Conquering California, Part 9 of 17: Murder and Deceit at Mission San Rafael

This is Part 9 of a 17-part series. Forgot what happened in the last part? So did I. Okay, just follow this link, and you can get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

Murder and Deceit at Mission San Rafael

 

It didn’t take long for Commandante General Jose Castro to learn of the taking of the government’s horses, the capture of Sonoma, and the imprisonment of Mexican officers at Sutter’s Fort. And all of this really chapped his hide. He quickly organized a group of 50-60 militia.

He put Captain Joaquin de la Torre in charge of this militia, with orders to recapture the Alamo. Oops, I mean Sonoma. Torre led his forces north to San Pablo, and then across a narrow, three mile strait of the San Francisco bay, to Point San Quentin. San Quentin was just a few miles from the former Mission San Rafael. And it was about 30 miles by road from the Bears’ headquarters at Mission Sonoma.

They arrived at San Quentin on June 23, 1846. On June 27, 100 more men arrived at San Pablo, and waited to be brought over by boat to join Torre. Things were looking ominous for the Bear Flaggers.

But Fremont learned about General Castro’s preparation for an attack on Sonoma about the same time that he received the note from Ford requesting reinforcements. Hmm, all of this was reminding him of some other place. Ah yes, the Alamo. So on June 23, the same day Torre landed at San Quentin, Fremont left Sutter’s Fort for Sonoma, with 90 men.

He also wrote a letter of resignation from the Army and sent it to his father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in case the government should disavow his action. Yep, Fremont was a real genius at covering his tracks.

They arrived at Sonoma on June 25th and then quickly headed south to San Rafael, to make battle with Torre’s Californios. But when they arrived at San Rafael, the Californios had vanished. So they set up camp at the mission and sent out scouting parties.

On June 28, Fremont’s forces spotted a small boat coming across the bay. Fremont sent Kit Carson and two others to intercept it. The boat dropped three men off at the shore. They were the twin brothers, Francisco and Ramon de Haro, and their uncle Jose de la Reyes Berreyesa. Their intention was to travel on foot to Sonoma to inquire about the welfare of some of their relatives, who had been taken prisoner by the Bear Flaggers.

Mug shot of Kit Carson.

They came in peace, and were unarmed. But all three were shot and killed by Kit Carson and his men.

This triple-murder became an issue in Fremont’s 1856 presidential campaign. Partisan newspapers told conflicting stories. The MSNBC Mouthpiece Mumbler blamed the candidate, while the FOX Folderol Fanfaronade exonerated him. Nonetheless, it tarnished Fremont’s image and contributed to his defeat.

Meanwhile, Captain de la Torre had his balls caught in a wringer. He had not expected Fremont to show up. And he realized he was now vastly outgunned by a superior fighting force. And now here he was, hiding from Fremont’s scouts, just a few miles away from Mission San Rafael. He was backed up against the bay, and had to figure out a way to get back across the water to San Pablo without being massacred, the way Fremont had massacred those Wintu Indians.

But Torre was good at thinking fast. He concocted a deceitful, and potentially deadly ruse. He arranged for two letters to be intercepted, one by Fremont’s forces, and one by the Bear Flagger’s forces in Sonoma. These letters indicated that Torre planned to attack Sonoma on June 29th.

As soon as Fremont saw the letter, he felt startled, and knew he had to make a quick decision. But unlike Torre’s quick thinking, his quick thinking wasn’t very clever. In fact, it was nearly fatal. He absquatulated and headed posthaste back to Sonoma.

Unbeknownst to him, Sonoma had also intercepted a similar letter. They were waiting with cannons readied, guns cocked, and all men armed for bear. Or armed like the Bears they were. Because even in those days, Americans valued the right to arm Bears.

When they spotted Fremont’s men approaching, the jittery Bears almost mistook them for the enemy, and nearly opened fire. Fortunately, Stuttering Zeke was in command, and was unable to complete the order to, “F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-F-i-i-i-i-r-r-r-e!” before someone recognized Fremont.

Fremont realized he’d been tricked. He ate a quick breakfast of two Egg McMuffins and small order of hash browns, then immediately hurried his men the 25 to 30 miles of trail back to San Rafael. But it was too late. Torre and his men had already escaped by boat across the bay to San Pablo.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 10: A Revolting End.

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