Series (History): Conquering California

Conquering California, Part 7 of 17: The Immigrants Are Revolting

This is Part 7 of a 17-part series. So, you were goofing off and have already forgotten what happened in the last part? No problem. Just follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

And if you really want to get serious, and start at the beginning, follow this link.

Plaza at Sonoma, sketched in 1851.


The Immigrants Are Revolting

Mariano Vallejo


In June, 1846, Army Captain John C. Fremont instigated 34 illegal American immigrants into attacking the pueblo of Sonoma. Mission Sonoma had been built 25 years earlier to counter the Russians at nearby Fort Ross. But now it was not the Russians who posed a threat, but the Americans.

Sonoma was now occupied by retired Mexican General Mariano Vallejo. He maintained an armory of military weapons and materiel at the Sonoma Barracks. The immigrants wanted that shit, and they came to get it.

Vallejo had built a large mansion on the mission grounds, and named it Casa Grande. He was a proud man, and a rich man, but also a very amiable man.

The servant’s quarters are all that remain of General Vallejo’s Casa Grande.

On the morning of June 14, 1846, the 34 settlers under the leadership of Ezekial “Stuttering Zeke” Merritt and William Ide, surrounded Casa Grande. Zeke and a few others went to the door and knocked. The General, who was probably still in his bathrobe and holding a cup of coffee, answered.

There are many conflicting eyewitness accounts about what exactly transpired, but I imagine the conversation went something like this:

“G-g-g-ooood m-m-morning G-G-G-General. I-I-I-I-m S-s-s-s-Stut-tut-tut-ering Z-Z-Zeke. Y-you-you-you are-are-are un-un-underrr ar-ar-rest. W-W-W-We are-are-are re-re-re-volting.”

“Que?! Que paso? No aspeaka ingles mucho good.” Vallejo seemed puzzled and concerned.

Vallejo’s brother-in-law, an American immigrant named Jacob P. Leese, came to the door.

“Que paso, hermano?” asked Leese in Spanish. Luckily, Leese was bilingual.

After awhile, with Leese’s help and a lot of patience, the message Stuttering Zeke was trying to convey was comprehended by Vallejo, as well as the intent of the gringos who were surrounding his home.

Vallejo cordially invited the stutterer and a few others inside for a drink, and to discuss the matter further.

They spent a few hours pleasantly talking things over in three languages (English, Spanish, and Stutterish) and getting drunk. Vallejo had no objection to the inchoate revolt, because he favored the annexation of California by the United States. And with good cheer, they negotiated a parole with Vallejo, whereby he would be allowed to remain free if he pledged not to interfere with the revolt.

But when word of this agreement reached the settlers outside, the hothead Ide rejected it as bullshit. Soon Ide barged into the mansion and spoiled the drunken chinwag, by placing Vallejo and his family under arrest.

Most of the settlers agreed with Ide, and Stuttering Zeke had a difficult time articulating a counterargument. Besides, he was drunk. So there was no helping it. Vallejo, Leese, and the rest of the general’s family were taken prisoner.

The settlers were winging it at this point. They had never participated in a revolution before, so they just came up with ideas as they went along.

Their next big idea was to create a flag. William Todd, a cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, designed it and did the art work. For cloth, the ladies at the garrison gave the rebels a new cotton sheet and some old red flannel from a petticoat. Todd painted a bear and star with linseed oil, red paint, and blackberry juice. Beneath the bear and star, he limned the words, “California Republic”, and a strip of red flannel was sown to the bottom.

Bear or pig? What do you see? This replica of the original Bear Flag is on display at the Sonoma State Historic Park. It was constructed in 1896, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt. The original Bear Flag, constructed by Todd, was destroyed in the fire that followed the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

The paintings were crude, as Todd was not the greatest artist in the world. In fact the grizzly bear was so poorly drawn, some mistook it for a pig. And had that perception prevailed, this would have become known as the Pig Flag Revolt.

The bear symbolized strength and resistance. The lone star was in reference to the Lone Star Republic of Texas, and the Texan rebellion against the Mexican government 10 years earlier.

They raised this flag for the first time, on June 17, 1846.

Monument to the Bear Flag Revolt, at the Sonoma State Historic Park, Sonoma, California.

The rebels made the Sonoma Barracks their headquarters. And they changed the name of their revolt from the Popular Movement to the Bear Flag Revolt. They also elected military officers.

Henry L. Ford (no relation to the automobile magnate) was elected First Lieutenant of the company. Samuel Kelsey was elected Second Lieutenant. Grandville P. Swift and Samuel Gibson were elected Sergeants. These were the only elected officials of the new California Republic. No civil structure was ever established.

Ide then wrote and issued a proclamation to be distributed throughout northern California, declaring the establishment of this new republic, justifying the revolt, and inviting good citizens to join.

After the takeover of Sonoma on June 14, 1846, 70 more volunteers joined the rebels. By early-July, nearly 300 had joined the Bear Flag Revolt. The game was on. Alta California was going down.

These Mexican Army barracks at Sonoma became the headquarters of the Bear Flag Revolt.

Come on back in a few days, for Part 8: The Battle of Olumpali.

33 replies »

  1. Ahh I know why the poor General got arrested, it was all because he held a cup of coffee when he opened the door. Yes, I noticed you put that detail in there. The coffee brought him bad luck, didn’t it!

    I say it that drawing looks like a pig too BUT I should be the last person to judge artwork. I can draw stick figures and that is it!!

    Thanks for the ongoing interesting history lesson. Here is are some more apples. 🍎🍎🍎🍎🍎🍎🍎

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is correct. You are a very good student. If he had not been drinking coffee, he would not have been arrested. His thinking would have been more clear, and he could have talked his way out of it.

      I’m not so great at art, either. Todd did a much better job than I could have done on the bear. My bear would have probably looked like a lizard.

      Thanks for the apples. Next time, make them Golden Delicious, and I’ll give you an A+.


  2. The statue of the flag bearer strikes a noble and righteous pose. Interesting how history is written by the victors and this statue makes it appear to be a just and noble cause.

    The story you’re telling is neither.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that is interesting. I grew up in California, and was under the impression from elementary school classes that the Bear Flag Revolt was some glorious overthrow of tyranny. A college professor seemed to throw water on that, but I must have been sleeping in class, because I don’t remember much detail in his lecture. It’s only been my recent research that has revealed the nitty gritty, dirty little facts about this revolt.

      Liked by 1 person

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