- Historic Sites
The Taking Of California
A low comedy for high stakes:
February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
By the 1840’s this program of neglect (not particularly benign) had nurtured a civilization that may have had no parallel in its own or any other time. Largely confined to a narrow strip of coastal valleys and plains, it was a massive pastoral society whose land was checkerboarded by kingdoms of grass; a society dominated by fewer than ten thousand people of Spanish, Mexican-Indian, and Negro mixtures who ostensibly ruled over fifteen thousand missionized Indians and, spread over California’s 158,693 square miles, at least ninety thousand other Indians who had not embraced the glory of the Cross; a society whose internal government was a loose collection of family alliances crippled by almost constant (and generally bloodless) political squabbling.
Given California’s many attractions, her indifference to what the nineteenth century called progress, and her notorious political instability (as well as that of Mexico herself), it should not be surprising to learn that the province was eyed speculatively by other nations—particularly the United States, whose westering was beginning to people the Pacific coast with Americans by the early i84o’s. Most of these pioneers struggled across the rocks and hard places of the continent to Oregon, but between 1841 and 1845 some four hundred had been diverted from the Oregon Trail to spill across the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California. This influx swelled the province’s foreign population to perhaps one thousand, including a number of American traders and merchants who had settled down to do business in her coastal towns during the 1820’s and 1830’s.
Officially, the United States had displayed a continuing interest in California since 1835, when President Andrew Jackson had offered to buy San Francisco Bay from Mexico, but it was not until suspicions of British intentions began to haunt the American government that a somewhat casual interest was translated into vigorous policy. Great Britain was still the bête noire of a young America. There were thousands who could remember the sound of musketry during the Revolutionary War and millions who could remember when British soldiers had burned the national capital during the War of 1812. Moreover, with a self-consciousness that suggested a certain insecurity, the adolescent Republic preened and blustered in an extraordinary fashion in these years, most of the posturing directed against her erstwhile parent. England, in turn, tended to view the antics of the United States with an unconcealed and frequently snide condescension, all of which merely nourished the flames of resentment.
Chief among this country’s paranoid anxieties was the fear that England was simply waiting for California to fall into her lap like one of the golden apples of the sun. Superficially, at least, this was a distinct possibility. Mexico’s influence on California’s internal affairs had degenerated so badly by the 1840’s that had the government of the Californios been inclined to cast its lot with Great Britain or any other nation, there would have been little that Mexico could have done about it. Exactly such a scheme had been loudly (if unofficially) promoted by one Britisher or another ever since the publication of George Vancouver’s Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean in 1798 , in which the author took pains to describe the ludicrously inadequate defenses of the port of San Francisco (two 3-pounders, one mounted on a log). And by 1840 a small but rabid group of Californios , disgusted with both the Mexican government and local politicos, were advocating a similar arrangement.
In reality the British government was singularly uninterested in the whole idea. Quite correctly gauging the intensity of America’s continental urge, Prime Minister Robert Peel and his foreign secretary, the Earl of Aberdeen, knew that any such move would propel the pugnacious young America to the brink of war—a war they were unwilling to undertake without a French alliance. And France, riven by internal strife throughout the 1840’s, was too busy fighting herself to fight anyone else.
The British government, however, was quite as good at concealing its true intentions as any other nation was. As a result, what England thought, what it was thought she thought, what she did, what it was felt she might do, what she said, what it was said she said—all were factors that profoundly influenced the course of this government’s involvement in California. Nothing more thoroughly typified this fact than the clownish incident involving an unfortunate American commodore—Thomas ap Catesby Jones.
In September, 1842, while the administration of President John Tyler engaged in some ticklish negotiations with the Mexican government for the sale of California, Commodore Jones and his Pacific Squadron were anchored at Callao, Peru, nervously watching the movements of the Brit- ish Pacific Squadron as it prepared to depart for points unknown. Shortly after the British squadron left, Jones received word that the United States and Mexico were at war and that Mexico had arranged to cede California to England in payment of her debts to that country. Jones instantly raced for California, where he arrived in mid-October. At Monterey he congratulated himself on beating the British squadron, demanded the surrender of the town and the province, raised the American flag, and issued a proclamation declaring the peaceful American occupation of the territory. One day later, when he examined letters and newspapers from Mexico City, he discovered that there was no war, and no Mexican-English arrangement. With understandable embarrassment he extended apologies to every official in sight, lowered the American flag, attended a dance given by the Californios, and removed himself from Monterey with as much grace as he could muster.
The Californios were far more entertained than outraged by this abortive conquest, but officialdom in Mexico City reacted with bleats of protest, eliminating whatever slim chance there had been for Tyler to arrange a peaceful cession of California to the United States. The idea was not revived until the Presidency of James K. Polk, a dour, secretive, utterly determined individual with the instincts of a professional poker player and the gall of a Tennessee horse trader. Nurtured at the political knee of Jackson, Polk took office in March, 1845, fully primed to accept at face value any and all vague rumors concerning British intentions toward California. This psychic stew was an important factor in the achievement of the three major foreign-policy goals that he brought to the office of President: the completed annexation of Texas, the settlement of the Oregon question with Great Britain, and the acquisition of California (later expanded to include New Mexico). Counting heavily on British reluctance to go to war, he managed in 1846 to reach an agreeable settlement on the Oregon question with a combination of bluff and compromise, extending America’s Oregon territory to the fortyninth parallel and acquiring Puget Sound into the bargain. But his other two goals were not satisfied before one of the most complex wars in U.S. history had ground to a bloody end in the Valley of Mexico.
Ever since the embryonic nation of Texas had won its independence from Mexico in 1836, there had been sentiment within both the new republic and the United States for Texas’ annexation to the Union. On March 1, 1845, just three days before Folk’s inauguration, President John Tyler signed a joint resolution of Congress that offered statehood to the republic. The act was greeted with joy by most southern Democratic politicians, who welcomed the addition of one more slave state to the fold, but opposed by most antislavery, antiexpansionist Whigs, who saw it, in the words of former President John Quincy Adams, as “the first step to the conquest of all Mexico, of the West India islands, of a maritime, colonizing, slave-tainted monarchy, and of extinguished freedom.”
Polk had no visible interest in the West Indies at that time or, so far as we know, in the creation of a monarchy—but he was a Southerner, a Democrat, an expansionist, and as full of schemes as a prince of the Borgias. He not only welcomed Texas for its own sake but immediately saw it as a possible key to his California ambitions. A disputed strip of territory between the Nueces River, the Texas boundary claimed by Mexico, and the Rio Grande, the boundary that the republic itself claimed, provided him with a framework for his plans. At about the same time he was judiciously allowing his political opponents to believe that the question of the final boundary was open to negotiation with Mexico once annexation was a fact, Polk wrote to his representative in Texas that “of course I would maintain the Texan title to the extent which she claims it to be, and not permit an invading enemy to occupy a foot of soil East of the Rio Grande.” Shortly after the Texas congress accepted the United States’ offer of annexation in June, 1845, he ordered General Zachary Taylor and his army to occupy Corpus Christi on the northern edge of the disputed territory and had instructions sent to Commodore John D. Sloat, the new commander of the Pacific Squadron, to “at once possess yourself of the port of San Francisco, and blockade or occupy such other ports as your force may permit” should war break out with Mexico.
However aggressive in tone, all this saber rattling was at first designed to frighten Mexico into abandoning her claims to the country of the Rio Grande and negotiating for the outright sale of New Mexico and California; Polk had no special desire for war—not inJune, at any rate. But by November, when he sent John Slidell to Mexico City with the authority to offer as much as fifteen million dollars for New Mexico and another twentyfive million for California, he may well have changed his mind. Slidell’s mission was hopeless. The unstable government of Mexico was in no position to bargain for the cession of so much territory; had it done so, the outcry of national protest would have obliterated it overnight. There is evidence to suggest that Polk was fully aware of this; a few months earlier Duff Green, a man familiar with the permutations of Mexican governance, had outlined the situation to him, and it is not impossible that Slidell’s mission was meant simply to satisfy public opinion (and history) that Polk had done all in his power to avert open conflict.
By then another avenue toward acquisition of California had already come to his mind. For months the United States consul in California, Thomas O. Larkin, had been sending reports to Washington that communicated (and sometimes exaggerated) every wisp of rumor concerning British intentions and outlined his conviction that California’s political leaders, such as they were, might still be persuaded to declare independence from Mexico and follow the pattern of Texas by joining the United States—if this country acted quickly. Polk took the bait, and on October 17, 1845—a little over three weeks before he sent Slidell to Mexico City—he dispatched Commodore Robert F. Stockton from the Gulf of Mexico to Monterey via the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) with orders appointing Consul Larkin a “confidential agent in California” (at six dollars a day) and giving him the authority to suggest to the Californios that while the United States could not and would not actually encourage such a move,"if the People should desire to unite their destiny with ours, they would be received as bretheren. …” Another copy of this order was carried overland by a Marine lieutenant, Archibald H. Gillespie, who travelled disguised asa merchant.
It might have worked. Larkin was well known and respected among many Californios , and his words carried weight. Besides, dissatisfaction with the Mexican government was intense; many of California’s leading spirits, having resigned themselves to eventual American dominance, were already busily hedging their bets, fn Monterey General José Castro, military commandante of California, was plotting to oust Governor Pio Pico from Los Angeles, to declare California an independent republic (with guess who as president?), and then to proceed from there to whatever development seemed most attractive. Meanwhile Governor Pico, while publicly expressing his undying fealty to Mexico, was dramatically stepping up his land grants to friends and relatives of the local government, possibly in anticipation of a rise in land values once the province changed hands. (In the first few months of 1846 alone Pico dispensed eighty-seven such grants, most of them of the maximum size of eleven square leagues, or 48,818 acres.)
In short, California trembled in a state of flux; given a little time to exercise his clout to its full potential, Larkin might well have been able to nudge the province into the welcoming arms of the United States. But even before Stockton, by sea, or Gillespie, by land, could deliver their dispatches, circumstances rendered the scheme pointless. I n December, 1845, Congress formally accepted Texas into the Union, and the Mexican government, just as formally, broke off diplomatic relations with the United States, refusing to receive John Slidell and expressing its indignation with military ruffles and flourishes. When word of this reaction reached Washington on January 12, 1846, Polk ordered Taylor’s army to advance to the Rio Grande, where it arrived in late March. A few days later a Mexican force encamped across the river near the Mexican town of Matamoros, but for the next few weeks the two armies did nothing more than send out patrols and exchange belligerent proclamations.
By now Polk was convinced that war was inevitable, but he waited for several weeks, hoping that Mexico would make the first move. Finally, on Saturday, May 9, he decided he could wait no longer; the severance of diplomatic relations and Mexico’s continuing refusal to talk to Slidell would have to do as an excuse for a declaration of war, which he determined to request when Capitol Hill opened for business Monday morning. But that night he received word that on April 26 an American patrol had been attacked and captured by the Mexicans on “American” soil above the Rio Grande. He amended his message accordingly and delivered it the morning of the eleventh. One can sense the satisfaction and relief that must have accompanied his announcement that “now, after reiterated menaces, Mexico has passed the boundary of the United States, has invaded our territory, and shed American blood upon American soil.” After some frantic opposition by those who considered the whole business little better than territorial larceny, Congress gave the President what he asked for, and on Tuesday he signed it. Mr. Folk’s war of acquisition had begun.
The great battles of the Mexican War were played out a long distance from both the city where war had been declared and the land for which it was fought. It was America’s first major expeditionary war, and men struggled, marched, and sweated out the long agony of conflict in places with names unfamiliar to the American experience: Monterrey, Buena Vista, Veracruz, Resaca de la Palma, Chapultepec. It ground on for nearly two years and at its end had killed 13,283 Americans (most of them by disease) and uncounted Mexicans and had cost a hundred million dollars. Seen against the backdrop of the very real war going on in the valleys and plains of Mexico, the California conflict appears as a parody of warfare. The irony is heightened by the fact that this gray comedy was futile by any standards of military, political, or diplomatic necessity.
With all deference to the risks of historical speculation, there seems little reason to doubt that the province’s inexorable drift toward the United States would simply have been accelerated once news of war reached its inhabitants. After all, for all their bluster and self-importance the Californio leaders had always demonstrated a decent respect for the arts of survival and an ability to accept and adjust to the inevitable—providing that their honor could also be satisfied, by no means an impossible task. If American occupation had been entrusted to reasonable men, the chances were excellent that the transition would have been as slick and peaceful as anyone might have desired. As it turned out, a handful of small men with large ambitions managed to sabotage this possibility and create a bitter, pointless little farce that only an unjustifiably charitable view of history could dignify with the title “Conquest.”
The meaningless character of the affair was established even before war broke out between the United States and Mexico. It began in December, 1845, with the arrival of Captain John C. Frémont and a force of sixty hand-picked, well-armed men, most of them weathered, hard-bitten veterans of various wilderness exploits. His ostensible mission was to expand and correct some of the findings of his previous explorations, but the private mission he carried in his head went far beyond that prosaic if necessary task. He had competently accomplished some of the most extensive, well-reported, and useful exploring expeditions in the nineteenth century and had reaped more than a fair share of the country’s official and unofficial gratitude. But this was not glory enough for him. He was beginning to see himself as a Great Man, an image nourished by the artful prodding of his wife, Jessie—who was herself beautiful, brilliant, ambitious, and trapped in a time and place that robbed her of any alternative way to make her mark in a world ruled by men. To both of them—and to Frémont’s father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton—California appeared as a promising arena for the further development of an aspiring young man’s career.
So, leading his small band of sharpshooters, Frémont entered California in December, 1845, with a palpable thirst for greatness. It got him into trouble almost immediately. After making a verbal promise to General José Castro in Monterey that he would sit out the winter in the San Joaquin Valley and then leave the country in the spring, Frémont loitered instead in the Santa Clara Valley until March, 1846. Then he set out—not east across the mountains, but south back toward Monterey. When Castro demanded that he keep his word and leave, Frémont’s response was to compose a screed of high-toned outrage, send it to Castro, retire to Gavilan (now Fremont) Peak near Mission San Juan Bautista, erect a jerrybuilt fort of logs, whittle a pole, nail the American flag to it, plant it with appropriate ceremony, and vow to defend it to the last man. Castro’s honor required that he pelt the region with belligerent circulars in the finest Californio style, round up a troop of volunteers, and maneuver them in various aggressive poses within range of American telescopes but not American rifles.
Consul Larkin was aghast and worked frantically to prevent an exchange of gunfire that would start a war he considered neither necessary nor profitable. His intercession kept the two forces apart long enough for the situation to cool. After three days the wind toppled Frémont’s brave little banner. The captain announced that this was an omen to move on, and the party retired across the mountainsandup the Central Valley, arriving at Sutler’s Fort on March 21. He then wandered north, apparently on his way to Oregon.
Behind him Frémont left a wellroiled California. Already a stewpot of rumor, the province now positively vibrated with the Gavilan Peak incident. Larkin did his best to placate Castro and the other Californio authorities, while clusters of settlers, squatters, adventurers, and con men gathered in Yerba Buena, Monterey, and Sutler’s Fort and gossiped, heightening the general lension.
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.
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.
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.
While Stockton drilled his sailors and Frémont gathered horses, General Stephen Watts Kearny, a veteran Army officer sent west to bolster Stockton’s forces, marched into California with one hundred dragoons from Santa Fe, New Mexico. On the morning of December 6, before they ever made contact with Stockton, the dragoons attacked a troop of insurgent horsemen under Andres Pico near the little Indian village of San Pascual, some thirty miles northeast of San Diego. Exhausted from their long march and badly mounted, the dragoons were no match for the lances of the Californios ; Kearny and his men held the field, but by the battle’s end twenty-two Americans were dead and sixteen injured, including Kearny. Two men were sent through the lines to San Diego for help from Stockton, who sent a relief force to escort Kearny’s mutilated Army of the West to safety.
After Kearny and his men recovered and Stockton had completed his preparations, they launched a joint attack on Los Angeles on January 10, 1847. The assault was more of a protracted skirmish than a genuine battle, but it had the desired results; Los Angeles was recaptured. The remnants of the insurgent army galloped north toward Cahuenga Pass. There they encountered Frémont’s California Battalion. Frémont graciously accepted their surrender with the Capitulation of Cahuenga on January 13 and forever after billed himself as the Conqueror of California.
The conquest was ended, but the comedy lingered on. Kearny had marched into California with orders from the War Department to act as the military and civil governor of the conquered province. Stockton, who had no such orders, nevertheless considered himself to be in supreme command, presumably because he had arrived first. He ignored Kearny’s authority and appointed Frémont (now a lieutenant colonel) governor of California, a position the explorer accepted cheerfully. Stockton sailed for Mazatlán, and Frémont began his short reign as governor, issuing proclamations, orders, and appointments. Patiently Kearny pointed out that in spite of what Stockton had said, Frémont was utterly without authority in anything he did. He pointed this out several times, but Frémont very much wanted to be governor of California. He continued to defy Kearny, and in the end the general was forced to arrest him and escort him back to Washington in the summer of 1847. In Washington Frémont was brought before a court-martial and in January, 1848, was found guilty of disobedience of orders and dismissed from the Army. President Polk remanded the dismissal, but Frémont’s burgeoning pride had been assaulted; he huffily resigned his commission.
There is little in his short career of conquest to bring credit to Frémont’s memory, but if most of his actions qualified him as the deserving butt of history, he did accomplish one thing in 1846 for which that history should thank him. He told it himself in his memoirs: “The Bay of San Francisco is separated from the sea by low mountain ranges. Looking from the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the coast mountains present an apparently continuous line, with only a single gap, resembling a mountain pass. This is the entrance to the great bay, and is the only water communication from the coast to the interior country. … To this gate I gave the name of Chrysopolae, or Golden Gate. …”
If nothing else, Frémont had given the future a name.