In our high-speed information age, celebrations are instantaneous. But the celebrants in the image above were fifty days late to the party. Only eleven days earlier, on October 18, 1850, news of California’s admission to the Union had arrived in San Francisco with the Pacific Mail steamship Oregon. It had taken forty days for the news to travel from Washington, D.C., where, on September 9, 1850, President Millard Fillmore signed a bill into law proclaiming California the Union’s thirty-first state.
When, on the 18th instant, the mail steamer “Oregon” was entering the bay, she fired repeated preconcerted signal guns which warned the citizens of the glorious news. Immediately the whole of the inhabitants were afoot, and grew half wild with excitement until they heard definitely that the tidings were as they had expected. Business of almost every description was instantly suspended, the courts adjourned in the midst of their work, and men rushed from every house into the streets and towards the wharves, to hail the harbinger of the welcome news. When the steamer rounded Clark’s Point and came in front of the city, her masts literally covered with flags and signals, a universal shout arose from ten thousand voices on the wharves, in the streets, upon the hills, house-tops, and the world of shipping in the bay. . . . Flags of every nation were run up on a thousand masts and peaks and staffs, and a couple of large guns placed upon the plaza [Portsmouth Square] were constantly discharged. At night every public thoroughfare was crowded with the rejoicing populace. Almost every large building, all the public saloons and places of amusement were brilliantly illuminated—music from a hundred bands assisted the excitement—numerous balls and parties were hastily got up—bonfires blazed upon the hills, and rockets were incessantly thrown into the air, until the dawn of the following day.
For the past fifteen days the papers have been full of announcements and notices and the walls have been plastered with enormous posters. . . . No effort has been spared to make it a success and two thousand persons have subscribed for the dinner and ball at one hundred francs each. At sunrise the cannon was fired off, and the celebration inaugurated. Shouts and noises were heard from every quarter of the city, interspersed with shots from guns and pistols. While this was going on the various organizations assembled, banners in hand, and formed a large procession which was to parade the streets.
At the end of the procession rode a chariot, drawn by six horses, with thirty children wearing bonnets, including six-year-old Mary Eliza Davis (1845–1929), the “Queen of the 1850 Admission Day Parade,” the first Anglo-American child born in San Francisco.
At the celebration, the historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote, “a new star was added to the flag which floated from the mast in the center of the plaza, and every species of amusement and parade was made to attest the satisfaction of the citizens of the first American state on the Pacific coast.” There were a number of designs for a flag with thirty-one stars, which became the official United States flag on July 4, 1851.
Of special note at the celebration was an ode written for the occasion by Elizabeth Maria Bonney Wills, whose family came from New England to San Francisco earlier that year. Distributed among other printed pieces to the crowds from a typographical press mounted on a float, it was sung in Portsmouth Square as part of the ceremonies.
Wills’s inspiring ode closed with her sentiment:
Hers was a sentiment that remained contested for hundreds of year. As the black journalist Delilah Beasely chronicled:
Was this to be a free State in every sense of the word? . . . . At first, it was not, for a good many slaves were brought in to the State. On April 1, 1850, an advertisement appeared in the Jackson Mississippian referring to California, the Southern Slave Colony and inviting citizens of slave-holding States, wishing to go to California, to send their names, number of slaves, time of contemplate departure, etc., to the Southern Slave Colony, of Jackson, Mississippi. The design was to settle in the richest parts of the State and to secure an uninterrupted enjoyment of slave property. The colony was to comprise about 5,000 white persons and 10,000 slaves.
In 1852 Peachy of San Joaquin introduced a resolution to allow fifty southern families to immigrate in to California with their slaves. Some of them came without permission but on finding that they could not legally hold their slaves, they sent a part of them back while others became free.
Nevertheless, admittance to the Union was undeniably a cornerstone in the state’s growth and prosperity. Today Admission Day is a legal state holiday.
- Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of the Pacific States of North America, vol. VI, California, 1848–1859 (San Francisco: The History Company, 1888)
- Delilah L. Beasley, The Journal of Negro History 3, no. 1 (Jan., 1918)
- California Department of Parks and Recreation, California in Time: The Fight over Slavery through the Civil War. California Department of Parks and Recreation // parks.ca.gov/?page_id=27748
- Katherine H. Chandler, “San Francisco at Statehood,” San Francisco Chronicle, September 9, 1900
- Ernest de Massey, A Frenchman in the Gold Rush; the Journal of Ernest de Massey, Argonaut of 1849, trans. Marguerite Eyer Wilbur (San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1927)
- H. R. 5419, “State Admission Day Recognition Act of 2006” // congress.gov/bill/109th-congress/house-bill/5419
- Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet, The Annals of San Francisco (New York/San Francisco/London: D. Appleton & Company, 1855)