“Sloat’s Landing”: The Events of July 7, 1846
The United States was a strong, brash nation in 1846. During the previous fifty years the country had obtained a vast territory from France, asserted itself once and for all against the British and established the border with Canada. Forced resettlement of indigenous populations cleared the way for waves of white settlers.
From the original thirteen states, primarily along the eastern seaboard, the United States pushed westward through Kentucky and Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Twenty eight states now gazed westward across the prairies, mountains, rivers and deserts to the Pacific Ocean. They were looking at Alta California, part of the Republic of Mexico, and it blocked American access to military power and the lucrative international trade in the Pacific.
Ten years earlier Texas had demonstrated Mexico’s weakness. President Polk’s foreign policy, known as “Manifest Destiny”, proclaimed that God’s Will was for the United States to expand from the Atlantic shores to the Pacific Ocean. Propelled by a strong nationalistic spirit, the prospect of war with Mexico seemed inevitable.
Almost 3,000 miles west of Washington DC lay Monterey. Well situated on the California coast and within a great bay, Monterey was the capital of Alta California Although Mexico had secularized mission properties, most of California’s population still centered on the small, mostly coastal, former mission communities established by the Spanish. Since virtually all imports and exports required ships, access to a port was advantageous for trade.
Boasting fewer than 500 inhabitants, Monterey nevertheless directed the governmental affairs of a region that stretched east 1000 miles through Nevada and Utah to Colorado and Wyoming, and north and south nearly the same distance. Mexico established Monterey as the official port of entry and dictated that all ships coming to California must pay duties on their imported goods at the Custom House there.
Thomas Oliver Larkin was an American and Monterey’s most prosperous merchant, investing tens of thousands of dollars in cargoes from around the world. Well liked and well respected, Larkin was appointed American Consul to California. A diplomat who reported to Secretaries of State Daniel Webster and James Buchannan on events as they occurred in California, Larkin represented the United States in important meetings and negotiations with Mexican authorities.
Larkin was no stranger to international diplomacy, even before his appointment as Consul. He had been in Monterey four years earlier, in 1842, when Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, Commander of the US Pacific Squadron, sailed into the bay aboard his flagship, the USS United States. Acting under faulty intelligence and the mistaken notion that the United States was at war with Mexico, Jones sent an armed force ashore to raise the flag and claim California.
The following day Larkin and others convinced Jones that a state of war did not exist. Jones lowered the Stars and Stripes, paid damages to the Mexican officials and sailed away, disgraced, to somehow mend his egregious breach of international conduct.
Mexico’s control of Alta California was tenuous at best. The military provided little by way of law and order, and government services were few. The California-born descendants of the Spanish were increasingly defiant of Mexican control. The influx of immigrants from Asia, Europe and the United States weakened Mexico’s grip even more. Great Britain and France also closely monitored events in California, with an eye for opportunity.
Larkin hoped that after a few years rising numbers of American immigrants would push for peaceful acquisition of California; he wrote to Washington DC with growing concern as a series of events threatened to upset his plans.
After years of challenge by the Californios, the office of Governor had little of its former influence. The current Governor, Pio Pico, moved the capital to Los Angeles and struggled for power with General Castro, the Commandante in the north. A summit meeting – a junta – was arranged in an attempt to resolve the issue, but it was clear that no one had control of the government in California.
Incendiary rumors spread rampantly throughout California: Urged on by Great Britain, Mexico was mobilizing an army to restore Mexico’s authority and the power of the Governor. The Mexican military was inciting the native Indian population to burn the crops and steal the horses of American settlers. Fearing the growing strength of American settlers, Mexico was preparing to seize their property.
Although each of these rumors proved false, Larkin became an active correspondent and engaged his talents as a diplomat to prevent precipitous action by either side. Concerned for the safety of Americans, however, he requested the US Navy send a warship to Monterey as a show of force; the USS Portsmouth, under Captain Montgomery, arrived in Monterey March 9.
Complicating matters even more was the arrival of John Charles Fremont, “the Pathfinder”. Acclaimed for his expeditions in 1842 and 1844, the charismatic Fremont had explored, surveyed and mapped Alta California – today’s Southwest United States – as a Captain in the US Army Topographical Corps. Fremont’s journals and drawings were best sellers and made him an American hero.
Leading an expedition that included Kit Carson, several Delaware Indians and a number of heavily armed men, Fremont returned to California in December 1845. Much to the consternation of the Mexican authorities and Thomas Larkin, he arrived in Monterey in January 1846. Known for his vanity and headstrong nature, Fremont stated his presence in Monterey was merely to acquire supplies and he disingenuously explained that his mission was a scientific one. He and his men, Fremont declared, were in
California to explore the Sacramento Valley as a route to Oregon, possibly superior to the trail he had established a few years before. Contradicting his own words, Fremont then began a filibuster across northern California, mocking both international protocol and the Mexican military.
For many in California, Fremont’s brazen activities could only mean the authority to operate with the full knowledge and permission of the President in Washington DC. Americans by the dozens, then hundreds were ready to enlist with Fremont against Mexico. Fremont, though quick to offer encouragement, was reluctant to provide actual leadership.
Increasing political anxiety turned to hostility in June 1846 when 30-odd men seized control of the presidio and mission at Sonoma. More peaceful occupation than attack, the “Bear Flag Revolt” captured General Vallejo, declared independence from Mexico and announced California as a new republic. Now able to act more decisively, Fremont accepted command of a growing citizen army and prepared to march against General Castro in Monterey. The inevitable conflict with Mexico had commenced.
But unbeknownst to Larkin, Fremont, Castro and others in California, a May 1846 incident in Matamoros Mexico, along the Rio Grande, had already provided the spark for a war that would last until 1848.
As events unfolded on the Rio Grande and in California, Commodore John Drake Sloat eagerly awaited fresh news reports aboard his flagship USS Savannah, anchored in Mazatlan. Sloat had not received new orders since taking command of the US Pacific Squadron the year before. He was an experienced officer, with decades of service; his orders were vague and gave him much latitude should he find himself at war with Mexico. Sloat proceeded cautiously.
Comprised mostly of a handful of fast, formidable ships of the line, Sloat’s Pacific Squadron regularly patrolled the thousands of sea miles from Valparaiso, Chile to Hawaii to Mazatlan, Acapulco, San Diego and Monterey.
News that the US Navy had blockaded Vera Cruz motivated Sloat, and he departed Mazatlan for Monterey. Sloat was at sea and unaware of the events in Sonoma until he arrived in Monterey on July 2. On his voyage, Sloat had time to ponder three problems.
First, Sloat was hungry for current news – what was the state of affairs with Mexico? Second, if the US was at war with Mexico what might he expect upon arrival in Monterey? Would he face a battle with Castro? Would the Savannah be shelled from the cannons on the hill? And third, how could he avoid a humiliating repetition of Commodore Jones’s faux pas of four years earlier?
Two of Sloat’s sloops of war, the Cyane and the Levant, were in Monterey when he arrived; a third, the Portsmouth was in San Francisco. Sloat and his ships anchored in the bay and he learned the Presidio held neither troops, guns nor powder. Sloat knew his duty but was reluctant to accept responsibility and remained cautious until he determined that events finally required direct action.
On July 7, 1846 Sloat directed Captain William Mervine ashore in command of 250 armed sailors and marines. The detachment marched to the Custom House and a proclamation, written by Sloat with input by Larkin, announced the American intentions.
The proclamation justified the takeover of California as an act of war. The Navy’s powerful force should be disregarded and the United States recognized as friendly. All Californians were henceforth American citizens, all legal and social rights, laws and privileges would be protected, and much benefit would come to all. Montereyans enthusiastically endorsed the situation and with great huzzah – and some bravado by a young midshipman who shinnied up the pole to release a jammed halyard – the twenty-eight star flag proudly rose above the Custom House. The United States took control of Alta California without a shot being fired in anger.
This is a significant event in American history and a proud moment for the US Navy. Sloat had successfully invaded a foreign territory and executed a text book perfect amphibious landing. Sloat efficiently deployed his captains and within a few days men and cannon were ashore at the beach head, and the Stars and Stripes waved over Yerba Buena, Sonoma, Sutter’s Fort and San Jose. There was no resistance, no looting, and no incidents of any kind. Why, then, are Sloat’s actions on July 7, 1846 - and the importance of those actions - unappreciated and nearly forgotten?
One reason lies with Sloat himself. At 66 years old, he complained of illness was eager to relinquish his command. By the end of July Commodore Stockton assumed command of the squadron and Sloat left the theater. He arrived in Washington in November 1846. Ironically Sloat returned to California several years later and helped survey and acquire Mare Island from Mariano Vallejo as a base for the US Navy.
Another reason is that history did not stop with “Sloat’s Landing”. Thousands of men served in a war that continued for two more years, with “the halls of Montezuma” and several other battles fought within Mexico. In California, General Stephen Kearny and his army skirmished with Mexican troops in the south, finally defeating them with the aid of Stockton and Fremont. Kearny, Stockton and Fremont squabbled for months about chain of command until Kearney charged Fremont with insubordination. After being escorted to Washington by Kearny for court martial, Fremont was found guilty but was essentially pardoned by President Polk. By 1848 the war’s conclusion and the treaty that followed completely over shadowed the events of two years earlier.
And, finally, “Sloat’s Landing” may have been an important event but it was certainly not a glorious triumph. If only the marines had routed a cadre of fierce defenders or a series of salvos from Savannah’s deck guns had silenced the batteries ashore. Surely “Sloat’s Attack of Monterey” would have garnered more fame.
But the facts remain. With the taking of Monterey by Sloat, the US Navy ensured control of the entire Pacific Coast, dooming Mexico. The United States assumed its Manifest Destiny and became a powerful bi-coastal nation. Thus July 7, 1846 is a day to commemorate, when forces under the command of Commodore John Drake Sloat raised the Stars and Stripes at the Custom House in Monterey and claimed California for the United States of America.
Copyright 2013 by Thomas Diggins
© Copyright 2016 Thomas V Diggins. All rights reserved.