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Historic Mission Colors State’s Past : Bear Flag Revolt in 1846 Remembered at Sonoma Site

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Bill Getchey, a historic guide for the state’s Department of Parks and Recreation, admits that his job can be frustrating at times. Seated at his desk in the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, he is prepared to answer visitors’ questions on the mission and other restored buildings in this State Historic Park.

“Often, they just stand in the doorway and ask me where the winery is,” he remarked. “And then there are two cheese factories where not only can you buy it, but you can watch cheese being made. People think nothing of driving the 46 miles from San Francisco just to buy bread at our French bakery.”

A Lot of History

There are many, however, who enjoy wandering among the historic buildings and touring the mission, all of which comprise the state-operated complex--buildings like the Swiss Hotel, the Blue Wing Inn, the Jacob Leese House, the Nash-Patton Adobe Home and the Toscano Hotel, all of which date back from the 1830s to the 1850s. There is also the restored Victorian-style house once occupied by Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, who was sent to Sonoma in 1836 as Commandante General of all Mexican forces in California. Adjacent to the mission is the barracks, which once housed his troops. In addition to many adult visitors, an average of 60,000 schoolchildren visit here each year, mostly fourth-graders who are learning about California’s colorful past.

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“The mission Solano was the last of a chain of 21 founded by the Franciscan Order,” Getchey said. “The site was selected by a young padre named Father Jose Altimira who found good soil, ample water and a perfect climate here. This was in 1823. His plan was approved by Gov. Luis Arguello, who wanted a northern settlement to prevent the encroachment of Russian settlers from Ft. Ross north of San Francisco. The Russians had established a trading post there in 1812, abandoning it in 1841 after considerable friction with the Mexican officials in California.

“By 1881, the mission was in ruins. The Historic Landmarks League purchased the property in 1903, planning to restore it. The league deeded the mission to the state in 1926, which continued the restoration and now maintains it.”

There is a bronze statue in a tree-shaded park across the street from the mission that commemorates the day during the war with Mexico when a group of about 33 settlers seized Sonoma, arresting Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the military governor of the Northern Frontier and hoisted a crudely designed banner in the pueblo’s plaza, proclaiming California a republic. Because the flag had a drawing of a bear, the episode became known as the Bear Flag Revolt. The date was June 14, 1846.

“Sometimes the park is quite crowded,” Getchey said. “People come here for picnics, reunions, and once a year they hold a chili cook-off that brings hundreds of visitors to town. I really don’t think they pay much attention to the monument. Most of them know little about the Bear Flaggers unless they’ve read a book or two about the state’s history. Here was a band of men impatient for the United States to seize California who had the audacity to declare their freedom from Mexican rule and establish their own republic.”

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Outsiders increasingly began to arrive in California during the latter part of the 18th Century. Foreign vessels anchored at San Francisco, Monterey and San Diego for supplies or to trade. In addition to the seafarers, the first Americans to travel overland across the continent reached Spanish settlements along the Pacific Coast.

Already, there was considerable interest evidenced in California, particularly by the American and British governments. Beginning with the 1830s, descriptions of California were finding their way into periodicals and newspapers, thus reaching a wider audience, and causing even greater interest that was soon to lead a mass migration westward to the Pacific.

Many of these settlers became Mexican citizens, joined the Roman Catholic church and married into Mexican families, becoming ranchers and merchants. But there were dissenters who wanted California to be under U.S. rule.

It was President James Knox Polk whose long dream of acquiring California for the United States became a reality during his term from 1845-1849, although he involved the nation in a war with Mexico to gain the territory.

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The moment was opportune for seizing California. John C. Fremont, whose two prior expeditious had established him as a celebrity, was now west of the Rockies on a military topographical expedition. Polk had sent a Marine Corps lieutenant, Archibald Gillespie, to carry dispatches to Fremont and the U.S. consul at Monterey, Thomas O. Larkin, advising them of the possibility of war and instructing Fremont to cooperate with American settlers in case of hostilities.

It was during this period that an impatient group rode into Sonoma, surrounded Col. Mariano Vallejo’s rancho and after consuming an ample supply of the hospitable Mexican official’s brandy, took him prisoner.

The insurgents needed a banner. It was unanimously decided that the flag should contain a grizzly bear, then abundant in California. The lone star was added because it could not fail to suggest itself to men familiar with the history of Texas and the similarity of conditions between that country and what they hoped to make of California. A red flannel stripe was sewn across the bottom of the white cotton cloth. This was from a petticoat worn by Mrs. John Sears when she came west to California.

Short-Lived Revolt

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The Bear Flag revolt was short-lived. An American squadron entered Monterey Bay, and on July 7, 1846, Commodore John Drake Sloat ordered the U.S. flag raised by the customs house. Two days later, Lt. J. W. Revere, USA, arrived in Sonoma from San Francisco to perform a similar ceremony.

“Vallejo harbored no ill feelings against the Americans,” Getchey said. “He became a dedicated American citizen, participating in the first constitutional convention held at Monterey prior to statehood. The house he built here in 1852 was New England style rather than adobe, because he wanted it to be typically American. Vallejo was elected to the State Senate in 1850. Later, he served two terms as mayor of Sonoma.


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