Early & Ongoing Partition Troubles
California’s north-south cultural split began as early as 1821, the year Mexico won its independence from Spain and acquired the province by treaty.
At that time the most populous towns, as well as the majority of the huge, privately owned cattle ranches, were located south of San Luis Obispo. North of there, a smattering of coastal towns, for the most part economically involved in foreign commerce, were less populated. But to the furious dismay of the southern residents, government headquarters, including the lucrative new customs house that collected high import duties from foreign ships—the entire province’s only source of public revenue—stubbornly remained in Monterey. Sectional jealousies and suspicions took hold.
Some 25 years later, the United States acquired California in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War. The following year, the gold discovery on the American River brought hordes of treasure-seekers from all over the world swarming into the northern regions. Meantime, California had existed in a political limbo for months: no longer under Mexican rule, yet not officially subject to American laws, either.
It was this uncertain state of affairs, coupled with the fear of potential full-scale civic disruption in a lawless territory, which prompted concerned settlers to take matters into their own hands and establish a government. In September 1849, representatives from all the districts met to create a California constitution, and on December 15, 1949, the first legislature, assembly and senate, convened in San Jose. Among other things it defined the duties of state officers, formed 27 counties, and inaugurated the first revenue-raising property tax in California, before it was even a state.
Now the southlanders were truly incensed and the 6,000 residents of Los Angeles bellowed their outrage, because the six so-called “cow counties” had been burdened with $42,000 in property taxes while the 21 northern counties, which counted nearly 250,000 residents in the gold mines and cities, were levied at $21,000.
Newspaper editors hastened to offer explanations. The southern counties were settled and prosperous, they said, a reliable tax base; whereas the northern mining districts were a hodgepodge of roving gold miners who abandoned any given camp as soon as another place held greater promise of placers or quartz veins. The disproportionate tax would surely be remedied when things settled down, they said. Unconvinced of future parity, the Angelenos began to agitate for a division of California.
In 1859, state Assemblyman Andre Pico—brother of California’s last Mexican governor Pio Pico—authored the Pico Act to bisect California horizontally around San Luis Obispo, thus creating a new entity to be called the Territory of Colorado. The legislature approved and a popular vote endorsed the statute, which was sent to Washington for Congressional approval. The United States Congress, then deeply embroiled in the pending crises of a national separation, ignored it.
Two years later at the outbreak of the Civil War, California’s very attachment to the Union became a vital question in political back-parlors. Los Angeles and neighboring El Monte, by 1860 populated largely by settlers from Texas, Missouri, and other slave states, sympathized with the South’s secession. On May 7, 1861, scarcely a month after Confederate guns firing on Fort Sumter opened the Civil War, a number of defiant horsemen paraded a replica of the Bear Flag through the streets of El Monte, using the symbol of the 1846 American settler’s revolt against Mexico to display their Southern sympathies. Henry Hamilton’s Los Angeles Star, the most influential newspaper in town, saw the separation of the Union as a fixed fact, and backed a plan for a Pacific Republic, an independent union of far western states and territories. Confederate sympathizers in northern California took up the banner, advocating “The Empire of California.” Neither notion came to fruition.
In the 20th century and in more recent years, several movements have again arisen to partition the third largest state in the Union into two or more entities. For better or worse, however, geographically and politically diverse California remains intact, today ranked as the world’s fifth largest economy behind the United States, China, Japan, and Germany.