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Stockton and Kearny, Ending at Mason

by Jack Leibman

There is no such intersection. Stockton and Kearny, like their street names, pursued parallel courses - but eventually collided and ended at odds. Both streets start at Market Street, but Kearny ends at Telegraph Hill, while Stockton, befitting its namesake, runs to the Embarcadero. Unlike their streets, the two men did intersect rather uncomfortably and ignominiously during the taking of California, and later at the sensational court-martial of John Frémont in Washington.

Commodore Robert Stockton arrived in Monterey to replace the retiring Commodore Sloat, who had just occupied Monterey. This was a crucial moment in California history in July 1846, shortly after the declaration of war on Mexico. Stockton was a wealthy, socially prominent figure with important connections and an imperious manner. He had just been promoted and assigned to command the Pacific Squadron, after a 35-year career, and he immediately set in motion an aggressive plan of action to subdue the remnants of Californio resistance. He peremptorily rejected a negotiating overture, and occupied Los Angeles on August 13, followed by Major Frémont and his motley band. Stockton's proclamations were bombastic and inflated, as he proclaimed himself "Commander-in-Chief and Governor of the Territory of California,” which he described prematurely as totally conquered.

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Frémont was to be his successor as military governor of California. (His irregular band had achieved notoriety by raising the Bear Flag in Sonoma.) After a resplendent reception in San Francisco, however, his grandiose plan for further invasion of Mexico was deferred by an uprising in Los Angeles, thus deflating his claim of total victory. Meantime, this scenario was about to be rudely altered by the imminent arrival of an American force under General Stephen Kearny.

Kearny was an experienced and competent commander, quite familiar with the power structure in Washington, and had just been promoted to brigadier general. After a successful bloodless seizure of New Mexico and a difficult traversal of the Santa Fe Trail, he received word of Stockton's proclamation en route and the apparent end of the war. Kearny was undeterred and determined to follow his original orders to assert his primacy, embodied in his presidential mission.

On arriving in California in December 1846, he proclaimed the annexation of California, setting up a confusing clash of authority with Stockton, abetted by ambiguous directives from the Secretary of War. So who was to direct the definitive stage of the conquest and establish a civil government? Kearny assumed that he would be in charge, and Stockton was to cooperate and support the process.

The revolt of the Californios was briefly successful, routing several American detachments and retaking Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego. While Stockton, with Frémont in the forefront, was preparing a counterattack, General Kearny and his force were on the way. The General, on arriving in California, was informed of the American reverses, and began the process of asserting his authority.

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An eventual clash with Stockton was inevitable, both being rigid and self-righteous. But Kearny's first military encounter with the Californios was poorly managed, and ended in a stand-off. He himself sustained multiple wounds. Finally the arrival of Stockton's force decided the issue, which Kearny claimed as a "victory.”

An uneasy dance followed between the competing commanders, who pronounced divergent strategies, followed by differing versions. They barely coordinated in the final battle against scanty resistance, and their forces camped separately. Stockton claimed major credit for the final conquest of California, and the stage was set for the spark, provided by the belated arrival of John Frémont. In a characteristically hasty and presumptive style, Major Frémont had created a peace treaty quite inappropriate for a subordinate officer, offending both commanders, but still expecting to retain Stockton's public designation of him as military governor. An acrimonious exchange of messages between Stockton and Kearny followed, in which Stockton demanded Kearny's recall and resignation. Frémont met with Kearny and made the wrong choice for Stockton, ultimately angering Kearny, culminating in Frémont's arrest and court-martial in Washington. But that's another story!

And that's how Colonel Richard Mason, became the "first" military governor of California.