- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
On April 17 Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie arrived in Monterey, delivering the orders that appointed Larkin a confidential agent (Stockton, carrying the same orders by sea, had not yet appeared). Gillespie also had news of the situation in Washington (as of the previous November, at any rate). Perhaps most significant, he brought the news that the Mexican government had refused to receive Slidell, the President’s envoy, in December and had started making military preparations. After meeting with Larkin, Gillespie almost immediately set out to find Frémont, for whom he had a packet of letters from Jessie and the senator. He discovered him on the shores of Klamath Lake early in May desultorily surveying his route and preparing to cross the mountains. After an evening’s discussion with Gillespie Frémont decided to return to California. It appeared that another moment for seizing the territory might present itself after all —and, besides, how would it look to the folks back in Washington (including his wife) if he spent his time maundering about in the safety of Oregon while a war of conquest was going on behind his back? (Later Frémont let it be known that he had returned to the fray to carry out the secret wishes of his government—an explanation that was proved to be totally fabricated.)
By the end of May the Frémont party was settled down at Marysville Buttes, some fifty miles north of Sutter’s Fort, and Frémont had sent Gillespie ahead to requisition three hundred pounds of rifle lead, one keg of powder, and eight thousand percussion caps from the u.s.s. Portsmouth , which was anchored in San Francisco Bay. It was not long before the camp was infested by restless Americans from all over the northern part of the territory, who interpreted Frémont’s return as a portent of one kind or another. Castro, who was then assembling a militia force for one more demonstration in his long, if inconclusive, feud with Governor Pio Pico, chose this unfortunate moment to send two officers and eight privates north to requisition horses from Don Mariano Vallejo, the wealthy commandante of Sonoma. With the encouragement if not the active support of Frémont, the Americans milling about at Marysville Buttes elected to intercept the herd of requisitioned horses, and on June 10 a small group of adventurers captured it near the Cosumnes River and drove it back to Sutler’s Fort, while Frémont moved to Bear Creek, nearer the action.
And action there was. The raw larceny of horse theft could be justified only by an act that raised the whole business to the level of at least semilegitimate warfare. Therefore in the predawn hours of June 14 a cadre of about thirty Americans launched an “assault” on the military garrison at Sonoma (again without Frémont’s direct aid). This attack had its peculiar logic, in California terms at any rate: there really was no garrison at Sonoma. What the midnight marauders captured were nine tiny cannons, some of which were actually mounted on carriages, two hundred arthritic muskets, a small quantity of ammunition, two minor Mexican officers, and the sleepy-eyed but characteristically gracious Don Mariano Vallejo, who invited the party’s leaders into his house to discuss the terms of capitulation over glasses of brandy and wine. That done and the agreement signed, the prisoners of war were shuttled off to Sutler’s Fort, where Frémont ordered them imprisoned, and lhe leaders of lhe rebellion sal down and began to figure out exaclly what it was they were doing.
What they were doing, lhey decided, was founding a new republic; so lhey had an eleclion, and a visionary Yankee schoolleacher by lhe name of William B. Ide was chosen commander in chief. A nalion should have a flag, it was agreed, so the founding falhers exlemporized one on a piece of cotton clolh, fealuring a handwroughl piclure of a grizzly bear under a star reminiscent of that on the flag of the Texas Republic; on the bottom of lhis ensign were IeIlered lhe words “ CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC ” (a considerably improved version, of course, is now lhe slale’s official flag). Ide lhen issued a declaralion lhat atlempied to ape both lhe lone and lhe language of lhe one written by Thomas Jefferson in another time and place and simultaneously sent out a call for volunteers.
Thus was born one of the strangest and shortest-lived republics in the history of the Americas.
It is tempting to dismiss the creation of the Bear Flag Republic as either the singularly fey manifestation of a kind of crackpot patriotism or a somewhat cynical attempt to cover up what amounted to acts of banditry. There were elements of both factors involved, certainly, but the motives of those who engineered the revolt may well have been far more intricate than that.