When Two States, California and Deseret, Laid Claim to Los Angeles

For a brief time, mapmakers couldn't decide which state Los Angeles belonged to.

In December 1849, two self-proclaimed states began governing vast swaths of what had been Alta California, the land the United States had recently pried by conquest from Mexico.

The State of California (Peter Hardeman Burnett, governor), its legislature seated in San Jose, claimed the Pacific coast south from the Oregon Territory to the border with Mexico.

The State of Deseret (Brigham Young, governor), its general assembly seated in the Great Salt Lake City, claimed the vast interior deserts of the Great Basin and Colorado River watersheds.

Generally, these states' boundaries -- drawn by delegates to their respective constitutional conventions -- neatly divided the conquered territory, their border roughly running along the Sierra Nevada. But there was one place they overlapped: the land we know today as Southern California.

Deseret's borders as declared in its 1849 state constitution. With boundaries based on watersheds rather than surveyor's lines,the state encompassed most of present-day Utah and Nevada, half of Arizona,and pieces of California, New Mexico, Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, and Colorado. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by user Mangoman88.

Both states sprang forth from a political void. Alta California had been under U.S. military occupation since January 1847 -- a situation that persisted even after the formal end of the Mexican-American War in March 1848 as Congress, paralyzed by the question of slavery in the newly acquired lands, failed to provide for a civilian territorial government. In villages like Los Angeles and San Diego alcaldes still governed in the old Hispanic tradition, and many Indian tribes remained effectively independent. But by 1849 the province's newly arrived American residents bristled at the lack of representative government at the regional level.

At California's constitutional convention (which met, incidentally, with the blessing of the military governor, Brigadier General Bennett Riley), delegates wanted to draw borders that would secure immediate admission into the Union. They therefore limited themselves to the populated coastal regions and the mineral-rich Sierra Nevada. Incorporating the vast interior reaches beyond the Sierra risked alienating pro-slavery Southerners in Congress, who might want to carve the land into slave states to offset the admission of California, a free state. Delegates also noted the 20,000 Mormons living in the Salt Lake Valley who were not represented at the convention and, in any case, practiced a "peculiar religion."

Those Latter-day Saints, meanwhile, convened a constitutional convention of their own, proposing a state of Deseret whose boundaries reflected different goals. The Mormon settlers had fled persecution, first in Missouri and then in Illinois, where a mob murdered church founder Joseph Smith. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, led them to the Salt Lake Valley. There Young and his followers hoped to establish a self-sufficient Mormon empire that would receive converts from around the world and, through a political system controlled by church leadership, shield them from further persecution.

Deseret's boundaries reflected these hopes. The provisional state sprawled across the arid Great Basin to capture the sparsely distributed farmland, water, and other natural resources Young's scouts had surveyed. And it carved out a piece of Alta California's southern coast, where overland wagon trails and supply routes could reach the sea and connect Deseret with the outside world.

Though the overlapping boundaries may have confounded mapmakers (the German map below incorrectly excluded Los Angeles from Deseret's boundaries), residents were not so confused. Without even considering Deseret's rival claim, the villages of Los Angeles and San Diego incorporated as municipalities under the state of California in the spring of 1850.

Eventually, Congress resolved the border conflict with the Compromise of 1850, when it admitted California to the Union and rejected Deseret's application, creating instead a Territory of Utah with a more modest footprint. (Brigham Young would serve as the territory's first governor.) In its last act, Deseret's General Assembly dissolved the unrecognized state on March 28, 1851.

By then, 437 Mormon colonists were already making the arduous cross-desert journey to found the town of San Bernardino -- a settlement that, even they would admit, resided within the state of California.

1850 map of Deseret
This 1850 German map of the United States recognizes the State of Deseret's claim to the Southern California coast. Note, however, that Deseret's official boundaries included the pueblo of Los Angeles, which this map excludes. Map of Vereinigte Staaten von Nord-America und Mexico by Carl Christian Franz Radefeld and Joseph Meyer. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.


This 1847 map of Mexico shows the extent of Alta California, then a conquered province under U.S. military occupation. Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, California &c. by John Disturnell. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
This 1847 map of Mexico shows the extent of Alta California, then a conquered province under U.S. military occupation.Mapa de los Estados Unidos de Méjico, California &c. by John Disturnell. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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Deseret's 1849 constitution defined its boundaries.Note that its western border ran along the Californiacoast until a line running alone 118 degrees, 30 minutes,of longitude, which is roughly the location of theSanta Monica Pier. From the Constitution of theState of Deseret, courtesy of the Internet Archive.
This 1850 map of the United States represents a compromisebetween the borders of California and Deseret. It acknowledgesboth states, but recognizes California's claim to the southern coastand the Mojave Desert lands west of the Colorado River. Map of theUnited States of America by J.H. Young. Courtesy of theDavid Rumsey Historical Map Collection
Produced in 1850 by the same mapmaker, this version of the U.S. mapshows the boundaries established by Congress later that year.The Territory of Utah encompassed only some of the lands claimedby the State of Deseret. Courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.


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