh N. Page) and Store ship Erie (Lieutenant Charles C. Turner) had been sent to California waters. Although hostile operations on the Texas border began early in May, Sloat delayed his sailing from Mazatlan with a view to the capture of Monterey, until news of war was fully confirmed on June 6th, 1846. The Warren remained at Mazatlan as an information link to the east coast. Meantime very much needed reinforcements had been dispatched to far off California, among them the Sloop-of-War Dale of 16 guns commanded by Commander William W. McKean. The Dale sailed from New York on June 6th, was off Cape Horn in late August and reached Mexican waters in early November, 1846.

On board the Dale was Gunner William H. Meyers of Philadelphia, to whom we are so much indebted for the exceedingly interesting and historically valuable series of watercolor sketches reproduced in this volume. He had been in the Navy since 1841 when he had been appointed to the Warrant Officer rank of Gunner after service as a civilian in ordinance work at the Washington Navy Yard. Probably he had been in the Navy previously as an enlisted man since he was then recommended by Master Thomas Harry, USN, as a "good seaman, a good Navigator and of moral worth." As previously mentioned Meyers made a cruise in the Pacific on board the Cyane covering nearly three years. In 1848 he resigned from the Navy on account of ill health.

Plate I gives the reader a view of the good ship Dale upon her arrival at Mazatlan on November 15th, 1846, after her passage around the Horn, with short stops at Valparaiso and Callao. She had now arrived in the theatre of war, and getting scant news from a British Frigate lying in Mazatlan harbor the Dale sailed on the same day for San Jose at the southern extremity of Lower California. Arriving at the new destination on the 18th Plate II the local inhabitants were found to be "friendly disposed." After "watering ship" sail was made on the 21st for Monterey. Six days later the Dale passed the Alijos Rocks as shown in the next illustration Plate III

By means of Meyers' realistic sketches now published for the first time, we are enabled to follow the epic naval conquest of California with an understanding which has heretofore been impossible. He participated in many of the scenes depicted, and for the others had the privilege of discussion with eyewitnesses. There seems to have been no facile pen among the handful of bold, hard-bitten husky sailors, marines, soldiers and frontiersmen who won that empire for us. No doubt pen and paper were scarce in that primitive region. Complicated war operations scattered through a thousand miles of virgin coast and country gave little opportunity for writing or sketching. Thus the very dearth of adequate contemporary literature adds much to the historical value of Gunner Meyers' brush.

In many years of collecting sketches, paintings and engravings relating to the Navy of the United States, I had found virtually none which had connection with naval operations in the Pacific in 1846 and 1847. When, therefore, I had the opportunity a few years ago of acquiring the original sketch-book of Gunner Williarn H. Meyers, USN, I realized its historical value.

Not only do these sketches fill a definite gap in the history of this Nation and of our sister republic of Mexico, but they also throw an interesting light on the conduct of land and naval warfare less than a hundred years ago.

To all of us, and especially to the millions who dwell today on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, this pictorial record will emphasize the amazing strides of civilization in what was, within the memory of persons alive today, a primitive and inaccessible part of the world.

Great has been the progress of both Republics in the intervening years.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States, had a lifelong love of sailing and all things naval. With a keen interest in the age of sail and world history, in 1913 a young Franklin Roosevelt eagerly accepted U. S. President Woodrow Wilson's appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Over his lifetime, FDR accumulated a massive collection of naval books, prints and memorabilia, among them the prized sketchbook of Gunner William H. Meyers which contained watercolors he painted in 1846-1847 while on Naval duty in the Pacific during the Mexican War. In 1939, Roosevelt had a limited edition published that included Meyers' wonderful eyewitness sketches accompanied by descriptive text written by Capt. Dudley W. Knox, USN. With the introduction reproduced above, on the following pages are the contents of that exceedingly rare work, "Naval Sketches of the War in California ".

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