By Dakota Livesay
This Week in the Old West
We’ve all heard stories of how someone buys a painting at a garage sale for a few dollars, only to discover that it’s actually extremely valuable. A similar thing happened back in 1848. In February 1848, following a two-year war with Mexico, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe. The United States ended up with 1.2 million square miles of territory that included California.
At the time California was a sleepy region populated with a little over 7,000 people. Mexico looked at California as not much of a loss.
What Mexico or the United States didn’t know was just nine days before signing the Treaty of Guadalupe, John Marshal had discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill. Rumors about the discovery slowly filtered back to the United States. Then in December 1848, President Polk delivered a message confirming the gold strike. Literally, over night the population and value of California skyrocketed.
Newly acquired lands faced tough requirements to become a state. Among them was they first became a territory. Another was they had to have a population of at least 60,000 people. The population requirement was no problem. More than 60,000 people came to California in 1848 alone.
Having just come off a war, with a depleted treasury, Congress looked upon California’s gold as a great source of revenue. But there was another problem, the United States was also battling over whether the admission of new states should be slave or free. And other territories’ statehood had been put on hold because of this debate.
But the glimmer of gold showed bright, and the pro-slave advocates decided to accept California as a free state. So, on September 9, 1850, a little over two years after the acquisition of California, and without it ever being a territory, California became our 31st state…a garage sale bargain that became a treasure of unequaled wealth.