“It is not an edifice that would attract any attention among public buildings in the United States; but in California it is without a rival.”
— Rev.Walter Colton, alcade of Monterey (chief magistrate), 1849
Is it misleading to call Colton Hall in Monterey, California the state’s Independence Hall? On a tour of the building, that’s what my guide called it. The people of California didn’t exactly declare independence from Mexico. Then again, it is the site where in September 1849 the California Constitution Convention met to write a state constitution. So perhaps a parallel could be made with that other building in Philadelphia.
Located south of San Francisco, the town of Monterey was on Mexico’s frontier in 1849. The Gold Rush was in full swing, but only 18,000 people lived in what is now the state of California.
Forty-eight delegates from various corners of Alta California were elected to meet at Monterey in Colton Hall, the largest public building west of the Rockies. It is notable that eight were native-born Californios, Spanish speakers who required interpreters. Over forty-three days they pounded out a state constitution. It borrowed from several state constitutions, especially from Ohio and New York, but in the end proved one of the most progressive constitutions among the states. It created a bilingual state, and was the first state to allow married women to own property and thus represent themselves in court. It also set up free public education in every county. It outlawed slavery and dueling and set San Jose as the state’s first capital.
A news story described the moment when the delegates signed the document. “At this moment, a signal was given; the American colors ran up the flagstaff in front of the government buildings, and streamed out on the air. A second afterward the first gun boomed from the fort… as the signing went on, gun followed gun from the first, echoes reverberating grandly around the bay, ’til finally, as the loud ring of the thirty-first was heard, there was a shout: ‘That’s for California'”
California officially became the 31st state in the United States a year later in September of 1850. About six months later, the state’s population had grown to 160 thousand.