Three thousand miles and 70 years after Betsy Ross supposedly sewed 13 stars onto a flag with 13 red and white stripes, Nancy Kelsey was, according to legend, stitching the flag for California’s Bear Flag Republic.
Betsy Ross remains a household name, but Kelsey’s fame lasted barely as long as the Bear Flag Revolt that briefly made California a nation. Her fame was soon eclipsed by a scandal that soiled her family name: the massacre of more than 100 Pomo Indians in one of the earliest and most notorious such attacks. It became known as the Bloody Island Massacre.
Nancy Kelsey was 17 in December 1840 when her husband, Ben, got a letter from a doctor friend who had sailed around the tip of South America to the raw new land of California. His “wonderful description” of the San Joaquin Valley encouraged them to go west.
By 1841, they had signed with the John Bartleson and John Bidwell expedition leaving Missouri for the West -- the first organized band of settlers to do so. Kelsey is believed to be the first female settler to make the journey overland by way of the California Trail.
“Where my husband goes, I can go. I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxiety from an absent husband,” Kelsey said in her memoirs. She rode horseback or walked barefoot, carrying their toddler, Ann.
When the party reached Idaho, about two dozen pioneers -- including the few women, except Kelsey and her daughter -- headed toward Oregon. The Kelsey family and 32 men stayed the course to California.
The group made its crossing through the Sierra Nevada -- five years before the ill-fated Donner party -- by way of the hair-raisingly steep Sonora Pass.
“At one time,” Kelsey recounted, she and Ann were left alone as the men searched for a path through the mountains. “As I was afraid of Indians, I sat all the while with my baby in my lap on the back of my horse” in what seemed to her like “the loneliest spot in the world.”
Indians occasionally swooped down on the party and took food and the livestock. Once, for two days, Kelsey said, she “had nothing to eat but acorns.”
On Nov. 4, 1841, nearly six months after they left Missouri, they reached the San Joaquin Valley and the home of John Marsh, the doctor who had sent them the long-ago letter. They rested a month, then headed for Sutter’s Fort, one of the few Yankee settlements in the region.
The Kelseys’ fortune would be made in the Gold Rush, which lay some years in the future. In the interim, they moved between California and Oregon, taking their many children -- Nancy Kelsey would bear 10 -- around on horseback.
In June 1846, when word reached Ben Kelsey and the other Yankees in the area that Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the military commandant of California, was sending a Mexican force to evict them from California, they joined forces to seize Sonoma. They surrounded Vallejo’s Sonoma rancho and took him prisoner.
Encamped at the rancho, the sober Bear Flaggers, as they would become known, began work on a constitution and dreamed up their new “country’s” emblems, including a flag.
Nancy Kelsey, who had already started cooking and sewing for the forces, was enlisted to make the banner. The men voted unanimously for a flag bearing a California grizzly bear -- then an abundant species in California, now extinct -- and the Lone Star from Texas’ years as a Republic (1836-1846). A month earlier, the U.S. had declared war on Mexico to annex Texas, parts of which Mexico still claimed.
Kelsey recalled that she and William Todd -- nephew of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln -- together drew the bear. Some people later objected that it looked more like a pig.
John Sears’ wife contributed a strip of red flannel from her petticoat; Benjamin Dewell’s wife stitched it on. Nancy Kelsey contributed her labor and a piece of unbleached cotton, 3 feet by 5, for the flag. Using pokeberry juice for ink, they printed “California Republic.”
On June 14, they hoisted the flag over Sonoma’s plaza and, because the flag had a drawing of a bear, the episode became known as the Bear Flag Revolt.
More than a week later, U.S. Army Lt. Col. John C. Fremont rode into Sonoma, determined to support the rebels. But Fremont and Ben Kelsey didn’t get along. When Fremont ordered Kelsey to kill a Mexican “resister,” he refused; the man was a neighbor and a friend. So Fremont ordered Indian scout Kit Carson to shoot the man, which Carson did. Fremont and Kelsey became enemies on the spot.
The flag flew for 24 days, until July 7, when the U.S. Navy sailed into Monterey and raised the Stars and Stripes, claiming California.
Nancy Kelsey’s handiwork was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco fire. In 1911, the state Legislature adopted a more professional-looking version of the flag. The bear looked like a bear this time, but the red-petticoat strip at the bottom remained.
After gold was discovered in 1848, the family opened Kelsey Dry Diggings, a roaring mining camp southeast of the original gold strike in what is now the town of Kelsey, north of Placerville. Conscripting Indians as virtual slave labor, the Bible-toting Ben Kelsey made tens of thousands in gold -- he was able to pay $75,000 cash as a ransom to free one of his brothers from kidnappers.
He also found four-footed gold, buying sheep at a dollar a head and driving them to the gold fields, where he sold them for $16 each. And he loaned money to strapped miners at 25% interest.
As California prepared to become a state, Ben Kelsey was appointed a government Indian agent, according to Nancy Kelsey’s memoirs. Kelsey and his brothers began ranching near Clear Lake, again using Indian labor. He gave each Indian only four cups of grain a day for his family. One starving boy was shot dead while begging for an extra cup of wheat for his aunt. The ranch would later become the town of Kelseyville.
In the fall of 1849, two Indians stole horses to round up a steer to kill for meat. Then, fearful of punishment, they killed the men running the ranch: Ben Kelsey’s brother, Andy, and rancher Charles Stone.
Another version holds that the two were killed after they seized Chief Augustine’s young wife and forced her to live with them. But Nancy Kelsey dismisses that account in her memoirs:
"[The Kelsey family] has been much criticized for this event.... The main abuse being precipitated by a native named Augustine who claimed to be a survivor, but who was not even there. At the time, Augustine had been taken to Napa to make adobe bricks.”
The Indians and their families fled to a now-vanished island in Clear Lake.
The Kelseys had a long history of Indian conflicts. Earlier that year, when Nancy Kelsey told her husband that an Indian had tried to steal her horse, Ben rose from his sickbed and shot the Indian dead, even though the man had already received 100 lashes from the townsfolk.
This time, Ben Kelsey enlisted the Army’s help. In the spring of 1850, soldiers, Kelsey and other ranchers dragged two cannons to the edge of the lake and opened fire on the island. The 400 or so Indians fled to the far side, where soldiers and ranchers shot them down. More than 100, including women and children, were killed. The island became known as “Bloody Island” in one of the most notorious of the many Indian attacks in 19th century California.
The notoriety put the Kelseys on the move again, to New Mexico and then Texas where, in 1861, Comanches scalped 13-year-old Mary Ellen Kelsey.
“Even now, I can hear the screams that she made when they caught her,” her mother recalled. “My girl always said one of the brutes was a white man painted as an Indian.” Mary Ellen died five years later, driven mad by her ordeal.
In the late 1880s, the family came to Los Angeles, where Ben Kelsey worked as a road-builder. He died in 1888 and was buried at Rosedale Cemetery.
Nancy Kelsey moved north to Santa Barbara County, where she and her family had homesteaded years before. She cared for the sick, becoming known as the “Cuyama Angel,” and died in 1896. She got her last wish -- for a “store-bought coffin” -- and is buried in Santa Barbara County’s Cottonwood Canyon.
In 1937, the Miocene Chapter of the Native Daughters of the Golden West raised a monument at her grave, dubbing her “the Betsy Ross of California.”