APPROACHES
TO STATEHOOD
CHAPTER 15

During the War with Mexico the invading Americans treated California as conquered territory, subject to the rule of military governors. Under international law, however, the province was entitled to retain its municipal institutions. Ideally, the American conquerors were to issue temporary laws and regulations. Only in part did this occur.

The alcaldes, or pueblo mayors, a remnant of Mexican bureaucracy, also acted as principal judicial officers. Although they continued to perform some traditional functions, their authority became increasingly questionable. Walter Colton, the American naval chaplain who temporarily acted as alcalde of Monterey, referred to his position as a “guardian of the public peace.” As the Americans succeeded Californio alcaldes, they superimposed upon that Mexican institution the common law brought west with them. United States law then began to supplant past procedures, providing such legal safeguards as trial by jury.

In 1847, American rule became confused over the controversy between Commodore Stockton and General Kearny as to their respective authority. Stockton had continued as military governor until, following the Cahuenga Capitulations, he appointed Frémont, who acted as California’s governor for some fifty days. But instructions from Washington designated General Kearny as the senior officer in the newly conquered area. The general stoutly asserted supreme authority over California. When Frémont challenged Kearny’s supremacy, the controversy led to Frémont’s court-martial in Washington. He was found guilty of disobedience, conduct prejudicial to military discipline, and even mutiny. Although President Polk set aside part of this verdict, Frémont angrily resigned his army commission.

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