- Historic Sites
Frémont Steals California
A junior Army officer, acting on secret orders from the president, bluffed a far stronger Mexican force into conceding North America's westernmost province to the United States
Winter 2011 | Volume 60, Issue 4
Feeling no substantial attachment either to Mexico or the United States, the native Californians had no inspiration or incentive for revolution, which posed a dilemma for the Polk administration. Any chance of working with residents to ignite a local uprising seemed unlikely. By the time Frémont came over the mountains in December 1845, the Mexican governor had been ousted by an insurrection led by a native politico, José Castro. Castro installed himself in Monterey as military comandante and appointed his sidekick, Pío Pico, as civil governor to rule from Los Angeles, which they declared the capital. Castro and Pico soon vied for power, dividing California into northern and southern regions, which further weakened the ties to Mexico City and threatened civil war. Into this cauldron of intrigue rode Frémont’s column.
In full officer’s uniform, Frémont led his men into Sutter’s Fort on December 10, 1845. Named for its Swiss owner, who had received a large land grant from the previous governor, the fort and its extensive American settlement located near present-day Sacramento was viewed with suspicion by the Mexican authorities. Frémont, who had met John A. Sutter on a previous expedition, now wished to pay his respects and request much-needed supplies. Sutter was not there, however; his arrogant majordomo gave the new arrivals a cool reception and denied Frémont’s request for 16 pack mules, six saddles, and other goods. Frémont angrily withdrew.
The majordomo followed Frémont’s party to their camp, where he apologized and explained that tensions were mounting in California, and that Sutter, who had been on the losing side of the recent coup, was preoccupied with currying favor with both sides. Frémont grudgingly accepted the belated offer of provisions and the services of the fort’s blacksmith. When the notoriously slippery Sutter returned three days later, he promptly reported Frémont’s arrival to both the Mexican and American authorities.
Returning to the fort on January 15, with his well-equipped horsemen, Frémont found Sutter hospitable. The two men feasted together and discussed the political climate while sharing ample drafts of wine. Four days later, Frémont took eight of his men on Sutter’s schooner Sacramento to explore Yerba Buena (present-day San Francisco) and to visit the U.S. vice consul. From there he decided to take his party 100 miles south to Monterey, where he would present the Mexican officials with a passport from Sutter authorizing his passage.
Much has been made of Frémont’s movements from this point onward, and historians have long debated his motives, instructions, and activities. After a few days at the vice consul’s home, he set off on January 24, 1846, for Monterey—California’s serene, strategic center, over which Castro presided from his customhouse headquarters under the Mexican flag. Frémont’s first visit was to the U.S. consul, Thomas Larkin, a shrewd Massachusetts entrepreneur who had been one of the first Americans to settle there. Highly regarded by his Mexican neighbors but keenly aware of the escalating tensions, Larkin advanced Frémont $1,800 in government funds to buy supplies. Frémont’s arrival in Monterey was immediately conspicuous, prompting a pointed Mexican inquiry about the party’s nature and mission. Larkin replied that Frémont was leading a scientific expedition to Oregon and had stopped in Monterey only for provisions.
Frémont also paid an official visit to Castro and did his best to allay the ruler’s concerns, insisting that his survey was manned entirely by American civilians. Though unconvinced, the Mexican officials granted him permission to obtain supplies and travel freely. After traveling 60 miles north to an abandoned ranch near the Santa Clara Valley, Frémont flagrantly violated his pledge to the Mexicans by leading his party on February 22, 1846, in a steady march to the southwest. Five days later they pitched camp 20 miles from Monterey, where he received a letter from Castro demanding that he leave California immediately.
Frémont coldly responded that he would not obey a command insulting to both him and his country, and he proceeded to move eight miles north to the crest of Gavilán (later Fremont) Peak—a strongly defensible position with plenty of water and grass for the livestock as well as a commanding view. The men built a log fort and cheered wildly as they raised the American flag on a sapling—a gesture that destroyed the last vestiges of Mexican goodwill.
On March 8 Castro began recruiting volunteers to dislodge these intruders. Unknown to both sides, that same day Taylor’s troops crossed into disputed territory, marking the practical beginning of the Mexican War. For three days Frémont and his men watched as Castro’s forces swelled to 300, backed up by three large cannon. Larkin frantically mediated, urging Frémont to withdraw; but with panache and bravado, Frémont scrawled a note to Larkin, “if we are hemmed in and assaulted, we will die every man of us, under the Flag of our country.”
The California settlers were deeply alarmed and agitated. Desperate to prevent a clash that might spark war before the U.S. government was fully prepared, Larkin, who assumed that Frémont was acting under orders from Washington, warned him to be watchful for spies and traitors. Just as Castro seemed about to attack, Frémont’s sapling flagpole fell over, which he took as an omen: “Thinking I had remained as long as the occasion required, I took advantage of the accident to say to the men that this was an indication for us to move camp. . . . I kept always in mind the object of the Government to obtain possession of California and would not let a proceeding which was mostly personal put obstacles in the way.”