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The real Bear Flag story

(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.

The pueblo of Sonoma was not exactly a fortress. Vallejo and his brother, Salvador, had at most six soldiers awaiting assignment in their command. In his Pulitzer prize-winning “Year of Decision: 1846,” historian Bernard DeVoto called Sonoma “a tiny cluster of adobe houses and could have been captured by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.”

Departing in the middle of the night, the Americans arrived in Sonoma just after dawn. There was a loud knock on the door of Mariano Vallejo’s Casa Grande, situated across the dirt street from the Plaza. That town square was a parade ground with no substantial greenery, adorned only with a flagpole flying the red, white and green banner of the Republic of Mexico. The commandante put on his uniform to descend to the parlor where he met the leaders of the intruders.

The committee that was greeted by Vallejo included Merritt, Grigsby, Ide and Semple. Although Vallejo could speak passable English, the bilingual Dr. Knight was present as an interpreter.

Turning on his charm, Vallejo greeted the visitors by asking, “What can I do for you?” Then he offered them wine or brandy and ordered a barrel of wine be taken to those waiting outside.

Vallejo talked genially about having a discussion on a “friendly” basis, until he was cut off abruptly by Ezekiel Merritt, who announced they were not there to be entertained, but “meant business.”

Merritt said they intended to establish an independent government free of Mexico. Then, without any authority, he proceeded to “arrest” Mariano Vallejo, brother Salvador, brother-in-law Jacob Leese, and Vallejo’s talented secretary, Victor Prudon.

Meanwhile, some of the tipplers from Vallejo’s wine barrel began talking about looting businesses around the Plaza and it looked as if things might get out of hand. Grigsby, Elliott, Semple, Hargrave, Merritt and mountain man Fallon silenced their brethren physically and told them to listen to William Ide. The articulate Ide, a non-drinking Mormon, gave a rousing speech, reminding the invaders that their goal was to establish a California Republic free of Mexico. On a shouted motion from the enthralled crowd, Ide was elected President of the new nation by acclamation. Robert Semple was voted in as Secretary of the Republic.

President Ide set up his capitol in the Barracks, with his own office in the Leese building opposite the southwest corner of the Plaza.

The new government needed a visible symbol of its authority, so William Todd was put to work in the Barracks creating a California flag. Since John Sears lived just outside Sonoma, his wife’s petticoat was available for the white background.

For a broad red stripe along the bottom border, Mrs. Elliott donated a band of red flannel, also available for a red star symbolically reminiscent of the lone star of Texas, which had revolted from Mexico in 1835 and been annexed by the United States in 1845.

Todd had a tougher time using “poke juice” to draw a grizzly bear, which resembled a misshapen pig. When he lettered in “CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC,” he left out the “I” so the two final letters had to be redrawn. The following morning, the Mexican flag with its snake-eating eagle was run down the Plaza flag pole, and up went Todd’s grizzly, to the cheers of the men who would be forever known as the “Bear Flaggers.”

Ide penned a proclamation declaring the advent of the new nation and inviting “all peaceable citizens” to come to Sonoma to help create a republican form of government. He then had it translated into Spanish, and put both copies of the document in the hands of Henry Booker to carry to Monterey.

Merritt insisted that Fremont would want the four prisoners kept incarcerated. To deliver them to Fremont’s camp at Sutter’s Fort, Ide appointed a squad composed of Merritt, Semple, Grigsby, Elliott, Hargrave and Flagger Marion Ferguson. On horseback, the captors rode together with the captives, who were without restraints. When passing above the bayside hills, which are now Benicia, Semple envisioned the landscape as an ideal location for a city.

Outside Sutter’s Fort, under the express demands of Fremont, the four prisoners were kept in a makeshift prison under less than ideal conditions, believing they would soon be released.

In Sonoma, on June 14, 1846, the hold of Mexican authority north of San Francisco Bay had been broken, an independent republic founded, and the opening event of the eventual incorporation of California into the United States had taken place. And all without shedding a drop of blood.

Unfortunately, that was about to change. The bloodletting, the Bear Flaggers at war, and their successes, failures, triumphs and tragedies will be addressed in the second half of the story.

Gerald N. Hill was an attorney, teacher, author, political consultant and activist, as well as the Index-Tribune’s staff historian. He died in 2012.

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