REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
By THE EDITOR
JOHN BIGLER who was so prominent and active in the early settlement and development of California, and who has played so conspicuous a part in the political history of the State, was born near Carlisle, Pennsylvania, the seat of Dickinson College, January 8th, 1805.
He is of German descent. The family has been established in America for more than a century. Both the paternal and maternal grandfather of John Bigler fought under Gen. Morgan in the Revolutionary war. His father was a farmer; for many years he was engaged in the milling business in Cumberland and Perry counties, Pennsylvania. During the noted “Whiskey Rebellion” in the western part of that State, 1791, 1794, he was a private soldier under Gen. Washington.
John was the eldest of five sons. The Pennsylvania statesman, William Bigler, is a younger brother. John entered college at Carlisle; but soon after he commenced his studies, his father removed to Mercer county, north of Pittsburg, and placed him in a printer’s office in that city, where, for a few years, he applied himself to “the art preservative of all arts.” After the expiration of his apprenticeship, in 1827, he removed to Bellefonte, Centre county, and took editorial charge of the Centre County Democrat. He continued the editing as well as the publishing of this journal from 1827 until 1832. In 1828, though but a youth, he advocated with zeal and efficiency the election of Gen. Jackson, for whom his county gave a majority of more than sixteen hundred votes. He then commenced the study of law, which he pursued until 1840, when he was admitted to the bar. Thereupon he entered on the practice of his profession, devoting to it his whole time for several years. We next find him practicing at Mount Sterling, Illinois, whither he had removed with his family. On April 2d, 1849, he left the Prairie State to emigrate overland to California. He had with him his wife and only living child, a daughter of tender years.
This little family were accompanied by several of their neighbors, who were also burning to behold the land of promise. On the 30th of April, the party, numbering less than twenty persons, assembled at St. Joseph, Missouri. From this place the adventurous company started on the 9th of May.
“On that day,” to use the language of Gov. Bigler himself, in his Address to the Sacramento Pioneers in 1865, “the long journey was commenced in good earnest, and with a fixed determination on the part of all to meet difficulties to be overcome, dangers to be encountered, and privations to be endured, with inflexible fidelity to each other, and as far as possible refrain from expressions calculated to cause discontent or discouragement.”
Mr. Bigler had fully entered upon his pilgrimage to a land where high honors awaited him, and was surrounded by cheerful and happy companions; but his heart was heavy with sorrow. His wife, who had refused to part with him, was in delicate health, his daughter was a mere child, as stated, and these frail charges he was taking with him on a long and perilous journey. Besides, he was leaving behind him the mouldering form of an only and dearly beloved son, whom death had but recently wrested from his bosom and given to the grave. He had shaken off despondency, but could not free himself from gloomy thoughts.
Gov. Bigler has given a detailed account of his weary march overland, in the address before alluded to. He did his full share of hard work throughout the entire journey. He drove his own ox-team across the plains, and stood guard regularly over the train of wagons. On many occasions, when he was greatly fatigued, or in need of sleep, his wife would relieve him; and in addition to standing guard, she would often assist in yoking the oxen to the wagons.
When about twenty-five miles east of the upper crossing of the Sweetwater, the Governor’s party were overtaken by Wm. T. Coleman. This gentleman had, two days previous, left his train with others to go upon a hunting tour; he had become bewildered in the hills, and for some length of time had not tasted food. His new acquaintances had the pleasure of supplying his wants, and he was enabled to move forward in search of his companions. The accidental meeting of these two men, in the heart of the trackless desert, could not have been more friendly, nor their parting more cordial, even if the veil had been lifted from the future, and their subsequent eminence disclosed to them. What pleasurable emotions must be awakened in the breasts of the successful politician and the merchant prince, whenever their thoughts recur to that brief interview!
Mr. Bigler and family at length arrived in Sacramento, August 31st, 1849; his wife and daughter being, it is said, the first white female emigrants to Sacramento.
Upon his arrival, finding there was no call for his legal services in the new, unsettled community, and being in want of immediate funds to make his family comfortable, Mr. Bigler determined to resort to manual labor. He took off his coat, or rather kept off his coat, and sought employment. He soon obtained a situation in the store of an auctioneer, named Stevens, where he worked for some time. Next, he engaged in the wood trade, cutting his wood in the country, near Sacramento, and carrying it into the city for sale. After prosecuting this business for some time, he contracted with a Sacramento merchant to make a number of calico comforter for beds. In addition to his other compensation, he received from his employer sufficient calico to furnish his wife and daughter with much-needed dresses.
After completing the comforter contract, he was for some time employed in unloading the river steamers on their arrival for which he received pay at the rate of two dollars per hour. By such laborious pursuits as these he maintained himself and family in comparative comfort. Nor was he less esteemed by his neighbors, because of his honest toil. The pioneers, nearly all of them, were engaged in actual physical labor, without regard to former associations or professional pursuits. Labor was their acknowledged king.
The time had now arrived when our subject was to abandon his humble occupations. About the middle of October, 1849, he was notified by Mr. Charles Sackett, on behalf of the citizens, that he had been nominated at a public meeting as a candidate for the Assembly. The Sacramento legislature district then extended from the Cosumnes river to the Oregon line, and from the Coast Range to the line then dividing California and Utah. This district was then entitled to four senators and nine assemblymen. The election was a general one, and took place November 13th, 1849.
The candidates for Governor were Peter H. Burnett, afterwards Supreme Judge of the State; John W. Geary, the late distinguished Governor of Pennsylvania; Gen. John A. Sutter, and others. The first named gentleman received a large majority of the votes cast. John McDougal was elected Lieutenant Governor, and Geo. W. Wright and Edward Gilbert were chosen members of Congress. In the Sacramento legislature district, John Bidwell, Thomas J. Green, Henry E. Robinson, and Elisha W. McKinstry, (the present able County Judge of San Francisco) George B. Tingley, John Bigler, P. B. Cornwall, John F. Williams, E. Cardwell, T. J. Hughes, and Madison Walthall, assemblymen.
Before the Legislature assembled, the rainy season set in, and Sacramento was almost deluged. The citizens at that early day were very poorly sheltered from the wintry weather. Much suffering was the consequence. Mr. Bigler and family were compelled to endure trials and privations which it had never been their misfortune to meet before, even on the uninhabited desert wastes where they had so often encamped. The roof of their cloth tenement admitted the rain. It was necessary to suspend an umbrella over their heads at night, in order to turn aside the rain from their faces. Every morning, for more than two weeks, the floor of their tent was flooded. Every morning, for that length of time, their little cooking stove was taken out and emptied of its liquid contents. Their bedstead was four forked sticks, driven into the ground, with two round willow poles forming the railing; short poles, extended crosswise, served as bedcords.
The first State Legislature convened at the capital, San José, on December 15th, 1849, to complete the organization of the State government. On December 12th, Mr. Bigler left Sacramento with his family for San José on a propeller, the steamer McKim. Arriving at San Francisco at night, in the midst of a tempest, they could not land till morning, when they were put into small boats and taken ashore at a point on Clay street, between Montgomery and Sansome—the waters of the bay reaching to that point at that time.
The streets of the metropolis were almost impassable. Mr. Bigler had to wander for several hours in search of lodgings. Finally, in a despairing mood, he applied to the keeper of a restaurant, James Hagan, who allowed the little party to occupy an upper room, unfurnished, except with an old straw mattress. The Governor asserts that never, in his life, was he more grateful for a favor than for the privilege of occupying this humble apartment. He afterwards remembered the circumstance to his benefactor’s advantage, by inducing Gov. Burnett to bestow upon Hagan a lucrative office.
The next day, he took passage on the Mint, a little steamer bound for the “Embarcadero,” five or six miles from San José. He soon found himself and family in the midst of unexpected peril, more fearful than any that had ever before encompassed them. About three hours after the frail craft had commenced her voyage, she was overtaken by a terrific storm. The captain, engineer and crew, being inexperienced, became panic-stricken and abandoned their posts. Their conduct added to the consternation of the passengers, most of whom were motionless with terror. On board of the threatened boat were a majority of the senators elect, ten or twelve assemblymen, and the Lieutenant Governor. Commander Selim Woodworth, a senator elect, was among the passengers. This gentleman, upon witnessing the pusillanimous conduct of the officers and crew, rushed to the wheel and ordered the engineer and fireman to resume their places. He stated to a friend standing near him, that there was room for hope unless the boat overturned in changing her course. In turning, the vessel shipped water, which flooded her cabin to the depth of ten or twelve inches. But the new captain’s noble purpose was effected, and the prow of the Mint headed for San Francisco, where her passengers were soon landed. Most of them refused to take passage again upon the insecure vessel, and went overland to the capital; but Mr. Briggs had no choice—he had paid his fare, and for want of funds was compelled to run the chances of shipwreck. Fortunately, however, the next day beamed clear and bright; the broad, beautiful bay was in perfect repose; and the voyage was made without the recurrence of a single unpleasant incident.
The first Legislature of the State of California convened at San José, December 16th, 1849. The Lieutenant Governor elect, Hon. John McDougal, took the chair as President of the Senate, and Dr. Thos. J. White of Sacramento was chosen Speaker of the Assembly. On the 20th day of December, 1849, Peter H. Burnett was inaugurated first Governor of California. On the same day two United States Senators were elected— John C. Fremont on the first, and Wm. M. Gwin on the third ballot. December 22d, in joint convention of the two houses, Richard Roman was elected State Treasurer, John S. Houston, Comptroller, E. J. C. Kewen, Attorney General, Charles J. Whiting, Surveyor General, S. C. Hastings, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and Henry A. Lyons and Nathaniel Bennett, Associate Justices. This being accomplished, the late Edmund Randolph and John Bigler were appointed a committee, on the part of the assembly, to wait on the Provisional Governor, Gen. Riley, and inform him “that a State government, republican in form, had been fully organized for California; and that the representatives of the people would be pleased to hear and respectfully consider any and all suggestions which he might believe himself authorized to make.”
The committee waited upon Gen. Riley and made their address. The General’s reply was brief and significant. He trusted that the committee were as happy in being chosen agents of the new State, as he was in being relieved from all cares and responsibilities connected therewith. The committee then interrogated Gen. Riley as to the “Civil Fund,” and his willingness to pay into the State treasury the funds collected by officers of the United States army and navy on importations, without authority of law—an amount sufficient to defray the expenses of the new government until a revenue system could be matured, and the collection of government dues commenced in pursuance thereof. The prompt reply was, that, instead of acceding to the request of the committee, the Provisional Governor would pay every cent of the so-called Civil Fund into the national treasury. This response was as unexpected as it was unwelcome. Gen. Riley had previously paid the expenses of the Constitutional Convention, in full, out of the “Civil Fund.”
Messrs. Randolph and Bigler, on behalf of the Assembly, claimed that his action of the General left his refusal to pay the balance of the “Civil Fund” into the State treasury without plausible excuse. Moreover, the members of the Constitutional Convention, before proceeding to the work of framing a State Constitution, had received assurances that the remainder of the funds, collected as stated, would be paid into the State treasury as soon as the State government was fully organized and that fact officially reported. It is not now definitely known whether or not Gen. Riley had promised directly to pay over the “Fund” to the State. It is certain, however, that prominent members of the Constitutional Convention informed the State authorities elect, that the General had assured them that he would do so. It is very probable that Gen. Riley’s action was based upon advices received by him from the authorities at Washington. However, he refused to pay over to the State the “Civil Fund,” as expected, and his refusal left the new government in a very embarrassing and awkward plight. An empty treasury rendered immediate action necessary on the part of the Legislature.
Rashness and thoughtlessness have been attributed to the pioneers, in forming a State government without having first provided means for meeting, in part, accruing expenses; and their conduct has been imputed to the influence of ambitious men who looked to a State government for preferment and fortune. These charges are unjust. The necessities of the time forced the pioneers to take the action they did. Gov. Bigler publicly stated, in the address alluded to, that he knew the belief was general that the “Civil Fund”—over one million three hundred thousand dollars—would be passed to the State authorities; and that this belief induced hundreds to favor State organization who would otherwise have opposed it.
In addition to this, the course pursued by the pioneers find vindication in the failure of Congress to establish a Territorial government for California—many believing that without a State government, anarchy would ensue. The Provisional government had been found inadequate. The people of the southern part of the State, as well as those of Napa, Sonoma, and Solano, regarded the movement to frame a State constitution as premature; and the vote upon the question must have been very close in the Constitutional Convention, but for the assurances before stated in regard to the “Civil Fund.”
To provide means to sustain the State government, the Legislature, in its unpleasant and trying position, determined to authorize the issuance of bonds, bearing three per cent, per month interest. Mr. Bigler, while he freely admitted that the plan adopted by the Legislature was not without justification, yet warmly opposed it, believing its consequences would prove disastrous.
On the 10th day of January, 1850, Mr. Bigler was chosen speaker pro tem. of the Assembly; and on the 6th day of February following, he was unanimously elected Speaker, Dr. White having resigned that position.
In the first Legislature, nearly every State in the Union was represented. Judge De La Guerra and Gen. Vallejo were the native Californian members. In this body, no senator or assemblymen possessed a white shirt or a fur hat; all wore “flop” hats and “hickory” shirts, as they were termed. An English artist took crayon sketches of all the members of both houses. There were creditable likenesses, and were seen a few years ago in one of the principle museums of London.
In January, 1850, Mr. Bigler introduced and procured the passage by the Legislature of joint resolutions favoring the construction of the Pacific Railroad. These resolutions are here inserted, as matter of historic interest. They read as follows:
“JOINT RESOLUTIONS in relation to a National Railroad from the Pacific Coast to the Mississippi River.
“1st. Be it resolved by the Senate and Assembly of the State of California, that our senators in Congress be instructed, and our representatives requested, to urge upon Congress the importance of authorizing, as soon as practicable, the construction of a National Railroad from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River.
“2d. Resolved, That they be further instructed to urge upon the national government, with a view to facilitate the great work contemplated in the first resolution, the immediate organization of an efficient engineer corps, to make complete surveys and explorations of the several routes which have been recommended to public notice as practicable for the line of said road.
“3d. Resolved, That his Excellency the Governor be requested to forward to each of our senators and representatives in Congress a certified copy of the foregoing joint resolutions.
Speaker of the Assembly.
President of the Senate.
San José, March 11th, 1850.”
Statutes of California, 1st. Session, (1850) page 465.
During this session of the Legislature, Mr. Bigler also gave his earnest advocacy to the Homestead law.
The first Legislature was probably known as the “Legislature of a Thousand Drinks”; and before this body of faithful, hard-working old pioneers is dismissed from notice, the origin of the merry appellative will be explained. There is an incorrect popular notion that this title was appropriate to the character and habits of the legislators. Gen. Green, a senator from Sacramento, who had rented a room adjoining the Senate chamber, before the latter had been set apart for the use of the State, was in the habit, after the daily adjournment of the two houses, of inviting his friends to his apartment to partake of choice Bourbon, of which he had a supply. This invitation was uniformly given in a loud and happy tone of voice, and invariably in these liberal words: “Walk in, gentlemen! walk in! and take a thousand drinks!” The genial, generous senator could not have foreseen that, in coming years, his thoughtless words would be quoted to the disparagement of his sober colleagues.
In the fall of 1850, Mr. Bigler was a second time elected a member of the Assembly—this time representing Sacramento county, the first legislature having divided the State into counties. Upon the meeting of the Legislature in January, 1851, he was again chosen Speaker of the Assembly.
In the following summer, he received the Democratic nomination for the office of Governor, to which, in the succeeding fall, he was elected by the people; his competitor being the late Major Pierson B. Reading, the Whig candidate.
In January, 1852, Mr. Bigler entered upon his gubernatorial duties, and served out his term of two years. In the fall of 1853, he was again elected Governor by the Democracy, and served out his second term of two years from January 1st, 1854.
In the fall of 1855, he was, for the third time, the chosen standard-bearer of his party for the high office which he had held for nearly four years. This time, he met his first political defeat— together with the entire Democratic ticket— at the hands of the Native American or Know-Nothing party, marshalled under the leadership of J. Neely Johnson, now Judge of the Supreme Court of Nevada.
Released from the responsibilities of public trust, which had engrossed his time and attention ever since his first election to the Assembly in 1849, a period of six years, Gov. Bigler availed himself of this first recess in his public life to visit his native State. While there, the presidential campaign of 1856 opened with that vigor and asperity which marked its continuance. The Democracy had placed in the field an honored and favorite son of Pennsylvania. Their chief opponent, the Republican party, rallied (and, for a new party, with unexpected spirit) under the standard of one of the first United States senators from California. The last-named organization, destined to control the government uninterruptedly for so many years, was struggling to wrest the administration of national affairs from the Democracy four years in advance of the appointed time.
All men looked to Pennsylvania as the battle-ground where the result must be decided. The contest was bitter. Gov. Bigler, devotedly attached to his party, which had given him distinction in the State of his State of his nativity. He labored untiringly throughout the campaign, and at its conclusion, had the pleasure of seeing the Keystone State, by a tremendous majority, cast her vote for the chosen leader of his party; a result he aided very materially to secure. The Democracy of that great Commonwealth, through the leading Democratic papers of the State, gratefully acknowledged the efficiency of the services rendered in their behalf by their distinguished visitor.
But two weeks had elapsed after the presidential election when Gov. Bigler returned to California, and settled at Sacramento, his old home. However, he was to remain only a short time in private life. President Buchanan had not been in office a month, when he appointed Gov. Bigler Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Chile. This was the first compliment of the kind ever paid to a citizen of the United States on the Pacific Coast; though Gen. Pierce had, before the close of his term of office, tendered to Gov. Bigler, first, the mission to Portugal, and afterwards that to Sweden and Norway, both of which he declined. His appointment as minister to Chile was confirmed by the Senate, and he soon left California for Washington, whence shortly after he departed with his family upon his mission. He continued to discharge the duties of this position throughout the full term of President Buchanan’s administration. While minister to Chile, he settled the celebrated “Macedonian Claim” against that country, which had been pending ever since its first presentation by Commodore Porter, in 1820.
He also settled the case of the whaler Franklin, which had been the subject of unpleasant dispute for more than twenty years; and adjusted the murder case of Horatio Gates Jones, one of the most important and perplexing ever acted by an American minister.
During his ministerial career, he was influential in obtaining a test of American and British locomotives on the Chile railroads, which resulted in the complete triumph of American mechanical skill and the superiority of American locomotives.
In 1861, upon the arrival of Mr. Lincoln’s appointee to the Chile mission, Gov. Bigler returned to California. He found his party in a decided minority, and struggling to maintain its organization. In 1862, he accepted a nomination for Congress. The Second Congressional District, which embraces Sacramento county, was overwhelmingly Republican. The Democratic candidate and his friends had no expectations of success. He made the canvass solely to aid in keeping the party organization intact. Of course, his defeat followed.
Since his return from Chile, Gov. Bigler has been engaged in the practice of law in Sacramento, where he has held a homestead for twenty years. A part of this time he was a member of the law-firm of Coffroth, Bigler & Spaulding. Since 1862, he has not been before the people as a candidate for office: he has, however, been conspicuous in State conventions, and was a delegate from California to the national conventions which nominated Geo. B. McClellan and Horatio Seymour for the Presidency.
In October, 1867, Gov. Bigler was appointed by President Johnson one of the commissioners to examine and pass upon the work of the Central Pacific Railroad Company, his associates being Hon. Thomas J. Henley and Frank Denver. No happier selection could have been made than that of John Bigler. Ever since he pushed his weary way across the cheerless prairies that stretch between the Sacramento and Missouri rivers, he has felt the necessity and urged that construction of the great continental highway. When a representative of the people, early in 1850, as already shown, he commenced the clear and satisfactory record he has made for himself upon this great question, so long a matter of deep anxiety to Californians. During his visit to the East in 1856, while a witness and an actor in a mightily political contest, he was ever zealous in his efforts to remove any objection urged against the feasibility of the construction of the Pacific Railroad. In the Daily Pennsylvanian, a Philadelphia newspaper, of November 20th, 1856, appeared the following:
“In his recent visit to our State, Gov. Bigler everywhere, in public speeches and in private conversations, expressed the opinion that, in the construction of this great work, no greater difficulties would have to be encountered than were so successfully overcome in the construction of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad. No one more fully appreciates the immense advantages that would result from its completion than Gov. John Bigler. From its inception to the present hour, he has been an unfaltering advocate of this gigantic enterprise.”
The great undertaking has at last been consummated, and a considerable portion of it under Gov. Bigler’s immediate supervision. California, in the nineteenth year of her sovereignty, has been linked to the older States with iron bonds by the hand of skilled labor, and in this union the dream of our pioneers has been fulfilled and the hopes of our people realized!
During his long residence at Sacramento, Gov. Bigler has been a witness of all the many trying ordeals through which that afflicted but enterprising city has passed. He has seen the mountain torrents, leaping from a hundred sources, unite their raging waters, and expanding into the strength and volume of an ocean, sweep with resistless energy over and around her; he has seen the fire-king again and again envelop her habitations in his consuming arms; he has repeatedly exposed his life in the performance of noble deeds, when plague and pestilence made her hearthstones desolate.
When the Asiatic cholera appeared in Sacramento, in the fall of 1850, Gov. Bigler immediately devoted himself to unremitting efforts for relieving the sick and burying the dead. The 28th of October was a day of sadness and terror; the deaths by cholera on that day numbered ninety. The alarm was so great that a sufficient force to dig graves and give burial to the victims could not be obtained. On the afternoon of that day, Gov. Bigler remained at the city cemetery until dark. The last three bodies interred were consigned to the grave by Gov. Bigler and an assistant, to accomplish which the Governor was compelled to get down into the earth and arrange the coffins in their narrow home.
The account of Dr. Morse, (now a leading physician of San Francisco) which was copied in the Illustrated History of Sacramento, pays this just tribute to the man whose daring and kindness of heart attracted the attention and gratitude of his fellow-men:
“We will mention one name, our motive for which will be readily acknowledged more as the extortion of truth than the result of partisan partiality. That name is John Bigler, the present Governor of California. This man, with strong impulses of sympathy, could be seen in every refuge of distress that concealed the miseries of the dying and the destitute. With a lump of gum-camphor as large as a moderate-sized inkstand, now in his pocket and anon at his nostrils, he braved every scene of danger that was presented, and with his own hands administered relief to his suffering and uncared-for fellow-beings.
Where is the man—the political opponent, even—who would not eagerly follow the writer, did he allow his pen to dwell in glowing eulogy upon this bright chapter in the life of John Bigler?
It will be seen that, during the best part of his life, Gov. Bigler has been actively engaged in the discharge of public duties. He is strictly a party man. He has the credit of being a very shrewd politician and a keen judge of men. To the fortunes of his party he has ever adhered with unfailing devotion. In the vigor of discipline and the flush of triumph, he has led its columns to new achievements and attainment of great ends; and when misfortune overtook and disaster appalled, he has rallied its scattered legions and dauntlessly flaunted its banner in the face of the foe.
And the party to which he has so steadfastly clung, has ever delighted to do him honor. Twice a member of the Assembly; twice Speaker of that body; twice Governor of the State; a third time a candidate for that office; for four years United States Minister to Chile; again the candidate of his party for Congress; three times an accredited delegate to the National Democratic Convention; he can feel, in the sunset of his natural and political life, that his party has not been unmindful of his labors in its cause. That party yet proudly points to the consistency of his public life, and the qualities which adorn his character as a man.
Gov. Bigler has always been the acknowledged friend of the poor and laboring classes. He has uniformly striven to elevate them, and ameliorate their condition. His entire public life has been signalized by patient fidelity to their interests and claims. He has not forgotten the past, with its solemn teachings. He is proud of labor, proud of the masses who live by labor, and proud that he himself has been compelled to labor.
Not success, not wealth, not rich estates, not grandeur, nor fame, nor the applause of the world, could make him forget the humble walks he trod in youth. As was said of “nature’s sternest painter, yet the best,” the amenities of the refined society which he enjoys in matured manhood never occupy his imagination so much as the reminiscences of struggle, suffering, passion and disaster with which his youth was familiar.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 47-62.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
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