California Republic

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"Bear Republic" redirects here. For the microbrewery, see Bear Republic Brewing Company. For other uses, see California Republic (disambiguation).
California Republic
Unrecognized state

June – July 1846

The Bear Flag

Capital none
Languages Spanish, Indigenous languages, and English.
Government Republic
 -  1846 William B. Ide
 -  Independence from Mexico declared June 14, 1846
 -  Occupation of Sonoma by the U.S. military July 9, 1846

The California Republic was a short-lived, unrecognized state that, for a few weeks in 1846, militarily controlled the area to the north of the San Francisco Bay in the present-day state of California.[1]

In June, 1846, a number of American immigrants in Alta California rebelled against the Mexican department’s[2][3] government. The immigrants had not been allowed to buy or rent land and had been threatened with expulsion from California because they had entered without official permission.[4][5] Mexican officials were concerned about a coming war with the United States coupled with the growing influx of Americans into California. The rebellion was soon overtaken by the beginning of the Mexican-American War.

The term "California Republic" appeared only on the flag the insurgents raised in Sonoma.[6] It indicated their aspiration of forming a republican government for California. The insurgents elected military officers but no civil structure was ever established.[7] The flag featured an image of a grizzly bear and became known as the Bear Flag and the revolt as the Bear Flag Revolt.

Three weeks later, on July 5, 1846, the Republic's military of 100 to 200 men was subsumed into the California Battalion commanded by U.S. Army Brevet Captain John C. Frémont. The Bear Flag Revolt and whatever remained of the "California Republic" ceased to exist on July 9 when U.S. Navy Lieutenant Joseph Revere raised the United States flag in front of the Sonoma Barracks and sent a second flag to be raised at Sutter's Fort.[8]

Background of the Bear Flag Revolt[edit]

US President James K Polk

Texas, Immigration and Land[edit]

The first United States attempt to purchase Alta California from Mexico was made by Andrew Jackson in 1835.[9] The U.S. Pacific squadron seized Monterey, California mistakenly, for one day in 1842, believing war with Mexico had been declared. This illustrated what might be expected if war did come.[10] Texas, which Mexico still considered to be its territory, had been admitted to statehood in 1845.[11] Mexico had earlier threatened war if this happened.[12]

That same year anticipation of war with the United States and the increasing number of immigrants reportedly coming from the United States resulted in orders from Mexico City denying these immigrants entry into California.[13] The orders also required California's officials not to allow land grants, sales or even rental of land to non-citizen emigrants already in California. All non-citizen immigrants, who had arrived without permission, were threatened with being forced out of California.[14]

Alta California's Sub-Prefect Francisco Guerrero had written to U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin that:

"a multitude of foreigners [having] come into California and bought fixed property [land], a right of naturalized foreigners only, he was under the necessity of notifying the authorities in each town to inform such purchasers that the transactions were invalid and they themselves subject to be expelled whenever the government might find it convenient." [15]
José Castro

During November of 1845, California's Commandante General José Castro met with representatives of the 1845 American immigrants at Sonoma and Sutter’s Fort. In his decree dated November 6 he wrote: “Therefore conciliating my duty [to enforce the orders from Mexico] with of the sentiment of hospitality which distinguishes the Mexicans, and considering that most of said expedition is composed of families and industrious people, I have deemed it best to permit them, provisionally, to remain in the department” with the conditions that they obey all laws, apply within three months for a license to settle, and promise to depart if that license was not granted.[16]

John C. Fremont

Captain Frémont in California[edit]

A sixty-two man exploring and mapping expedition entered California in late 1845 under the command of U.S. Army Brevet Captain John C. Frémont. Frémont was well-known in the United States as an author and explorer. He was also the son-in-law of expansionist U.S. Senator Thomas Hart Benton. Early in 1846 Frémont acted provocatively with California’s Commandante General José Castro near the pueblo of Monterey and then moved his group out of California into Oregon Country. He was followed into Oregon by U.S. Marine Lt Archibald H. Gillespie who had been sent from Washington with a secret message to U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin and instructions to share the message with Frémont. Gillespie also brought a packet of letters from Frémont's wife and father-in-law.[17]

Frémont's thoughts (as related in his book, written forty years later) after reading the message and letters were: "I saw the way opening clear before me. War with Mexico was inevitable; and a grand opportunity presented itself to realize in their fullest extent the far-sighted views of Senator Benton. I resolved to move forward on the opportunity and return forthwith to the Sacramento valley in order to bring to bear all the influence I could command."[18] Nevertheless, Frémont needed to be circumspect. As a military officer he could face court-martial for violating the Neutrality Act of 1794 that made it illegal for an American to wage war against another country at peace with the United States. The next morning Gillespie and Frémont's group departed for California. Frémont returned to the Sacramento Valley and set up camp near Sutter Buttes.[19]

USS Portsmouth in the San Francisco Bay[edit]

U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin, concerned about the increasing possibility of war, sent a request to Commodore John D. Sloat of U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron, for a warship to protect U.S. citizens and interests in Alta California. In response, the USS Portsmouth arrived at Monterey on April 22, 1846. After receiving information about Fremont's returning to California, Consul Larkin and the Portsmouth's captain John Berrien Montgomery decided the ship should move into the San Francisco Bay. It sailed from Monterey on June 1.[20]

Lt. Gillespie having returned from the Oregon Country and his meeting with Fremont on June 7, found the Portsmouth moored at Sausalito. He carried a request for money, materiel and supplies for Frémont's group. The requested resupply were taken by the ship's launch up the Sacramento River to a location near Frémont's camp.[21]

Bear Flag Revolt[edit]

William B. Ide

Meeting with Frémont[edit]

William B. Ide, a future leader of the Revolt, writes of receiving an unsigned written message on June 8, 1846: “Notice is hereby given, that a large body of armed Spaniards on horseback, amounting to 250 men, have been seen on their way to the Sacramento Valley, destroying crops and burning houses, and driving off the cattle. Capt. Fremont invites every freeman in the valley to come to his camp at the Butts [sic], immediately; and he hopes to stay the enemy and put a stop to his” -- (Here the sheet was folded and worn in-two, and no more is found).[22]

Bear Flag monument in Sonoma

Taking of Government Horses June 10, 1846[edit]

Some number of the group that had been meeting with Frémont departed from his camp and, on June 10, captured a herd of 170 Mexican government-owned horses being moved by Californio soldiers from San Rafael and Sonoma to California's Commandante General José Castro in Santa Clara. It had been reported, among the emigrants, that the officer in charge of the herd made statements threatening that the horses would be used by Castro to drive the foreigners out of California. The captured horses were taken to Fremont’s new camp at the junction of the Feather and Bear rivers.[23]

They next determined to seize the Pueblo of Sonoma to deny the Californios a rallying point north of San Francisco Bay.[24] Capturing the arms and military materiel stored in the unmanned barracks and Mexican Lieutenant Colonel Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo would delay any military response from the Californios. The insurgent group was nominally led by Ezekiel "Stuttering" Merritt, who Frémont described as his "field-lieutenant" and lauded for not asking any questions.[25][26]

Capture of Sonoma June 14, 1846[edit]


[Historian George Tays has cautioned “The description of the men, their actions just prior and subsequent to the taking of Sonoma, are as varied as the number of authors. No two accounts agree, and it is impossible to determine the truth of their statements.” [27]]

Before dawn on Sunday, June 14, 1846, over thirty American insurgents arrived at the pueblo of Sonoma. They had traveled overnight from Napa Valley. A majority of their number had started a couple of days earlier from Fremont’s camp in the Sacramento valley but others had joined the group along the way. Meeting no resistance, they approached Comandante Vallejo's home and pounded on his door. After a few minutes Vallejo opened the door dressed in his Mexican Army uniform. Communication was not good until American Jacob P. Leese (Vallejo’s brother-in law) was summoned to translate.[28]

Vallejo then invited the filibusters' leaders into his home to negotiate terms. Two other Californio officers and Leese joined the negotiations. The insurgents waiting outside sent elected "captains" John Grigsby and William Ide inside to speed the proceedings. The effect of Vallejo's hospitality in the form of wine and brandy for the negotiators and someone else's barrel of aguardiente for those outside is debatable. However, when the agreement was presented to those outside they refused to endorse it. Rather than releasing the Mexican officers under parole they insisted they be held as hostages. John Grigsby refused to remain as leader of the group, stating he had been deceived by Frémont. William Ide gave an impassioned speech urging the rebels to stay in Sonoma and start a new republic.[29] Referring to the stolen horses Ide ended his oration with "Choose ye this day what you will be! We are robbers, or we must be conquerors!"[30]

Sutter's Fort

At that time, Vallejo and his three associates were placed on horseback and taken to Frémont accompanied by eight or nine of the insurgents who did not favor forming a new republic under the circumstances.[31] That night they camped at the Vaca Rancho. Some young Californio vigilantes under Juan Padilla, evaded the guards, aroused Vallejo and offered to help him escape. Vallejo declined wanting to avoid any bloodshed and anticipating that Frémont would release him on parole.[32]

Headquarters of the Rebels June 14, 1846[edit]

The Sonoma Barracks became the headquarters for the remaining twenty-four immigrants, who within a few days created its Bear Flag (see the section below). After the flag was raised Californios called the insurgents Los Osos (The Bears) because of their flag and in derision of their often scruffy appearance. The rebels embraced the expression, and their uprising, which they originally called the “Popular Movement”, became known as the Bear Flag Revolt.[33]

Ide's Proclamation June 15, 1846[edit]

William B. Ide wrote a proclamation announcing and explaining the reasons for the revolt during the night of June 14–15, 1846 (below). There were additional copies and some more moderate versions (produced in both English and Spanish) distributed around northern California through June 18.[34]

To all persons, citizens of Sonoma, requesting them to remain at peace, and to follow their rightful occupations without fear of molestation.

The Commander in Chief of the Troops assembled at the Fortress of Sonoma gives his inviolable pledge to all persons in California not found under arms that they shall not be disturbed in their persons, their property or social relations one to another by men under his command.

He also solemnly declares his object to be First, to defend himself and companions in arms who were invited to this country by a promise of Lands on which to settle themselves and families who were also promised a "republican government," who, when having arrived in California were denied even the privilege of buying or renting Lands of their friends, who instead of being allowed to participate in or being protected by a "Republican Government" were oppressed by a "Military Despotism," who were even threatened, by "Proclamation" from the Chief Officer of the aforesaid Despotism, with extermination if they would not depart out of the Country, leaving all of their property, their arms and beasts of burden, and thus deprived of the means of flight or defense. We were to be driven through deserts, inhabited by hostile Indians to certain destruction. To overthrow a Government which has seized upon the property of the Missions for its individual aggrandizement; which has ruined and shamefully oppressed the laboring people of California, by their enormous exactions on goods imported into this country; is the determined purpose of the brave men who are associated under his command.

He also solemnly declares his object in the Second place to be to invite all peaceable and good Citizens of California who are friendly to the maintenance of good order and equal rights (and I do hereby invite them to repair to my camp at Sonoma without delay) to assist us in establishing and perpetuating a "Republican Government" which shall secure to all: civil and religious liberty; which shall detect and punish crime; which shall encourage industry, virtue and literature; which shall leave unshackled by Fetters, Commerce, Agriculture, and Mechanism.

He further declares that he relies upon the rectitude of our intentions; the favor of Heaven and the bravery of those who are bound to and associated with him, by the principle of self preservation; by the love of truth; and by the hatred of tyranny for his hopes of success.

He further declares that he believes that a Government to be prosperous and happyfying [sic] in its tendency must originate with its people who are friendly to its existence. That its Citizens are its Guardians, its officers are its Servants, and its Glory their reward.

— William B. Ide, Head Quarters Sonoma, June 15, 1846

Spanish cannon

Need for Gunpowder June 15, 1846[edit]

A major problem for the Bears in Sonoma was the lack of sufficient gunpowder to defend against the expected Mexican attack. William Todd was dispatched on Monday, the fifteenth, with a letter (follow link in the Note to read the letter)[35] to be delivered to the USS Portsmouth telling of the events in Sonoma, describing themselves as "as fellow county men", and without requesting anything twice refers to their need for gunpowder. Todd verbally requested gunpowder. Captain Montgomery, while sympathetic, declined because of his country's neutrality.[36]

Californio Hostages Imprisoned in Sutter's Fort June 16, 1846[edit]

Frémont's "field-lieutenant" Merritt returned to Sacramento on June 16 with his prisoners and recounted the events in Sonoma, Frémont either was fearful of going against the popular sentiment at Sonoma or saw the advantages of holding the Californio officers as hostages. He also decided to imprison Vallejo's brother-in-law, an American citizen, in Sutter's Fort.[37] He recounts in his memoirs, "Affairs had now assumed a critical aspect and I presently saw that the time had come when it was unsafe to leave events to mature under unfriendly, or mistaken, direction … I knew the facts of the situation. These I could not make known, but felt warranted in assuming the responsibility and acting on my own knowledge."[38]

Commandante General Castro's Response[edit]

Word of the taking of the government horses, the capture of Sonoma, and the imprisonment of the Mexican officers at Sutter's Fort soon reached Commandante General José Castro at his headquarters in Santa Clara. He issued two proclamations on June 17. The first asked the citizens of California to come to the aid of their country. The second promised protection for all foreigners not involved in the revolt. A group of 50-60 militia under command of Captain Joaquin de la Torre traveled up to San Pablo and, by boat, westward across the San Francisco Bay to Point San Quentin on the 23rd. Two additional divisions with a total of about 100 men arrived at San Pablo on the June 27. [39]

Deaths June 19–24, 1846[edit]

On June 19 Bears Thomas Cowie and George Fowler were sent to Rancho Sotoyome (near current-day Healdsburg, California) to pick up a cache of gunpowder from Mose Carson, brother of Frémont's scout Kit Carson.[40] On June 23 when the procurement party failed to return as expected, Henry Ford, the First Lieutenant of the Republic, headed north with a group of Bears to search for them. There are Californio and Oso versions of what had happened but both men were found dead. Ford also learned that Bear William Todd and an Englishman had been captured by Californio vigilantes led by Juan Padilla. Ford writes, in his biography, that before leaving Sonoma again, he sent a note to Ezekiel Merritt in Sacramento asking him to gather volunteers to help defend Sonoma. Ide's version is that Ford wrote to Frémont saying that the Bears had lost confidence in Ide's leadership. In any case, Ford then rode south with seventeen to nineteen Bears to search for the other two captives and Juan Padilla's men. The following morning the Bears unexpectedly discovered what they assumed was Juan Padilla's group near the Indian rancho of Olúmpali.[41] Militiamen from south of the Bay, led by Mexican Captain Joaquin de la Torre, had joined with the vigilantes and now numbered about seventy. Ford's men positioned themselves in a grove of trees and opened fire when the lancers charged on horseback, killing one Californio and wounding another. During the ensuing long-range battle, William Todd and his partner escaped from the house where they were being held and ran to the Bears. The Californios disengaged from the ensuing long-range fighting and returned to San Rafael. A Californian militiaman reported that their muskets could not not shoot as far as the rifles used by some of the Bears.[42] This was the only battle fought during the Bear Flag Revolt.[43]

The deaths of Cowie and Fowler, as well as the lethal battle, raised the anxiety of the Californios, who left the area for safety, and the immigrants, who moved into Sonoma to be under the protection of the muskets and cannon that had been taken from the Sonoma Barracks. This increased the number in Sonoma to about two hundred.[24] Some immigrant families were housed in the Barracks, others in the homes of the Californios.[44][45]

Frémont and Bears Join to Create the California Battalion - Most of the Battalion Leaves Sonoma July 5, 1846[edit]

On July 5 Frémont called a public meeting and proposed to the Bears that they unite with his party and form a single military unit under his command. A compact was drawn up which all volunteers of the California Battalion signed or made their marks.[46] The next day Frémont, leaving the fifty men of Company B at the Barracks to defend Sonoma, left with the rest of the Battalion for Sutter's Fort. They took with them two of the captured Mexican field pieces, as well as muskets, a supply of ammunition, blankets, horses, and cattle.[47]

28 Star US Flag in Monterey

Capture of Monterey, July 7, 1846[edit]

War against Mexico had already been declared by the United States Congress on May 13, 1846. Because of the slow cross-continent communication of the time, no one in California knew that conclusively. (Official notice of the war finally reached California on August 12, 1846.)[48] Commodore John D. Sloat, commanding the U.S. Navy's Pacific Squadron, had been waiting in Monterey Bay since July 1 or 2 to obtain convincing proof of war. Sloat was 68 years old and had requested to be relieved from his command the previous May. He was also acutely aware of the 1842 Capture of Monterey, when his predecessor, Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, thought war had been declared and captured the capital of Alta California, only to discover his error and abandon it the next day. This resulted in diplomatic problems, and Jones was removed as commander of the Pacific Squadron.

Sloat had learned of Frémont's confrontation with the Californios on Gavilan Peak and of his support for the Bears in Sonoma. He was also aware of Lt. Gillespie's tracking down of Frémont with letters and orders. Sloat finally concluded on July 6 that he needed to act, saying to U.S. Consul Larkin, "I shall be blamed for doing too little or too much - I prefer the latter.[49] Early July 7, the frigate USS Savannah and the two sloops, USS Cyane and USS Levant of the United States Navy, captured Monterey, California, and raised the flag of the United States.[50] Sloat had his proclamation read in and posted in English and Spanish: "...henceforth California would be a portion of the United States."[51]

27 Star US Flag in Sonoma

End of the Bear Flag Revolt & California Republic July 9, 1846[edit]

Two days later, July 9, the Bear Flag Revolt and whatever remained of the "California Republic" ended when Navy Lieutenant Joseph Revere was sent to Sonoma from the USS Portsmouth, which had been berthed at Sausalito, carrying two 27-star United States flags, one for Sonoma and the other for Sutter’s Fort (the squadron had run out of new 28-star flags that reflected Texas’ admittance to the Union).[52] The Bear Flag that was taken down that day was given to the Clerk of the Portsmouth, John Elliott Montgomery, the son of Commander John B. Montgomery. John E. wrote to his mother later in July that ”Cuffy came down growling.” The following November, John and his older brother disappeared while traveling to Sacramento and were presumed deceased. Commander Montgomery kept the Bear Flag, had a copy made, and eventually both were delivered to the Secretary of the Navy. In 1855 the Secretary sent both flags to the Senators from California who donated them to the Society of Pioneers in San Francisco. The original Bear Flag was destroyed in the fires following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.[53] A replica, created in 1896 for the 50th Anniversary celebrations, is on display at the Sonoma Barracks.

Bear Flag[edit]

The original Bear Flag, photographed in 1890
Modern flag of the State of California, for comparison

The most notable legacy of the "California Republic" was the adoption of its flag as the basis of the modern state Flag of California. The flag has a star, a grizzly bear, and a colored stripe with the words "California Republic." The Bear Flag Monument on the Sonoma Plaza, site of the raising of the original Bear Flag, is marked by a California Historical Landmark #7.

The design and creation of the original Bear Flag used in the Bear Flag Revolt is often credited to William L. Todd. He was the cousin or nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln,[54] wife of future American president Abraham Lincoln. Todd acknowledged the contributions of other Osos to the flag, including Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, and Henry L. Ford. (Follow this link to read Todd's 1878 newspaper article.)[55] Todd painted the flag on domestic cotton cloth, roughly a yard and a half in length. It featured a red star based on the California Lone Star Flag that was flown during California's 1836 revolt led by Juan Alvarado and Isaac Graham.[56] The flag also featured an image of a grizzly bear statant (standing, see right). The modern flag shows the bear passant (walking).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bancroft V: 131-144
  2. ^ ‘Department’ was a territorial and administrative designation used by Mexico’s centralized government under The Constitutional Laws of 1836.
  3. ^ Richman p 261
  4. ^ Bancroft; IV: 598-608
  5. ^ Richman p 308
  6. ^ Bancroft V:146
  7. ^ Harlow p. 103
  8. ^ Bancroft V: 185-86
  9. ^ Bancroft III p 399-400
  10. ^ Harlow p 45
  11. ^ Hague p 99
  12. ^ Walker p. 60
  13. ^ Hague p.118
  14. ^ Bancroft; IV:598-608
  15. ^ Richman p 308
  16. ^ Bancroft IV:p.606-7
  17. ^ Hague p. 128
  18. ^ Frémont p. 490
  19. ^ Harlow p. 85
  20. ^ Rogers Montgomery p. 21-23
  21. ^ Rogers, Montgomery p. 25
  22. ^ Ide p. 112-3
  23. ^ Bancroft V:101-108
  24. ^ a b Bancroft V:109
  25. ^ Frémont p. 509
  26. ^ CSMM
  27. ^ Tays p.240 Note 1
  28. ^ Harlow p.98-99
  29. ^ Walker p. 125-6
  30. ^ Harlow p. 102
  31. ^ Bancroft V:117
  32. ^ Harlow p.101
  33. ^ SSHP p. 82
  34. ^ Rogers, Ide p. 82, Appendix A
  35. ^ Ide's Letter
  36. ^ Bancroft V:156
  37. ^ Bancroft V:120-21
  38. ^ Frémont p. 520
  39. ^ Bancroft V:132-136
  40. ^ Bancroft p. 155-59
  41. ^ Harlow p. 108
  42. ^ Bancroft v:166 note 15
  43. ^ Walker p. 132-35
  44. ^ Warner p. 479-482 Appendix VII
  45. ^ Harlow p. 108-9
  46. ^ Bancroft V:178-80
  47. ^ Bancroft V:184-5
  48. ^ Harlow p. 121
  49. ^ Harlow p. 122
  50. ^ "Commodore John Sloat". US-Mexican War, Public Broadcasting Service.
  51. ^ Harlow p. 124
  52. ^ Bancroft V:185-86
  53. ^ Bear Flag Museum. "History of the Bear Flag". Retrieved 18 May 2014. 
  54. ^ Bear Flag Museum retrieved 13/6/2008
  55. ^ Todd, William. "Construction of the Bear Flag". article in Los Angeles Express 1/11/1878. Bear Flag Museum. Retrieved 16 May 2014. 
  56. ^ Flags over California, A History and Guide. Sacramento: State of California, Military Department. 2002. 


  • Bancroft, Hubert Howe (1886). History of California, Vol V. San Francisco: History Publishing Company.  Also at History of California, VOL. V. 1846-1848
  • CSMM, The California State Military Museum. "Captain John Charles Fremont and the Bear Flag Revolt". Retrieved 15 May 2014. 
  • Fremont, John Charles (1886). Memoirs of My Life and Times, Vol. 1. Cooper Square Press. 
  • Hague, Harlan & David J. Langum Thomas O. Larkin: A Life of Patriotism and Profit in Old California, University of Oklahoma Press, (1990)
  • Harlow, Neal California Conquered: The Annexation of a Mexican Province 1846–1850, ISBN 0-520-06605-7, (1982)
  • "Ide,Simeon; A Sketch of the Life of William B. Ide". Retrieved 2008-01-30. 
  • Rice, Richard B. et al., The elusive Eden: A new history of California (2001) ch 7.
  • Richman, Irving B. (1911). California Under Spain and Mexico: 1535-1847. Boston. 
  • Rogers, Fred Blackburn (1990). Montgomery and The Portsmouth. Portsmouth NH. 
  • Rogers, Fred Blackburn (1962). William Brown Ide: Bear Flagger. San Francisco. 
  • SSHP, Sonoma State Historic Park. "General Plan". California Dept. Parks and Recreatopm. Retrieved 15 May 2014. 
  • Tays, George (Sep 1937). "Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Sonoma, a Biography and a History". California Historical Society Quarterly XVI (3). 
  • Texas State Historical Society. "Mexican Colonization Laws". Retrieved 15 May 2014. 
  • Walker, Dale (1999). Bear Flag Rising. New York. 
  • Warner, Barbara R (1996). The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage. Sonoma. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 38°17′37″N 122°27′12″W / 38.29361°N 122.45333°W / 38.29361; -122.45333