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Presidents Polk, Fillmore and Lincoln had a hand in the birth of the state and our city
By Jan Siegel
As we get ready to celebrate President’s Day on Feb. 17, it is important for us to reflect on how many presidents have had a hand in shaping California but also San Juan Capistrano.
James K. Polk was president during the Mexican-American War, which resulted in the United States acquiring California, along with other western territories. As he promised, Polk only served one term. He did not run for re-election. Zachary Taylor then became the 12th president of the United States.
Following the discovery of gold in California, President Taylor recognized the necessity of bringing California into the Union as quickly as possible. Taylor also favored admitting California as a free state.
There was strong feeling in Congress that territories acquired from the Mexican-American War should be slave states. The debate was between northerners and southerners more than it was between the two major political parties, the Whigs and the Democrats.
Early in 1850, Sen. Henry Clay, from Kentucky, proposed a compromise that would address all the newly acquired lands on an individual basis rather than as a group. President Taylor was against the compromise and the fear of a presidential veto kept the Congress from taking further action. On July 9, 1850, however, President Taylor died from typhoid fever and Vice President Millard Fillmore became president.
Fillmore favored the compromise, and throughout August, individual congressional bills passed through the Senate. By early September, the entire package, which included the California Statehood Bill, was before the Senate. On Sep. 9, 1850, the bill passed and California became the 31st state, entering the Union as a free state. The compromise worked and a Civil War was averted, at least for the time being.
For San Juan Capistrano, the most important president was Abraham Lincoln.
Following the admission of California into the Union, there were years of confusion over property rights and land issues. Few of the land owners in California spoke English and had relied on Spanish and Mexican law.
Among the issues that had to be resolved was who owned title to the missions. John Forster had purchased the San Juan Capistrano Mission in 1844, when his brother-in-law was governor. His brother-in-law was Pio Pico, the last Mexican governor of Alta California.
Rev. William F. Krekelberg at Mission San Juan Capistrano said Bishop Sadoc Alemany challenged the Forster claim of ownership of the Mission before the U.S. Land Commission:
“The Bishop won the case on the basis that the sale of the mission by Pio Pico had been illegal under both Spanish and Mexican law. On March 18, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln granted a Patent of Title returning Mission San Juan Capistrano to the Church.”
As we celebrate President’s Day, take a Moment In Time and visit the San Juan Capistrano Mission and remember all of the presidents that are a part of our heritage. If not for all of their support we might not have the Jewel of Missions today.
Jan Siegel is a 26-year resident of San Juan Capistrano. She has served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 11 years and has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 15 years. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.