By the time U.S. president James Polk’s dreams of plantation hegemony invaded Mexican territory in 1846, Alta California had already garnered a reputation as an opportunist’s paradise—a remote outpost where a frontier soldier could find himself rewarded with a 50,000-acre rancho brimming with cattle and crops.
In June of that year, 33 undocumented U.S. immigrants continued in that spirit as they sought to overthrow the Mexican government that ruled Alta California. They seized a garrison in present-day Sonoma County, stitched together a flag with a bear on it, and declared themselves founders of the California Republic. A few weeks later, the bear flag came down and the Stars and Stripes went up. General John C. Frémont, Polk’s appointed instigator, secretly encouraged the insurgents to stage their revolt and welcomed them into his California Battalion.
That summer, the region’s first-ever newspaper was launched. Consisting of a single sheet made from tobacco rolling paper with English on one side and Spanish on the other, the Californian helped citizens and immigrants make sense of a civic and political life in disarray. The paper even captured the existential moment in verse, describing the situation in two flowery poems. (In the 19th century, poems were an integral part of the newspaper trade.) The first poem, “On Leaving the United States for California,” which is about fate drawing the writer from the United States to a new destiny, was published on October 3; a companion poem, “On Leaving California for the United States,” about returning home, came one week later.
Their significance lies in a singular fact: they were the first poems published by a California newspaper. Both works were unsigned, however—perhaps owing to their creator’s fear of savage critics “majestic’ly” trolling—and the author remains a mystery. Who is this argonaut poet? And why should we care? The answer may be found in the extraordinary journey of a pioneer printing press and the bittersweet amity of a transcontinental friendship.
Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo understood the promise—and harsh reality—of California’s speculative splendor. Born in 1808 in the Spanish viceroyalty of Monterey, Alta California, Vallejo lived through the region’s multiple colonized identities. He was a privileged subject of Spain, achieving the highest military rank and political power in Alta California while suppressing Native uprisings. The acreage of his ranchos grew through family lineage; later, participants in the so-called Bear Flag Revolt stormed his ranch, arresting Vallejo and delivering him to John Frémont’s stockade. Once freed, he became the chief architect of California’s transition from a Mexican outpost to a U.S. state. He also imported the means by which a mystery poet chronicled California’s identity crisis: a Ramage printing press.
Vallejo loved history and the arts, including poetry, and Alta California more than Mexico. In the early 1830s, the press had arrived in Monterey for use by the Mexican government. Vallejo moved it to Sonoma but returned it to Monterey just in time for the August 1846 launch of the Californian. New Englander Walter Colton cofounded the newspaper with Robert Baylor Semple, a Kentucky newspaperman who’d come west in 1845. That they used Vallejo’s government printing press is all the more ironic given that Semple was famous for his role as Vallejo’s jailer during the revolt and business partner afterward.
FIT TO PRINT
It speaks to the nature of California that the men who launched its free press were Americans who endeared themselves to the Mexican who bridged Alta California and California. Were they also newspaper poets? Was Vallejo? Some clues are found in the verse itself. The writer is coming to—and going from—the United States and California, leaving “strengthen’d” ties to friendships and land. Familiar with structure as well as simile, the poet is a gifted storyteller (flowery language aside), and the language is clearly English.
One can rule out Semple owing to his datebook: in October 1846, he was in San Francisco (likely prospecting for a new wife), not in Monterey managing the newspaper. He’d left that to Colton, a chaplain for the U.S. Navy and a professor of moral philosophy. Colton served as a judge in California after Frémont took charge, and he had a reputation for honesty. The $20 fines he imposed on illegal gamblers helped underwrite the construction of California’s first schoolhouse. Another reason not to suspect Semple? While both he and Colton were experienced newspapermen, it was Colton who had delivered the valedictory poem for Yale’s class of 1822 and extolled Monterey as “a poet’s dream”; Semple was most interested in making money off of land speculation.
Colton’s most well-known work is an 1850 memoir he wrote of this time, Three Years in California. The book is warmly dedicated to a dear friend: Mariano Vallejo. His journal is both pragmatic and literary; he celebrates American immigration, at times blending his impressions with, say, the poet Robert Burns, whom he quotes within this passage:
If Eden with its ambrosial fruits and guiltless joys was still sad till the voice of woman mingled with its melodies, California, with all her treasured hills and streams, must be cheerless till she feels the presence of the same enchantress…. The miner, returning from his toil, will yet half forget the labors of the day in the greetings of his home: “At length his lonely cot appears in view, Beneath the shelter of an aged tree; Th’ expectant wee things, toddlin’, stacher thro’ To meet their dad, wi’ flichterin noise an’ glee.”
Vallejo also wrote a notable history, Recuerdos Historicos y Personales Tocante á la Alta California. This deeply felt testimonial to his birthplace serves as one of the “foundational genres of Chicana/o literature,” according to UCLA professor Marissa López. Vallejo is no slouch at describing factual events with literary phrasing. Like the poem in the Californian, his narrative takes readers back and forth in time, discussing the United States’ 1848 occupation of California one moment and Junípero Serra’s the next. He quotes Cicero to prosaically describe historical truth. Throughout his remembrance, we move from poetry to literary analysis to history:
Que lindo hubiese sido, si la decantada ilustración que los Americanos del norte han traído a California no hubiese permitido nuestros patronales costumbres, y relajado la moralidad de la juventud.
In an essay about the political economy of early Chicano historiography, López underscores Vallejo’s literary power: “ ‘Que lindo hubiese sido,’ he writes, how beautiful it would have been, if the Californios could have had ‘American’ progress without the attendant moral degradation.” Que lindo, López argues, if there had been free trade in Alta California; que lindo if the United States had honored the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
The two men’s friendship bridged divides during a dangerously polarized time—both in California and nationally during the start of the Mexican-American War. Colton’s bilingual newspaper, with its inclusive news coverage and readership of English and Spanish speakers, also spanned those divides. The Californian folded in May 1849, when the staff abandoned their posts for the gold fields. Colton returned home to his family back East that year, doubtless passing hundreds of would-be miners going in the opposite direction.
Colton and Vallejo wrote well-crafted memoirs that mirror each other. The Californian maps this duality: the mystery poet wrote for a bilingual newspaper reporting the U.S. intervention in Mexico, published by Americans using a printing press procured by the Mexican government. The final clue, perhaps, is this: the writer’s memory “will cherish forever the gem,” but the “home of my father’s is dearer to me.” Walter Colton, while being that rare American in Alta California who seemed more focused on serving the community than on enriching himself, ended up returning to a beloved identity. Mariano Vallejo remained in California to deal with the American appropriation of his.
Marcela Davison Avilés wrote about El Camino Real bells for Alta, Spring 2020.
ON LEAVING THE UNITED STATES FOR CALIFORNIA
Your flowers are fair, your fields are green,
Your summer sun hat’s golden sheen;
Sweet be your sleep, and soft the bed
Where ye may rest your weary head.
Though fair they may be, we may not stay,
Fate bids us go—away, away;
Our home-, the tent hence forts must be—
The prairie vast or forest tree.
The wolf may wake our poor repose,
Fear may forbid our eyes to close—
The savage yell assail our ear,
And threaten all we value dear.
Though war and death, or hunger press,
Our pathway thro’ the wilderness,
May health and peace, with plenty dwell,
In your green fields—then, fare ye well.
Published in the Californian,
October 3, 1846
ON LEAVING CALIFORNIA FOR THE UNITED STATES
l love thee, fair land of the far distant west,
Thy beauties, thy grandeur, thy wildness, I love them,
And friendships have strengthen’d the tie in my breast,
And memory will cherish forever the gem.
l love the rough shores of thy thundering ocean,
And the high curling waves of thy boundless blue sea;
l love thy wild main, when the storm is in motion,
But the home of my father’s is dearer to me.
l love thy broad rivers, majestic’ly rolling,
Their bright crystal waters away to the deep,
And to sit where the foam of thy cataract’s pouring,
Like a fiend in its wrath, o’er the rough rocky steep.
I love thy dark forests the storm never withers,
Fit emblems to sprout on the hills of the free;
I love thy stern sky, when the winter storm gathers,
But the home of my childhood is dearer to me.…
Fare the well, lovely land, in wildness reposing.
Fit garden for rearing fair forms and proud souls—
Farewell to the hills thy green valleys enclosing,
In peace may they bloom, while thy blue waters roll.
For as long as may flourish thy ever-green pine,
So long may thy people be prosp’rous and free;
Be the home of the happy—thou may’st not be mine,
For the scenes of my childhood are dearer to me.
Published in the Californian
October 10, 1846