The First Newspaper in California

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

The first newspaper in California was launched on August 15, 1846. It was titled simply the Californian. The paper's editors were Rev. Walter Colton, a chaplain in the U.S. Navy, and Dr. Robert Semple, a frontiersman from Kentucky, both recent arrivals.

The non-Indian population of California in 1846, according to Thomas O. Larkin's report to the government of the U.S., was perhaps 15,000, mostly descendants of Spanish or Mexican fathers and Indian mothers (in Californian Vol. 1, No. 2, the estimate is 10,000, and Alfred Robinson estimated the non-Indian population of Alta California in 1846 at 8,000). By then the missions had been secularized for nearly 15 years. They had generally fallen into decay, and their people, both missionaries and Indians, had dispersed. Larkin estimated that between 1,000 and 1,200 foreigners (i.e., neither Spanish nor Mexican) lived in California. Most lived around San Francisco or in the Sacramento Valley, and a smaller number lived in Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

The Monterey area, at about this time, had a non-native population of approximately 1,600, with about 700 in Monterey, 550 on nearby ranchos, and the remainder in Branciforte (near Santa Cruz), San Juan, and other towns. There were about 75 foreign settlers.

Spanish rule ended when Commodore John D. Sloat landed in Monterey on July 2, 1846, and, after a period of uncertainty, took possession on July 7, 1846. He apparently did not want to repeat the embarassing mistake of Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, who, believing war had broken out between the U.S. and Mexico, occupied Monterey in October of 1842.

Colton arrived in Monterey on July 15, 1846 aboard the Congress, one of Commodore Sloat's vessels. Sloat appointed him alcalde, equivalent to mayor and judge combined. He remained in Monterey until 1849, when he returned to his home in Philadelphia. Semple arrived at Sutter's Fort in December of 1845, and shortly thereafter became a leading figure in the Bear Flag movement. On June 14, 1846, following the capture of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the Bear Flag Republic was declared. In July and August of that year Semple served with Captain Daingerfield Fauntleroy's company of volunteer dragoons assigned to keep order in the Monterey district. On August 15, he requested permission to leave the company--he and Colton had formulated plans to start a newspaper.

Both partners had previous newspaper experience. Prior to his enlistment, Colton edited a paper in Washington, D.C. titled the American Spectator and Washington City Chronicle, while Semple learned the printer's trade with the Western Argus in Frankfort, Kentucky (after which he briefly took up the professions of dentistry, law, and medicine).

The first issue included the following (spelling and punctuation as in the original):


This is the first paper ever published in California, and though issued upon a small sheet, is intended it shall contain matter that will be read with interest. The principles which will govern us in conducting it, can be set forth in a few words.

we shall maintain an entire and utter severance of all political connexion with Mexico. we renounce at once and forever all fealty to her laws, all obedience to her mandates.

we shall advocate an oblivion of all past political offenses and allow every man the privilege of entering this new era of events unembarrassed by any part he may have taken in previous revolutions.

We shall maintain freedom of speech and the press, and those great principles of religions toleration, which allows every man to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

We shall advocate such a system of public instruction as will bring the means of a good practical education to every child in California.

We shall urge the immediate establishment of a well organized government and a universal obedience to its laws.

we shall encourage imigration, and take special pains to point out to agricultural imigrants those sections of unoccupied lands, where the fertility of the soil will most amply repay the labors of the husbandman.

we shall encourage domestic manufactures and the mechanic arts as sources of private wealth, individual comfort and indispensable to the public prosperity.

we shall urge the organization of interior defences sufficient to protect the property of citizens from the depredations of the wild indians.

we shall advocate a territorial relation of California to the United States, til the number of her inhabitants is such that she can be admitted a member of that glorious confederacy.

we shall support the present measures of the commander in chief of the American squadron on our coast, so far as they conduce to the public tranquility, the organization of a free representative government and our alliance with the United States.

we shall advocate the lowest rate of duties on foreign imports, and favor an exemption of the necessaries of life, even from those duties.

We shall go for California--for all her interests, social civil and religious--encouraging every thing that promotes these, resisting every thing that can do them harm.

This press shall be free and independent; unawed by power and untrammeled by party. The use of its columns shall be denied to no none, who have suggestions to make, promotive of the public weal.

we shall lay before our readers the freshest domestic intelligence and the earliest foreign news.

we commence our publication upon a verry small sheet, but its dimentions shall be enlarged as soon as the requisite materials can be obtained.

The paper continued under the editorship of Colton and Semple until April 17, 1847, at which point Colton withdrew from the paper. In addition to his duties as alcalde, Colton had been appointed Judge of the Court of Admiralty. His many duties, along with declining health, forced him to drop his participation in the newspaper. Semple published issues on April 24, 29, and May 6, then with no explanation packed up and moved to San Francisco. Thus ended the short reign of the first newspaper in California.


Copyright 2000 by G.S. Breschini

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