First was the flood of new immigrants into California after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. The gold rush increased the population in northern California dramatically and it was clear that there needed to be local organization and governance. The Mexican province of California was the most advanced and unified part of the lands acquired by the United States in 1848, and its citizens applied to Congress to be admitted as a state.
However, this could not be done easily because of the issue of slavery. By 1849 there were thirty states, fifteen free and fifteen slave. Neither the proponents nor foes of slavery were prepared to let in new political entities which would wreck this equilibrium. California would come in as a free state and that would upset the balance of power in Congress. At the same time, because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, where slavery was prohibited north of the 38°30” degree line, it seemed that most of the land in the Mexican Cession would also be non-slave, a situation unacceptable to many Southerners.
Hearing that California was petitioning for statehood, Young sent his representatives to Congress to ask that this region be admitted as the state of Deseret, which he thought should include also a bit of the southern California coastline. The name “Deseret” came from a word in the Book of Mormon meaning “honeybee,” representing industry. Congress, which was strongly anti-Mormon at the time, refused to accept any such state dominated by Young and his followers.
The lands of the Mexican Cession outside of California were divided into two large territories, separated at the 37° parallel, with Utah to the north and New Mexico to the south. It was here that the Southerners were paid back for the admittance of the free state of California, for these two new territories were brought in under principle of “popular sovereignty,” where their own citizens would be able to vote on whether to allow slavery or no. Some of the New Mexico territory and all of the Utah territory was north of the Missouri Compromise line, but it was argued that that compromise did not apply to these territories as these lands lay outside of the original Louisiana Purchase.
By 1853, a number of attempts had been made to form a Nebraska Territory in this region, but Southerners stonewalled any such territory for it would, by the Missouri Compromise, have to be a free territory. The need to develop these lands created a pressure situation in Congress which was finally relieved in 1854 by Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act.
That compromise was to bring in these new territories under “popular sovereignty.” That is, the citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska territories could vote on whether to be free or slave. Since both these territories were part of the original Louisiana Purchase and lay north of 36°30”, this compromise was in direct contravention to the Missouri Compromise. This act infuriated many Northerners, and it not only led to the formation of the Republican Party, but it was one of the primary causes of the Civil War six years later.
While two states were created in the 1850s after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, no new territories appeared, something which would change quickly in the 1860s, as discussed in the next post in this series.