Any list of big names from the early days who put the Vallejo region on the map will include its namesake, General Mariano Vallejo, his son-in-law John Frisbie, who developed the town, and David Farragut, the neighboring island’s first commander. from Mare. Shipyard.
However, US Senator William McKendree Gwin, slave owner, who led the fight for the federal funds needed to establish the shipyard, is rarely mentioned.
Gwin dominated early California politics, starting out as a 49er in search of power rather than gold. Two months after arriving on June 4, 1849 by steamboat in San Francisco, he was elected a delegate to the State Constitutional Convention of 1849, and in mid-December he and famous explorer John C. Fremont were elected by lawmakers as the first two US senators from California. .
While in the Senate, Gwin won huge sums for Mare Island, which became the Navy’s first shipyard on the West Coast in 1854, and for other major California projects. But during the days of the Civil War, he was branded a traitor and was locked up twice because of his pro-Confederacy plots and shenanigans.
The importance of Senator Gwin to the shipyard is clear. With previous service in the United States House representing Mississippi, he knew the tricks of politics and was successful in securing a seat on the powerful Senate Finance Committee and chairing the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. He had the power to overcome opposition and provide funding to Mare Island that would otherwise have been smaller and slower to arrive. Various allowances approved by Gwin were used to purchase the island, pay for a floating dry dock and other equipment and machinery, construct buildings, and construct the yard’s first ship, the USS Saginaw.
Farragut, the Navy’s first admiral, is credited with the rapid rise of Mare Island during the four years he served as the shipyard commander. Gwin’s efforts made this build-up possible, but the Navy still had to contend with its system of political patronage in the civilian work force at the yard. Old news accounts described how Gwin would be informed if a Mare Island supervisor hired someone who did not support John Breckinridge, a pro-slavery Democrat who ran against Republican Abraham Lincoln for president. If such a hiring occurred, the supervisor would be fired.
Gwin’s accomplishments in the Senate also included funding a U.S. currency and federal customs, both in San Francisco. Customs has been dubbed the “home of the poor of Virginia” because of the number of Southerners who held high-paying jobs there thanks to their loyalty to Gwin and his chivalrous pro-slavery wing of the state’s Democratic Party.
In his 2021 book, West of Slavery: The Southern Dream of a Transcontinental Empire, author Kevin Waite quoted a lawmaker who knew Gwin, who owns a Mississippi plantation with more than 200 slaves, as saying he’s he proved to be a traitor to his friends in the North and always favored the South. No northerner, no northern friend known to be strongly opposed to slavery, has ever received anything from his hand. Everything he did was in the interests of the South.
Gwin’s Democratic supporters in the California legislature became a minority in the November 1860 election, dooming his hopes for re-election. His service in the United States Senate representing the Free State of California ended on March 3, 1861. The next day Lincoln took office as president, and a month later, on April 12, Confederate troops fired at Fort Sumter in the port of Charleston in South Carolina, marking the start of the Civil War.
Gwin was out of state in the spring of 1861, but was back in California in early June – facing criticism that he was a traitor because of his support for Confederation. A few months later, Gwin left for the South, where he started out as a lawyer and then a doctor before turning to politics.
In October 1861 he boarded a ship sailing from San Diego to New York, intending to disembark at Panama and find a ship that would execute a Union blockade and take him to a southern port. . But an army general who was also on board the ship had him arrested for “disloyal remarks” against the Union. Gwin was held at Fort Lafayette in New York Harbor until President Lincoln agreed to release him.
Gwin’s next stop was his plantation in Mississippi, where he remained until it was sacked by Union forces in mid-1863. Then he boarded the RE Lee side-wheeler, led the federal blockade, and sailed for France. In Paris, he joined other expatriates from the South and hatched a savage plan for what he envisioned as a Pacific coast empire, free from American control.
Winning an audience with French Emperor Napoleon III, Gwin presented plans for a new mining settlement in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico. France had invaded Mexico in 1862 and installed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian I at the head of the new Mexican Empire. Napoleon approved of Gwin’s plans and in mid-1864 sent him to Mexico.
Gwin had presented his idea as a lucrative opportunity for France, but his main goal was to make the colony part of an independent republic that would be a refuge for slave owners and their supporters, regardless of the end of civil war. But after the Union victory in early 1865, Gwin abandoned his plans and left Mexico. Returning to the United States, he was again arrested and imprisoned at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, for nearly eight months, until April 1866.
“Other than Jefferson Davis, no senior Confederate official has served such a long prison sentence after the war,” wrote Kevin Waite in his book West of Slavery. “And for good reason. Gwin’s border adventure was one of the most daring separatist plans of the war.”
By the end of 1866 Gwin was back in California, where he remained an active Democratic activist and railroad lobbyist. He died at the age of 79 in 1885 and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Gwin, who was once worth millions, was said to have had little money at the time of his death. But it still had friends in high places: Among its bearers were California Governor George Stoneman, who was an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War, and American senses Leland Stanford and James Fair.
Gwin’s death made national news, with numerous reports noting that he had been jailed for supporting Confederation. In Vallejo, a brief history from the Evening Chronicle describes him as “the power that moves people and things in the shipyard.” A long and brilliant tribute from the San Francisco Examiner concluded: âCalifornia has lost a father in him. Neither newspaper mentioned his time behind bars.
– Vallejo and other communities in Solano County are treasures of California history. The âSolano Chroniclesâ section, broadcast every other Sunday, highlights various aspects of this story. My source references are available on request. If you have any local stories or photos to share, email me at [email protected] You can also send any material to the Naval and Historical Museum of Vallejo, 734 Marin Street, Vallejo 94590.