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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

February 27, 2024: Leap Years: 1848

[In honor of this once-in-four-years phenomenon, I wanted to highlight and AmericanStudy a few interesting leap years from American history.]

On how three distinct events within a 10-day period helped change America and the world.

On January 24th, 1848, James Wilson Marshall found gold on the property of Johann/John Sutter’s in-construction sawmill on the American River near the small town of Coloma, California. Marshall had been gradually migrating West from his New Jersey birthplace since 1834, and in 1845 reached the settlement of Sutter’s Fort, a cross-cultural outpost in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Sutter, the town founder and alcalde, employed Marshall to help run his businesses, although that work was interrupted by Marshall’s 1846-1847 service in John C. Frémont’s California Battalion during the Mexican American War (the end of which, on which more in a moment, brought California into the United States). When Marshall returned he began work helping construct a new sawmill for Sutter, and in the process he found gold in the river nearby. Over the next two years the resulting Gold Rush would bring hundreds of thousands of settlers to California, both from elsewhere in the US and from around the world, and forever change the arc of American and world history.

Just a week after Marshall’s earth-shattering find, his former military commander received far less positive news. Frémont, whose Mexican American War activities were controversial to say the least, had been undergoing a military trial for charges of mutiny, disobedience of orders, and other related offenses since his August 1847 arrest at Fort Leavenworth, and on January 31st, 1848 he was court-martialed on the charges of disobedience toward a superior officer and military misconduct. President James Polk, who had been president and thus commander-in-chief throughout the war and Frémont’s activities, granted him a partial pardon, commuting his dishonorable discharge and reinstating him into the army. But Frémont found that outcome unsatisfactory and resigned his commission, moving back to California and continuing to lead exploratory excursions there (while also profiting from the Gold Rush, natch). In 1850 he became one of the first two Senators from California, running as a Free Soil Democrat—and that splinter party’s evolution into the Republican Party took Frémont with it, and in 1856 he became the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate, a vital step toward 1860, Abraham Lincoln, and the coming of the Civil War.

The Gold Rush and the Civil War were without question two of the most prominent American historical events of the mid-19th century; but just two days after Frémont’s court-martial, another, equally influential historical event took place: the February 2nd, 1848 signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I’ve written about that treaty and its pernicious (and ironic, given that the treaty itself guaranteed citizenship and rights for Mexican Americans who remained in the new US territories) effects for Mexican Americans many times, including in this Saturday Evening Post Considering History column and this blog post (as well as this HuffPost piece on the best literary representation of the treaty and its effects, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don [1885]). But of course the treaty did not just affect those American communities—it also fundamentally reshaped the nation, not only through all the territories (and very quickly, in California’s case, states) it added to the US, but also through all the new communities (including Mexican Americans but also numerous native nations and Chinese Americans among others) it likewise made part of the expanding US. Few, if any, individual American days have had more lasting national significance.

Next leap year studying tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this year or other leap years that stand out to you?

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