Danville Express

Living - April 6, 2007

Presenting the Past: The Bear Flag Revolt - a California view

by Beverly Lane

Pioneers love to tout the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt in California history and, of course, the bear flag is now our state flag. The Bear Flag events of June and July in Sonoma have been romanticized in many California stories.

But there is another perspective of the revolt, the view of native-born Californians. In their eyes the events were instigated by a bunch of drunken louts, and the role of the Great Pathfinder Capt. John C. Fremont was a disgrace.

During the 1840s, Americans migrated gradually to Mexican California, and 1846 saw a huge influx of adventurers and families. In May of 1846 the Mexican American War was declared. Even before that news reached California, several American immigrants and Fremont's "scientific" expedition clashed with native-born Californios and stirred up the waters.

Rosalia Vallejo Leese was present in Sonoma during the revolt and saw her husband and brothers imprisoned by the Bear Flaggers. In a newly translated oral history, she describes a band of "rough looking desperadoes, many of them runaway sailors" who were "wearing on their heads caps made with the skins of coyotes or wolf … with shoes only to be seen on the feet of fifteen or twenty among the whole lot."

She talks about "a piece of linen about the size of a large towel" painted (with) a red bear and a lone star" being hoisted on a flag staff in the Sonoma town square. The men took her keys and ransacked the storehouse "where were deposited provision and liquor sufficient to feed two hundred men during two years."

Fremont appeared a few days after the revolt began. Mrs. Leese said, "It is fair to presume that John C. Fremont, the man who had planned the wholesale robbery of California, though an officer of the United States army, was afraid to compromise the honor of his government if his party pursued their thieving operations under the flag that lovers of liberty throughout the world hold dear, hence his reason for resorting to the adoption of a flag unknown to civilized nations."

She said that, when Mexican troops were expected in Sonoma, "Fremont changed his shining uniform for a blue blouse, put away his hat and wrapped his head with a common handkerchief - he adopted this fantastic style of dress for the purpose of avoiding recognition. Is this the conduct becoming a brave man?"

Jose Maria Amador had a similar reaction, both to Fremont and to the revolt. In his "Recollections," he recalled that John Fremont and his troops came to the Rancho San Ramon in 1846, taking many of Amador's best horses and, when Amador objected, sent the message that "he would pay me for them with an ounce of lead from every rifle in his troop."

The Bear Flag Revolt was a disaster from Amador's point of view. Even 30 years later, you can visualize his horror: "A force of adventurers fell upon Sonoma and seized the plaza without resistance. They made prisoners of Coronel Mariano G. Vallejo, Capitan Salvador Vallejo .... This force carried a flag on which was painted a bear with a star and some red bands, as it was explained to me. I never saw it. This Bear Flag was looked upon in California as that of a mortal enemy. It inspired grave apprehensions as to the purposes of those who flew it."

To be fair, several people in California such as American Consul Thomas Larkin knew there were frontier filibusterers floating around the region. But he had no way to control them. Fremont's precise orders have never been clarified, although his arrogance and propensity to ignore orders have been well documented, both in California and in the Civil War.

So from June 14 to July 9, 1846, the Bear Flag flew over Sonoma's main square. When Commodore John D. Sloat arrived as a formal American military representative, he raised the American flag in Monterey on July 7 and replaced the Bear Flag in Sonoma with the American banner on July 9. Mrs. Leese never forgot the turbulence of those weeks and chose never to learn English, the language of the Bear Flag ruffians.

Sources: Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, "Testimonios"; Jose Maria Amador, "Recollections"; Andrew Rolle, "History of California"

- Beverly Lane, a longtime Danville resident, is curator of the Museum of the San Ramon Valley and co-author of "San Ramon Valley: Alamo, Danville, and San Ramon."


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