Learn California.org
Home Visit the Students section Visit the Teachers section Visit the Research California section Visit the Sitemap

The Bear Flag Revolt

Several months after the declaration of war, however, events in California (where the news of the conflict had not yet reached) took a course of their own, as American settlers rose up in revolt against the Mexican authorities. On June 14th, a band of armed Americans tromped into Sonoma, woke up General Mariano Vallejo, commander of the northern garrison, whose troops had all been dismissed due to lack of funds, and demanded his immediate capitulation. After some muddled negotiations, complicated by liberal servings of the General's excellent brandy, Vallejo agreed to surrender. He and his neighbors were promptly arrested, and hauled off to Sutter's fort to be imprisoned, poor repayment for the excellent hospitality he had demonstrated to his captors.

Only about 90 Americans were in the initial band of rebels. Most of them had migrated together in the party of immigrants under William Ide, and indeed Ide stepped forward as the leader of the disorganized movement. They were motivated by fears and rumors that the Mexican government was planning to deport all American settlers (most of them were illegal immigrants), although in the bluster of the movement, Ide and his followers ludicrously claimed that they feared "extermination" by the Mexicans. Ultimately, the revolt was the natural consequence of a large, rowdy population living within a poorly administrated and enfeebled department that nonetheless treated them as an unwanted minority.

The American settlers were emboldened by the presence of Captain John C. Frémont, a US Army topological engineer, who arrived previously in California with a sizeable band of escorts, mostly rugged mountain men. Frémont was a dashing and well connected man, the son-in-law or the US Senate's noisy Anglo-phobe, Thomas Hart Benton. Frémont had made two previous exploration trips west, and he saw this third trip as a possible means of personally obtaining California for the US, to which grandiose ends he received encouragement from both his father-in-law and Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft.9

Once in California, Frémont quickly overstayed his welcome, and the Mexican authorities ordered him out. In a fit of defiance, he dug himself in with his sharpshooters, and faced off against the pathetic contingent of militia sent against him. He then proceeded north, as far as Southern Oregon, where he was met by a government agent posing as a merchant, Marine Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie. Gillespie brought reports of imminent war with Mexico, and both the ambitious young officers decided that the moment warranted immediate military action, and the party returned to Sutter Fort.

Upon hearing of the revolt in Sonoma , Frémont left Lieutenant Edward Kern in command of Sutter's Fort and then departed with his party for the coast. Sutter, a former Mexican official, was kept a virtual prisoner until he was commissioned a lieutenant, junior grade, and essentially made second in command of his own fort. Meetinng up with the Bear Flaggers, who had recently defeated Californio militia in a skirmish at Olómpali Ranch, Frémont now united the two forces, and became de facto leader of the Bear Flag movement, much to the chagrin of Ide. He then proceeded to cross the Golden Gate (whose name he provided, dubbing the straight "Chryoceros") and spike the decrepit guns of the San Francisco Presidio in a dashing yet hollow raid on July 1st. Frémont was acting without orders and without knowledge of a US declaration of war. Indeed, it was fortunate for the careers of Frémont and Gillespie that the war with Mexico had already started, unbeknownst to them. As military officers, they made war against a sovereign nation without authorization. Had fighting not broken out south of the Nueces, the maverick actions of these Americans would have certainly provided ample cause for a war-a war in which there would have been no illusions that Mexico was the aggressor.

Frémont and Gillespie were men motivated by excessive ambition, a motivation that must be taken into account to explain their various actions and excesses. Frémont was constantly goaded by his wife, Jessie Benton Frémont, who imagined him becoming the President of the United States10. Gillespie likewise hankered to distinguish himself; after 13 years in the peacetime Marine Corps he had not risen above the rank of First Lieutenant. Thus both men saw the Bear Flag revolt as a way to propel them to fame, rank, and the national spotlight.

However, the actions of Frémont and the Bear Flag Rebels would quickly be overshadowed by the arrival of American naval forces, who effected the immediate American occupation of California.

Continue to Next Section.

Copyright ©2000-2009 LearnCalifornia.org. All rights reserved.