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September 9, 2016

The California That Could Have Been

Could our state have taken on a different shape? An OMCA curator muses on the possibilities

By Suzanne Fischer, associate curator of history

Every year, September 9 marks Admission Day in California. It’s the anniversary of when, on September 9, 1850, at the height of the Gold Rush, California became a state. But becoming a state meant some important questions needed to be answered: what would California look like? How big would it be?

When we at OMCA redesigned our Gallery of California History in 2010, we wanted a way to visualize the Californias that could have been. As our starting place, we used the discussion of California’s potential size and shape from the 1849 Constitutional Convention in Monterey. Graphic designer Dave Gottwald turned ten different proposals into a series of maps that illustrate how major political decisions can come down to not-so-practical factors, such as the perceived beauty of a certain shape.

The discussion about the shape of California reveals historical, geographical, and cultural assumptions. As part of a larger national discussion about the balance of slave and free states in the territory the US took over from Mexico in the war of 1846, California was admitted to the Union as a free state. This “Compromise of 1850” also included a significantly strengthened Fugitive Slave Act, requiring free states to aid in the return of escaped enslaved people.

While the Constitutional Convention had voted that California be a free state, its boundaries were still in dispute. The delegates in Monterey, mostly Anglo settlers and a few Californios, or person of Spanish ancestry born in what is now California, worked through many possibilities before coming to a compromise. Some proposals wanted the new state of California to cover the entire extent of the old Spanish Alta California, which is to say, all of that 1848 “Mexican Cession,” the entire region that Mexico ceded to the US in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Other delegates worried that Congress would not approve such a huge state. Some argued that California should take all of the “Great Desert” (the Great Basin) except Salt Lake City and surrounding Mormon areas because of a perceived lack of cultural fit with California. Others argued that California should take all of the Great Basin, or none of it. Some thought that proposed shapes were just too ugly for a new state. 

Eventually the delegates agreed on the California we know today—a large state, but not too large, with the Colorado River and most of the West’s fertile farmland, but excluding most of the desert.

If you could draw a new map of California today, what would it look like?

For more on Californias that could have been, check out OMCA’s Gallery of California History.