The discovery of gold in California in 1848 may have been one of the greatest benefits for Sacramento in the late 19th century. Because of that discovery, James McClatchy came west and later founded The Sacramento Bee.
McClatchy was working on the editorial staff of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in 1848 when the news of the gold strike struck the wanderlust in him.
With a boatload of adventurers, he set off for the coast of eastern Mexico. After a hike across the country, the hardy group boarded a schooner bound for San Francisco. Misfortune at sea caused the abandonment of the boat in lower California. After considerable hardships, the group reached San Diego and soon thereafter arrived in San Francisco.
McClatchy had no better luck at gold mining than at sailing, and in the summer of 1849, he moved to Sacramento, a city only 10 years old but already a crossroads in the new world.
In a lawless city in a lawless land, McClatchy realized the need for some form of sound civil government, and he also realized what power a newspaper could wield in the public interest.
His first western newspaper job was on the staff of the Placer Times, where his principles were put to a severe test in a battle for settlers against land speculators. The speculators were buying up vast parcels of land originally issued to Sutter by the Mexican government. The land settlers moving into the Sacramento Valley felt, since the Mexican government was no longer in power, these purchases were no longer valid and attempted to occupy the land in defiance. The ranchers drove them off, and the squatters came to Sacramento.
In 1850, squatter riots exploded in the city, and McClatchy took the settlers’ cause to heart with an editorial stand: “If the landowners want a fight let them fight and the devil take the hindmost. Let us put up all the fences (of the settlers) pulled down and let us put up all the men who pulled them down.”
After a settler lost a court fight to hold his land, riots broke out again and McClatchy went to jail for resisting the authority of the sheriff. He was later exonerated of all charges and freed, but the episode represented the first in his history as champion of the people.
By October 1850, McClatchy was editing his own paper, Settlers and Miners Tribune. The paper died of financial starvation after a few weeks.
In the next six years he worked on three more journals, the Sacramento Transcript, the Democratic State Journal and the Sacramento Times. In 1857, McClatchy realized his desire to establish a strong newspaper devoted to the interests of the people.
Shortly after becoming editor of The Sacramento Bee, McClatchy published his first exposè, which embroiled him in a freedom of the press controversy. The Bee reported that approximately $200,000 in state funds had been either mismanaged or stolen. The result of this accusation was the impeachment of the state treasurer, his chief clerk jailed, and McClatchy cited for contempt of court for charging that the jury impaneled to hear the case was rigged.
The treasurer was later “whitewashed,” as predicted by McClatchy. The contempt charge against him was dropped. Winning a moral victory in his first challenge, McClatchy continued to take strong stands on current issues. He supported the Central Pacific’s ambition to cross the Sierra, fought against slavery in California and spoke out on behalf of small farmers whose fields were being trampled by the herds of large landowners.
The Bee’s editor was also an environmentalist. By the late 1870s, hydraulic mining bored into the sides of hills in Northern California and was leaving tremendous amounts of refuse on rich farmlands and in rivers. McClatchy noted the drain of California’s natural resources and battled against destructive methods. After seven years, he was successful in limiting harmful mining operations, and he turned to investigations into methods of conserving natural resources.
McClatchy called for construction of flood control and reclamation projects and the extension of irrigation works.
Throughout his career, McClatchy fought the machine politics that had plagued California since her admission into the union, and he blasted low legislative standards, inefficient and mediocre public office holders and “bossism” in politics.
He advocated government ownership of telegraphy, compulsory arbitration in labor disputes and a more merciful national policy toward Indians. McClatchy died Oct. 25, 1883, but his tradition of stable, solid journalism lives on in the basic policies of the Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno Bees.