During the war with Mexico, United States troops seized power. Captain John C. Fremont, western explorer and engineer, led an uprising of American settlers and Californios (Spanish ranching families in Alta California) who supported American annexation. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was born into a prominent family and pursued a career in the military and politics. He, like many other Californios, believed that the American presence promoted economic prosperity and political stability. During the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, Fremont captured Sonoma and raised the flag of an independent California. Vallejo, however, was taken prisoner by Fremont’s forces and held for two months. Despite his treatment, Vallejo maintained his American sympathies and went on to serve in the first state legislative body. When he and many others attempted to validate their Mexican land grants, he found his way blocked and eventually lost a ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court. Stripped of much of his influence and fortune, he wrote his five-volume “true history” of Californias, while living on a mere portion of his once vast holdings. Vallejo donated this history to H. H. Bancroft, the famous Californian historian.
All during the first week of the month of June various interviews took place between Captain Fremont and his compatriots. What passed between them is not public knowledge, but if the antecedents may be drawn from what followed, it is easy to presume that they were perfecting the plans they thought most appropriate for seizing Alta California and devising the means to come off victorious in their undertaking. That such may have been the object of their frequent meeting is proved by the fact that on the afternoon of June llth Fremont and his men, without a previous declaration of war and under no other pretext than their own caprice or necessity, seized the three hundred horses (two hundred of which belonged to the Indians emancipated from San Rafael exmission, the interests of whom were managed by Timothy Murphy) which on the account and by the order of Commanding General Castro were grazing to the north of the Cosumnes River in charge of Lieutenant Francisco Arce and several soldiers.
This was the first hostile act that Captain Fremont committed against the property of the inhabitants of California, and although the enormity of his conduct is somewhat mitigated by the fact of his having allowed the cowboys to return to San Jose mounted upon the horses, the impartial historian should not for that reason tail to censure in severe terms a soldier who belies his glorious mission and becomes a leader of thieves. In spite of my desire to palliate as much as I can the conduct of the individuals who participated in the theft of the Indians horses, I cannot but stigmatize them with the anathema which society fulminates against those who without legal right to do so appropriate the property of others.
After distributing the horses as they thought most advantageous to their plans, gentlemen under Captain Fremont s command took the road leading through the Napa Hills to Sonoma and at dawn on the fourteenth of June they surrounded my house located on the plaza at Sonoma. At daybreak they raised the shout of alarm and when I heard it, I looked out of my bedroom window. To my great surprise, I made out groups of armed men scattered to the right and left of my residence. The recent arrivals were not in uniform, but were all armed and presented a fierce aspect. Some of them wore on their heads a visorless cap of coyote skin, some a low-crowned plush hat, [and] some a red cotton handkerchief. As for the balance of the clothing of the assaulters of my residence, I shall not attempt to describe it, for I acknowledge that I am incapable of doing the task justice. I suspected that the intruders had intentions harmful not to my [property] interests alone, but to my life and that of the members Of my family. I realized that my situation was desperate. My wife advised me to try and flee by the rear door, but I told her that such a step was unworthy and that under no circumstances could I decide to desert my young family at such a critical time. I had my uniform brought, dressed quickly and then ordered the large vestibule door thrown open. The house was immediately filled with armed men. I went with them into the parlor of my residence. I asked them what the trouble was and who was heading the party, but had to repeat that question a second time, because almost all of those who were in the parlor replied at once, “Here we are all heads.” When I again asked with whom I should take the matter up, they pointed out William B. Ide who was the eldest of all. I then addressed that gentleman and informed him that I wanted to know to what happy circumstance I owed the visit of so many individuals.
In reply he stated that both Captain Merritt and the other gentlemen who were in his company had decided not to continue living any longer under the Mexican government, whose representatives, Castro and Pio Pico, did not respect the rights of American citizens living in the Departamento; that Castro was every once in a while issuing proclamations treating them all as bandits and, in a desire to put a stop to all these insults, they had decided to declare California independent; that while he held none but sentiments of regard for me, he would be forced to take me prisoner along with all my family.
We were at this point when there appeared in the room don Salvador Vallejo, don Pepe de la Rosa, Jacob P. Leese, and don Victor Prudon, all friends of mine for whom an order of arrest was suggested until it was decided what should be my fate. I thought for a moment that through some sacrifice on my part I might get rid of so many and such little desired guests, but my hopes were frustrated by the unworthy action of the Canadian, Olivier Beaulieu, who, knowing from his own experiences that liquor is an incentive for all kinds of villainous acts, had gone to his house and procured there a barrel full of brandy, which he distributed among the companions of Merritt and Ide. Once under the influence of the liquor, they forgot the chief object of their mission and broke into shouts of “Get the loot, get the loot! ”
Fortunately, these seditious cries emitted by Scott, Beaulieu, Sears and others attracted the attention of Doctor Semple who stepped very angrily to the door of the entrance vestibule and by means of a speech of much feeling, in which there were not threats, gave them to understand that he would kill the first man who by committing robbery would cast a blot upon the expedition he had helped organize to advance a political end and that, so long as he was alive, he would not allow it to be turned into a looting expedition.....
Shortly after Lieutenant Misroons arrival at Sonoma, he endeavored to enter into extra-official relations with William B. Ide and the companions of that impoverished commander, but his advances met with no response, because Ide and the others sheltered under the fateful “Bear Flag” did not leave the barracks, the entrance to which was protected by nine cannon of different calibers that they had taken away from me at dawn on June 14th and which they kept loaded to the muzzle. These were all in charge of their respective gunners (the artillerymen did not know their business, for they had been improvised) who never for a single instant relaxed their vigilance over the war materials of which they had been left in charge.
When Lieutenant Misroon had arranged everything as best he could, he left instructions for his subordinate and returned on board the frigate “Portsmouth,” where it is to be presumed that he submitted to Captain Montgomery an account of all he had heard and witnessed at Sonoma.
Shortly after Doctor Semple had set out for the Sacramento, the plaza at Sonoma was taken in charge by William B. Ide, whom the rest of the force that had invaded my residence had agreed to obey. The number of those who along with William B. Ide remained in charge of the Sonoma garrison was at least fifty. I am aware that various historians have fixed the number at eighteen, but I absolutely know that they are in error. It only remains to determine whether the mistake has been accidental or intentional. I am of the opinion that it has been intentional, for it seems that a hidden but powerful hand has taken great pains to garble all the facts relative to the capture of the Sonoma plaza by the group of adventurers to whom history has given the name of “The Bear Flag Party.” I, who was made the chief victim those patriotic gentlemen sacrificed upon the altar of their well-laid plans, have no interest whatsoever in bespattering them with mud, nor do I aspire to ennoble myself at the expense of their reputation. All I desire is that the impartial public may know what took place at Sonoma on fateful June 14th, 1846, and that it may, after learning all there is to know in regard to this scandalous violation of law that deprived of liberty those who for years had been making countless sacrifices to redeem from the hands of the barbarous heathen the territory known as the Sonoma Frontier, decide in favor of one or the other of the participants in the events I have just related. All I demand is that the decision arrived at may be upon a basis of fact.
On the fourth day that Mr. Ide was in command at the Sonoma plaza and when he saw that a great number of Americans and foreigners had hurried in to place themselves under his protection, being fearful lest the Californians would attack them on their ranchos should they continue to live scattered over the country, he issued a document in which he set forth the reasons that had impelled him to refuse to recognize the authority of the Mexican government. The original proclamation, which was very brief, merely stated that, since the lives of foreigners were in imminent danger, he had felt it his duty to declare Alta California independent and that, counting as he did upon the definite support and cooperation of the “fighting men” who had rallied around him, he aimed to do all he could to prevent the Californians or the Mexicans from recovering the military post and arms which the valor of his men had seized from them. This is approximately what “Captain” Ide read aloud before the flagpole in the Sonoma plaza. I am fully aware that the original proclamation was destroyed and that a few weeks later another was drawn up which, it was said, contained a list of the wrongs which the Mexican authorities had perpetrated against United States citizens.
After the reading of the Commander-in-chiefs proclamation, they proceeded with great ceremony to hoist the flag by virtue of which those who had assaulted my home and who had by that time appropriated to themselves two hundred fifty muskets and nine cannon proposed to carry on their campaign.
This flag was nothing more nor less than a strip of white cotton stuff with a red edge and upon the white part, almost in the center, were written the words “California Republic.” Also on the white part, almost in the center, there was painted a bear with lowered head. The bear was so badly painted, however, that it looked more like pig than a bear. The material for the flag was furnished, according to some, by Mrs. Elliot; according to others by Mrs. Sears. I also heard it said that Mrs. Grigsby furnished it.
Those who helped to prepare, sew and paint the flag were the following young men: Alexander Todd, Thomas Cowie and Benjamin Duell. The latter was the one who suggested that a star be painted near the mouth of the bear. Of course, both the bear and the star were very badly drawn, but that should not be wondered at, if one takes into consideration the fact that they lacked brushes and suitable colors.
The running up of this queer flag caused much fear to the families of the Californians established in the neighborhood of Sonoma, Petaluma and San Rafael, for they realized that the instigators of the uprising that had disturbed the tranquility of the frontier had made up their minds to rule, come what might, and, as the rumor had been spread far and wide that Ide and his associates had raised the bear flag in order to enjoy complete liberty and not be obliged to render any account of their activities to any civilized governments, the ranchers, who would have remained unperturbed should the American flag have been run up in Sonoma and who would have considered it as the harbinger of a period of progress and enlightenment, seized their machetes and guns and fled to the woods, determined to await a propitious moment for getting rid of the disturbers of the peace. Strange to relate, the first victim that the ranchers sacrificed was the painter of the “Bear Flag,” young Thomas Cowie who, along with P. Fowler, was on his way to Fitchs ranch to get one-eyed Moses Carson (brother of the famous explorer Colonel Kit Carson), who was employed as an overseer by Captain Henry Fitch, to give them a half barrel of powder he had locked up m one of the storage closets of his farmhouse. Fowler and Cowie were taken by surprise at the Yulupa Rancho by the party operating under the command of Captains Padilla and Ramon Carrillo, who at the request of the people had assumed direction of the hostilities it had been decided to undertake against “the Bears.” Neither of the two extemporaneous commanders thought it right to take the lives of their young captives, upon whom there had been found letters that proved beyond any doubt that Moses Carson and certain others of the Americans employed at the Fitch Ranch were in accord with Ide, Merritt and others of those who had made up their minds to put at end to Mexican domination in California; so they decided to tie them up to a couple of trees while they deliberated as to what should be done with the captives, whose fate was to be decided at the meeting that night to which had been summoned all the ranchers who by their votes had shared in entrusting command of the Californian forces to those wealthy citizens, Padilla and Carrillo. I am of the opinion that the lives of Cowie and Fowler would have been spared, had it not been that a certain Bernardo Garcia, better known under the name of “Three-fingered Jack,” taken advantage of the darkness of the night, approached the trees to which the captives were tied and put an end to their existence with his well-sharpened dagger.
After committing the two murders I have just told about, Bernardo Garcia entered the lonely hut in which Padilla, Carrillo and others had met and were discussing as to what disposition should be made of the prisoners. Without waiting for them to ask him any questions, he said to his compatriots, “I thought you here were going to decide to free the prisoners and, as that is not for the good of my country, I got ahead of you and took the lives of the Americans who were tied to the trees.”
Those few words, spoken with the greatest of sangfroid by the wickedest man that California had produced up to that time, caused all who heard him to shudder. No one dared to object to what had been done, however, for they knew that such a step would have exposed them to falling under the knife of the dreaded Bernardo Garcia, who for years past had been the terror of the Sonoma frontier.
Equally with the relatives of the unfortunate youths, Cowie and Fowler, I regretted their premature death, for, in spite of the fact that they belonged to a group of audacious men who had torn me from the bosom of my family and done as they pleased with my horses, saddles and arms, I did not consider that the simple fact that they were the bearers of a few letters made them deserving of the supreme penalty. Until that fatal June 21st, neither they nor their companions had shed any Mexican blood and it was not right for the Mexicans to begin a war a outrance, that could not help but bring very grievous consequences upon them and their families....
When we reached New Helvetia, the Canadian, Alexis, who was heading our escort, gave three knocks upon the main gate with his lance and it was immediately thrown open by Captain Sutter, who, feigning surprise at seeing us as prisoners, led us into his living quarters. He then promised to comply with the orders that Captain Fremont had delivered to him by the mouth of his lieutenant, Alexis, who had said in our presence, “Captain Fremont is turning these gentlemen over to you for you to keep as prisoners behind these walls and upon your own responsibility.”
“All right,” said Sutter, and without any further ceremony he turned to us and suggested that we accompany him to a large room situated on the second floor where the only furniture was a kind of rude benches. When we were all inside this room, Sutter locked the door and thought no more about us that night.
I leave my readers to imagine how we cursed at finding ourselves locked up in a narrow room and forced to sleep upon the floor, without a mattress and without a blanket, even without water with which to quench our burning thirst. There, seated upon a bench, I ran over in my mind all that I had witnessed since that fatal June 14th and I assure you I regretted very much not having accepted the offer of that brave captain of militia, don Cayetano Juarez, had ordered made to me through his brother Vicente Juarez.
On June 14, 1846, Captain Juarez was at his Tulcay hacienda, when he learned that a group of adventurers had assaulted the Sonoma plaza. No sooner did he learn of it than, arming himself, he came to an understanding with Citizens Victorino Altamirano, Antonio Wilson, Vicente and Francisco Juarez, Andres Vaca, Pancho Cibrian and others. He went and took up a position in Portezuelo Pass, where he awaited the reply that was to be brought to him by a brother of his whom he had sent, disguised as a woman, to take up a position where I was to pass and ask me if I desired that he (Cayetano Juarez) should make an effort to snatch me from the hands of my guards. I do not recall what it was that caused me to refuse the generous offer of that devoted soldier who had made up his mind to risk his life to procure my freedom. I think that I was influenced above all by the thought I held as to the misfortunes that would inevitably overtake my family, if Captain Juarez and his friends had killed the comrades of those who had remained behind in Sonoma in possession of the plaza and war materials. My repentance came too late, for I was in the hands of a foresworn man, a foreigner who had received many favors from me and mine, [but] who had deliberately forgotten them all and, to cap the climax of [his] infamy, had consented to become my jailor, in order to curry favor with a lot of men who had nothing to their names but an extraordinary dose of boldness, who were not fighting under any recognized flag, and who apparently had no other object than robbery and looting.
After a sleepless night, I greeted the dawn of the new day with enthusiasm, for we were by then beginning to experience the urge of a voracious appetite. Our jailor, however, who had doubtless made up his mind to make us drain the last drop of gall which a perverse fate had meted out to us, sent us no food until eleven oclock in the morning, at which time he came and opened the door to permit the entrance of an Indian carrying a jar filled with broth and pieces of meat. He did not send us a spoon, knives and forks, for Captain Sutter no doubt thought that since we had lost our liberty we had also ceased to retain our dignity. Such behavior on the part of a companion in arms (at that time Captain Sutter was still an official of the Mexican Government) could not help but inspire our disgust, for we all recognized the insult that he was inflicting upon us by taking advantage of the circumstances. There are times in life, however, when man should resign himself to suffering every kind of adversity. Doubtless, God had decreed that the month of June, 1846, should be the blackest month of my life.
Four days after our arrival at New Helvetia, Citizen Julio Carrillo appeared at that place. Furnished with a passport issued to him by Lieutenant Misroon, he had undertaken the journey to bring me news of my family. Inasmuch as my jailors did not have any great respect for officials of the United States, they paid no attention to the passport and locked senor Carrillo up in the same room in which I was enjoying Captain Sutters hospitality, along with Victor Prudon, Jacob Leese and Salvador Vallejo. I regretted very much the imprisonment of that friend who, moved by a desire to put an end to my wifes worry, had undertaken the dangerous mission of entering the enemys camp. . . .
Some years ago (in 1868) when I was in Monterey, my friend, David Spence, showed me a book entitled “History of California,” written by an author of recognized merit by the name of Franklin Tuthill, and called my attention to that part of the gentlemans narrative where he expresses the assurance that the guerrilla men whom Captain Fremont sent in pursuit of the Californian, Joaquin de la Torre, took nine field pieces from the latter. I could not help but be surprised when I read such a story, for I know for a fact that Captain de la Torre had only thirty cavalrymen under his command who as their only weapons carried a lance, carbine, saber and pistol. I think that Mr. Tuthill would have done better if, instead of inventing the capture of nine cannon, he had devoted a few lines to describing the vandal-like manner in which the “Bear” soldiers sacked the Olompalí Rancho and maltreated the eighty year old Damaso Rodriguez, alférez retired, whom they beat so badly as to cause his death in the presence of his daughters and granddaughters. Filled with dismay, they gathered into their arms the body of the venerable old man who had fallen as a victim of the thirst for blood that was the prime mover of the guerrilla men headed by Mr. Ford.
I should indeed like to draw a veil over such a black deed, but the inexorable impartiality that is the guiding light of the historian prevents me from passing over a fact that so helps to reveal the true character of the men who on June 14, 1846, assaulted the plaza at Sonoma at a time when its garrison was in the central part of the Departamento busy curbing raids by the barbarous heathen. Let my readers not think that it is my desire to open up wounds that have healed over by now. I am very far from harboring any such thought, for ever since Alta California became a part of the great federation of the United States of North [America], I have spared no effort to establish upon a solid and enduring basis those sentiments of union and concord which are so indispensible for the progress and advancement of all those who dwell in my native land, and, so long as I live, I propose to use all the means at my command to see to it that both races cast a stigma upon the disagreeable events that took place on the Sonoma frontier in 1846. If before I pass on to render an account of my acts to the Supreme Creator, I succeed in being a witness to a reconciliation between victor and vanquished, conquerors and conquered, I shall die with the conviction of not having striven in vain. In bringing this chapter to a close, I will remark that, if the men who hoisted the “Bear Flag” had raised the flag that Washington sanctified by his abnegation and patriotism, there would have been no war on the Sonoma frontier, for all our minds were prepared to give a brotherly embrace to the sons of the Great Republic, whose enterprising spirit had filled us with admiration. Ill-advisedly, however, as some say, or dominated by a desire to rule without let or hindrance, as others say, they placed themselves under the shelter of a flag that pictured a bear, an animal that we took as the emblem of rapine and force. This mistake was the cause of all the trouble, for when the Californians saw parties of men running over their plains and forests under the “Bear Flag,” they thought that they were dealing with robbers and took the steps they thought most effective for the protection of their lives and property.
Source: Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, translated by Earl R. Hewitt, Historical and Personal Memoirs Relating to Alta California [Recuerdos Historicos y Personales Tocante a la Alta California (1875)], Vol. 5: 1845–48, 87–90, 93–98, 101–103, 106–107.