When it comes to America’s western emigration movements in the mid-19th Century, historians and authors have understandably focused on two iconic wagon trains. Captain Elisha Stephens’ small group of 50 pioneers in 1844 were the first to haul covered wagons over the Sierra Nevada and open the long-sought California Trail. And of course, many are familiar with the Donner Party tragedy of 1846-47 when 36 of 81 people perished from starvation or hypothermia. But arguably it is the lesser known members of the California-bound emigration of 1845 that had the most significant historical impact on events that ultimately led to war between the United States and Mexico the following year.
The arrival of 260 unwelcome Americans in Alta California in late 1845 alarmed Mexican military officers, as well as the land- and cattle-rich Californios of Spanish descent who had control over the vast territory. (Author’s note: These wagon trains from the United States during the mid-1840s were entering Mexico-owned California illegally since it was a foreign country and they had no official permission from that nation’s federal government.) The main emigrant company that rolled into California in late 1845 was known as the Grigsby-Ide Party, named for John Grigsby and William B. Ide.
On their arrival they got news that Mexican Gen. Jose Castro had ordered all interlopers from the United States to leave California within 40 days. But the recently arrived pioneers were too burnt out to go anywhere.
Captain Grigsby led a contingent of 40 wagons, comprised primarily of families that included 59 children. The party’s initial destination was the verdant Willamette Valley in the Oregon Country. At Fort Hall, Idaho, Grigsby’s company met up with Ide’s group of 60 wagons, also bound for Oregon. In short order, however, they were convinced by smooth-talking Caleb Greenwood, an 82-year-old mountain man, to head for California instead. Greenwood promised that he would lead them there for a modest fee per family. True to his word, the Grigsby-Ide wagons reached Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento on Oct. 25, 1845.
On their arrival, they received news that Mexican Gen. Jose Castro had ordered all interlopers from the United States to leave California within 40 days. But the recently arrived pioneers were too burnt out to go anywhere. Their oxen were worn and exhausted and they had no money or supplies. The Grigsby and Ide families, as well as the rest of the intruding Americans, scattered into the northern California countryside; some started for Oregon the following spring. Grigsby settled in Napa Valley where he obtained land from George C. Yount.
Yount had emigrated to California in 1831 and later settled in Sonoma in 1834 where he was baptized a Catholic and became a naturalized Mexican citizen. An accomplished carpenter, Yount had contracted to work on Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo’s large family home in Sonoma and a friendship developed between the two men. Appreciative of his efforts, the Mexican general granted Grigsby 12,000 acres in the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Grigsby was fortunate to find himself a California landowner so quickly — all due to Yount’s generosity.
Ide was not so lucky. While still resting at Sutter’s Fort, he was met by Peter Lassen, a Danish immigrant and blacksmith by trade. When Lassen heard that Ide had brought a circular wood saw and some mill-irons, he offered him a job building a sawmill on Lassen’s ranch, about 125 miles to the north. Lassen told Ide to take his family there and move into a vacant house on the property. Two weeks later, however, Lassen showed up with another family and demanded possession of the house. A fuming William Ide gathered his wife, children and livestock and headed toward the Sacramento River. In about 7 miles the Ide clan reached a ranch where another emigrant family was camped. It was November and the rainy season had begun so Ide built a small log cabin and his 10-member family wintered there.
When spring of 1846 arrived, tensions between a frustrated Mexican government and the squatting foreigners without passports was at fever pitch. Gen. Castro had orders from his president and commanding general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in Mexico City, to drive the trespassers out of the country — by force if necessary. For a quarter century California had been neglected by the Mexican government, ever since the country gained its independence from Spain. Without a strong presence of Mexican authority, the province was controlled by shifting alliances between powerful aristocratic families that were California-born, but of Spanish blood. Their wealth was derived from their vast cattle ranches. Gen. Vallejo, for example, had a private estate of more than 175,000 acres.
And although Santa Anna had ordered his military to expel the undocumented foreigners, the powerful California families were divided over the future of their land. The political intrigue was complicated. On the eve of the Mexican-American War, there were threats and disputes regarding the administration and territorial status of California between the United States, Russia, Mexico, Great Britain and France.
Aware that Mexico’s grasp was weakening and that a new political force was inevitable, California’s provincial governor Pio Pico favored ceding to the British, who had proposed settling hundreds of Irish Catholic families in the San Joaquin Valley. Pico reasoned that at least the Irish and Mexicans shared the same religion, unlike the Protestant-dominated, anti-Catholic Americans. Other influential players such as Gen. Vallejo who was weary of imperious monarchies, preferred being absorbed by the United States.
Anticipating conflict, U.S. President James K. Polk had deployed American naval forces to the California coast in Monterey Bay (the provincial capital) and in San Francisco Bay. Added to the mix was topographical engineer and U.S. Army officer John C. Frémont who had returned to California in 1845 via Truckee (Donner) Pass, with a small force of armed mountain men under his command. (Frémont had led an expedition west in 1843 and crossed the Sierra Nevada in February 1844, when he became the first Euro-American to see Lake Tahoe.)
Justifiably, Mexican officials ordered Frémont and his company to leave the country. Instead, the obstinate Pathfinder built fortifications and raised the American flag on Gavilan Peak, 11 miles northeast of present-day Salinas. After three days, Frémont abandoned the site and marched for the Oregon border where he was overtaken by courier Lt. Archibald H. Gillespie. Marine Corps. officer Lt. Gillespie had special directives from Secretary of State James Buchanan and letters for Frémont from his father-in-law, Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Historians have speculated that Gillespie also carried secret orders for Frémont from President Polk regarding potential military action against Mexico.