As Americans moved into California, the U.S. government wanted to provide them with an official representative. But the government also wanted California for the United States.
So when Thomas Larkin was appointed as consul to Monterey, Alta California, he had the job of keeping the peace with Mexico---while other Americans tried to make war. But Larkin also wanted to bring California into the United States. He became a consul who literally worked himself out of a job, when California became part of the United States in 1847.
Eicher, Peter D. Raising the Flag: America’s First Envoys in Faraway Lands. ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018.
Greenbergy, Amy. A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico (Vintage, 2013).
Hague, Harlan and David Langum. Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California (University of Oklahoma Press, 1990).
Inskeep, Steve. Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War. Penguin Press, 2020.
Consolation Prize is a podcast of R2 Studios.
This episode was produced by Abby Mullen and Kris Stinson.
Show notes by Megan Brett.
Music by Andrew Cote.
Thanks to our guests Amy Greenberg, Steve Inskeep, Aaron Gilmartin.
Visit Cal State Parks!
Voice acting: Mills Kelly, Andrew Garland, Brandon Tachco
[scratching of a pen, combined with subtle music]
ABBY MULLEN: On October 17, 1845, Secretary of State James Buchanan wrote a secret message to the United States’ consul in Monterey, the capital of Mexican Alta-California. Buchanan feared that European powers were plotting a takeover of Alta-California. One piece of evidence? A British and a French consul had suddenly turned up in Monterey. Buchanan saw that as an indication that they were ready to make trouble.
MULLEN: So Buchanan was writing to the American consul, a man named Thomas Larkin. Buchanan had a special mission for Larkin that went far beyond his normal consular duties. The secretary’s wishes might have sounded something like this:
BUCHANAN: Whilst the President will make no effort and use no influence to induce California to become one of the free and independent States of this Union, yet if the people should desire to unite their destiny with ours they would be received as brethren, whenever this can be done without affording Mexico just cause of complaint.
MULLEN: The President might not be making an effort–but Larkin was supposed to. But quietly.
JAMES BUCHANAN: In addition to your consular functions, the President has thought proper to appoint you a confidential agent in California, and you may consider the present despatch as your authority for acting in this character. The confidence which he reposes in your patriotism and discretion is evinced by conferring upon you this delicate and important trust.The Bay of San Francisco The Metropolis of the Pacific Coast and its Suburban Cities: A History (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1892), 130-131 [https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Bay_of_San_Francisco/hmwUAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0]
MULLEN: We don’t know exactly what the orders said–because they were so secret that the messenger had to memorize them and then destroy the paper copy. So what you just heard is just his recollection. Larkin got the message from this messenger on April 17, 1846: six months after it was written. Why was it so important that this message be so secret? Why was Larkin the guy who got it? And what happened in Larkin’s career as secret agent man? Well, let’s find out.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Today we’re headed to beautiful Monterey, California to explore the story of Thomas Larkin, the United States’ first and only consul to Mexican California. Larkin served for just a few years before the outbreak of war between the United States and Mexico. The time period that we’re talking about is full of complications and twists and turns. We’re just going to tell Larkin’s story here, so we’re going to leave a lot out about the larger relationship between the United States and Mexico. Check our show notes for recommendations for books about these bigger themes.
[end intro music]
MULLEN: In our first episode in our miniseries, Consuls of Manifest Destiny, we talked about the commercial expansion of the United States. But this time we’re talking about the more conventional kind of Manifest Destiny. If you went to school in the United States, you probably learned about this in elementary school: the idea that God had given white Americans the right to expand across the entire continent, no matter what–or who–was in their way. Remember that these ideas of expansionism weren’t new–they’d been here since the first white settlements in what would become the United States. But now we’re going to talk about the actual term Manifest Destiny, and its origins.
MULLEN: Before we get to California, we need to talk for just a sec about Texas. In 1836, Texas declared independence from Mexico–with the encouragement and even assistance of many Americans. Those white Americans hoped that Texas could be brought into the United States. They wanted to expand the territory available for enslavers. But in 1836, not everyone was so eager to bring Texas into the United States, including…
AMY GREENBERG: presidents starting with Jackson, Van Buren. These guys don’t– they refuse to annex Texas, because they don’t want to have a war with Mexico, because Mexico does not accept Texas’s independence.
MULLEN: This is Amy Greenberg, a historian who has written about California and the Mexican-American War.
MULLEN: Over the next decade, more Americans began to talk about acquiring Texas. But simple greed didn’t sound like a very noble reason for trying to take over a bunch of land. So one newspaper editor came up with a more lofty justification for the expansion, and he called it Manifest Destiny. In 1845, John O’Sullivan wrote in the United States Magazine and Democratic Review about
JOHN O’SULLIVAN: Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.John O’Sullivan, “Annexation,” The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, Volume 17 (New York: 1845) via the American Yawp.
MULLEN: Providence. God said they could take the land.
MULLEN: Finally, President James K. Polk convinced the Congress–or enough of them, anyway–that annexing Texas was a good idea. So, in 1845, they did. And then, in 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico over that territory.
MULLEN: We’ll come back to the war in a little bit. But now we need to back up again to the 1820s and 1830s. White Americans had been looking for new land in a lot of places, not just Texas. They also thought Cuba and California were places where the United States could expand. According to Steve Inskeep, who has written about California and expansionism in a book about John C. Fremont,
STEVE INSKEEP: California was for some people the ultimate destination. It was a potential stepping stone on the way to the United States having a Pacific empire, to having trade with China, to spreading across the continent, to becoming a world power. I should mention that California also was not terribly well known. There were terrible maps of it. I have read historians who questioned whether James K. Polk, the president who went after California really even quite understood what it was, what he was going for. But there were also people who knew enough about it, to know that there was a vast empire out there that was just barely held by Mexico and that could be of interest to the United States.
MULLEN: Of course, these territories like California or even Texas weren’t just there for the taking. In the beginning, white settlers had taken over — or fought over — these lands with the Native people who lived there. In the 1830s, when all of this was going down, Texas and California were both part of Mexico. Not just available for whoever. But Mexico did have some problems.
GREENBERG: Now Mexico is our neighboring republic. When Mexico first becomes independent from Spain in the 1820s, there’s actually a lot of support in the United States for the idea of Mexico being independent. People think it’s awesome that Mexicans have freed themselves from Spanish tyranny. They like Mexico’s constitution. They think Mexico is great. But then Mexico quickly comes to be seen as the weak neighbor with the land that Americans want. And you, California kind of rises, increasingly rises in the interest of American expansionists in the 1820s, and into the 1830s, and especially after Texas independence in 1836.
MULLEN: The problem is that Mexico is humongous, and the independent government had only existed since 1821. So they’re still trying to figure out how to manage this country. There’s no way that the authorities in Mexico City could really keep a watchful eye–or a firm hold–on places like Monterey. Monterey is almost 2,500 miles from the capital. Aaron Gilmartin, a California State Parks ranger who interprets the history of Monterey, told me,
AARON GILMARTIN: A lot of the people that were born here, or even those that immigrated here identify as California, not necessarily as Mexican, or Spanish, most Americans were still staunchly American. But there was this, this California identity to the point where people born in California, even if they’re of Spanish or Mexican descent, they are more favorable to California to partners and governors and leadership than they are to those set by Mexico City. And so you really have this independent Californio identity, and then a smattering of British and American merchants and politicians blending in with that.
GREENBERG: The people who are living in California and Texas and New Mexico and the Yucatan, anybody who’s kind of out on the margins, they don’t have a deep allegiance to Mexico as a country, because they’re not getting a lot of stuff from Mexico. And Mexico has a problem settling enough Mexicans in these territories to really hold them and secure them against encroachment.
Abby: So when Americans started to move into Mexican territory, there was not much Mexico could really do.
[music in transition]
MULLEN: One such American was a young man named Thomas Oliver Larkin. Larkin came from New England, but he saw his future in California. In 1831, he picked up and started moving to Monterey to work with his brother, who had already moved there.
INSKEEP: And he decided to go to California to make his fortune. Now, that was a creative choice in the 1840s. Because this is a period when it’s part of Mexico. There hasn’t been gold discovered in California. It’s not known to be a spectacularly rich place. But it was an interesting place. And Larkin moved in, first doing business in Monterey, which was effectively the provincial capital for Mexico, which had a tenuous hold on what it actually called Alta California.
MULLEN: Just for reference, Alta California was a lot bigger than what we think of as California today. It included all of the modern states of California, Nevada, and Utah, plus parts of Arizona, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Colorado.
MULLEN: Larkin was definitely not wrong to see a beautiful bright future for himself in “sunny California.”
But probably not because of the reasons many today find the state so attractive.
[Music: “Atotonilco,” LOC]
GREENBERG: It’s so obvious why California is attracted to expansionists. Right? We all love California. California is the best. I grew up in California, and it’s like, astounding to anybody that I left California. Why? Why would you leave California because it’s perfect. So we all know why California is great. But we got to get out of that mindset right now. Okay, so nobody cares about beaches. Some people care about the climate. It’s not that big of a deal, the climate. What is important about California, and what really gets people going, are three things.
[SFX: harbor sounds at Muir Beach]
GREENBERG: The first thing is San Francisco harbor. Oh, my golly, that harbor is so perfect. And it really fires up the imagination of every business person on the East Coast, who dreams of trading with Asia. Now that Asia trade is huge in this time period, and England has a lock on it. France is doing some of it, the US, how is the US going to get trade with Asia, you know, where we are an East Coast based country. But San Francisco harbor really makes people think, Hey, you know, we can start importing stuff from China, and we can start importing stuff from India. And this is an incredibly valuable trade. And that would allow us to do that.
MULLEN: President Andrew Jackson was particularly entranced by the harbor of San Francisco. But the harbor wasn’t the only great thing about California.
[SFX: cattle running with cowboys]
GREENBERG: The second thing that really fires people up about California is cows, basically, California in the 1830s. A lot of it is made up of ranches, right. And these ranches have cows and the cows have two things that people really want, which is cow hides, and then tallow, right. So this is a really valuable thing.
MULLEN: California is also the entry point for off-shore oil–of a certain kind.
GREENBERG: And then there’s also whaling, it’s also whaling as another thing that’s going on and in the earlier period, first, too, so basically, what we’re talking about is trade. California is valuable. From a trade perspective.
[SFX: Monterey harbor with sea lions; wagons trundling]
MULLEN: And so people began to come. Immigrants from Russia, Great Britain, France, and the United States arrived throughout the beginning of the 19th century. This first wave of settlers wanted the land–and they’d do some pretty drastic things to get it. Immigrants who moved to Mexican territory were supposed to become Mexican citizens and convert to Catholicism. That was a pretty big ask.
[SFX: church bell rings three times]
GREENBERG: If you understand how deep the anti Catholicism is, in the United States, in this time period, how much Protestants thought Catholics were involved in a plot to subvert the liberty of the United States, it is hard to wrap your head around people who would voluntarily convert to Catholicism and mean it right? OK, so let me tell you the line on those people, who moved to Texas or moved to California, that first generation, they renounce their citizenship, they become Catholic; the line of them hais always been, well, those people are, they want the land and in their hearts, they’re still Protestants. In their hearts, They’re still American. Okay, that’s a narrative we can all get behind because we know it’s going to become the United States. But some scholars recently have been really questioning this.
MULLEN: If you’ve been through the process of becoming a naturalized citizen, you know it’s a long and difficult process. In the nineteenth century, it wasn’t nearly so long or complicated–for some people, citizenship wasn’t the meaningful part of their identity that we often think of today.
GREENBERG: We need to get out of the mindset where a US citizenship is so much better than any other citizenship, that you would never give it up unless you absolutely had to. And instead, we should say, Well, actually, maybe people think, Mexican citizenship is great. There was an article that was published not that long ago that said, Yeah, a lot of people in the United States, they felt like the U.S. was getting too centralized. And they thought, actually, Mexico was a little bit less centralized. And there’s more freedom, because you don’t have a central government. Okay, so you could take that seriously. And you could be like, okay, maybe there’s a lot of people who don’t feel like being a U.S. citizen’s that big a deal. And I think that they can have a good life and Mexico can be good. So maybe we just need to think about citizenship as not a big deal.
MULLEN: Thomas Larkin’s half-brother John had been one of these Americans who converted to Catholicism and became a Mexican citizen.
GILMARTIN: John Rogers Cooper is his older half brother. Cooper had been living out in California since 1823, which is very early for an American to be out in, in, in Mexico. And Cooper had married into a Mexican family; he married General Mariano Vallejo’s sister, so a very prominent family. He converts to Catholicism, becomes Juan Battista Cooper, and essentially, you know, becomes a proper Mexican citizen and therefore gets land grants.
MULLEN: Cooper was Thomas Larkin’s ticket to the west.
GILMARTIN: He writes back east to the family saying that he needs a bookkeeper. Cooper was a good sea captain, but he was a bad businessman when it came to keeping his things in order. And Larkin was never the intended recipient; it was for their other half sibling, Samuel Childs. And when he didn’t want the job, the offer was kind of opened up to the rest of the family. But Cooper really never considered that Larkin would be the one to respond.
MULLEN: Aaron told me that when this offer came up, Larkin was trying to recover from some pretty bad business problems, so this thing came up at just the right time.
GILMARTIN: he sees this as one of very few options for him to get a new start. And so he decides that he’s going to head to California.
MULLEN: In 1832, Thomas Larkin arrived in Monterey. He spent his time on the voyage learning Spanish, since that was the language that most people spoke in Mexican California. But he also met a lady.
[music continues but turns more romantic]
GILMARTIN: Rachel Hobson Holmes was the only other passenger on the New Castle, which was the ship from Boston to California, that Thomas Larkin was on. Most of the California ships going to California during that time were all cargo ships, not a lot of passengers. And so Thomas and Rachel are the only two passengers. This actually makes Rachel the first American woman to make the journey around the horn of South America.* But she’s going out west to meet her husband, who is a sea captain. And upon arrival, she finds out that her husband is dead. But she also finds out that she is pregnant with Thomas’s child.
And so you get a little bit of this controversy right as they get off the boat, but because of Rachel’s husband already being dead, and unfortunately, that first child does die in infancy. So very quickly, Thomas and Rachel get married and then have their first legitimate child.
* Friend of the show Claude Berube notes that there was another American woman, Delia Tudor Stewart, who went around the Cape along with her husband, Captain Charles Stewart. But Stewart didn’t go all the way to California, only to Peru.
MULLEN: The ceremony was performed on an American ship by the U.S. consul to the Sandwich Islands, which we call Hawaii now. Maybe they couldn’t find any Protestant clergymen to do the ceremony on the land. Their first child had the distinction of being the very first child born to American citizens in California–if the records can be believed. Being American–and staying American–was really important to this branch of the Larkin family.
GREENBERG: Well, why is it a big deal for Larkin? Maybe you could say, Larkin sees the writing on the wall, he knows this is going to become the United States. And he’s just he’s not willing to compromise.
[music: somewhat martial sounding]
MULLEN: In 1842, the United States’ presence in Monterey took… a strange turn. Naval captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones (remember him from our episode on Tahiti?) turned up in Monterey. He had somehow gotten the impression that the United States and Mexico were at war, or at least they were going to be at war. So he marched into town and declared Monterey a conquest of the United States.
MULLEN: The Mexican authorities in Monterey handed the town over to Jones without a shot because they weren’t prepared for this. The only problem was…the United States and Mexico were not at war. I’ve always sort of imagined one of the Americans–maybe even Larkin– pulling Jones aside, and whispering in his ear, “Um, sir, I don’t think you can just declare this town American. We’re not fighting the Mexicans right now–but if you keep on pulling stunts like this, we are going to be soon!”
MULLEN: Larkin described it this way:
THOMAS LARKIN: The whole of this affair appeared at the time a dream. No one could realize it; no one understood why the Country was taken or why returned to its former owners. … The Commodore says he came without orders from Washington. This is not much believed by these people.Thomas Larkin, October 1842, as quoted in Doyce B. Nunis and Thomas O. Larkin. “Six New Larkin Letters.” Southern California Quarterly 49, no. 1 (1967): 65–103. https://doi.org/10.2307/41170073.
MULLEN: So Jones had to give the town back to the Mexicans, and sail away rather embarrassed. It wasn’t long after Jones’s little accidental conquest that the U.S. government decided to appoint a consul to Monterey. Maybe they thought having an official U.S. representative might head off any more overeager American naval officers.
MULLEN: The United States government saw Larkin as the perfect kind of American to do the job. He’s white; he’s Protestant; he’s successful; he’s a businessman interested in bringing other Americans to the area. This wasn’t the first time the government had appointed a consul to Monterey, but it was the first time it stuck. Aaron told me that it might have been because Larkin was already there, already ready to do the job. But, according to Steve,
INSKEEP: He was not terribly well supported by the United States State Department. They kept rejecting his expenses. At one point he spent $31.34 for a United States flag and a staff to hang it on. And they rejected that expense too.
MULLEN: I mean, we know that this is kind of how consular duties roll, right? Consuls never got the support they want and think they deserve. But Larkin and his family did keep really busy.
GILMARTIN: His wife is helping him entertain guests. That was a big part of his job as consul. He actually had a ballroom on the second floor of the Larkin house for these consular balls and meetings. He is delegating his businesses off to other people; he’s able to be less and less directly involved. But he is still overseeing all of this. We know this through the Larkin papers and through his letters, that he took meticulous notes and correspondence on who owes him what and what is being shipped where, as well as American ships coming into the bay; records of the Custom House. He’s getting government contracts from the Mexican government’s government to expand the Custom House. So he’s involved in construction, and contracting these things, as well as taking personalized orders, we found a document that he essentially guaranteed delivery in eight to 12 months. So that’s your, your Larkin prime guarantee, right there, eight to 12 months. So very, very busy.
MULLEN: Larkin was more than just a commercial agent. He wanted so much more for Alta California.
INSKEEP: He clearly had this vision that California should be part of the United States. And he started to become a publicist for this. He began writing letters to big Eastern newspapers, apparently numerous newspapers, and they’d be published anonymously, which was really common in those days. Somebody would write a letter from a distant spot, and the New York Herald or other newspapers wouldn’t necessarily have foreign correspondents as we now understand them. So they would literally have correspondence from people who were in foreign places, and they would print these letters in the paper. And Larkin sent these letters that were printed in eastern newspapers, promoting the amazing ideas of California, and also pointing out that Mexico barely had any military forces there to protect it.
MULLEN: Larkin thought that California held a lot of potential for American settlers. The government thought the same thing–but they also wanted Americans in California for a different reason. They wanted a buffer zone between the United States and any potential threats coming from the Pacific. Even though California was part of Mexico, the Americans weren’t particularly worried about a threat from Mexico itself.
GREENBERG: The number one threat is England. So there are all of these rumors about British plots to take California. Russia actually is a threat. Russia actually has a big foothold in California. So there’s rumors that Russia is trying to take San Francisco. The way to think about how worried Americans were about England, is to maybe think now about how some people talk about the Chinese as a threat to American security. You could maybe argue, the United States always has a foil that it’s fighting against, or in its mind, it’s saying like, well, we can do stuff that maybe is kind of unsavory, like invade our neighboring republic and take land for them because our security is in danger. Right? So there’s a lot of this about California. Now, how much of it is actually true? Not a whole lot. I don’t actually think that the British were trying to take California. Like, they can barely hold on to Oregon, their portion of it. They’re definitely not– I think if it was an option, they would probably take it, but they’re definitely they don’t have, like, designs on it, but people really believe that.
MULLEN: With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Mexican-American War was going to change everything for Larkin. But he didn’t know that. And I think I can safely say that the next American who turned up in Monterey with orders from the government…he was a surprise too.
INSKEEP: An American army officer appears: John Charles Fremont. Super famous guy, had been to California once before, but it’s still a little bit surprising, I would imagine, when you’re Thomas Larkin and John C. Fremont appears on your porch, in your living room, because he’s based in Washington, DC 3000 miles away and how did he get there? Fremont was an explorer of the West. He went out with several dozen men at a time on expeditions. And this time he appeared to have ridden all the way from the east to California with 60 heavily armed men.
MULLEN: Fremont told Larkin that he was just passing by, looking for Oregon.
INSKEEP: Just looking for the quickest way and maybe it went through California and you get to the Central Valley and hang a right and, and go on up to Oregon. That was his stated purpose. But he stopped by Thomas Larkin’s place to talk with him. Larkin took him to the Mexican authorities and made sure that they knew he was there, and that he did not intend any harm. And he was just going to rest and resupply his men and then continue on out of California and they didn’t have to worry about it. The Mexican authorities did not appear to like this very much. I mean, who would really like 60 armed men led by an army officer of a different country to show up in your country? But they didn’t specifically order him to leave. Larkin seems to have negotiated a kind of truce, where Fremont could hang out for a little while and then go on. Except Fremont did not go on.
MULLEN: Instead, Fremont stayed around, lording it over the locals and generally causing a ruckus.
INSKEEP: Started wandering around toward the coast, he’d made a promise to stay away from settled areas, but moved into settled areas. And his excuse later, seriously, his excuse—written excuse—later was [SFX: Muir beach ocean sounds] I just wanted to have a look at the coast because I love the coast. And I love the sound of the sea. And I’d love to find some real estate for my mother. So he’s home shopping in somebody else’s country that he’s supposed to be leaving.
GILMARTIN: The big issue comes after Fremont leaves Monterey, and pulls the whole stunt with Fremont Peak, right. So when he and his, his frontiersman, essentially, and some that are legitimate Army soldiers, they take over a peak nearby where they have the view of the Capitol and they have a view of the Mexican cavalry. And now the Mexican officials in Monterey are turning to Larkin and being like, “Okay, this guy was in town the other day, and now he’s claiming that he’s, he’d rather die than give up that hill. What is going on?”
INSKEEP: And at some point, the Mexican authorities have finally had enough and they raised their own much larger force with cannon to come after John Charles Fremont. Fremont, in the end, after getting a warning about this from Thomas Larkin, who was in town, decided to not make a last stand and possibly kill a lot of people or get massacred himself. But to slip away, he actually finally did go to Oregon, but it was just the beginning of his conflicts with Mexican authorities.
MULLEN: Up to this point, Larkin had a really good relationship with the local Mexican authorities. But he wasn’t sure what his role was in dealing with Fremont. The one thing he did know was that he was on his own in figuring it out. He wrote in dismay,
LARKIN: Be the result for or against him, it may prove of a disadvantage to the resident Americans in California….Having had over one half of my hospital expenses of 1844 cut off, and know not why, and even my bill for a flag, I do not feel disposed to hazard much for government, though the life of Captain Fremont and party may need it. I hardly know how to act.Letter from Thomas Larkin reprinted in The daily union.(Washington [D.C.]), 09 Nov. 1846. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82003410/1846-11-09/ed-1/seq-2/>
MULLEN: Fremont was a threat to Larkin’s relationship with the Mexicans–and with the Americans in the area. Thankfully, Fremont got out before things really got out of hand–this time.
MULLEN: But these kinds of shenanigans made Larkin’s job especially hard. His job was to protect and care for the Americans in the area. And he also had to make California seem like a place where Americans could thrive. But Fremont’s actions put them into jeopardy.
INSKEEP: Larkin sent a note up the hill to Fremont’s men when they were in this confrontation, and reminded him that if there was going to be a battle, it would be bad for the various other Americans who were in California. And there were several hundred other Americans who were settlers in California. And Larkin’s prediction later turned out to be correct. The Mexican authorities, in trying to figure out how to deal with this national security problem, realized that there were a bunch of American settlers in California that might become an army used against them, and begin demanding that the American settlers take an oath of allegiance to Mexico, which I think they should have done anyway under the law. But that they had to, to cement their ties with Mexico if they were going to stay. So Larkin tried to look after the Americans there as he could, which was his job. Fremont made that difficult.
MULLEN: So now we’re finally back where we started: Buchanan’s letter to Larkin, authorizing him to become a secret agent man for the U.S. government. If we interpret the orders Buchanan gave to Larkin literally, they seem pretty innocuous. Larkin’s job was to encourage people to–on their own–come to a simple conclusion: it would be better for California if it joined the United States. So it would be a peaceful takeover. But a takeover nonetheless.
MULLEN: Remember, Buchanan wrote this letter in October of 1845. But the message didn’t get to California until April of 1846. Here’s Steve Inskeep again.
INSKEEP: We have to remember that California is 3000 miles away from Washington, DC. And while the telegraph has by then been demonstrated and is spreading across the eastern United States, there’s no way to send a telegram to California, there’s no way to send an email or make a phone call, or even send a very fast letter. It takes months to send a letter from one coast to the other; it has to go down through Mexico or even around Cape Horn at the end of South America across Panama–takes months.
MULLEN: So when President James K. Polk wanted to send Larkin a message about California, he probably knew it would take a long time, no matter which way it went.
INSKEEP: Polk rounded up a US naval officer who had some Spanish and sent him down through Mexico and up on the Pacific side with instructions for Larkin, which the messenger memorized and then destroyed and then wrote out again, when he felt safe, once he got back to, once he got to California. And he gave these instructions to Larkin, essentially stating that the United States was on its way to taking over California, by some means that seems to have been left rather vague. Although what was happening, unknown to anybody, months away in terms of communications, was that the United States was provoking a war with Mexico.
[Music: “They’re On Their Way to Mexico,” LOC]
MULLEN: Larkin got his letter on April 17, 1846. By that time, he’d already been dealing with Fremont and his armed men–who didn’t seem particularly peaceful. And unbeknownst to him, U.S. troops had been decamped in Texas north of the Rio Grande for three months, since January 1846. Just a week after Larkin’s letter arrived, Mexican troops would cross the Rio Grande and attack those U.S. forces–at least, that’s what the U.S. troops would say.
MULLEN: Things didn’t stay very peaceful in California either. In late June 1846, some of the American settlers decided to take a more proactive stance against the Mexican government in Sonoma, just down the road from Monterey. OK, it’s 160 miles from Monterey. But in California distance, that’s not that far.
MULLEN: Steve told me that the antics of John C. Fremont–and the response of the Mexican government–had sparked a kind of rebellion. The American settlers in Sonoma didn’t want to take that oath of allegiance to Mexico, so instead they decided to start their own country–as one does. Maybe they thought that this was their best shot at getting annexed into the United States.
INSKEEP: And they rose up, and in a somewhat comical episode, because there were only a few dozen of them, and they were drunk, some of them went to Sonoma, California, found the top general there–who was a general who had no troops, because they would, you know, raise troops when they needed them. They didn’t have a standing army necessarily. They got this one guy, who was very dignified, Vallejo was his name, to surrender to them, and then raise this homemade flag that they had made, and that was the Bear Flag Republic. And it was supposedly independent for a minute, even though I don’t think its authority extended anywhere beyond Sonoma, really. But the timing was perfect, as it turned out, because of the events that happened very shortly afterwards.
MULLEN: Very shortly, as in, the settlers elected John C. Fremont the head of the Bear Flag Republic on July 5, 1846. On July 9, the American navy sailed into San Francisco, claiming California for the United States–and this time, for real.
MULLEN: Once the United States and Mexico were at war, all bets were off. American naval officers turned up fairly regularly in Monterey, and Larkin encouraged them all to move quickly. He wanted them all to take over as many California ports as possible–but do it quickly enough to keep from shedding a lot of blood.
MULLEN: It seemed like Larkin’s mission to bring California into the United States was an overwhelming success, even if the methods weren’t as peaceful as he had hoped. But Larkin still wanted to help with California’s transition from Mexico to the United States. So the American naval commander in the area, Commodore Stockton, made him the navy agent for the entire California Coast.
MULLEN: Even though the war went well for the United States in southern California, the Mexicans were able to retake some of the lost ground. Soon after, the war came back to Monterey as well–and Larkin paid the price.
MULLEN: On November 15, 1846, Larkin wrote,
THOMAS LARKIN: About midnight, I was aroused from my bed by the noise made by ten Californios (unshaved and unwashed for months, being in the mountains), rushing into my chamber with guns, swords, pistols, and torches in their hands. I needed but a moment to be fully awake and know my exact situation. The first cry was “Como estas, Senor Consul?” “Vamos, Senor Larkin.”“Consul Larkin’s narrative of what he saw while a prisoner with the enemy,” The daily union. (Washington [D.C.]), 03 Sept. 1848. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82003410/1848-09-03/ed-1/seq-2/>
MULLEN: This band of locals, under the command of General Manuel Castro, took Larkin as a prisoner of war and brought him back to Los Angeles.
MULLEN: Larkin would remain a prisoner for two months.
MULLEN: By January of 1847, the war in California was basically over. The United States had won. Stockton and Fremont rode into Los Angeles and freed Larkin.
MULLEN: Larkin returned to his family in Monterey–and some people who had moved into his house.
GILMARTIN: These new American officials move in and essentially set up their military government here in Monterey. And Larkin is no longer a foreign diplomat because this is now domestic turf. What happens is his house, the Larkin House, becomes the headquarters for the military government. So Governor Mason sets up shop in the Larkin house. And his assistant was none other than William Tecumseh Sherman, a young Sherman, and he lived in the guest quarters in the garden.
MULLEN: John O’Sullivan might have argued that Providence allowed Americans to expand over the continent. But as Thomas Larkin discovered in California, Providence needed a lot of help. Real people had to do the work. Expansion meant violence, trickery, and tremendous disruption for a lot of people who had done nothing except live in a place that the United States wanted for its own. Thomas Larkin was part of that story. But he was also a part of the next phase of California history: as a merchant in the town of Monterey, he sold parts for a sawmill to a man named John Sutter. Just a year after the Mexican-American War ended, Sutter found gold on his property–and Americans raced to California in numbers that Larkin undoubtedly could not have imagined.
Before we do the credits, we want to ask for your feedback in a specific way: we want you to tell us what part of this episode surprised you the most. If you’re on Twitter, you can tell us by tagging us: we’re @ConsolPrize–that is ConsolPrize. So hop on to your phone right now and tell us what took you most by surprise.
Amy Greenberg is a historian of Antebellum America (1800-1860) with particular interests in domestic politics, gender, and the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world in the decades before the Civil War. She has published five books, including a narrative history of the U.S.-Mexican War (A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico), an investigation into the role that the ideology of manifest destiny played in both foreign affairs and American society at home (Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire), and a study the relationship between gender, culture, and urbanization (Cause for Alarm: The Volunteer Fire Department in the Nineteenth-Century City). In 2021 she served as President of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as NPR’s morning news podcast Up First.
Since joining Morning Edition in 2004, Inskeep has hosted the program from New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, Cairo, and Beijing; investigated Iraqi police in Baghdad; and received a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for “The Price of African Oil,” on conflict in Nigeria. He has taken listeners on a 2,428-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 2,700 miles across North Africa. He is a repeat visitor to Iran and has covered wars in Syria and Yemen.
Inskeep was hired by NPR in 1996. His first full-time assignment was the 1996 presidential primary in New Hampshire. He went on to cover the Pentagon, the Senate, and the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he covered the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in Pakistan, and the war in Iraq. In 2003, he received a National Headliner Award for investigating a military raid gone wrong in Afghanistan. He has twice been part of NPR News teams awarded the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for coverage of Iraq.
Inskeep is the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, a 2011 book on one of the world’s great megacities. He is also author of Jacksonland, a history of President Andrew Jackson’s long-running conflict with John Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the removal of Indians from the eastern United States in the 1830s.
He has been a guest on numerous TV programs including ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, CNN’s Inside Politics and the PBS Newshour. He has written for publications including The New York Times, Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.
A native of Carmel, Indiana, Inskeep is a graduate of Morehead State University in Kentucky.