The Coastal Post - January, 1996

A Touch Of The Bear Flag Republic


Who would have believed that once Russia, France and Great Britain coveted California? But it has always geographically belonged to the United States.

There is a record in Munro Frazer's History of California, published in 1880, that Commodore Ap. Catesby Jones of the United States in 1842 jumped the gun and prematurely seized California because of erroneous newspaper reports. One must remember that communication was very difficult in California in those early days. There were no newspapers, no wireless, and news both of America and Europe had to be brought by sailing vessel around Cape Horn, which was the only way for news to reach California. News took at least one year to arrive.

Commodore Jones thought that war had been declared by Mexico against Great Britain, so he decided to act on his own. He sailed into the port of Monterey, which was the capitol of California at that time, with the frigate United States and the corvette Cyane, and on October 19, 1842 landed an armed force, hauled down the Mexican flag, hoisted the American flag in its place, and issued a proclamation declaring that California belonged to the United States. He soon realized that he had made a mistake, that there was no war between Mexico and Great Britain (Eventually he lost his job as commodore because of this grievous error.) And on October 28th he lowered the American flag and replaced it with the Mexican.

But Commodore Smith's action was only symptomatic of what was going on. In 1845 Captain John Charles Fremont departed from Washington to do a survey of the Oregon and California coasts, and many historians think this caused the change of events. But the Bear Flag Republic in 1846 really did the trick.

At this time General Jose Castro was in charge of the Mexican army in California, and in bitter dispute with Governor Don Pio Pico, who thought he ruled California. But the man to watch was General Mariano Vallejo, for he was the absolute ruler of Northern California from his vast estates near Sonoma.

Vallejo had financed out of his own purse the garrison at Sonoma, because Mexico didn't have the money or the soldiers. But he became disillusioned with Mexico because of their lack of response to California, and he no longer maintained the fort at Sonoma. In fact, he openly supported the idea of California being taken over by the United States, and had said so at a Mexican junta attended by both Castro and Pio Pico.

But to return to the Bear Flag Republic. Under the leadership of Captain Ezekial Merritt, 33 men left Fremont's camp for Sonoma in the early part of June, 1846, telling Americans along the way that they intended to take the fort at Sonoma, because they had heard the news that General Castro was trying to stop all U.S. immigrants to California.

At this time, a few Americans were in California engaged in agricultural pursuits, lumbering, and various kinds of trading. Gold had not yet been discovered, so no Gold Rush as yet existed.

Captain Merritt reached Sonoma on June 14, 1846, and knowing that Sonoma was under-manned, soon captured its six soldiers, nine pieces of artillery and some small arms. They knew they had no right to raise the United States flag, but they wanted to remove the Mexican flag over the fort, so they decided to create their own flag.

There are several versions of the Bear Flag, but most of them seem to say it was created out of a piece of cotton cloth and a piece of red flannel (formerly used as a woman's petticoat). They concocted a flag with the likeness of a bear, representing the strength of California, and a star to remind them of the United States flag, with the words Bear Flag Republic underneath. This flag was later taken as the great seal of the State of California, and it still survives today.

At the same time the Bear Flag was raised (there is no one alive today to tell us exactly what went on), William B. Ide, who appears to have been elected to succeed Ezekiel Merritt, issued a proclamation to all persons requesting them to remain at peace and promising them a Republican government such as the United States had.

The supreme irony of the Bear Flag Republic was that they took as prisoner General Vallejo, who had wanted to join the United States anyway, and took pride and courage in showing his preference for Americans. But although the prisoners (General Vallejo and his brother Captain Salvador Vallejo, Lieutenant-Colonel Victor Prudon, and Jacob P. Leese) were eventually imprisoned at Sutter's Fort, they were returned to their homes after a short time. It is believed that Vallejo even loaned the soldiers the horses that took them to Sutter's Fort, so he must have felt that he was in safe hands.

Finding that the Sonoma fort was short of rifle powder, two men were sent to a nearby rancho to get more supplies. But they were attacked and killed by a party of Mexican-Californians who reportedly tortured and disemboweled them. This is the only record of casualties in the war of the Bear Flag Republic.

Lieutenant Joseph W. Revere, grandson of Paul Revere, of the United States ship Portsmouth hauled down the Bear Flag and replaced it with the Stars and Stripes on July 9, 1846, when he was notified that Monterey had been taken by Commodore John Drake Sloat and that war had been declared between the United States and Mexico (between 1846 and 1848). Thus ended the Bear Flag Republic.

It wasn't the last Marin heard of Lt. Revere, though. The late historian Jack Mason in his book The Making of Marin tells us that Revere discovered his "dream valley" while elk hunting and bought San Geronimo Valley. He wrote, "Although Revere spent less than four years at San Geronimo, his charisma is on it, as it is on California itself. He stocked the valley with herds of his own 'horned cattle and mares,' installed a majordomo and returned to Sonoma.

He eventually sold Geronimo to Rodman Price, whom he had known in the U.S. Navy, and Rodman's brother Francis. "Rodman went home to New Jersey and was elected governor, turning San Geronimo over to a tenant overseer, Lorenzo E. White, a 49er who ran cattle in the valley until 1855. It was known as White's Valley for years. The name White, of course, remains on the hill south of it."