News & Tall Tales. 1800s.

San Francisco Gold Rush 1849.

California Bear Party

The California Bear Flag was first raised in Sonoma, California in 1846 by rebellious white settlers, who declared independence for California, in what came to be known as the Bear Flag revolt. The flag was created by a nephew of Abraham Lincoln, and contained a large "lone star," a caricature of a California grizzly bear, and the words "CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC."

Bear Flag Rising by Dale L. Walker.

In March 1846, there had also been serious tensions and near conflict between the Mexican authorities and U.S. Captain John C. Fremont and his band of about 60 men. They had been in Alta California since November 1845 on an exploratory expedition. War between the U.S. and Mexico had been imminent for some time and was actually declared against Mexico by the U.S. on May 13, 1846. This was not known in Alta California until July 1846.

In March 1846, there had also been serious tensions and near conflict between the Mexican authorities and U.S. Captain John C. Fremont and his band of about 60 men. They had been in Alta California since November 1845 on an exploratory expedition. War between the U.S. and Mexico had been imminent for some time and was actually declared against Mexico by the U.S. on May 13, 1846. This was not known in Alta California until July 1846.

As a result of these circumstances, and for reasons which are not too clear on June 10, 1846, a small group of these resident Americans living north of San Francisco Bay captured from Mexican Lieutenant Francisco Arce a band of horses being taken to Mexican Commandante General Jose Castro. Previously, Lt. Arce may have made statements threatening the horses would be used by Castro to drive the foreigners out of California. The taking of these horses was the first stroke of an insurgency which came to be called the Bear Flag Revolt.

California Bear Party.California Bear Party.
California State Flag

After taking the horses and leaving early on June 11, 1846, a group of these Americans headed to the small town of Sonoma to take control of the town. They collected further men along the way having a total of 33 or 34 men by the time they reached Sonoma near dawn on Sunday morning, June 14, 1846.

The group took control of Sonoma without firing a shot. They captured the leaders and officers at that place. Several of the Mexican men, including General Mariano Vallejo, were taken as prisoners, first to Captain Fremont and then to Sutter’s Fort located in what has become Sacramento. About 25 of the men were left at Sonoma, the exact number being unclear.

At some point between dawn on June 14 and noon on June 17, 1846, the remaining men at Sonoma created a flag to stand for their insurgency. The exact timing of the creation is not clear from the documentary records. The flag that was created was a white field with a red stripe at the bottom edge, with a star in the upper left ("hoist") corner and a grizzly bear. The flag soon came to be called the “Bear Flag” and the insurgency came to be called the “Bear Flag Revolt.” The men of the Revolt were named the “Bear Flaggers.”

The Bear Flag Revolt lasted for about a month. On July 7, 1846, the U.S. Flag was raised by the American Navy at Monterey in Alta California. On July 9, the U.S. Flag was raised over Yerba Buena (soon to be called San Francisco). That same day, on July 9, 1846, a Bear Flag was lowered at Sonoma and the U.S. Flag was raised at that location. The Revolt had lasted a total of 31days, from June 9 to July 9, 1846. The Bear Flag had flown from June 14, 15 or 16 to July 9, 1846, a mere 24 to 26 days. California has been part of the United States ever since those days, ultimately becoming a State on September 9, 1850.

The revolt was short-lived. Within months, the United States was at war with Mexico and the bear flag was replaced by the United States flag.

A refined version of the flag, with a smaller star and finer rendition of the bear is now the official state flag of California.

In 1875, the Native Sons of the Golden West (N.S.G.W.) was established in California and later joined by the female equivalent, the Native Daughters. The organizations promoted recognition of California history, assisted in creating monuments to various events and persons, and within the course of their first 50 years spread throughout the State. Usage of the Bear Flag itself and on emblems of the groups, including banners and pins, became widespread. The full impact of the Native Sons and Daughters on usage and recognition of the Bear Flag has yet to be fully investigated. It is expected to be substantial, given the growth of the groups between 1875 and 1925. The political significance of the native Sons became enormous in the first decades of the 20th Century, when many if not a majority of California politicians were members.

July 21, 1884, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

W. M. Boggs Corrects Some Errors Which Have Appeared In Print.

EDITOR OF THE ALTA: In your issue of the 18th instant, I notice an article headed, "American Flag in California." The article is taken from the Boston Daily Advertiser of January 8, 1870, and among other things states that Colonel Fremont was encamped at Sonoma about the time of its capture, which is a mistake, and as I participated in the taking of California after the hauling down of the Bear Fag, I became acquainted with many of the principal actors in that short but decisive campaign.

H. Porterfield, one of the Bear party, now a resident of Napa county, in a conversation with me to-day, stated that Fremont was not at Sonoma when the place was captured, but was somewhere in the Upper Sacramento Valley, on his return from his trip toward Oregon, having left California with his party, but he was overtaken by Major Archibald Gillespie, who carried letters from the U. S. Government to Fremont to return to California and await orders. He did not arrive at Sonoma for several days after the place was captured by the Bear party, under their leader, old Bob Merrit. Porterfield's account of the making of the Bear flag and hoisting the same, and the first organization of the Bear party in the Upper Napa Valley, agrees with the account of all those men who were present and participated, among whom was Captain Merrit, Captain Ford, Ben and Sam Kelsey, Dr. Semple, who afterward founded Benicia; Uncle Billy Baldridge, now residing near Oakville, Napa County; Wm. Haignaul, Esq., now a resident of Napa City; the two Elliotts, now deceased, and Ben Dewell, Bill Scott and Bill Todd and Captain Swift, all of whom were active participants, including Captain John Grigsby. These men served under Fremont afterwards in his famous march to the southern part of the State. Franklin Sears, now an old resident of Sonoma, was also with the party at Sonoma, and Uncle Jack York, of St. Helena.

These men assembled in Upper Napa Valley, at the place since known as Kellogg's Mill, and organized by electing old Bob Merrit captain, and advanced on Sonoma at the break of day, surprising the garrison and capturing a number of prominent Californians, among whom were General M. G. Vallejo, his brother, Captain Don Salvador Vallejo, Colonel Victor Prudhon (a Frenchman that held a Colonel's commission in the Mexican army), Jacob P. Lease, brother-in-law to General Vallejo, and several other noted Californians.

Expeditions of John Charles Fremont.

After taking possession of Sonoma by the Bear party, Wm. B. Ide was selected to command the garrison and govern the Bear party; the prisoners were sent with an escort to Sutter's Fort, in charge of Captain John Grigsby, who arrived there safe with his prisoners. He placed them in Fremont's charge, who had in the meantime arrived on his return trip from the Upper Sacramento.

These facts I have from Gillespie himself and also from Fremont and from Captain Grigsby and others who were with the party, and members of the Bear party with whom I have the most intimate acquaintance and with whom I served during the close of the Mexican war. There are a number of the old Bear party men living around Napa, and they do not like to have the capture of Sonoma accredited to Colonel Fremont, although the Colonel came there afterward and advised them to adopt a flag, which resulted in the making of the Bear flag by Bill Todd, assisted by old Peter Storm, an old Norwegian, whom we interred in the Napa Cemetery Borne years ago.

With these few exceptions Mr. Dunbar's story of the conquest of California is correct. There were about 28 or 30 men at the outset in Upper Napa, where the party first organized to advance on Sonoma under the leadership of Merrit.

Respectfully W. M. Bogg

The Naval Order of the United States has a history dating from 1890. Membership includes a wide range of individuals, many with highly distinguished career paths.

The San Francisco Commandery meets the first Monday of each month at the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club in San Francisco, California and holds two formal dinners each year.

The Project

Maritime Nations, Ships, Sea Captains, Merchants, Merchandise, Ship Passengers and VIPs sailing into San Francisco during the 1800s.




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Sources: As noted on entries and through research centers including National Archives, San Bruno, California; CDNC: California Digital Newspaper Collection; San Francisco Main Library History Collection; and Maritime Museums and Collections in Australia, China, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, etc.

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