Conquering California, Part 8 of 17: The Battle of Olumpali
This is Part 8 of a 17-part series. I won’t blame Alzheimer’s or drunkenness, because who knows, maybe you’re just easily distracted. But if you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.
And if you want to go way back and start at the beginning, follow this link.
The Battle of Olumpali
The Bear Flag revolt had just begun, with the capture of Mission Sonoma. And the Bears quickly recognized they had a big problem on their hands. They possessed very little gunpowder, and realized they’d need a lot more to defend the mission from an expected Mexican attack. You see, they remembered another mission. The Alamo. They knew what the Mexicans could do.
At first they sent their flag designer, William Todd, to try to secure gunpowder from the USS Portsmouth, anchored at Sausalito. Whoa, wait! Did I say “gunpowder”? No, no, I meant “gun doubter”. I mean I doubt guns can work very long without a certain special ingredient.
The Bears had to get clever. For legal reasons, Todd wasn’t supposed to actually say out loud that he wanted “gunpowder”. The plan was for him to say something mealy-mouthed, and then with a wink and a nod, hand a note to Captain Montgomery, containing the actual request.
But Todd must have had a short memory, because he forgot about this plan and blurted out to Captain Montgomery, the request for “gunpowder”. And of course Montgomery solemnly declined Todd’s request, stating that by law, the U.S. was neutral in this conflict.
Well that shot that plan all to hell, thanks to the idiot Todd. Now they had to find another way to procure the explosive chemical.
So on June 18, a procurement party of two men, named Thomas Cowie and George Fowler, were sent from Sonoma to Rancho Sotoyome (near current-day Healdsburg, California). Their mission was to pick up a cache of gunpowder from Moses Carson, who was the brother of Kit Carson.
They never came back.
On June 20, the Bears tried yet again. First Lieutenant Ford sent Sergeant Gibson with four men to Rancho Sotoyome. Gibson obtained the gunpowder. But on the way back, he and his men got into a gunfight with several Californios. They managed to capture one of them.
Perhaps they used waterboarding, or perhaps they just got him drunk. But from that prisoner they learned that Cowie and Fowler had been killed. They also learned that stupid ol’ William Todd and a companion had gotten themselves captured by Californio irregulars.
First a pig flag. Then the gunpowder remark. And now he’s a POW. Todd really wasn’t doing much to make this Bear Flag Revolt a success.
When Ford learned of this back in Sonoma, he realized that the Californios were beginning to resist. So he sent a note to Fremont, at Sutter’s Fort, requesting reinforcements. He also organized a party of 17 to 19 Bears, and went searching for William Todd and his companion.
Ford and his party found them near the Native American rancho of Olumpali. They were being held captive inside an adobe house. But as Ford’s men approached this adobe, 70 Californio militia men poured out. Gulp.
Ford’s men were way outnumbered, and they knew they were in for it. They positioned themselves in a grove of trees. The Californios then mounted their horses and charged on horseback. But fortunately for Ford’s men, they had superior weapons that could fire at a longer range than the weapons of the Californios. They opened fire on the charging enemy, killing one Californio and wounding another, at long range.
When the Californios saw this amazing feat, they disengaged and fled.
During this battle, William Todd and his companion escaped the adobe and ran to the Bears, and were successfully rescued. This became known as the Battle of Olumpali, and was the only battle won by the bad news Bears during the Bear Flag Revolt.
They didn’t have internet in those days. But they did have boredom. And so word still managed to quickly spread about this battle, and the deaths of Cowie and Fowler. And this news raised the anxiety of American settlers. They began to fear that they would become targeted by the Californio militia, and so they moved into Sonoma for protection. And this increased the number of settlers in Sonoma to 200.
Stupid fools. Had they forgotten the Alamo?
Sutter’s Fort of “Friends”
Meanwhile, Fremont had taken Sutter’s Fort without any resistance. But instead of raising the American flag, a Bear Flag was raised. Fremont thought it safest to go along for awhile with the settlers’ ambition for independence, and tacitly support the fledgling California Republic. This would give his activities cover until he could be certain that war had been declared by the U.S. against Mexico.
On June 16, 1846, General Vallejo and the other prisoners from Sonoma were delivered to Sutter’s Fort.
Vallejo considered Fremont to be his friend, and expected to be paroled by him. But the sentiment among most of the settlers at the fort was to keep this man prisoner. Fremont sensed this, and wanted to remain in favor with the settlers. So he denied the parole. And he ordered Vallejo to be treated as a true prisoner, with no special privileges. After all, what are friends for?
Fremont put one of his own men, Edward Kern, in command of Sutter’s Fort, while placing John Sutter second in command. Which was kind of a slap in the face for poor ol’ John Sutter. Because there he was, second in command of his own fort. Hmm, some friend, that Fremont.
Come on back in a few days, for Part 9: Murder and Deceit at Mission San Rafael.