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A Bear Flag Revolt revolt in Sonoma

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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.

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.

Added Hernandez, “If you were Native American and/or Mexican, then you were the first victims of the violent conquest provoked by the Bear Flaggers.”

Hernandez views the Bear Flaggers as having thrown the opening salvo to an era that would see the majority of California’s approximately 150,000 Native Americans dead within a few short years.

Hernandez concedes he’s somewhat perplexed that Sonoma still stages the Bear Flag re-enactment.

In an era when America’s history is being examined anew, Hernandez — and others who have contacted the Index-Tribune – see Sonoma’s Bear Flag re-enactment as a glorification of a dark past.

But for George Webber, who wrote the Bear Flag re-enactment script 14 years ago in what he describes as “a fit of volunteerism,” the revolt’s aftermath and the actions that incited it are separate histories that should not be conflated.

Besides which, to Webber’s mind, the facts are the facts.

“History is rarely pretty,” said Webber. “People who consider the ‘right-mindedness’ of historical actions must be careful not to apply historical revisionism to their opinions.”

Given the complexity of the history in question, Webber is puzzled by the anti-Bear Flag faction.

“I often wonder if the people who write letters condemning my re-enactment have ever bothered to actually see it,” Webber said. “The script does not paint the revolters as particularly valorous. Gen. Vallejo is the hero of the script, not the Bear Flaggers. It’s an accurate presentation of the complicated issues surrounding the Bear Flag Revolt and, as such, is an educational tool that furthers genuine understanding of the facts and forces that drove these actions.”

One Sonoma woman, who asked not to use her name for professional purposes, told the Index-Tribune that the historical accuracy is less of a problem than the possibility of cultural insensitivity. The woman, who is of Latino descent, said the event symbolizes “oppression and classism,” among other “isms,” – and points out that no one would dream of re-enacting the taking of Native American land.

She said, “Sonoma is better than that.”

Ken Brown, a former member of the Sonoma City Council and a perennial re-enactment performer (who this year will play “the guy who makes the flag”) finds that idea exasperating.

“What happened, happened! It’s not like we can erase history and America’s going to be this great story,” said Brown. “You know, I have this T-shirt from La Luz that says ‘We’re all immigrants.’ All of us! Everybody in this country! George Webber didn’t make this stuff up. It’s all true, and it’s real.”

Whether cultural sensitivity, revisionism, or unvarnished history drives perspective, the issue continues to resonate in Sonoma.

“I don’t doubt that there would be many objections to the re-enactment,” Meyerhof said. “But it is history. History can be told in a more offensive way or a more considerate way, and there’s more history behind the revolt than what the re-enactment portrays.”

City historian Robert Demler, meanwhile, wishes the community put more thought into celebrating the man he calls, “the city’s most historic figure,” Gen. Mariano Vallejo.

“Instead, and for some time and with great enthusiasm, there has been a large civic celebration of his capture and imprisonment,” said Demler, who would prefer Sonomans save their celebrations for the town’s founding day, June 24, or “Pueblo Day.” (To be celebrated this year on June 22.)

Demler says the Bear Flag re-enactment might “have some degree of reason” if Vallejo had “committed some egregious offense or dereliction of his duties... but that was not the case.”

“On an early morning in June 1846, the peaceful slumber of the Vallejo family was interrupted by a large group of visitors who, though unexpected and unannounced, were given a warm Californio welcome by Gen. Vallejo.” Demler says that after “enjoying his hospitality,” they took the general and several family members prisoner, helped themselves to anything they needed from the “inhabitants of the sleepy Mexican outpost and settled in to create an independent Republic of California which was to last for all of 25 days.”

Summarizes Demler: “Hence the Bear Flag Rebellion by undocumented immigrants, breaking the law of the land – an event so ironic and so glorified today.”

As Sonoma prepares for a grand day of barbecue chicken and wine tasting on Sunday – and to take in the midday re-enactment, or not – perhaps residents should all consider the words of Gen. Vallejo himself who, when asked by son Platon for his side of the story, remarked:

“I brought the Americans here. Soon we will have many native sons like you. And, for the rest, De mortuis mil nisi bonum (say nothing but good of the dead).”

Muses Demler: “What kind of a man would be able to say that?”

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.