Sonoma's first Fourth of July
Celebrating the Fourth of July in Sonoma Plaza
Sonomans celebrate the raising of Bear Flag with a reenactment of the historic event.
Index-Tribune file photo
Every year Sonoma celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence with a hometown parade and Plaza activities capped off with a spectacular pyrotechnic display. But of all the Sonoma celebrations on Independence Day, the one held on July 4, 1846, was the first and most unusual.
Sonoma, as well as the rest of California, was not American territory. The town was the capital of the California Republic, which had been established only three weeks earlier by 33 American settlers who had invaded the village on June 14. The new little nation's headquarters was the Barracks facing the eight-acre Plaza. Sonoma Valley was the only land over which the Republic could exercise authority.
Actually, California was a state of Mexico, which the Spaniards had casually stolen from the indigenous population, Coast Miwoks and Pomos in this part of the country. The pueblo's deposed official Mexican leader, Gen. Mariano Vallejo, along with his brother Salvador, brother-in-law Jacob Leese, and top aide, Victor Prudon, were being held in a make-shift prison at Sutter's Fort 85 miles away, under the claimed authority of the invading Americans.
The United States had been at war with Mexico since May 13, 1846, but no one in California knew it. Official word would not reach the far west until the middle of August.
Meanwhile, U. S. Army Capt. John Charles Fremont was roaming Southern Oregon and Northern California at the head of a troop of tough "topographical engineers" with secret orders from President James K. Polk. Those orders were probably to keep track of the Mexican military strength, stir up trouble when possible and be ready when war broke out. Fremont had become unpopular with the Mexicans, and for good reason. Mexican Gen. Juan Castro sent Fremont a written order to leave California and issued a call for volunteers to create a militia to expel Americans. By July, 1846, Fremont had dropped his guise as a scientific explorer and formed his men and new recruits into what he called the "California Battalion."
The Bear Flaggers were incensed over the waylaying and murder of two of their number outside Santa Rosa. The local Mexicans were well aware that Fremont had ordered the shooting of three unarmed Californios, including the popular father of Juan Berryessa, Alcalde of Sonoma. The latest insult to Mexican sovereignty was the arrival on July 2, of three U.S. Navy frigates in Monterey Bay and the U.S.S. Portsmouth in San Francisco Bay.
The Americans living in Sonoma were determined to celebrate Independence Day on July 4, with a fiesta. Word went out and the sailors of the American frigate Portsmouth considered themselves invited. Fremont, never one to miss an opportunity to strut his importance, rode into town on horseback with many of his command. This became an ideal opportunity to recruit more of the Bears into his battalion, supplementing Ford, Swift, Grigsby, Sears and the Kelsey brothers.
But what of the Mexican population of the Sonoma pueblo? The town had been taken from Mexican authority, their leaders were imprisoned, their flag had been pulled down in favor of the most inartistic national flag in the world, and three citizens of a revered family had been murdered. But a fiesta was a fiesta. Out came the costumes, the musical instruments, and wine. They danced, sang, ate, drank and fraternized with the Americans, including those handsome young sailors and even the men of Fremont's battalion.
What this show of goodwill displayed was not just a forgiving nature, but demonstrated that the Mexicans were reconciled to the inevitability that California would become American territory in the not too distant future. Five days later, the Stars and Stripes (short one star for newly-annexed Texas) was raised to the top of the 70-foot pole in the Plaza by a squad of U.S. sailors, and no one complained.
This proved an omen for the future transition of Sonoma and its people, including the Californios (people of Mexican or Spanish heritage born or raised in the state) into American territory. Their leader, Mariano Vallejo, at the moment was sweltering in a prison in the heat of Sacramento. Less than four months earlier, in April 1846, there was a gathering at the home of the American consul, Thomas Larkin, in Monterey. The topic was what should become of California, faced as it was with the possibility of war between the United States and Mexico and growing discontent with the neglect of California by the Mexican federal government in far distant Mexico City.
Among those present were English-born merchants William Hartnell (for whom Hartnell College is named) and David Spence, who both declared in favor of making California a British protectorate. Of the leading Californios, Gen. Juan Castro argued for annexation to France on the basis it was a Catholic country.
Former Governor José Alvarado and rancher Mariano Soberanes made emotional pitches for an independent California. Vallejo spoke last. In a carefully devised speech he detailed reasons California should seek annexation to the United States.
At the time Vallejo was in a difficult position. As an officer of the California state government he was a Mexican official as well as a citizen who owed loyalty to the nation, no matter how ineffective. As it turned out, being imprisoned solved his personal conflict between official responsibility and what he felt was best for the people of the west. When the so-called Mexican War concluded with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, it granted American citizenship to all California residents who wished to apply. Mariano Vallejo and his family were quick to take the oath.
When the American military governor called for a constitutional convention on Aug. 1, 1849, Vallejo was chosen a delegate from the Sonoma area, one of only eight Spanish-speaking participants. When an interim legislature was organized, pending an application for statehood, Vallejo was elected a state senator, and served one session after California was admitted as a state on Sept. 9, 1850. As the most prominent Californio in the state senate, he was instrumental in the transition to Americanization of the Golden State, while the old pueblo of Sonoma, became the Pacific Coast headquarters for the United States Army in 1849, which continued through 1851. He lobbied to make the new town of Benicia (named for Mrs. Vallejo) the state capital. A compromise made Benicia a temporary capital for one year until Sacramento was selected.
The newly empowered legislature in 1850 elected John C. Fremont one of California's first two U. S. Senators as a Democrat, serving less than a year. Discovery of gold on his property in Mariposa County made him a millionaire. In 1856 he was nominated the first candidate for President of the newly-formed Republican Party and was defeated.