Eyewitness hates the Bear Flaggers
33 American riders galloped into the Sonoma Plaza on June 14, 1846 to raise the Bear Flag
Jacob Leese and Rosalia Vallejo Leese
California Historical Society
An unhappy eyewitness to the arrival of the 33 American riders who galloped into the Sonoma Plaza on June 14, 1846, was Rosalia Vallejo Leese, sister of Gen. Mariano Vallejo and wife of Jacob Leese, the American-born Alcalde of Sonoma.
Señora Leese and Jacob lived in their adobe home, a portion of which still stands near the corner of First Street West and West Napa Street, now known as the Leese-Fitch adobe. Rosalia was awakened before 6 a.m. by the shouts of an elderly neighbor, Pepe de la Rosa, who told her that the invaders had surrounded Gen. Vallejo's house.
Finding that her husband had already left, Rosalia quickly dressed and headed into the street. She observed the men milling around in front of the Vallejos' house and the Plaza - then a dusty bare parade ground - who were dressed in buckskin pants or blue jeans and wearing caps of wolf or coyote fur or battered slouch hats. She saw the general's brother, Salvador Vallejo, being threatened by a man she later learned was Ben Kelsey, who seemed intent on killing Salvador.
Then Victor Prudón, Mariano's assistant, ran up and made Kelsey stop his threats. So Kelsey dragged both Salvador and Prudón toward a group of men, including dentist Dr. Robert Semple, who surrounded Gen. Vallejo in full uniform and, much to Rosalia's shock, her husband Jacob Leese.
The leaders of the invaders discussed in loud voices what to do with their prisoners. It was Rosalia's view (even when interviewed many years later) that "Dr. Semple seemed to be more humane than the rest of that godforsesaken bunch." Some decision having been reached, horses were brought and the four Californio prisoners were mounted and a handful of the Americans on horseback guarded the prisoners as they rode eastward out of Sonoma. Señora Leese was informed they were headed for Sutter's Fort where they would be imprisoned.
Rosalia was afraid that the prisoners would be subject to "the tender mercies of that demon John A. Sutter," whom she detested, based on his reputation. She complained that Sutter "had left his wife and children behind and was living openly with two women ...from the Sandwich Islands" (Hawaii).
When interviewed 28 years later, she vividly recalled the traumatic events: "After Gen. Vallejo (and the others) was hurriedly taken away, the marauders who had stayed behind in Sonoma raised a piece of linen cloth on the flagpole located in the corner of the Plaza near the old mission church. The cloth was about the size of a large towel and they had painted a red bear and one star on it." This eyewitness account unravels the rival claim of the maker of a flag with a bear standing on its hind legs.
Before she could return to her home that eventful morning, she was surrounded by four of the Bear Flaggers (whom she described as "ragged desperados") with drawn pistols, who informed Señora Leese that she was a prisoner herself. They demanded the keys to her husband's storehouse, which Rosalia, pregnant and without a choice, gave them. Shortly, many of the invading Americans were ransacking the storehouse, carting off food and liquor.
Rosalia returned to her house where there were several children to feed and protect. She began preparing "care packages" for Jacob, consisting of carefully prepared food and a little money which couriers carried to Sacramento each week. Only after Jacob was released did she learn that Sutter had stolen it all for himself.
The story of the courtship of Jacob and Rosalia is an indicator of her reputation as a woman of "high spirit." The tenth child of the Californio Vallejos, she was born and raised in Monterey as were her brothers Mariano and Salvador and numerous sisters.
In 1836, at the relatively spinsterish age of 25, she met Leese, a recently arrived American, at a Fourth of July party in the settlement of Yerba Buena, the future San Francisco. It was a romance of which big brother Mariano, patriarch of the clan, did not approve.
In 1837, Mariano Vallejo had to leave his headquarters in Sonoma to disburse some local rebels threatening Governor Juan Alvarado in Monterey. With the help of two servants, Rosalia slipped out of Monterey and rode on horseback to a rendezvous with Jacob who was waiting in Sonoma. By the time Mariano returned, she and Leese were married.
The brother soon recovered from his annoyance with the audacity of his sister, and with 66,000 acres at his disposal, was able to cut Jacob in on real estate deals, which included the Huichica ranch southeast of town.
Besides possible profits, the Leeses also began producing children on a regular basis, including the first non-native daughter born in Yerba Buena. They built an adobe on the Huichica property in 1841 and then the large adobe opposite the southwest corner of the Sonoma Plaza. Gen. Vallejo also arranged for Leese to be elected Alcalde of Sonoma.
While her husband was forced to sleep on the floor of a shabby prison at Sutter's Fort, Rosalia had to deal with John C. Fremont, who came to Sonoma a few days after the Revolt, and again on July 5.
The "Pathfinder" proceeded to earn her contempt and undying enmity. Hearing that Mexican Captain Juan Padilla, a cohort of Ramon Carrillo, had gathered a company of about a hundred Mexican volunteers to recapture Sonoma, Fremont bulldozed Rosalia into writing Captain Padilla a letter urging him not to attack by threatening to burn down the town's houses. This made military sense to Fremont, but infuriated Rosalia.
She also reported that Fremont demanded that Rosalia send her 17-year-old Indian servant girl over to the barracks where Fremont's men were encamped. Convinced that the girl was intended for the sexual pleasure of his soldiers, she hid the young woman. She told Henry Cerutti, who interviewed her years later on behalf of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, that Fremont was a "coward" whose favorable reputation had been created by "paid writers." She called the Bear Flaggers "thugs, thieves, ruffians."
The four prisoners were released in Sacramento in early August on the order of Commodore John Sloat, and on Aug. 14 official word arrived that the United States had declared war on Mexico. Eventually, Leese traded the Yerba Buena property for the Larkin house in Monterey where he and Rosalia moved. Never the shrewdest businessman, his hide and tallow trade slumped. In 1865 Leese managed to gain the rights to two-thirds of the near barren Baja California in Mexico for colonization. He traveled to New York for financing and left Rosalia and six children in Monterey, never to return in her lifetime and leaving his wife to be supported by their son, another Jacob, who owned a saloon.
Señora Leese told an interviewer: "Those hateful men have instilled in me so much hate for the people of their race, I have not forgiven the insults heaped upon me." Although she and her well-educated six children all spoke English, by way of revenge she insisted they use only Spanish at home.
She lived until 1889, aged 78, an embittered woman who had known happier times.