‘We are robbers, or we must be conquerors’

The controversial history of the Bear Flag and the revolt that led to its creation

The original Bear Flag flew for only a few weeks before being replaced with the American flag; it was lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

The original Bear Flag flew for only a few weeks before being replaced with the American flag; it was lost in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

Photo courtesy of The Bear Flag Museum

Early on the morning of June 14, 1846, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo rose to the rudest of awakenings. A small group of armed Americans clad in rags and buckskins—filthy, red-eyed, saddle-worn and sleep-deprived from a marathon ride through the valleys and mountains of Alta California—pounded on the door of the Mexican military officer’s Sonoma home, demanding his surrender. Not far away, more men slipped into the barracks adjacent to the town plaza, capturing the presidio’s small garrison without firing a single shot.

Vallejo was a man of Old World sensibilities, and though resigned to be taken prisoner, he was shocked by the state of his usurpers. Robert Semple, who rode with the raiders, admits in his first-hand account that his companions were “as rough a looking set of men as one could imagine.”

Leading them was the unlikely duo of Ezekiel Merritt and William B. Ide. Merritt was a rough-hewn, hard-drinking mountain man with a tobacco-stained beard. His manner of speech earned him the nickname “Stuttering Zeke.” Ide was a well-read, teetotaling Mormon with a proclivity for long orations. Vallejo made the men wait while he donned his full military regalia, then invited his conquerors in to negotiate the terms of his custody over copious glasses of wine and brandy, as the sun rose on a unique chapter in California’s history.

Thus began the Bear Flag Revolt—so named for the flag flown over Sonoma after its capture—and the state’s short and unrecognized tenure as an independent nation known as the California Republic. This year marks the 170th anniversary of the little-known event, though memory of it lives on through the state’s official flag, which is based on the original Bear Flag and its depiction of the grizzly bear, still a ubiquitous symbol of regional pride. The list of men involved with the revolt constitutes a veritable who’s who of early Northern California history: The Bear Flaggers, as they became known, included Ide, Peter Lassen and Chico’s own founder, John Bidwell, while other big names of the American West like John Sutter, Capt. John Frémont and Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson played pivotal roles in the Bear Flag saga.

Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was taken prisoner by the Bear Flaggers and held at Sutter’s Fort. Ironically, he supported the United States’ annexation of Alta California, and later served on the state Senate.

The finer details of the Bear Flag Revolt have been disputed since the motley crew of insurgents ran its homemade standard up Sonoma’s flagstaff. As California historian George Tays wrote in his biography of Gen. Vallejo, “The description of the men, their actions just prior and subsequent to the taking of Sonoma, are as varied as the number of authors. No two accounts agree, and it is impossible to determine the truth of their statements.”

The Bear Flag Revolt also remains a source of controversy, with some historians questioning the insurgents’ true motives and criticizing their actions: Were the Bear Flaggers freedom fighters or merely freebooters? Was the coup driven by real threats to their property and personal liberty, or rather a simple might-makes-right land-grab by entitled immigrants? These questions extend to modern use of the Bear Flag, a beloved symbol by many, but one that critics say commemorates a dark history.

Alex Abella is one such critic. He is an author and journalist whose research on California’s rancho era—the time between Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 and the Unites States’ annexation of California in 1848—was spurred by his yet-to-be published novel, Under the Burning Sunset. In an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times last year, Abella labeled the Bear Flaggers as “slave owners, murderers, thieves, drunks and squatters,” and called the Bear Flag we fly today “a symbol of blatant illegality and racial prejudice.”

Abella’s negative characterizations of some of the Bear Flaggers are a matter of historical record, and even the most generous first-person accounts of their character and actions are not always flattering. In a recent phone interview about his Times piece, Abella mentioned that William Todd, who created the Bear Flag, came from a slave-owning Kentucky family. Abella said Merritt was “basically a drunk and a thief,” and nearly every historical account of the man does mention liquor, with a few alluding to his cheating a business partner.

Abella names brothers Ben and Sam Kelsey—for whom Kelseyville is named—as some of the most egregious criminals; their treatment of Native Americans in the Clear Lake area, including participating in large-scale massacres and “shooting Indians just to watch them jump,” is well-documented.

A monument to the Bear Flag Revolt stands at the spot in Sonoma Plaza where the flag was raised on June 14, 1846.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

“There were so many abuses during that time,” Abella said. “You start bringing them up and people say, ‘How dare you take away this false, glorified image we have of the past!’ But the past isn’t all that pretty at all.”

The following is a look at the roots of the Bear Flag and the circumstances that caused its creation. It’s a gritty tale of the true West—gathered here from modern and historical accounts as well as interviews with Abella and Bear Flag history expert Dave Freeman—in which a Mormon-led militia of mountain men sprung from the fields and five days later “conquered” California.

In 1846, the modern-day North State was the northwest corner of Alta California, a territory of Mexico that then included present-day California, Nevada, Utah and parts of Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico. Though part of Mexico, the far-flung frontier had only weak ties to the capital in Mexico City when the country gained independence from Spain in 1821, and the connection wore thinner in the ensuing quarter-century. A good example of this disconnect is the fact that Mexico had cut most of its military support for Alta California, so the soldiers manning Sonoma were paid from Vallejo’s own pocket.

Most Alta California residents of Spanish descent—only a few thousand people—were born in the region and identified as Californios rather than Mexican nationals. Some intrepid American, French and Russian adventurers had made their way West earlier, but larger numbers of white settlers began trickling in by wagon train in 1841, with the arrival of the Bidwell-Bartleson party. By 1846, the American emigrants still numbered fewer than a thousand. An estimated 150,000 Native Americans made up the largest population in the area; some had integrated into Californio society, but most maintained their distance.

The Mexican government initially encouraged American settlers to populate the land and process its plentiful resources. Newcomers could receive Mexican land grants if they became naturalized citizens, were baptized Catholic and married Californios, though the rules were loosely enforced. Some settlers, including Bidwell, relinquished their American citizenship while retaining their religious and marital status. Others, such as Ide, Merritt and many other Bear Flaggers-to-be, just moved in and settled. Most of the settlers were left to their own devices until 1845, when tensions between Californios and Americans began to rise.

Dave Freeman is a historian who’s done extensive research into the Bear Flag Revolt.

Photo by Ken Smith

The American annexation of Texas that year, despite the fact that Mexico still considered Texas its territory, perpetuated rumors of an impending war bound to spread West. The Mexican government sent an order to Alta California’s former governor, Commandante General José Antonio Castro, saying the rules for land ownership by Americans in the territory would be strictly enforced, and declared its right to seize those properties as seen fit. Castro told the immigrants he wouldn’t enforce the order as long as the settlers obeyed local laws and promised to square away their citizenship in the future, but that didn’t quell more rumors among the Americans that Mexican soldiers were en route to California to seize their properties and drive them back east.

In early 1846, a company of American Army soldiers under Lt. John Frémont arrived in Alta California, permitted by Mexico to enter under the auspices they were on an exploratory mission. But Frémont and his surprisingly well-armed group of mapmakers had several antagonistic encounters with Californios that led Castro to order them to leave in March. Frémont did, and had just reached Oregon when a U.S. Marine carrying an urgent message and some letters from Washington, D.C., caught up to him.

The actual content of the message remains a mystery, but Frémont clearly took it as encouragement to start picking a fight in earnest. In his memoir, published 40 years later, he wrote, “There appeared but one way open to me. War with Mexico seemed inevitable, and a grand opportunity might now present itself to realize in their fullest extent the far-sighted views of Senator Benton [Frémont’s father-in-law and a dedicated expansionist] and make the Pacific Ocean the western boundary of the United States. These considerations decided my course. I determined to act on my own responsibility and return forthwith to California.” Frémont struck south and set up camp at the base of the Sutter Buttes.

By June 1846, paranoia had reached a fever pitch in Alta California. Mexican Lt. Francisco Arce was sent north from the Alta California capital of Monterey on a mission to gather horses from the Sacramento Valley and take them south of the San Francisco (then known as Yerba Buena) Bay. Crossing the Sacramento River at Knights Landing, Arce reportedly bragged to settler William Knight that the animals would be used to drive the settlers out. Knight set out immediately to spread the word to other settlers.

On June 8, Ide received an unsigned note at his home near present-day Red Bluff that read, “Notice is hereby given, that a large body of armed Spaniards on horseback, amounting to 250 men, has been seen on their way to the Sacramento Valley, destroying crops, burning the houses, and driving off the cattle. Capt. Frémont invites every freeman in the valley to come to his camp at the Buttes, immediately; and he hopes to stay the enemy and put a stop to his …” From there the note was damaged and illegible.

This photo is widely circulated as being of William Ide, but Freeman believes it is not, in fact, him.

Ide and several of his neighbors gathered that night at the home of William Moon. Moon, like Merritt, was a hunter, trapper and mountain man who lived along the Sacramento River near present-day Corning. His home, known as the Moon House, was a gathering point for settlers in the North State, and also served as a hotel, bar and post office. Believing their lives and property were at stake, and possibly after imbibing a fair bit of liquid courage, the frenzied men decided to depart posthaste to meet with Frémont, as suggested in the note Ide received.

Historian Freeman marks the meeting at the Moon House as the true beginning of the Bear Flag Revolt. Freeman is an Artois-based historian specializing in Ide and his contemporaries. Among his favorite topics is the Bear Flag Revolt, and he even participates—with his trained pack mules—in annual reenactments of the event at Sonoma State Historic Park. Freeman uses geographic information systems (GIS) technology in conjunction with old maps and first-hand historic accounts to find long-lost sites. During a recent interview to discuss the Bear Flaggers, he boasted he’s found “three Gold Rush cities and two riverboats” previously lost to history.

The men arrived in Frémont’s camp at the Sutter Buttes the next day, June 9. As a U.S. Army officer, Frémont risked court martial or trial for war crimes if his forces engaged the Californios, so he walked a thin line in encouraging the volunteers to begin waging guerrilla warfare against the Mexican army and offered only vague promises of support. Merritt took to Frémont’s suggestions with gusto and led his fellow mountain men forward immediately to catch up with Arce, while Ide stayed at the camp. Merritt and crew sneaked into Arce’s camp at dawn on June 10, taking the Mexican force by surprise and without violence.

“Arce was indignant,” Freeman said. “He was another old-school military man, and he told Merritt the outcome would have been different if the Americans had fought fair instead of creeping in like thieves. This gives us a good indication of Merritt’s personality type, because he told Arce, ‘Fine, we’ll give you all a chance to get ready and be right back in 15 minutes.’ Arce declined the offer, and handed over the horses.”

Merritt and company arrived back at Frémont’s camp early on June 11 and, again without rest, resolved to head straight to Sonoma and take it over. Ide rejoined them.

Journalist and author Alex Abella wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times last year that suggests the Bear Flag is a racist symbol.

Photo courtesy of Alex Abella

A total of 13 men left Frémont’s camp that morning. They took circuitous routes and traveled at night, avoiding Mexican forces and the brutal North State summer heat. They picked up more recruits along the way, and numbered about 30 men by the time they slipped into Sonoma.

After five straight days of riding and raiding and a night of aguardiente-fueled negotiation and celebration, the Bear Flaggers came to some sobering realizations on June 14. They hadn’t planned beyond the taking of Sonoma and lacked significant forces to hold the fort should the Mexican army attempt to take it back. They also realized that if other American settlers and the U.S. Army didn’t declare support for their actions, they were little more than robbers and thieves.

As some of the men prepared to abandon the enterprise and leave Sonoma, Ide stepped forward and gave a rousing speech: “Saddle no horse for me,” he reportedly said. “I will lay my bones here before I will take upon myself the ignominy of commencing an honorable work, and then flee like cowards, like thieves, when no enemy is in sight. In vain will you say you had honorable motives! Who will believe it? Flee this day, and the longest life cannot wear off your disgrace! Choose ye! Choose ye this day, what you will be! We are robbers, or we must be conquerors!”

Whether driven by an earnest plan to start a new government or seeking an insurance policy against certain hanging, the men agreed then to declare their own republic. Ide was elected president on the spot and took to writing idealistic, long-winded declarations that he’d rework and repost daily in the plaza, in Spanish and English versions.

It was also decided that, like any sovereign state, this one needed a flag.

A Californio woman gave the men an unbleached piece of light brown cloth with which she’d planned to make a new petticoat. William Todd, the nephew of future First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, was tapped to do the artwork, which he accomplished using blackberry juice to dye the flag’s details—a star in homage to Texas, which was similarly under disputed control; the words California Republic; and a grizzly bear. The origin of the grizzly bear has been disputed, but Freeman believes it was at least partly inspired by Merritt, a famed bear hunter. A piece of red flannel—allegedly spared the fate of becoming a mountain man’s underwear—provided a red stripe at the bottom of the banner.

Todd’s rough bear illustration is said by some to have more resembled a pig. When the banner was first raised over Sonoma, some of the Californios allegedly shouted in Spanish, “The pig! The pig!” From that point forward, the men who took Sonoma—and the roughly 400 more who would gather there over the next 22 days—were known as Bear Flaggers, or “Osos,” the Spanish word for “bears.”

Freeman offered a lot more details about the Bear Flag Revolt than the version included in most high school history books. For example, it wasn’t entirely bloodless. Bear Flaggers killed a Mexican soldier and suffered wounds in a skirmish known as the Battle of Olúmpali, near Petaluma; and two Bear Flaggers dispatched to find gunpowder for the understocked armory at Sonoma were captured, tortured and killed by Mexican forces near Santa Rosa.

On July 7, American warships overtook Monterey, and soldiers brought that news—as well as word from Washington, D.C., that Mexico and the U.S. had officially been at war since May 13—to Sonoma on July 9. The Bear Flaggers gladly dissolved their republic and the Bear Flag was replaced by the Stars and Stripes. Frémont persuaded most of the Bear Flaggers to form the California Battalion, a volunteer militia that continued to fight down the coast of California until it helped overtake Los Angeles. The unit was disbanded in 1847.

The original Bear Flag was destroyed during the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. Historian Freeman and Bear Flag detractor Abella both pointed out that there were several other attempts by Californios and American settlers to liberate Alta California from Mexican rule before the Bear Flag Revolt, some of them arguably more historically significant than the occupation of Sonoma. Many historians believe the event would be altogether forgotten if the Bear Flag hadn’t been adopted as the state flag in 1911.

Abella contends the state’s adoption was “concomitant with a real racist and nativist movement that was happening in California at the time,” referring to the fact that some politicians who supported the Bear Flag also backed the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which barred Chinese, Indian, Japanese and Korean immigrants from owning or long-term leasing agricultural land. Even earlier than that, during the Civil War, the Bear Flag was co-opted by Southern sympathizing Californians.

Going back to the 1840s, Abella said other Californios supported an independent nation that was more inclusive of all races, noting the United States’ genocide of Native Americans before and after California’s annexation. He suggested the flag flown by Juan Alvarado—a Californio politician who advocated a more populist plan for the region’s autonomy from Mexico in 1836—would be a more appropriate symbol.

Abella’s piece in the Times garnered thousands of online comments, some to counter his argument, but more just expressing a love for the bear as a symbol of California.

“One thing I didn’t realize before I wrote that article is how much people love that bear,” he said with a laugh. “They are really in love with that bear, even though, of course, the bears were exterminated and hunted to extinction.”

“There’s always been tension in California between liberality and bigotry, acceptance and refusal, racism and equality,” Abella said in summary. “It’s a constant struggle, but that’s our history and we have to recognize it for what it is, make amends and live with it. And we can work toward making it better and not repeating past mistakes.”

With that, he paused a moment, and then continued: “I want that because I love California, and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”