John Bigler (January 8, 1805 – November 29, 1871) was an American lawyer, politician and diplomat. A Democrat, he served as the third Governor of California from 1852 to 1856 and was the first California governor to complete an entire term in office successfully, as well as the first to win re-election. His younger brother, William Bigler, was elected Governor of Pennsylvania during the same period. Bigler was also appointed by President James Buchanan as the U.S. Minister to Chile from 1857 to 1861.
Learn more about the governors of California, free from the California State Library.
Bigler was born in early 1805 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania to parents of German ancestry. Beginning work in the printing trade at an early age, Bigler, as well as his younger brother, William, never received a formal education, yet Bigler took it upon himself to educate his younger brother. In 1831, both brothers moved to Bellefonte in Centre County to buy the local Andrew Jackson-affiliated Centre Democrat newspaper, where older John assumed editorial duties. Bigler worked as editor until 1835 when he sold the publication to study law.
When news of the California gold rush reached the East Coast in mid 1848, Bigler, now a middle-aged lawyer, decided to leave for the West Coast to join a law practice. Travelling overland with an ox train, Bigler reached Sacramento in 1849, only to quickly discover no open positions in law. Bigler began to work a series of odd jobs, including becoming an auctioneer, a wood chopper, and a freight unloader at the town's docks along the Sacramento River. Upon hearing of the territory's first general election in the same year, Bigler decided to turn to politics, and entered the California State Assembly as a Democrat, one of nine members representing the Sacramento district.
Upon being elected to the first session of the California State Legislature in 1849, Bigler enjoyed a rapid rise to power in the Assembly. Within a year, Bigler was voted by the heavily Democratic majority in the body as the Speaker of the Assembly in February 1850. Now one of the most powerful legislators in the state, Bigler enjoyed widespread name recognition. During the Sacramento Cholera Epidemic of October 1850, Bigler contracted cholera as a direct result of his remaining in the city and assisting doctors and undertakers.
In May 1851, Bigler was nominated by the Democratic Party convention in Benicia as the party's choice for governor in California's first general election after achieving statehood. Bigler's challenger, the Whig Party's Pierson B. Reading, derided Bigler as an unpolished, gruff Yankee Northerner, while Reading articulated himself as an educated pioneering gentleman of the South. Bigler won the election by little more than a thousand votes, remaining today as the closest gubernatorial election in California history.
Assuming the governorship on January 8, 1852, Bigler set out in his priorities to protect the state's highly profitable mining interests from leasing or outside monopolies, declaring them in his first inaugural address as "[being] left as free as the air we breathe." Bigler also prioritized bringing industrialization to California, encouraging industrial investment on behalf of the state government.
Bigler also set out on a policy to openly target Chinese "coolie" immigrants from entering California. Claiming that the Chinese refused to and could never assimilate into American society, as well as their willingness to work with little pay, Bigler urged Californians to "check this tide of Asiatic immigration." While the previous administration of Governor John McDougall somewhat supported the Chinese presence in the state, Bigler advocated the revival of the 1850 Foreign Miners Tax, originally signed by anti-foreigner Governor Peter Burnett. Whereas the original 1850 law placed a US$20 a month tax on all miners of foreign origin, the Bigler-supported 1852 version of the law placed a US$3 a month tax exclusively for Chinese laborers. Over the course of his two terms in office, taxes for Chinese steadily increased with ever harsher bills passing the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Bigler. One law passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor created a US$50 tax per head for Chinese entering Californian ports that was to be paid within three days. The California Supreme Court later ruled the law unconstitutional.
As Sierra Nevada gold mine output came to a trickle by the early 1850s, followed by local financial panic caused by the discovery of gold in Australia, anger towards hard-working and labor-cheap Chinese grew from economically pressured miners, who desperately sought alternative work in California's cities and ports. While Bigler aligned himself with popular anti-immigrant and anti-Chinese sentiment, these pressure ranks would later split from the Democrats and spill over into the anti-immigrant American Know-Nothing Party.
Free Soil period
Pressure was also mounting on the Democratic Party itself in California in regards to slavery. By the 1853 general election campaign, large majorities of pro-slavery Democrats from Southern California, calling themselves the Chivalry (later branded as Lecompton Democrats), threatened to divide the state in half should the state not accept slavery. Bigler, along with former State Senator and Lieutenant Governor David C. Broderick from the previous McDougall Administration, formed the Free Soil Democratic faction, modeled after the federal Free Soil Party that argued against the spread of slavery. The Democrats effectively split into two camps, with both the Chivalry and Free Soilers nominating their own candidates for the 1853 election. Despite the party split, Bigler was able to overcome Whig Party challenger William Waldo and win a second term of office, the first governor to win a second term. No other elected California governor would successfully win a first and second term until Hiram Johnson in 1914.
Moving the capital
While Bigler continued to advocate and sign legislation restricting Chinese immigration and labor, the state government failed to find a permanent location for a capital or a capitol building. State Senator Mariano Vallejo's promises of Vallejo as being an ideal capital city failed to materialize. For one miserable week in early 1852, the California State Legislature met in the township, quickly discovering the lack of facilities, supplies and furniture. With the suggestion of Bigler and support from city government leaders, the Legislature would temporarily relocate to his adopted city of Sacramento, while Vallejo would remain the permanent capital. However, after flooding problems in Sacramento, and dire weather conditions in Vallejo, the Legislature and Bigler agreed to relocate the capital to nearby Benicia. Conditions in Benicia proved once again poor for state bureaucrats.
Sacramento offered its services again as a capital, and on February 25, 1854, Governor Bigler signed into law making Sacramento the capital of California. With the exception of a temporary move to San Francisco in 1862 while Sacramento was again flooded, the capital has stayed there since.
Bigler's popularity peaked around 1854 to 1855. For the 1855 general election, the Democratic Party renominated Bigler in his bid to gain a third term of office. However, his monopoly on anti-immigrant sentiment began to lose ground. Growing economic troubles due to the slow collapse of gold mining in the Sierras and other gold discoveries in Australia, as well as failures to solve growing state financial debt led to popular discontent with infrastructure and fiscal management within his administration, one that was generally perceived by the public for its fiscal extravagances. Bigler urged adoption of measures to secure for San Francisco the benefits of the whale trade of the Pacific. The anti-immigrant and Nativist American Know-Nothing Party, led by its nominee, former Democrat J. Neely Johnson, defeated Bigler by a moderate margin during the 1855 election. Bigler is the first California governor to be defeated through a general election.
Post governorship career
Following his defeat in the 1855 elections, Bigler's career turned to diplomacy. In 1857, at the insistence of his brother, Pennsylvania Governor William Bigler, President James Buchanan appointed Bigler as U.S. Minister to Chile. Following the completion of his foreign assignment, Bigler re-entered politics, this time on the federal level. Bigler ran as a Southern-friendly Independent for Congress in the 1863 elections, yet failed to win. In 1866, President Andrew Johnson nominated Bigler as the Internal Revenue Service's Federal Assessor for the Sacramento district, but due to open animosity between Congress and President Johnson at the time, the U.S. Senate never confirmed the nomination, and thus Bigler never took the position.
In 1867, Bigler was appointed Railroad Commissioner for the Central Pacific Railroad. In 1868, he founded the State Capitol Reporter and served as its editor until his death in Sacramento on November 29, 1871 at the age of 66. He is interred in the Sacramento Historic City Cemetery.
Lake Tahoe/Lake Bigler
At the height of his popularity in 1854, the Democratic majority State Legislature named modern-day Lake Tahoe "Lake Bigler" in honor of California's third Governor, who was then beginning his second term. For nearly ten years, the name of the lake had been in dispute. John C. Fremont, one of the lake's first White discoverers in 1844, named it "Lake Bonpland" after Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland, a French botanist who had accompanied Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt in his exploration of Mexico, Colombia and the Amazon River. Lake Bonpland's usage never became popular, with the name's lake changing from "Mountain Lake" to "Fremont's Lake." several years after. By 1853, the name "Lake Bigler" began to be applied to maps of the lake after the then-popular California governor. The state legislature officially changed the name the following year."
Lake Bigler's usage never became universal. In just a year, different maps referred to the lake not only as Bigler, but also as "Mountain Lake" to "Maheon Lake." By 1861, at the start of the American Civil War, former Governor Bigler, once a Free Soil Democrat, had become an ardent Confederate sympathizer. Unionists and Republicans alike derided the former governor's name on the lake on official state maps. Pro-Union papers called for a "change from this Secesh appellation" and "no Copperhead names on our landmarks for us." Several Unionist members in the Legislature suggested changing the name to the fanciful sounding "Tula Tulia." The Sacramento Union jokingly suggested the name "Largo Bergler" for Bigler's widely perceived financial incompetency in his final term and contemporary Southern sympathies.
The debate took a new direction when William Henry Knight, mapmaker for the federal U.S. Department of the Interior, and colleague Dr. Henry DeGroot of the Sacramento Union joined the political argument in 1862. As Knight completed a new map of the lake, the mapmaker asked DeGroot for a new name of the lake. DeGroot suggested "Tahoe," a local tribal name he believed meant "water in a high place." Knight agreed, and telegraphed to the Land Office in Washington, D.C. to officially change all federal maps to now read "Lake Tahoe." Knight later explained his desire for a name change, writing, "I remarked (to many) that people had expressed dissatisfaction with the name "Bigler", bestowed in honor of a man who had not distinguished himself by any single achievement, and I thought now would be a good time to select an appropriate name and fix it forever on that beautiful sheet of water."
"Lake Tahoe," also like "Lake Bigler," did not gain universal acceptance. Mark Twain, a critic of the new name, called it an "unmusical cognomen." In an 1864 editorial regarding the name in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, Twain cited Bigler as being "the legitimate name of the Lake, and it will be retained until some name less flat, insipid and spooney than "Tahoe" is invented for it." In Twain's 1869 novel Innocents Abroad, Twain continued to deride the name in his foreign travels. "People say that Tahoe means 'Silver Lake' - 'Limpid Water' - 'Falling Leaf.' Bosh! It means grasshopper soup, the favorite dish of the digger tribe - and of the Piutes as well." The Placerville Mountain Democrat began a notorious rumor that "Tahoe" was actually an Indian renegade who plundered upon White settlers. To counter the federal government, the California State Legislature reaffirmed in 1870 that the lake was indeed called "Lake Bigler."
By the end of the 19th century, usage of "Lake Bigler" had nearly completely fallen out of popular vocabulary in favor of "Tahoe." The California State Legislature officially reversed its previous decision in 1945, officially changing the name to Lake Tahoe.