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The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
The main reason for their action, they would later maintain, was that Castro had been about to drive them across the mountains; they said he had issued circulars ordering them out, that he was gathering an army to expel them forcibly if they did not go voluntarily, and that he had ordered the Indians to destroy their homes and fields and even massacre them. In his History of California H. H. Bancroft discounted all of it: “General Castro did not issue the proclamations imputed to him; did not order the settlers to quit the country; did not organize an army with which to attack them; and did not instigate savages to destroy their crops.” A subsidiary reason offered by the Bear Flaggers was that they hoped to prevent an imminent British take-over, but again this makes little sense; if the British had been seriously enough interested in taking California to face the built-in threat of war with the United States, they would hardly have been dissuaded by the presence of a motley little republic. Doubtless many of those who participated sincerely believed all or part of both justifications; just as certainly, as Bancroft notes, “the alleged motives, so far at least as the leaders’ were concerned, were assuredly not the real ones.”
What, then, were they after? The answer may lie buried in the middle of Ide’s convoluted and sometimes incomprehensible proclamation of June 15. “The Commander in Chief of the Troops assembled at the Fortress of Sonoma,” Ide wrote grandly, “solemly declares his object to be First, to defend himself and companions in arms who were invited to this country [by whom?] by a promise of Lands on which to settle themselves … who, when having arrived in California were denied even the privilege of buying or renting Lands of their friends. …” It was also his intention “to overthrow a ‘Government’ … which has violated good Faith by its treachery in the bestowment of Public Lands. …”
The capitalization of “Lands” in the above excerpts was not necessarily the result of Ide’s typically slipshod composition. Land may well have been at the root of the founding of the Bear Flag Republic, the one thing that could have inspired its leaders to risk everything in one wild throw of the dice. They were children of an age in which a man’s material value was usually measured in terms of land, property, real estate . The rumored availability of land was why most of them had ventured into California—and they had found little of it available. Given no other choice (except to leave), many had followed the fine old American tradition of squatting on land to which they had no reasonable expectation of title—hoping for the best and watching Governor Pico give away 372,792 acres of Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley land during the first months of 1846, all of it to Californios or the friends of Californios . Ide and his colleagues were have-nots who had hoped to have—and California was getting away from them. It is significant that one of Ide’s first acts as the leader of the minuscule nation was to promise at least one square league (4,438 acres) of land to every man who joined the enterprise and a declaration that all mission lands (i.e., those lands already given away or being given away by the Californio authorities) were to become the public domain of the California Republic.
On one level, then, the Bear Flag rebellion might accurately be characterized as the predecessor of the squatter’s revolts that would punctuate the early iSso’s. On another it might be described as a genuine attempt to emulate the Texas Republic, for the brief history of that land was common knowledge to most of the rebellion’s participants. The one thing that would not have escaped the attention of land-hungry men was the fact that one of the main points agreed upon in the annexation negotiations between the Texas Republic and the United States was that all public lands would remain in the control of Texas—”… to be disposed of as said State may direct.” If the Republic of Texas could do it, Ide and his colleagues might have reasoned, why not the California Republic? If the shadow of a working government could be formed and maintained a sufficient length of time before open war between Mexico and the United States (and remember, they did not know that war had already begun), and if the United States government was forced to court California as it had courted Texas, it might well agree to honor the republic’s appropriation of Mexican grant lands.
Altogether, it seems possible that the Bear Flag affair was something more than a simple-minded excursion into the absurd. Moreover, had the timing not been off by several months, the scheme could have worked. Within a week of the Sonoma conquest and Ide’s declaration the republic’s “army” had grown to about one hundred men; after a skirmish at Olompali near San Rafaël, in which some twenty Bear Flaggers routed a fifty-man force sent north by Castro, it swelled to 250, a force of respectable dimensions when it is remembered that the most Castro could put together at any one time was something less than two hundred men. It grew even more respectable when John C. Frémont galloped into Sonoma at the end of June with his sixty men to take command. Had there been time enough to put together a decent campaign, there seems little reason to doubt that the Bear Flaggers could have effectively controlled northern California—and that might have been enough to make the republic a reality.