The Bear Flag Revolt

Bear FlagTHE BEAR FLAG REPUBLIC General Vallejo was sympathetic to California's incoming wave of American settlers, but the Mexican government wanted the intruders expelled. Awkwardly caught in the middle, Vallejo found himself arrested by a band of Americans who came to his door one morning in 1846. It was this revolt that ushered in a short-lived Bear Flag Republic. Less than a month later, the feisty uprising paved the way for California’s accession to the United States, and Vallejo was released soon afterwards. He even took an active part in the formation of the California government, helping to write the constitution and serving in the first state senate. Although Vallejo became rich and powerful, he was almost a pauper when he died in 1890, having lost much of his land to adverse court rulings and having squandered his wealth on the faulty speculations of his American son-in-law.

Today visitors can stand on the site of the original Bear Flag raising, at the monument on the northeast corner of the Sonoma Plaza. They also can tour Vallejo’s final home, “Lachryma Montis,” on its 20-acre grounds just a few blocks west.

THE AMERICANS ARRIVE The first formal visit from a U. S. official to Sonoma Valley came in 1841, when Commodore Charles Wilkes, commanding the sloop Vincennes, landed on the bay embarcadero, four miles south of the town of Sonoma. Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo sent a party to meet him, and provided horses for the ride to town. Wilkes' journal revealed he was unimpressed by Vallejo's rustic --albeit lavish--hospitality.

Prior to Wilkes' visit, American civilians had been arriving in California over the Rockies, drawn by promises of "free land." Vallejo ran his command like a fiefdom, accumulating land and wealth and guarding against the Russian incursion along the coast. But he liked the Americans, who were fast settling and marrying into Mexican families--including his own; and he felt that his own country lacked the interest to develop California properly.

Official Mexican policy forbade Americans to own land or hold public office, and the Mexican governor in 1845-46, Pio Paco, denounced the Americans as intruders; he even ordered them to be driven back over the mountains. Vallejo, as military commander, flatly refused to do so, and decided to wait out the conflict. That proved an impossible task.

On a mapmaking expedition to California, John C. Fremont served as a lieutenant of engineers in the Army Topographical Service, but in many respects he was also a freebooter, intent on settling the region and displacing the Mexicans. Headquartered at Sutter's Fort in the Sacramento Valley, Fremont actively encouraged settlers to rebel against Mexican rule. His companions included Kit Carson and 50 armed engineers. Under Fremont's instructions--which he apparently had no authority to give--a party of men rode from Sutter's fort to Sonoma, seized the town, arrested Vallejo, and on June 14, 1846 declared a California Republic. The painting at the top of the page commemorates this event.

Vallejo greeted his captors cordially, offering them his best brandy. He felt he was in basic agreement that Americans should control California, and he looked forward to taking part in the new government. But Fremont and the Bear Flaggers shared the view of many settlers--that Vallejo might unite the quarreling Mexican factions against them--and so they imprisoned the general at Fort Sutter. It took several months and an official letter from an American naval officer to get him out.

Meanwhile, the independent California Republic flourished briefly under its famous Bear Flag--a crude banner made from manta cloth and a lady's petticoat. The flag's emblems display a grizzly bear, representing strength and courage, and a star similar to the one on the Texas flag--Texas being California's ally against Mexico. Fremont celebrated his coup against Vallejo with a mammoth Fourth of July party in Sonoma, and the Californians voted to join the Union as a territory as soon as possible. That happened on July 9th, 1846, and the Stars n’ Stripes permanently replaced the Bear Flag (which later became--and remains today--the official state flag of California). The American flag was raised in the Sonoma Plaza by a Naval contingency headed by Lt. Revere, grandson of Paul Revere. Pictured to the left is the Bear Flag Monument erected in the Sonoma Plaza to commemorate the events of the Bear Flag Revolt.

It was only the following week when Californians learned that the United States had declared war on Mexico. Two years later, when that war ended in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, California and the rest of the Southwest were ceded by Mexico to the United States.