Conquering California, Part 6 of 17: The Instigation

This is Part 6 of a 17-part series. What? Don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part. Okay, okay, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

And to get really updated, you can start at the beginning, by following this link.


 

The Instigation

 

If you want to foment discord, look for the fomentable and discordable. To find them, try posting a canard on Facebook. Before you know it, you’ll have all kinds of nuts coming out of the woodwork, foaming at the mouth and supporting your lies.

But Fremont didn’t have a Facebook account. Or perhaps he’d lost his password. So he had to improvise.

One early-June day, mysterious unsigned letters were found in various public places frequented by illegal immigrants.

William B. Ide was an American settler who had just arrived in Alta California in October, 1845. He was a cantankerous dude, a bit unstable, and consumed with anxiety over Mexico’s new, draconian anti-immigration policy. This man was teetering right on the edge, and was a prime target of Fremont’s propaganda campaign.

William B. Ide

On June 8, 1846, Ide came into possession of one of the unsigned written messages. It’s the only copy still in existence today, and reads: “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 . . .” The bottom of the message was torn off, probably by the trembling hands of Ide.

Ide and 33 other settlers felt alarmed. They quickly galloped to Fremont’s camp, at Sutter Buttes, expecting he might be their Lord and Savior with a plan to save their asses. But they felt disappointed when they found that Fremont had no specific plan. And they weren’t able to secure from him any definite promise of aid. Instead, Fremont behaved in a guarded manner. He seemed to be inciting them to revolt, but would not come out directly and say so.

Fremont had to be careful, because he risked 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. News had not yet reached California that war had been declared a month earlier, so he was unsure about the legal ground he stood on. He wanted to avoid a court-martial.

However, he did stick his neck out far enough to conspire with the settlers to conduct a horse-thieving raid. Nothing beats the fun of stealing horses (I know, I’ve done it. Perhaps the subject of a future post.), so the settlers were all ears. Fremont told them about a herd of equines that were being moved by some Californios.

He also spoke of a vague rumor of unknown origin, and spread by hearsay, that Commandante General Castro intended to use the horses in a campaign to drive foreigners from California. This rumor left Ide and the other settlers feeling extremely alarmed.

They immediately decamped and went on the hunt, and on June 10 they found the horses. It was a herd of 170 Mexican government-owned caballos that were being moved from San Rafael and Sonoma to the Commandante General Jose Castro, in Santa Clara.

They captured the horses and delivered them to Fremont’s camp.

Now things were heating up. The settlers were in deep, having stolen the Commandante General’s horses. They were committed. They had crossed the Rubicon, and there was now no turning back.

Sutter’s Fort in the 1840’s.

And now that Fremont had a force of committed settlers on his side, who were not likely to desert, he decided it was time to strike. He decided to move south and take Sutter’s Fort. And while thanking the horse thieves for the fresh mounts, he might have implanted another idea into their heads.

But who knows whose idea it was at first? It certainly wasn’t anything Fremont was in a position to own up to. But somehow, someone came up with this plan:

Someone came up with the brilliant plan to seize the pueblo of Sonoma. Perhaps somebody with military experience coached them, and helped them reason that this would deny the Californios a rallying point north of San Fancisco Bay. And by capturing the arms and military materiel stored at that garrison, they would delay any military response from the Californios, to the seizing of Sutter’s Fort.

Fremont was thick on flattery, and generously bestowed the title of Field Lieutenant to one of the settlers, named Ezekiel “Stuttering Zeke” Merritt. He praised this man as someone who never questioned him. And based on this, he appointed him leader of the settlers. But hell, how could ol’ Stuttering Zeke question him? He was never allowed enough speaking time to question anyone.

William Ide might have gently pointed out that Zeke’s speech impediment could make communication and coordination a little tricky. And Fremont might have acknowledged that that was downright smart of Ide to recognize such a thing. Because Fremont appointed Ide the co-leader.

Soon these 34 illegal immigrants, led by Stuttering Zeke and hothead Ide, set off for Sonoma.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 7: The Immigrants Are Revolting.

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