One hundred and sixty nine years ago in a frontier town, a band of thieves, drunks and murderers hoisted a home-made flag and declared themselves in revolt from a government that had welcomed them. Instigated by an expansionist neighboring power, the rebels aimed to take over completely and impose their language, culture and mores on the land. The revolt succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
FOR THE RECORD:
Bear flag: A June 14 Op-Ed about the California flag and the Bear Flag revolt incorrectly referred to U.S. Consul Charles O. Larkin as John Larkin. Ezekiel Merritt’s surname was misspelled Merrit. —
That frontier town was Sonoma, the land was California, and the rebels, American settlers spurred on by promises of help from U.S. Army Captain John Fremont. The rebel standard, the flag of the so-called California Republic, became the California State Flag. It’s time California dump that flag, a symbol of blatant illegality and racial prejudice. Like the Confederate cross of St. Andrew, the Bear Flag is a symbol whose time has come and gone.
When the Legislature voted to adopt the rebel standard as the state flag in 1911, California was in the grip of a racist, jingoistic fever. The measure was sponsored by Sen. James Holohan from Watsonville, a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West. This was an organization whose magazine, the Grizzly Bear, declared in the very issue in which it announced the introduction of the bill, “Close the public school doors to Japanese and other undesirables NOW! Close the doors through which aliens can legally own or lease the soil of California NOW!”
The obvious intent of the measure was to glorify the Bear Flaggers, who were hailed as wholesome patriots. But that was far from the truth.
Its leader, Ezekiel Merrit, was described by historian H.H. Bancroft as “an unprincipled, whiskey drinking, quarrelsome fellow.” Known as Stuttering Merrit, he was a thief who in 1848 reportedly stole 200 pounds of gold from his business partner. William Todd, who designed the flag, came from a family of Kentucky slave owners (his aunt was Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln’s wife). The group’s first lieutenant, Henry L. Ford, was a U.S. Army deserter who had impersonated his brother to escape detection. Sam Kelsey, the second lieutenant, along with his brother Ben, was a genocidal maniac who killed hundreds of Pomo Indians in Clear Lake. Americans visiting their ranch reported that “it was not an uncommon thing for them to shoot an Indian just for the fun of seeing him jump.”
Why did the Bear Flag revolt occur? Because these rogues were also illegal immigrants who feared they might be deported by the Mexican government. They despised the native, Spanish-speaking Californios, whom they called greasers. Refusing to become citizens, a move that would have granted them voting rights and land, they looked to the American takeover of Texas as an example.
Encouraged by Fremont, the Bear Flaggers kidnapped the military commander of Sonoma, stole hundreds of horses and proclaimed a republic that at best represented a few hundred Americans out of a population of 10,000 in California.
Although the California Republic was short-lived — it lasted from only June to July 1846 — the Bear Flaggers were partially responsible for how the state ultimately entered the union.
Tensions between Mexico and the United States had been growing for years and already an American Pacific squadron was anchored off California’s Central Coast. When U.S. Commodore John Drake Sloat was informed of the Bear Flag revolt, he felt his hand had been forced. Saying he’d rather be accused of doing too much than too little, he began the U.S. occupation of California, landing 250 sailors and Marines and hoisting the Stars and Stripes over Monterey. With few weapons, little ammunition and no organized military, the Californio government was unable to put up much resistance.
Ironically, the commodore chose to invade right when U.S. Consul John Larkin was bringing him a Californio plan to declare independence from Mexico as a prelude to annexation by the United States. Had California entered the Union voluntarily, it might have been able to import its own laws and customs, much like Louisiana had done with its jurisprudence of Spanish and French origin. Instead, as a conquered territory, California was subject to American laws.
Californios had instituted a democratic government, paternalistic and often beset by political conflicts, yet multi-ethnic and racially integrated, whereas the Americans, among other things, denied civil rights to blacks and Indians.
Native Americans were the first victims of the violent conquest provoked by the Bear Flaggers. In 1846, there were about 150,000 Native Americans in California. While many of them had integrated into Californio society, about 75% continued to live as they always had in the state’s central valleys and mountains.
Once subject to the U.S. government, however, they faced mass extermination. At the slightest provocation miners and settlers would burn entire rancherias, or Native American villages, slaughtering all the inhabitants, men, women and children. By the late 1850s, after years of murder and virtual slavery, only about 30,000 were left alive in California.
Californios did not fare well either. They saw their lands, the main engine of their cattle raising economy, taken over by squatters.
Americans would descend on a property, build homes, put up fences and till the fields without paying rent or compensating the owner in any way. Among them was William Ide, once president of the California Republic, who squatted and then filed a preemption claim for property in what is now the southern part of the city of Red Bluff. By the 1880s, Californios were broken, politically and financially.
So — slave owners, murderers, thieves, drunks and squatters. These are the people we want to remember with their standard as our state symbol?
Alex Abella (www.alexabella.com) is a journalist and novelist. His latest book is “Under the Burning Sunset,” a saga of the California rancho era.