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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
However awkward his situation, Frémont made a leisurely and deliberate withdrawal, not a hasty retreat, slowly and defiantly dropping down into the San Joaquin Valley toward Sutter’s Fort, where jubilant settlers greeted them. While Castro boasted of a victory, Frémont’s men held their heads high—and justifiably so, in view of their having stood off a force five times their number. “Of course I did not dare to compromise the United States,” wrote Frémont to Jessie. “Although it was in my power to increase my party by many Americans, I refrained from committing a solitary act of hostility or impropriety.” Indeed, a prominent American settler offered to raise a company of frontiersmen. And the captain of an American merchant ship anchored in Monterey Bay declared himself ready to establish a stronghold on the coast. Frémont declined both initiatives, although he “could have mustered as many men as the natives,” reported Larkin to Buchanan. Even Castro seems to have been impressed by his opponent’s determination in the face of seemingly hopeless odds, conceding to his troops that Frémont “has conducted himself as a worthy gentleman and an honorable officer.” Both men had managed to maintain dignity without shedding blood.
Meanwhile, Larkin had circulated a general letter to “the commander of any American Ship of War” asking that a sloop be sent immediately to Monterey. Frémont headed north, reaching the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, where two exhausted advance couriers from Lieutenant Gillespie reached him on the evening of May 8. Gillespie had just arrived in California, they told him, bearing a confidential message from Washington. The next morning Frémont and 10 men rode hard over 60 miles of rugged terrain to reach Gillespie’s campground at the southern end of Klamath Lake. It had been 11 months, wrote Frémont, “since any tidings had reached me.”
What Gillespie told him that night, the content of the letters he was given, the oral instructions from Bancroft, have all been left to speculation. Frémont’s account—written 30 years later—was deemed accurate and credible by his supporters, obfuscating and self-justifying by his many enemies. Perhaps the most revealing of such official documents that survive is Buchanan’s handwritten letter of October 17, 1845, to Thomas Larkin that articulates President Polk’s intention. “In the contest between Mexico and California (which was at times acute) we can take no part, unless the former should commence hostilities against the United States; but should California assert and maintain her independence, we shall render her all the kind offices in our power, as a sister republic. This government has no ambitious aspirations to gratify and no desire to extend our Federal system over more territory than we already possess, unless by the free and spontaneous wish of the independent people of adjoining territories.”
Singularly informed as Frémont was from his preparatory 1845 meetings with Benton, Polk, Buchanan, and Bancroft, he understood that he was to set off a “spontaneous” revolt apparently unsponsored by the U.S. government. Gillespie, who had traveled through Veracruz and Mexico City, knew that war had broken out and that the president’s negotiations to purchase California had failed, and he presumably informed Frémont of the situation.
“Absolved . . . from my duty as an explorer,” wrote Frémont later, “I was left to my duty as an officer of the American Army with the further authoritative knowledge that the Government intended to take California . . . it had been made known to me now on the authority of the Secretary of the Navy that to obtain possession of California was the chief object of the President.”
Layered as they were through a shifting chain of authority, Frémont’s orders would be subject to partisan interpretation. He was the only U.S. Army officer present in California and would remain so for the next nine months. Yet Frémont had little doubt of what to do next, swiftly moving his party to an isolated series of bluffs along the Bear and Feather rivers, where they were reinforced by “rough, leather-jacketed frontiersmen” eager to strike Castro’s position. As they pressed south, more dissident American settlers joined them. The number of Americans in California had swelled to more than 800 in the previous two years, nearly all of them ranchers, trappers, hunters, merchants, and farmers, interspersed with rugged backwoodsmen, sailors, and voyageurs.
On June 10, with Frémont’s behind-the-scenes encouragement, the settlers brought in 200 horses being driven to Castro from the Santa Clara Valley. Four days later, a group of 30 rebels seized Sonoma, the largest settlement in northern California, and took four prominent citizens prisoner.
On the next day, amid a brandy-fueled celebration, they hoisted a primitive linen flag on which was painted a grizzly bear and declared themselves the proud commanders of the Bear Flag Republic, emboldening several hundred more immigrants to join the rebellion.
Frémont soon learned that Castro and hundreds of mounted Mexicans were advancing up the Sacramento to burn American settlements. He still kept his men on the sidelines, however, neither openly supporting nor dissuading the rebels, following Buchanan’s orders to inspire a “spontaneous” revolt only tacitly and discreetly.