(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series on the Bear Flag Revolt, a seminal event in the history of both Sonoma and California, the anniversary of which will be celebrated on Saturday. Written by late Index-Tribune historian Jerry Hill, a version of this story was first published in the Index-Tribune in 2010.)
Almost every Sonoman knows the story. Early in the morning on June 14, 1846, 33 (more or less) dusty riders came whooping their way to the Plaza.
The noise woke the sleeping Gen. Mariano Vallejo, commandante for California, a state of the Republic of Mexico. The event will be celebrated at the Sonoma Barracks this Saturday as “The Bear Flag Revolt,” but knowing the story and knowing the truth are two different things.
In the first place, this was not a “revolt” or a “rebellion,” but an invasion. The nucleus of the group that became the invaders were all recent American arrivals who met at “Old Moon’s Inn” on the road north of Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento.
They included Napa Valley resident John Grigsby and William B. Ide, once a schoolteacher in New England now ranching in the northern Sacramento Valley.
Together, they had led an early wagon train across the Sierra Nevada. They were joined by Granville Swift, 26, and 24-year-old Henry L. “Fighting” Ford, a crack-shot hunter who, despite his nickname, was a deserter from the U.S. Army.
Key to organizing the group were 6-foot-8-inch Robert Semple, a dentist and printer who had studied law, and Ezekiel “Stuttering” Merritt, present as an unofficial representative of Capt. John C. Fremont of the United States Army.
Fremont was already famous as “The Pathfinder” for his explorations in the West. He possessed political clout through his marriage to Jesse Benton, the daughter of powerful Missouri Sen. Thomas Hart Benton. The captain headed a troop of 62 “topographical engineers” roaming through northern California and southern Oregon, in the guise of geographic exploration. Actually, he had secret orders to monitor Mexican weaknesses in California and to be ready to help fulfill President James K. Polk’s desire to acquire the west coast by negotiation, or military action if necessary.
The Pathfinder and his scraggily bearded, buckskin-clad, rifle-toting men approached Monterey, the Mexican capital of California, and camped out in an obvious act of intimidation. Unfortunately, a couple of his men rode over to the rancho of the uncle of Gen. Juan Castro, the Mexican government chief in Northern California, and “insulted” the nieces of the general, an act that may have involved some groping.
Castro blew his sombrero. He ordered Fremont to leave California, and Fremont responded by flying the Stars and Stripes on a tree on top of nearby Mount Gavilan. Only the diplomatic intervention of American consul Thomas Larkin averted an armed battle between the Americans and 200 men of the Mexican militia.
Castro had not cooled down and issued an order that all non-Mexicans – meaning Americans who had been moving into the state – could not own property. This prompted the American meeting at Moon’s Inn in May 1846.
Arriving at Sutter’s Fort, Fremont encountered Merritt and some of the other complaining Americans. Joining the organizers were mountain man William Fallon; William L. Todd, nephew of future first lady Mary Todd Lincoln; and Dr. William Knight, a naturalized Mexican citizen, whose wife was originally from New Mexico.
Dr. Knight, an excellent horseman, tipped the others to the route of a herd of 180 horses being sent to Gen. Castro. So their plan was first to capture those horses – good for them and bad for the Mexican militia. Fremont tossed into the mix the idea of invading Sonoma, the most northerly reach of Mexican authority.
On June 10, 1846, they ran off with the fresh horses when Castro’s herders were crossing the Sacramento River. Soon the Americans were galloping westward and reached Napa Valley on June 13.
At Bales Mill, near St. Helena, the original 20 men met with about 13 more recruited by Grigsby, including the three Kelsey brothers, Ben, Sam and Andrew; William Elliott, an associate of Napa Valley pioneer George Yount; and major landowner William Hargrave.
Ben Kelsey’s wife, Nancy, had been the first woman to cross the plains. Elliott had been told personally by Gen. Castro he had to be out of California “when the snows melt” in the Sierra, and that time had passed. The youngest new recruit was Nathan Coombs, just 20, who had emigrated from Massachusetts, went to work on a ranch and married the boss’ daughter.
The only one of the invaders with origins in the Sonoma Valley was blacksmith John Boone Sears, in his early 30s, a Kentucky-born relative of Daniel Boone. Probably the oldest in the little army were Ide, who was 50, Elliott, 48, and an ex-seaman named Peter Storm, who was 47.