The Great Seal of California depicts Minerva, goddess of wisdom, seated, with a grizzly bear by her side. Why Minerva? Because Minerva (or Athena) sprung fully formed from the forehead of her father Jupiter (or Zeus). As explained by Caleb Lyons, the secretary of the state constitutional convention, “This is introduced as a type of the political birth of the State of California without having gone through the probation of a Territory.”
California did not follow the usual path to statehood: designation as a Territory by Congress, then admission as a state. Only Congress could confer upon the region a Territorial government, and Congress failed to act. Events just moved too fast in California for Congress to keep up, and the state made the leap from conquered territory to statehood in record time.
When the war with Mexico concluded, California remained under military rule. Government was under a succession of military governors, Commodore Stockton, John C. Fremont, and General Stephen Kearney among them, although they squabbled among themselves as to who was in charge. Fremont refused to recognize Kearney’s authority and was court-martialed, convicted, and later pardoned.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ratified in May 20, 1848, concluded the Mexican War and made California officially part of the United States. By this time gold had been discovered at Sutter’s Mill and soon the rush would be on. As men poured into California, the legal situation stood in confusion. Until a new government was formed, Mexican law was supposed to remain in force, but the Americans were not sure what the Mexican laws were, and it’s not clear if the old Californios knew much more.
Throughout 1848 Col. Richard B. Mason, the successor to Kearney as military authority, awaited word from Congress about a territorial government, but he waited in vain. Congress failed to act. By the time General Bennett Riley assumed command in April 1849, the region was rapidly filling up with gold-seekers, and still there was no civil government. It was time for Californians to take matters into their own hands.