- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
But time had run out on them. Commodore Sloat of the Pacific Squadron first heard of the existence of war with Mexico while at Mazatlán on May 17 and, acting on his earlier contingency orders from President Polk, sailed for California. He arrived at Monterey on July 7 to raise the American flag and issue a gentle proclamation: “I declare to the inhabitants of California that altho’ I come in arms with a powerful force, I do not come among them as enemy to California; but on the contrary I come as their best friend. …” On July 9 Sonoma’s Bear Flag was hauled down and replaced by the flag of the United States, and whatever dreams had been boiling in the heads of those who founded the Independent Republic of California were shredded like fog in the wind.
One of Sloat’s first official acts was to relinquish his command, with no regrets, to his subordinate, Commodore Robert F. Stockton, a man no less interested in furthering his career than Frémont—and one quite as willing to bend the truth to fit his preconceptions. Stockton went about the conquest of California with a bombastic zeal primarily calculated to enhance his image. Since Castro and what supporters he could find had fled Monterey for southern California shortly after Sloat’s arrival, there were no military glories available in the northern part of the province; so Stockton mustered in Frémont’s California Battalion (the splendid name for Sonoma’s raggletaggle civilian army), put it bag and baggage on board a ship, and sent it south to capture San Diego. The commodore then prepared to sail with 360 Marines for San Pedro and the conquest of Los Angeles. Before leaving he issued a proclamation that blandly repeated every rumor and barefaced lie available; this “most extraordinary document,” as Bancroft called it, completely annihilated whatever conciliatory effect Sloat’s own proclamation had possessed. It cited, among other contortions of truth, “reports from the interior of scenes of rapine, blood, and murder” and “lawless depredations daily committed by Gen. Castro’s men upon the persons and property of peaceful and unoffending inhabitants.” It then went on to announce that “I cannot, therefore, confine my operations to the quiet and undisturbed possession of the defenceless [ sic ] ports of Monterey and San Francisco, whilst the people elsewhere are suffering from lawless violence; but will immediately march against these boasting and abusive chiefs, who have not only violated every principle of national hospitality … but who, unless driven out, will, with the aid of hostile Indians, keep this beautiful country in a constant state of revolution and blood. …”
With this breathless scenario completed, Stockton sailed for San Pedro, where he arrived on August 6. The next morning two emissaries from Castro entered the camp with an offer to negotiate a peaceful settlement- providing Stockton advanced no farther. The commodore refused and on the eleventh proceeded toward Los Angeles; on the thirteenth he was joined by Frémont and the California Battalion, which had occupied San Diego without resistance, and in the afternoon the two forces entered Los Angeles without a shot being fired, since Castro and Governor Pio Pico had prudently retreated to Mexico.
And there it should have ended—except that a little over three weeks later Stockton sailed north for Monterey and Frémont marched north to Sacramento, leaving Los Angeles in the hands of Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie and a garrison of fifty men. Gillespie, exercising fine American contempt for “greasers,” so alienated the people of Los Angeles that by the end of September he found his little garrison surrounded by a guerrilla army led by, among others, Andres Pico, brother of the departed governor. On October 2 Gillespie surrendered and was allowed to march away to San Pedro. Before surrendering, however, he had sent a messenger through the Californio lines, “Lean” John Brown, who streaked the distance to San Francisco in six days to deliver word of Gillespie’s dilemma. After ordering Frémont and his battalion to sail to Santa Barbara, pick up horses, and march to join him in renewed assault on Los Angeles, Stockton sailed once again for San Pedro with his own forces. Once there, he found Gillespie and his men, and the combined forces immediately marched for Los Angeles—only to be driven back on October 8 in the “Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun,” an encounter that featured a horsedrawn antique cannon deployed brilliantly by the Californios . The landlocked American Navy retreated to San Pedro and set about gathering supplies and horses to prepare for another attempt. Frémont, in the meantime, had received word from a passing ship that there were no horses at Santa Barbara; he returned to Monterey and began gathering them there, planning to continue his part of the assault entirely by land.