Happy Belated Birthday Governor Bigler!

John Bigler, California’s third governor and the only chief executive to serve two terms in the 19th Century, was born January 8, 1805 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

No other governor until Hiram Johnson in 1911 would win a first and second term.

At his political height, the roly-poly Bigler was popular enough that lawmakers named a lake after him. For a few years anyway.

Bigler was the second speaker of the state assembly and the first to be re-elected to a second term.

California’s public education system was created during Bigler’s first term as governor. When he left office in 1856, 221 schools had been established.

Cartoon Mocking the Ever-Shifting State Capitol

It also fell to Bigler rather than his two short-tenured predecessors – Peter Burnett and John McDougal – to establish a permanent state capitol 

In 1849, lawmakers met in San Jose. The third session was held in in Vallejo, at the request of Mariano Vallejo, who sought the capitol to be located in the city bearing his name. Vallejo pledged acreage and money for erecting government buildings, including a governor’s mansion.

The money didn’t materialize and although the Legislature began 1853 in Vallejo it swiftly relocated to Benicia.

The fifth session, in 1854, was also held in Benicia but it would be the last.

 Bigler signed legislation the same year making his hometown of Sacramento the permanent capitol.

Historians portray Bigler as short and squat. He’s described as being “rotund” with an “oval face which reflected an easy going sense of humor” in The Governors of California: Peter H. Burnett to Edmund G. Brown by H. Brett Melendy and Benjamin Gilbert.

A February 6, 1898 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, says more charitably that Bigler tended toward the  “avoirdupois” and was “hail-fellow-well-met with all his constituents.” He routinely wore a tall silk hat, set well back on his head.

Included in the same Chronicle story is a description of Bigler at a July 4, 1855 parade and celebration in the city.

“Early in the morning, a fire destroyed the entire block of houses fronting Kearny between Pine and Bush,” the paper reported. “The interest in the fire threatened to interfere with the procession.

“But presently along came (the procession). And marching at its head, arm-in-arm with Charley Duane, chief of the (Fire) Department, was ‘Honest’ John Bigler, hat thrown a-way back, blue eyes twinkling and as happy as a lord.”

As governor, Bigler echoed a growing popular antipathy toward Chinese immigrants.

“In order to enhance the prosperity and to preserve the tranquility of the state, measures must be adopted to check (the) tide of Asiatic immigration, and prevent the exportation by them of the precious metals which they dig up from our soil without charge, and without assuming any of the obligations imposed upon citizens,” Bigler told lawmakers in an April 1852 Special Message on Asiatic Emigration.

“I allude, particularly, to a class of Asiatics known as ‘Coolies,’ who are sent here, as I am assured, and as is generally believed, under contract to work in our mines for a term and who, at the expiration of the term, return to their native country. I am sensible that a proposition to restrict international intercourse or to check the immigration of even Asiatics, would appear to conflict with the long cherished benevolent policy of our government. In this generous policy, so far as it affects Europeans, or others capable of becoming citizens under our laws, I desire to see no change. ”

Bigler also sought removal of all Indians from the state – at federal expense. In 1855, he signed legislation prohibiting the sale of guns or ammunition to Native Americans.

The oldest of five sons, Bigler was governor of California at the same time his younger brother, William, was governor of Pennsylvania.

He apprenticed to a printer then moved in 1827 to Bellefonte, becoming editor of the Centre County Democrat. He was admitted to the bar in 1840, opening a law practice in Mount Sterling Illinois.

When news of gold being discovered reached him, Bigler and his wife and young daughter headed west, leaving from St. Joseph Missouri on May 9, 1849.

“On that day the long journey was commenced in good earnest and with a fixed determination on the part of all to meet difficulties to be overcome, dangers to be encountered and privations to be endured with inflexible fidelity to each other and as far as possible refrain from expressions calculated to cause discontent or discouragement,” Bigler said in an 1865 speech to the Sacramento Pioneers.

Bigler and family arrived in Sacramento on August 31.

His wife, Elizabeth, and daughter Virginia were the first white female emigrants to the area, according to Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific by Oscar Shuck, published in 1870 and transcribed by Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

No work as a lawyer was available so Bigler became an auctioneer, woodchopper and maker of calico bed comforters, the spare calico becoming dresses for his wife and daughter.

In October of 1849, Bigler was told he had been nominated for one of the nine Assembly seats representing Sacramento.

At the time, the Sacramento legislative district stretched from the Consumnes River to the Oregon border and from the Coastal Range east to the line then dividing California and Utah.

Bigler contested the election results, which gave W. R. Dickenson the victory, saying two precincts of late returns hadn’t been counted. Bigler ended up winning — by 56 votes.

But before the Legislature convened, the rainy season hit Sacramento. 

“The roof of (Bigler’s) cloth tenement admitted the rain. It was necessary to suspend an umbrella over their heads at night, in order to turn aside the rain from their faces,” writes Shuck.

“Every morning, for more than two weeks, the floor of their tent was flooded. Every morning, for that length of time, their little cooking stove was taken out and emptied of its liquid contents. Their bedstead was four forked sticks, driven into the ground, with two round willow poles forming the railing. Short poles, extended crosswise, served as bed cords.”

In December, Bigler and his family took the steamer ”McKim” to San Francisco en route to San José where the Legislature was to convene.

They came ashore at Clay St., between Montgomery and Sansome, San Francisco’s waterfront at the time.

Bigler had trouble finding lodging but James Hagan, a restaurant owner, let Bigler and his family use a room furnished only a straw mattress. So grateful was Bigler that he convinced California’s first governor to reward Hagan with a “lucrative office.”

The first Legislature convened December 16. One of its first acts was to ask the military governor, Gen. Bennet Riley, to give the state the balance in the “Civil Fund,” comprised of customs duties collected by the United States army and navy.

Bigler as Governor

Riley said the money belonged to the federal government, leaving California’s new civilian government penniless.  To raise cash, the Legislature authorized bonds bearing 3 percent interest – per month.  Bigler opposed the idea but lost the fight.

In February 1850, he was elected Assembly Speaker upon the resignation of Dr. Thomas White.

Bigler introduced a resolution urging “as soon as practicable, the construction of a national railroad from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River.”

In October of 1850, cholera swept Sacramento. Bigler stayed in the city to help fight the disease.

“He went everywhere … to administer relief to the destitute and suffering people,” write Melendy and Gilbert. “He carried with him a lump of camphor wrapped in a handkerchief which he pressed to his nostrils in the belief this would protect him.”

Gov. McDougal nearly died during the epidemic.

Bigler was re-elected as Speaker in 1851. Later that year, he was nominated by the Democrats at their convention in Benicia as their candidate for governor in California’s first general election since statehood. He got the nod on the sixth ballot.

His Whig opponent was Pierson Reading, who participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, worked for John Sutter and owned 26,600 acres near present-day Redding and Cottonwood.

Bigler won by 1,082 votes – the closest gubernatorial victory margin in state history.

The narrow margin was out of 44,144 votes cast, however. That would mean Bigler garnered 51.2 percent of the vote to Reading’s 48.7 percent.

Sacramento 1855

The Whigs claimed fraud. The Legislature declared Bigler, their former colleague, the victor.

“In surveying the diversified capabilities of our state – her commercial, agricultural, grazing, mining and manufacturing, — we may safely challenge the world to present a parallel,” Bigler said in his January 8, 1852 inaugural speech.

“It will be our own fault, then, if California does not grow to be one of the most prosperous and flourishing states of the Union. Providence seems to have designed her for no ordinary destiny for nowhere are combined so many of the elements of greatness.”

Bigler sent three special messages to lawmakers in 1852, the first on state finances, a vexing problem he focused on trying to solve for much of his two terms.  

The first step was to retire the usurious bonds at 3 percent interest each month. That was done before Bigler left office but with relatively no revenue entering state coffers, the value of the state’s paper fell.

It took several years before the value climbed to 60 cents on the dollar. As a consequence, the state used warrants and scrip to cover its bills.

That, Bigler said in 1856, caused California “for every service performed, for salaries of officers, for work done or materials furnished to add nearly 100 percent to the price for which the same could have been had if the treasury had not been entirely depleted.”

Bigler called for revising the state’s tax system, noting that some counties had yet to pay 1 cent of tax money to the state.

In 1853, he proposed extending San Francisco’s city limits into the bay and selling lots, which at the time were underwater. This would reduce state debt by $2 million, Bigler said.

The Legislature didn’t approve the deal, although later landfill created the city’s financial district out of the underwater tracts.

Bigler was more successful in convincing the Legislature to pass regulations that would pay the expenses of public schools by escheating estates, a power the state constitution granted.

William Leisdorff

Of primary interest to Bigler was the estate of William Leidesdorff, a successful San Francisco businessman, who died in 1848 without a will or American relatives to inherit. After his death, significant amounts of gold were found on his property on the south banks of the American River near Sacramento. Enough gold to boost the estate’s value to $1.4 million and make it an attractive target for the revenue-seeking governor.   

However, shortly after Leidesdorff’s death, San Francisco’s former Customs Officer, Joseph Libbey Folsom, purchased his estate. Court challenges left the property in his hands, not the state’s.

There is a Leidesdorff Street in the City of Folsom.

“(Bigler’s) many proposals to solve the debt problem created powerful political enemies and many of his suggestions were consequently sidetracked,” write Melendy and Gilbert.

By 1856, Bigler was able to report that California’s debt had been reduced by $1.7 million and only six other states were in better financial shape.

But despite his advocacy of reducing state costs, the government’s budget grew along with the state’s population.

His second inaugural address on January 7, 1854 noted as an acocmplishment the construction of a “secure” state prison.

“Heretofore, almost entirely dependent upon individuals and counties for the safe-keeping of criminals, there has been, comparatively, an immunity from punishment. This fact, and the no less important one — that escape was possible — emboldened the vicious and daring, and served greatly to increase crime.

“For, it is not so much the “severity of punishment, as the certainty of its infliction,” which holds villainy in check. But now that we have a secure prison, that escape is hopeless  and punishment certain. Crime, it is hoped and believed, will rapidly diminish.”

An 1855 Map of California Counties

He attributed a major part of California’s economic growth to the state’s blossoming agricultural base.

“No longer, as of yore, do we look alone to our rich placers and mountain gulches for wealth and the means of sustaining our world-wide commerce and our prosperity – but the abundant and no less wonderful products of a most prolific soil have excited the admiration and attracted the notice, not only of our sister states but of all the nations of the civilized world,” Bigler said in 1856.

He noted that California contained flourishing vineyards and he hoped someday the Golden State would be famous for fine wines.

Throughout his time in office, Bigler championed farmers. In 1854, he wanted the Legislature to call on the federal government to give land to settlers for free instead of at the price of $1.25 an acre.

He was the first governor to advocate the use of irrigation to develop the state’s arid regions.

As an emigrant himself, Bigler sought to ameliorate the travails of settles coming down out of the Sierras. In 1852, he asked the Legislature to spend $15,000 in aid for emigrants arguing that those who were helped would improve the state’s fiscal condition as eventual taxpayers.

The Legislature agreed to the expenditure but controversy flared.

Reimbursements from those who spent their own money were filed in 1853 but records of the expenditures were lost in a Sacramento fire. Who should receive a check and for how much was based solely on Bigler’s word and that of his appointees.

In 1852, the editor of the Daily Alta California, Edward Gilbert, claimed Bugler had used the program of emigrant aid for political gain. One James Denver and several other persons who helped provide the emigrant assistance took issue with Gilbert’s claims.

From Melendy and Gilbert:

“In a series of letters Gilbert demanded that Denver retract his offensive statements and Denver demanded that the articles defaming Bigler be retracted. On August 1, Gilbert challenged Denver to a duel outside of Sacramento. The fight took place the next day and the editor was killed.”

Throughout his time in office, Bigler called for constitutional changes, which he insisted should be approved by voters before taking effect.

Among his suggestions were biennial instead of annual legislative sessions of no more than 90 days.

He proposed reducing the size of government and eliminating the offices of superintendent of public instruction and superintendent of public buildings.

The fiscal year should start on December 15, he argued, instead of July 1 because when they met lawmakers would be more aware of the state’s fiscal condition.

Though Spanish was one of California’s official languages, Bigler said he saw no need to translate legislative journals into Spanish.

An advocate of reducing the salaries of state officials he received the same $10,000 salary as his two predecessors, the Legislature declining to act on most of his recommendations. 

An1860s Map of Lake Bigler

As a tribute to his popularity, which appears to have peaked around 1854, lawmakers named a lake after the Democratic governor.

For a time, “Bigler” caught on better than previous names for large Sierra body of water. “Fremont’s Lake,” “Mountain Lake” and “Lake Bonpland,” after a French botanist, never took.

But sentiment began to run against “Bigler” after the former governor became a Confederate sympathizer.

There are varying accounts but the most common is that a mapmaker for the US Department of the Interior completing a new map of Lake Bigler sought a new name for the lake.

His friend, Henry DeGroot of the Sacramento Union suggested “Tahoe,” which DeGroot believed meant “water in a high place.”

As a name, Lake Tahoe also had its critics.

“I hope some bird will catch this Grub the next time he calls Lake Bigler by so disgustingly sick and silly a name as ‘Lake Tahoe.’ I have removed the offensive word from his letter and substituted the old one, which at least has a Christian English twang about it whether it is pretty or not. ‘Tahoe’ – it sounds as weak as soup for a sick infant. ‘Tahoe’ be – forgotten!” wrote Mark Twain in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise in September 1863.

In 1870, the Legislature reaffirmed that the lake was named “Bigler.” But by the turn of the century, “Tahoe” had won out. In 1945, California lawmakers made the name change official.

After leaving office, Bigler set up a law firm – Bigler, Coffroth & Spaulding—and traveled east to visit his brother the governor.  With help from his brother, Bigler was named U.S. Minister to Chile by president James Buchanan in 1857.

He ran as an independent for Congress in 1863 but lost badly.

President Andrew Johnson named him as the internal Revenue Service’s assessor for the Sacramento area but the US Senate never confirmed the nomination and Bigler never served in the post.

He founded the State Capitol Reporter, which espoused the Democratic Party line, and was its editor until he died at age 66 on November 29, 1871. His daughter died in February 1873, his wife eight months later.

All are buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery.




Filed under: California History

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