Each June, for as far back as anyone can remember, a merry band of local performers has re-enacted what’s known as the Bear Flag Revolt of June 14, 1846.
That revolt – where a cadre of riled-up American settlers deposed and imprisoned Mexican Gen. Mariano Vallejo and hoisted the rebel “bear flag” that still flies over the city – sought to annex Sonoma as an independent republic. Instead, the fledgling republic was subsumed almost immediately as United States territory, followed, in short order, by the rest of California.
The revolt was the fulcrum upon which California history pivoted, a political coup where an inestimable prize was commandeered in a ruckus. And its semi-regular re-enactment over the years at various local festivals remains endlessly fascinating to historians and some locals.
This weekend, the latest re-enactment takes place Sunday, June 10, at 1 p.m. in the Grinstead Amphitheatre, as part of the nonprofit Native Sons of the Golden West’s annual Chicken BBQ and Wine Tasting fundraiser, from noon to 4 p.m on the Plaza.
But who were the so-called Bear Flaggers, and what really happened that fateful day in 1846?
As Gen. Vallejo’s son, Platon Vallejo, wrote to his brother in 1916, “The changes in California were so fast and so dramatic that many opinions and viewpoints have been issued.”
And they’re still being issued to this day.
In an op-ed published in the Los Angeles Times in 2015, writer and California historian Alex Abella described the Bear Flaggers as, “a band of thieves, drunks and murderers (who) hoisted a home-made flag and declared themselves in revolt from a government that had welcomed them.”
To Abella, the rebellion was less about patriotism than it was an Anglo-cultural land grab.
While Abella is particularly harsh on the Bear Flaggers – he has called for California to replace the Bear Flag as its official state banner – most California historians are in general agreement: the Bear Flaggers were an unsavory lot. Essentially, the gang was made up of 30-some guys with no military discipline who were whipped into a frenzy by U.S. Army Capt. John C. Fremont and took action against a non-confrontational local military leader who a little more than a decade prior had founded the “Pueblo de Sonoma,” where we live today. It’s also true – as the various local reenactments typically demonstrate – that they got pretty oiled the night they captured Gen. Vallejo, and that many stayed drunk through their brief, bloodless rebellion.
Still, others argue that the Bear Flaggers were also in a state of grave uncertainty, with their futures – and perhaps even their lives – in jeopardy. “There were rumors of the Native Americans being stirred up by the (Mexican) Californios to burn the crops of the settlers,” Sonoma historian Peter Meyerhof told the Index-Tribune.
But to Juan Hernandez, executive director of La Luz Center, the Valley nonprofit which serves a large segment of the Latino community, the Bear Flaggers are a symbol of the 19th century doctrine of “Manifest Destiny,” a belief that American expansion across the continent was as rightful as it was inevitable.
“This revolt,” says Hernandez, was born of a racist belief, “which maintained that the United States was destined – by God, its advocates believed – to expand its dominion and spread democracy and capitalism across the entire North American continent.”
56th annual Chicken BBQ and Wine Tasting
The Native Sons of the Golden West’s annual celebration and fundraiser on the Plaza is Sunday, June 10
Noon to 4 p.m. - Chicken BBQ plate and hot dog BBQ on sale in Plaza behind City Hall.
1 p.m. – Entertainment at the Grinstead Amphitheater re-enactment of the raising of the bear flag.
1:30 p.m. to 4:30 pm - Music starts on the Plaza lawn between Spain St and City Hall.
All day – Art exhibit presented by Valley of the Moon Arts Association.
And don’t miss “Pueblo Day,” to be celebrated this year on June 22.