The title of this piece could be questioned by anyone who had heard what Thomas O. Larkin said in 1831 about California and Californios. He was anything but gentle. He despised Mexicans. He called California "the jumping off place of the world." Of all the options open to him--he was then 28 years old and living in North Carolina--going to California was the least attractive. Nevertheless, he would swallow his pride and go to California since he had decided that his fortune lay there. He would endure this calamity that was California if it would make him rich.
His attitudes toward California and Californios would change. Larkin gradually fell under the spell of the Hispanic way of life, just as Mexican California gradually fell under the influence of the United States.
Larkin arrived in California in 1832. He worked first for John B. R. Cooper, his half-brother and a sea captain living in Monterey. Larkin soon struck out on his own. In short order, he set himself up as a merchant. He opened a store, made soap and lumber, ran a grogshop, bowling alley and pool table, loaned money to California governments, traded to China and Mexico. He speculated in land, buying and selling building lots in towns and huge tracts in the countryside. He backed gold mining ventures and railroads, and, with partner, Robert B. Semple, founded Benicia. In the process, he became rich and influential.
Unlike most other male immigrants, Larkin did not marry a Mexican woman or become a Mexican citizen. The advantages of both were substantial. Marrying the daughter of the local land czar could improve one's outlook considerably. Only Mexican citizens could receive land grants from the government. Larkin remained an American citizen, and he married an American woman whom he had met and romanced on the voyage around the Horn in 1832. It was at least partly this zeal to remain American that led to his appointment in 1843 as United States Consul to Monterey, the California capital.
At least, that is the way the story usually runs. Actually, Larkin had planned to do what virtually every other male American and European immigrant to California had done: marry the prettiest daughter of the richest landowner he could find, become a citizen and a Catholic and apply for huge grants of land from the government. When he was still in the East, pondering the move to California, he wrote quite candidly to a half-brother in Washington: "I shall do as the people do, if that will help me. And if I chose to marry there I should do it, providing I had any (say a little) love for the Lady, and the Lady had loot enough for me. A little of the former and much of the latter [and] I'm a married man."
For whatever reason, it didn't turn out that way. Perhaps he was conscience-stricken after the shipboard romance led to Rachel's becoming pregnant. Or he decided that he loved Rachel more than the prospect of a large hacienda. Or perhaps he warmed to the marital prospect after learning that Rachel's sea-captain husband had died and left her a modest inheritance which Larkin, as her husband, could use to advantage. Perhaps a combination of all. In any event, they would not marry until after the birth of their illegitimate child who died soon after. For all this, the marriage turned out to be a good one.
Larkin slipped easily and happily into the leisurely pace of Mexican California life, but he retained his Yankee zeal for work and his red, white and blue patriotism. And he retained his American citizenship. He soon became the most prominent of the expatriate Americans. For this, and the recommendation of his half-brother in Washington, he was appointed consul to Mexican California in 1843. He was well-situated for the post. He lived in Monterey, seat of California government, and he was friend and confidant of Californio leaders.
Larkin's consular duties were primarily three: to advance American commercial interests in California, to look after the interests of American seamen on the coast, and to protect the civil rights of American citizens resident in California.
Larkin quickly became the United States government's chief source of information about California. He dispatched a stream of reports on commercial and political conditions in the province. He told about the activities of other countries' consuls in Monterey. He described Californio leaders, their reputations and their views. Larkin's reports soon won him the praise of the State Department.
Larkin was now, more than ever, in two worlds. He was a proud American, and he was a Californian. He had come to love California, so much so that he wished it to become American. In 1843, Larkin began writing regularly to eastern newspapers, praising his adopted home. Here was everything one could wish: land, fish, game, commercial opportunity, a smiling country that lacked only one essential ingredient: Americans.
Larkin's correspondence with the federal government in Washington and his letters to eastern newspapers, while describing the virtues of California and the opportunities there for Americans, also warned that Europe was showing altogether too much interest in the province. His letters told of the revolutionary ferment among Californios, who alternately complained of Mexico City's negligence and its attempt to control the province with an iron fist. He revealed that some Californio leaders pondered separation from Mexico after which they would seek protection by a European state. Others favored the association of a liberated California with the United States.
In the mid-1840s, war clouds were gathering, between the United States and Britain over the Oregon boundary question, and between the United States and Mexico over the Texas question. Texans had won their independence in 1836, but Mexico had not given up its claim to its frontier province. Mexico blamed the Americans for the Texans' belligerence and warned the United States not to interfere. When the United States annexed Texas in 1845, Mexico broke off relations with the Americans. Mexico vowed to recover Texas.
Washington was impressed by Larkin's correspondence. President Polk became convinced that Britain wanted California. Acting on Larkin's information, Polk strengthened American preparedness. At the same time, he appointed Larkin his secret agent. In so many words, Polk charged Larkin to encourage Californians to rebel against Mexico. The United States, said Polk, would not take part in any conflict, but if the Californians should win their independence and then apply for admission to the United States, they would be most welcome.
Larkin was enormously pleased. For years, he had been trying to persuade California leaders that their best interests lay with the United States rather than Mexico. Now, he had official sanction for his efforts. It should be emphasized here that Larkin at no time advocated a violent conquest of California. To be sure, he favored an association of California with the United States, but only at the initiation of the Californio leaders. His would be a conquest of mutual interests.
As late as spring 1846, it appeared that he would succeed. General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of most respected Californio leaders, had long favored an association with the United States. General José Castro, military commandant, in spring 1846 showed Larkin, for his approval, a written plan for declaring California independent in 1847 or 1848, as soon as the immigrant population was sufficient to guarantee success. Larkin approved. It was precisely what he had been working for.
A volatile mixture of disenchanted American immigrants and a military adventurer ended Larkin's hope for a peaceful union. American farmers in the central valley, fearing expulsion, and Brevet Captain John C. Fremont, who was in California “exploring”, joined forces. They seized Sonoma, captured General Vallejo—of all people—and declared the Bear Flag Republic.
The Bear Flag Revolt was a misguided action, carried off by recent American immigrants who had entered California illegally and had no just complaint against California government, and Fremont, an American army officer who had no authority to conduct military operations against a foreign power. He would later admit that he had no authority and had acted on his own initiative.
Larkin was distraught. Almost Californians had been convinced to embrace a peaceful union with the United States. Now they must defend their honor and their country. The revolt by the Bear Flaggers made war between the United States and Mexico a certainty, had it not already begun a few weeks before on the disputed Texas border.
The war came to California in July 1846 with the uncontested arrival of the American fleet under the command of Commodore John D. Sloat, soon succeeded by Commodore Robert F. Stockton. Larkin served as the chief advisor on local affairs to the commodores and as an intermediary between American and Californio leaders. Larkin hoped that the change of sovereignty would be accomplished with the quiet acceptance of the Californios.
Once again Larkin's work for a pacific union was erased by action of his own compatriots. Commodore Stockton issued a contemptuous, pompous, and wholly unnecessary proclamation that angered Californians. Further, Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie, whom Stockton had placed in command in Los Angeles, treated residents there so severely that they rebelled. Resistance spread throughout the countryside, and Californios soon controlled southern California.
The war deeply troubled Larkin. He had loyalties and friends on both sides and felt threatened by neither. Though he was the leading American civil official in California, Larkin felt safe. After all, the Californios were his neighbors. They would not harm him.
But they would hold him. In November, he was captured by a Californio force near Monterey and taken to Los Angeles. The leader of the force and the leader of his escort to Los Angeles were friends from Monterey.
Larkin was held hostage—very carefully—for the remainder of the war. During the journey southward, he was treated with kindness and respect. A number of the escort quietly offered to help him escape. Larkin declined and informed the leader, his friend.
In Los Angeles, Larkin was more guest than prisoner of General José María Flores, leader of Californio forces, and his wife. He was given the best room in government house. Citizens sent him furniture and meals, and Señora Flores served him tea and bread four times a day. His letters to his wife reveal that he found his captivity bearable, though he could not get all the books he wanted. General Flores apologized for not being able to find them.
Larkin was torn by conflicting emotions when he heard that American forces were converging on Los Angeles from north and south. He assumed that his captors planned to use him somehow to advantage. He was afraid that in the chaos, he could be killed in spite of the concern of the Californios for his safety. He was indeed summoned to the battlefield south of the city by General Flores. He delayed and puttered and fussed with his horse, while his impatient escort worried.
By the time Larkin arrived, the Californios had lost the Battle of San Gabriel and the war. Realizing that the resistance was at an end, Flores took pains to explain to Larkin why he had taken command of patriot forces and why he had held Larkin prisoner. Some Californio common soldiers who were passing by recognized Larkin and asked him to help their families.
With the war over, Larkin now devoted himself almost single-mindedly to doing what he had come to California for in the first place: making money. The new American province held great opportunity. He speculated broadly in land, buying and selling town lots in Monterey, San Francisco, Vallejo, Sacramento, and elsewhere. With partner Robert B. Semple, he founded the town of Benicia, touted at one time as the embryonic principal port and metropolis on the Pacific, sure to eclipse San Francisco.
Larkin bought enormous tracts of land in the central valley. He stocked some with cattle, hogs, horses and sheep. Others he had surveyed and sold piecemeal. One of his ranches, the Boga Rancho, was thought to be rich in gold; it was eventually listed for sale in London for $1,000,000. He invested in railroads, operated a quicksilver mine, backed gold mining ventures, and traded with China and Mexico. At the same time, he petitioned Washington for reimbursement of funds that he had advanced American forces during the war. The miles of red tape in Washington and government's implications of impropriety in his accounts were chief reasons for his eagerness to end his official functions.
Larkin began spending more and more of his time in San Francisco, now the chief center of business activity in American California. He still found time to attend the Constitutional Convention that met in Monterey in 1849 and drafted a state constitution.
In spite of his frantic pace and his growing fortune, Larkin was restless. He increasingly thought about the East. His purpose in coming to California years ago was to get rich, then go home in triumph. Should he go home now? But where was home? Was he the same man who had come to California in 1832? California had been good to him, and he loved it well enough. But was this raw province the place to bring up his children? He thought of his two boys, now attending eastern schools.
Larkin had always wanted to own land in Massachusetts, his boyhood home. Since 1847, he had been investing in eastern railroads and stocks. Perhaps that was where the opportunity was now. Where indeed was the future for Thomas O. Larkin? Was he a nabob or a paisano?
He would try the East. The Larkins moved to New York in spring 1850. After a short stay at the fashionable Irving House, a gathering place for Californians, Larkin built a large house—a "palacia," according to a friend—where the family lived in luxury and entertained grandly.
Larkin immediately began speculating in town building lots and rental houses. He made frequent trips to Washington to pursue his claims for reimbursement and to try to secure clear titles on his California properties. Titles of all California landholdings were clouded after the American takeover. Original landholders were obligated to defend their claims in the courts and often bankrupted themselves in the process. Californio landowners especially found it difficult to get title to properties confirmed.
Larkin busied himself petitioning the federal government for passage of laws favorable to California, particularly calling for speedy action on California's petition for statehood. On this last point, Larkin tried to move things along with the gift of a watch chain made from California gold to Henry Clay. Clay subsequently sent Larkin a note to say that things were going well.
Larkin's restlessness returned. He missed his California friends and worried about his interests there. Leaving his family in New York, he set out in early 1851 for California. He had been away less than a year. He had happily written ahead to Cooper, saying that he would come to Monterey "where I really believe my old Paisanos will be all glad to see me, as I shall to see them."
The visit did not go well. He delighted in seeing old friends, but his business interests were troublesome. Squatters on his lands were increasing in numbers and belligerency. Semple, his partner in the Benicia venture, criticized him bitterly for not devoting more time to the fledgling town. A disastrous fire destroyed some of his most valuable properties in San Francisco. He was relieved to leave California in November 1851 to return to the comparatively carefree life in the East.
Back in New York, Larkin plunged again into business and social affairs. But he was not content. California’s hold on him was too strong, and he was back on the west coast the following May.
This trip was different. He brought one of his sons with him. Larkin expected Frederic to enjoy visiting his old Monterey friends and recover his Spanish, which he was rapidly losing in his eastern school. Larkin's business affairs were more promising now. Gold had been discovered on one of his properties. He sold a large tract of land for a substantial profit. Many squatters on his lands, resigned that Washington was going to confirm his land titles, questioned him about lease or purchase terms.
Larkin returned to New York in the fall of 1852 and quickly became disenchanted again. He could not get California out of his mind. Whether his mood was generated by his more favorable attitude toward California or from conditions in the East is not certain. Probably a combination of the two. Also, his family was plagued with illness which Larkin blamed on the cold, damp eastern climate.
Larkin's growing disenchantment with the East was matched by a new enthusiasm for California. His letters to old California paisanos reveal the decision that was beginning to take form. To one, Larkin wrote that the new American state was "progressive under go ahead Yankees and a thousand horse power." He declared his gratitude and admiration for California and predicted that it was destined to be one of the union's richest and most populous states. He proudly reminded another that his children were the first born in California of an American mother, and that his brother had married into the Vallejo family. Larkin was seeing his own place in California history more clearly than before.
Larkin reflected on his reputation in California. A long-time California friend had urged him to come back to the coast, for "a long life in California a living on `Carne, Frejoles y Papas [potatoes]' . . . is much more pleasanter than a short life caused by . . . pumpkin pies, plumb puddings &c &c and then dy with the collery morbus . . . ." Larkin was flattered by his election, with no effort of his own, as a director of railroad companies in Monterey, Marysville, and San Jose. Some settlers on one his ranchos had petitioned for a post office which they had christened "Larkin." California, temperate of climate and temperament, land of unlimited opportunity, also honored him.
Larkin finally decided: they would return home. He instructed agents to liquidate his eastern properties and sell their house. The thought of not owning a home in New York was decidedly satisfying to Larkin. He was anxious to leave. Not so Rachel, his wife. She had become accustomed to the comforts and society of New York. She thought California, by comparison, a rough frontier province. Larkin assured her that it had changed under American rule. She grudgingly agreed to the move, but her misgivings nevertheless resulted in a number of canceled sailings before she finally gave in.
If there had been a frequent-traveler program in the mid-1850s, Larkin would have won awards. Travel between the east and west coasts was agonizingly difficult during this period. In the 1850s, Larkin made three journeys in three years. If we discount sailors, Larkin's travel must have been some sort of record.
The family settled in San Francisco in May 1853. He was again in his element, managing his ranchos and buying and selling land. He soon built a fine home, with an entire floor set aside for servants. The family was healthier, and even Rachel agreed that San Francisco had improved considerably during their absence. Their three oldest boys were in eastern schools and the two youngest children were placed in good local schools. Larkin saw his old friends often, and he was happy. He was an Episcopalian and a Whig, and he was rich.
He was now all that he had set out to be, and he began to look back. He could afford ease and reflection. He began to ponder the old Hispanic ways that had all but vanished. He addressed his sons once more as "Frederico" and "Francisco." His daughter was "Carolina" again. An old paisano was "Don Alfredo." Larkin compiled a list of 285 people of American and British descent who lived in California before 1840. He wrote to John Gilroy, who was the first foreigner to settle in Mexican California, asking him to write and describe the early days. He wrote to the Society of California Pioneers—he was a past president—urging them to especially honor those who had lived in California before July 7, 1846, the last day of Mexican California.
The memory aroused by that date was bittersweet. To an old paisano, Larkin confessed an uneasiness with the American world. "I begin to yearn after the times prior to July 1846 and all their honest pleasures and the flesh pots of those days. Halcyon days they were. We shall not enjoy there [sic] like again."
Larkin died in 1858 at the age of fifty-six, probably of typhoid.
Thomas O. Larkin is significant in history for a number of reasons. He was the most important person in the American acquisition of California. He was a California enthusiast and an American patriot, a Yankee and a paisano. He was an imperialist, but a gentle imperialist, for he had believed that California should become part of the United States only if the Californios wished it. His life is the most symbolic of the transition of California from Mexican province to American state. He was among the first Americans to test and demonstrate what today we call the California Dream. In all this, he became the quintessential nineteenth-century Californian, exuberantly American, acquisitive, and nostalgic for a fading Hispanic past.
This article is based on a presentation by the author on the occasion of his being awarded the Sheriff Michael N. Canlis Award by the Stockton Corral of Westerners International.
Causes Harlan Hague Supports
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