The Bear Flag Revolt is one of the central episodes in the events leading to the U.S. annexation of California. In June of 1846, a group of Americans took over the Mexican Pueblo of Sonoma and declared a new “California Republic.” This is the story of their uprising.
- 1 How did the Bear Flag Revolt Start?
- 2 John C. Frémont and the Bear Flag Revolt
- 3 The Gavilan Peak Incident
- 4 The U.S. Declares War on Mexico
- 5 Castro’s Horses Seized
- 6 The Capture of General Vallejo
- 7 The Bear Flag Revolt: The Osos Take Over Sonoma
- 8 Capt. Montgomery Denies Involvement
- 9 Pío Pico’s Call to Battle
- 10 Californios Kill Two Bears
- 11 Frémont’s Men Kill Californios
- 12 Frémont Makes it Official
- 13 San Francisco Captured
- 14 To Learn More
How did the Bear Flag Revolt Start?
In the 1840s (even before the Gold Rush), increasing numbers of U.S. immigrants began to arrive in Alta California. Spurred on by books and newspaper articles touting the mild climate, fertile soil and open land of the Pacific coast, individuals and families began to find their way across the Sierra Nevada mountains and into the Mexican-controlled territory.
Unlike earlier Anglo-Americans who had settled in Alta California, the newcomers were not willing to assimilate and adopt a Hispanic lifestyle and customs. Hostility between the U.S. and Mexico was increasing due to the dispute over Texas. Most Americans expected that California would become part of the U.S., just as Texas had, and considered it only a matter of time for that to happen.
In the meantime, political tensions among Mexican Californians were high. California-born leaders had recently wrested control governors imposed by Mexico, but were suspicious of each other. Northern factions based in Monterey and led by military commander José Castro, were organizing against Governor Pío Pico, whose headquarters were in Los Angeles.
John C. Frémont and the Bear Flag Revolt
In the midst of this situation, U.S Army Captain John C. Frémont arrived in Alta California with a detachment of 60 heavily armed men. In January of 1846, after spending time at John Sutter’s fort on the Sacramento River (also known as New Helvetia), Frémont travelled to Monterey. There he met with U.S. Consul and confidential agent Thomas O. Larkin, a New Englander who had settled in Alta California in the 1830s. He and Larkin discussed the hostilities over Texas and U.S. plans for Alta California.
While in Monterey, Frémont informed Commander Castro that his purpose was to map a route west to the Pacific by way of the Oregon territory. He then requested permission to pass the winter in California before making the journey. The Mexican authorities granted him leave to travel through the San Joaquín Valley, where there were very few Mexican settlements.
The Gavilan Peak Incident
In March of 1846, however, Castro discovered that Frémont and his men were in the Salinas and not the San Joaquín Valley, as promised. The commander sent orders that they were to leave immediately and proceed directly to the Oregon territory.
Rather than follow Castro’s directives, Frémont and his men set up an encampment on nearby Gavilan Peak (now called Fremont Peak), raising the American flag in the middle of Mexican territory for all to see. A standoff ensued, and Frémont remained in the area for a few more days, before moving north to Oregon.
The U.S. Declares War on Mexico
Two months passed without incident. But on May 13 of 1846, the United States Congress passed a declaration of war against Mexico. After hearing the news, it did not take long for Frémont to return to California.
By May 24, when the captain and his men arrived in the Upper Sacramento Valley, stories were circulating among Americans that José Castro wanted to attack and expel all Anglo settlers. Rumors only increased in early June, when Commander Castro, who had set up headquarters at Santa Clara, traveled to Sonoma to obtain horses from Gen. Mariano Vallejo.
Castro’s plan was to organize a force to defend against the American invasion of northern Alta California. He also hoped to use the horses to against his rival, Gov. Pío Pico, whom he expected to march north to consolidate his control over the territory. Vallejo provided Castro with some 170 horses, some from private individuals, and others belonging to the Indians at Mission San Francisco Solano. Castro returned directly to his headquarters in Santa Clara, and left a detachment to escort the horses back.
Castro’s Horses Seized
On June 9, a group set off from Frémont’s camp to pursue Castro’s men. They surprised the Californians the next day at the rancho of Martin Murphy, an Irish immigrant. Led by a man known as Ezekiel “Stuttering Zeke” Merritt, they took the horses Vallejo had provided, but let Castro’s men keep their own mounts.
The Californians rode back to Santa Clara to alert Castro to what had happened. In the meantime, Stuttering Zeke and his men brought the horses back to Capt. Frémont’s camp further south on the American River. Encouraged by their easy victory, their next step was to head towards Sonoma and the headquarters of Gen. Mariano Vallejo, the most powerful man north of the San Francisco Bay.
The Capture of General Vallejo
The party arrived at Vallejo’s home in the early morning of June 14. Although Mariano Vallejo was an experienced military man, the army barracks at Sonoma had not been used in years, and the pueblo was peaceful.
The diplomatic Vallejo welcomed the some of the raiders in and courteously and offered them drinks. The general then assured them that he was not an enemy and was even open to an American takeover. The conversation went on until those standing outside became impatient and demanded Vallejo’s arrest. After electing William B. Ide, a carpenter from Massachusetts, as their leader, the Americans arrested Vallejo, his brother Salvador Vallejo, and Victor Prudon (Vallejo’s secretary) and headed toward Sutter’s Fort.
Along the way, they stopped at Frémont’s camp to receive instructions. There, Vallejo asked Frémont why they had been arrested. The captain claimed that he was not involved, but nevertheless ordered Vallejo and the others imprisoned. The men would remain as captives at New Helvetia until August of that year.
The Bear Flag Revolt: The Osos Take Over Sonoma
On June 15, Ide, who had remained in Sonoma with other insurgents, issued a proclamation to the citizens of Sonoma. It claimed that that the Mexican government had been oppressive, tyrannical and despotic with the immigrants and called on all people to join them in establishing a new and just government. He promised that peaceful Californians would not be disturbed and had nothing to fear.
Ide’s men had taken down the Mexican flag in the main plaza of the pueblo and replaced it with a new, quickly handmade one. It bore a star and a bear and the words “California Republic” emblazoned on it. Because of the flag — and perhaps their rough appearance — Ide and his group would come to be known as the Osos (“bears” in Spanish).
Capt. Montgomery Denies Involvement
On June 17, José Castro received word that Vallejo and the others were imprisoned at New Helvetia. He sent soon sent an irate message to John B. Montgomery, Captain of the USS Portsmouth, asking for an explanation of Frémont’s behaviour.
The Portsmouth was a troop ship that had traveled up from Monterey to the San Francisco Bay to prepare for hostilities and Montgomery had received a similar message from Gen. Vallejo himself. The general had informed him of his captivity and asked about Frémont’s involvement in the Bear Flag affair. The captain’s reply echoed Frémont’s: both he and the army officer were neutral and unaware of the Oso’s plans.
In his role as Commander of California’s military, Castro issued exhortations to the Mexican population to be ready to sacrifice themselves for “the defense of liberty, the religion of our fathers, and our independence.” His next step was to begin raising a force to try and attack the Osos. In order to do this, he had to reach out to his rival Pío Pico in the south. Castro proposed that they set aside their differences in order to fight the common enemy.
Pío Pico’s Call to Battle
On June 23, after several days of silence, Pico issued a proclamation. He urged all Mexican citizens to pursue “the treacherous foe” and “punish his audacity.” Pico warned them that if the U.S. took over, it would impose “the horrible slavery permitted in its States.” He then called on Mexicans to imitate the example of the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae and fight to the death. Pico then reached out U.S. Consul Thomas Larkin, asking for an explanation of Frémont’s and the Oso’s behavior. Like Montgomery and Frémont, Larkin also replied that he had no control over their behavior, and protested the neutrality of the U.S.
Californios Kill Two Bears
On June 19, a group of Californios captured two of the Osos whom Ide had sent to obtain gunpowder near Santa Rosa. The Californios executed the two men and rumors soon spread among Americans that the killing had been unwarranted and brutal. A few days later, on June 23, a brief battle between Californios and Osos took place near Rancho Olompali, owned by Camilo Ynitia, a Miwok Indian friend of Vallejo’s. There were one or two deaths on both sides, but each group eventually headed in opposite directions: the Osos back to Sonoma in the north and the Californios to San Rafael in the south.
On the same day, Capt. Frémont, having heard that José Castro was preparing a force to assault the Osos, set off with 130 men, including U.S. troops, Delaware Indian scouts and American civilians who had joined him. He had now shed any pretense of neutrality and was confident that the U.S. Navy would back any actions he took. The group arrived in Sonoma on the 25th and the next day marched toward San Rafael, where they expected to battle José Castro’s troops.
Frémont’s Men Kill Californios
When they arrived at San Rafael on the edge of the San Francisco Bay, Castro and his men were nowhere to be found. Three days passed with no action. On June 28, however, Frémont’s men noticed a small boat coming across the bay toward them.
As the boat landed, three men got out: Francisco and Ramón De Haro (twin sons of a former alcalde of San Francisco), and José de los Reyes Berreyesa, the 61-year old owner of Rancho San Vicente south of San José, whose son was the alcalde of Sonoma. The boat and its owner then turned around and headed back across the bay. As the three Californians began to walk up the shore, Frémont’s men, led by frontiersman Kit Carson, shot them. Carson later alleged that Frémont told him that he had “no room for prisoners.”
On July 1, Frémont and his men convinced Captain William D. Phelps of the American bark Moscow to ferry them across to an old fort known as the Castillo de San Joaquín (at what is today Fort Point). The Spanish had built the bulwark in the 1790s but it had been abandoned for some time. Frémont ordered the canons made inoperable by spiking them. For Frémont, the gesture was a symbol of his willingness to aggressively pursue battle.
Frémont Makes it Official
On July 4, the triumphant Frémont and his men returned to Sonoma, where the Osos and their followers organized a victory celebration. The following day Frémont made a public declaration of his willingness to lead the fight against his enemy Castro (without officially offering to conquer California). He then got ready to head back to Sutter’s Fort for the next phase of hostilities and to plan further action.
San Francisco Captured
When Frémont reached New Helvetia on July 10, he received some unsurprising news. A messenger from Sonoma informed him that Commodore John Drake Sloat, commander of the U.S. Navy Pacific Squadron, had raised the U.S. flag over Monterey on July 7. Capt. Montgomery raised the U.S. flag over Yerba Buena (San Francisco) on July 9. By the end of July, Frémont and his men officially became the U.S. Army’s California Battalion, and went on to fight — this time officially — in the battle for California.