Category Archives: History

Conquering California, Part 17 of 17: The Conquerors After Conquest

This is the final part of a 17-part series. At last, it’s over. What’s over? Well shit, if you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, and read this entire series like a history book, follow this link.


 

President James K. Polk

 

President James K. Polka.

James K. Polk had promised he would only be a one-term president, when he was elected in 1844. Sound familiar? Every presidential candidate seems to promise this. Yet he’s one of the few who kept that promise, opting not to run for re-election in 1848.

He’d entered office full of energy, and eager to fulfill his mandate of Western expansion. But apparently, expanding the size of the United States is not as easy as it may seem. Those four grueling years in office exhausted his health, and he left weak and frail.

He contracted cholera just three months after leaving office, and died on June 15, 1849, at the age of 53.

 

 

U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin

Thomas O. Larkin had been the first, and only, U.S. Consul to Alta California. After the war ended he was free to buy land in California. And buy he did. Real estate was glowing hot in the Golden State at that time, and Larkin made a fortune from his land speculations. By the late 1850’s he was possibly the richest man in America.

But he didn’t have long to enjoy his good fortune. On October 27, 1858, he contracted typhoid fever, and died at age 56.

 

Major Archibald H. Gillespie

 

Archibald H. Gillespie survived his lance wounds suffered at the Battle of San Pasqual. But he remained a major asshole, and thus never rose beyond the rank of major. He resigned from the Marine Corps in 1854, at age 42. He died on August 16, 1873, at the age of 60, in San Francisco.

 

Commodore Robert F. Stockton

 

Robert F. Stockton

In 1849, Charles Weber laid out a town located at a supply point for gold miners, on the San Joaquin River. He named it Stockton, after Commodore Stockton. Today, with a population of around 300,000, Stockton is California’s 13th largest city.

Commodore Stockton resigned from the Navy in May 1850. In 1851, he was elected U.S. Senator from New Jersey, and as a senator he sponsored a bill to abolish flogging as a Navy punishment. He was a delegate to the Peace Conference of 1861, that unsuccessfully attempted to avert Civil War. He died in 1866, at age 71.

 

 

 

General Stephen W. Kearny

 

Stephen W. Kearny. He does look a little yellow, doesn’t he?

Kearny was welcomed back to Washington D.C. as a hero of the Mexican-American War. He was appointed military governor of Veracruz and Mexico City, during the post-war occupation of Mexico.

In September 1848, President Polk promoted him to Major General, over the angry objections of John Fremont’s powerful father-in-law, Senator Thomas Benton. But Benton had no need to feel upset. The month after Kearny’s promotion, in October 1848, Kearny contracted yellow fever and died at the age of 54.

 

 

 

 

 

Kit Carson

 

This 1874 dime novel depicts Carson heroically stabbing one Indian in the front, while cowardly stabbing another in the back.

Kit Carson was romanticized and popularized by John Fremont, in Fremont’s writings of his Western exploits. Mentions of massacres and murders were glossed over, or spun to make Carson look like a great Western hero.

During the Civil War, Carson led a regiment of Hispanic volunteers on the side of the Union, in the Battle of Valverde. This battle took place in Confederate Arizona (now part of New Mexico). His regiment performed well, but the Union general in charge employed poor tactics, and the Confederates won.

After the Confederate threat to New Mexico was finally eliminated, Carson led forces that suppressed the Navajo, Mescalero Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche peoples, by destroying their food sources.

Kit Carson died in Fort Lyon, Colorado from an aortic aneurysm, on May 23, 1868. He was 58.

 

 

 

 

John C. Fremont

 

After the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, Commodore Stockton quickly appointed Fremont military governor of California. But then orders came from Washington that gave General Kearny the authority to appoint a governor, rather than Stockton.

Kearny changed the governorship appointment to Colonel Richard B. Mason. But Fremont hated Mason, and got into a pissing match with him, refusing to obey his orders, and challenging him to a duel.

Kearny responded to Fremont’s contumacious behavior by ordering him to accompany him on Kearny’s return march back east.

On August 22, 1847, Kearny and Fremont arrived at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. There Kearny had Fremont arrested and court-martialed for a variety of military offenses, including mutiny and disobeying orders.

On January 31, 1848, Fremont was acquitted of mutiny. But he was convicted of disobedience toward a superior officer, and of military misconduct. He was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge.

But by this time, Fremont was very popular in the United States. The press and public hailed him as a hero of the American West. The press followed his court-martial closely, and news of the verdict made headlines everywhere.

The verdict sparked popular outrage. President Polk approved of the verdict, but he feared the public sentiment. So he quickly commuted Fremont’s sentence and reinstated him into the Army. But he did not give Fremont a full pardon.

Fremont felt incensed that he had not received a full pardon and soon after, resigned from the Army in protest and returned to California.

There, Fremont became a multimillionaire in the Gold Rush, and also became one of California’s first two U.S. Senators.

1856 election poster, hyping Fremont for votes.

His hero status continued, and it propelled him to the Republican Party’s nomination to president of the United States, in 1856. This made him the first Republican nominee for president, as the Republican Party had only recently been formed, in 1854. But he lost to Democrat James Buchanan.

During the Civil War, President Lincoln appointed Fremont to command the Department of the West, which was headquartered in Missouri. Fremont became the first in the American command to recognize and promote the fighting abilities of Ulysses S. Grant. But the headstrong Fremont got into a dispute with Lincoln and defied orders from the Commander-in-Chief, by trying to emancipate Missouri’s slaves. Lincoln fired him on November 2, 1861.

Fremont went on to dabble in speculative investments, and went broke during the financial Panic of 1873.

John C. Fremont, 1813-1890.

He was appointed Governor of the Arizona Territory in 1878, but showed little interest in the job, and resigned in 1881. He ended up living with his wife as a poor pensioner in Staten Island, New York. At age 77 he contracted peritonitis, dying on July 13, 1890.

Fremont was the instigator behind California’s Bear Flag Revolt, and made the conquest of California easier than it would have otherwise been, for the U.S. military.

He was a man of contradictions:

He was audacious, aristocratic, and charismatic. But he was also a cruel man, of low cunning, and capable of double-crossing his friends.

He murdered Native Americans, but treated surrendering Californios with generosity. He lived a life of celebrated adventure, but secretly colored it with deception, blood, and terror.

And he died on the East coast, a hero of the American West.


Congratulations! You made it to the end of this marathon 17-part series. I think I might do more series like this on other subjects. Unless this has been torture for you. If so, please say, “Ouch” in the comments. Otherwise, keep your running shoes on for more marathon unicorn chases, in the future.

Conquering California, Part 16 of 17: The Conquered After Conquest

This is Part 16 of a 17-part series. Have you bumped your head since the last part, and developed amnesia? Then you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

General Mariano Vallejo

Mariano Vallejo

 

While in prison in Sutter’s Fort, Vallejo contracted malaria and his weight dropped to 96 lbs. He was released on August 2, 1846, and returned to his Casa Grande home in Sonoma, where he recovered.

Vallejo had long believed that California would be better off under United States rule, and believed the Bear Flaggers had made a mistake by declaring an independent republic. He felt embittered toward the Bear Flaggers for taking him prisoner. But after the United States defeated Mexico, he persuaded wealthy Californios to accept American rule.

He became an influential delegate to the state’s Constitutional Convention in 1849, and was elected as a State Senator in 1850. He also donated land for the construction of a new capitol building, which was built in the eponymously named city of Vallejo. The state capitol was later moved three more times, to Sacramento, then Benicia (which neighbors Vallejo and is named after Vallejo’s wife), and then permanently back to Sacramento.

Mariano Vallejo died on January 18, 1890, at age 82.

 

Commandante General Jose Castro

Commandante General Jose Castro

 

Jose Castro returned briefly to California, where he sold his adobe house at Mission San Juan Bautista to a surviving member of the Donner Party. In 1853 he left for Mexico again, and was appointed governor and military commander of Baja California.

In February 1860, Castro was assassinated by a bandit. He was 52 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Governor Pio Pico

 

Pio Pico. His name should not be confused with Pico Pica hot sauce.

Pio Pico returned to California as a full-fledged American citizen, after the end of the Mexican-American War. He became one of the wealthiest cattlemen in California. But he had a bad addiction to gambling, and this and other factors led him to lose most of his wealth. Pio Pico died in 1894, at the age of 93.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

General Andres Pico

 

Andres Pico

General Andres Pico, the brother of Pio Pico, was pardoned by the Treaty of Cahuenga. He later became a California Assemblyman and State Senator.

As an Assemblyman, he authored a bill to partition California into two states, north and south. In 1859, the bill passed both houses of the state legislature and was signed by the governor.

However the U.S. Congress never voted on the bill. The majority in Congress feared that a state of Southern California would be a slave state, and might secede, should Civil War break out. This was due to a strong presence of settlers from the South in southern California, who favored slavery and secession. And there were many discontented Californios in southern California, who also favored secession.

There have been dozens of subsequent attempts to partition the state, but Pico’s was the closest any came to succeeding.

Andres Pico died in 1876, at age 65.


Come on back in a few days for the final part of this 17-part series, Part 17: The Conquerors After Conquest.

Conquering California, Part 15 of 17: California After Conquest

This is Part 15 of a 17-part series. Now let’s see here, what the hell happened in the last part? Well shit, let’s just cheat and follow this link, to get up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

Alta California

 

On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and wouldn’t you know? A bunch of damned migrants and immigrants wanted it. Migrants from eastern states, and immigrants from all over the world, poured into California during the ‘49er Gold Rush.

The 300,000 new, gold-grubbing arrivals to this U.S. possession allowed California to skip territorial status and directly become a state. So once again, newcomers changed the course of California history. And just like that, even before we became a state, we were getting too friggin’ crowded.

A constitutional convention took place in Monterey, in 1849, in order to establish the boundaries, laws, and government structure of the proposed state. And in order to wear funny hats, go to strip joints, and do other things delegates don’t talk about after returning home.

A debate ensued over the boundaries. Big Staters were greedy. They argued for keeping the boundaries of California as they were under Mexican rule. They hated to hear Texans brag all the time, and wanted a state big enough to shut them up.

If Big Staters had their way, California would have been larger than Texas.

But Small Staters were practical. They argued that a state this enormous would be too difficult to administer. They sought an eastern boundary at the 116th meridian, which would have included two-thirds of current-day Nevada, and would have sliced due south to the Mexican border, near San Diego, but would have cut off most of the southern deserts.

A weird “compromise” was hammered out that made California even smaller, and created the state’s current boundaries. These boundaries exclude Nevada, but encompass the southern deserts west of the Colorado River. And, most importantly, they provide access to the abundant waters of the Colorado. Californians wanted lawns.

The remainder of Alta California became the lands of the Utah and New Mexico Territories. These territories were later subdivided into smaller territories and states.

The California constitution also banned slavery, and sadly, this led to another weird compromise. The Compromise of 1850.

U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Henry Clay, as he appeared in 1848.

The proposed admission of California as a free state prompted fiery debate in Congress between abolitionists and pro-slavery Southerners. This debate became so heated it nearly devolved into civil war. But Senator Henry Clay came to the rescue, and proposed a compromise that averted war. At least for the time being.

The Compromise of 1850 allowed California’s admission into the Union as a free state. It also allowed any new state, whether north or south of the Mason-Dixon line, to decide for itself if it would permit slavery. It included the highly controversial Fugitive Slave Act. And it cut the borders of Texas down to its current boundaries.

The Compromise of 1850 was the last major achievement of Henry Clay, before he died in 1852. And it allowed California to become our 31st state, on September 9, 1850.

 

 

The Bear Flag

 

The original Bear Flag, fabricated in Sonoma, was destroyed in the fires that followed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. But a replica had been created in 1896 for the 50th anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt, and today it’s displayed in the museum at the Sonoma Mission State Historic Park.

This photograph of William Todd’s original Bear Flag, was taken in 1890. 16 years later, the flag was destroyed in the fiery aftermath of the Great San Francisco Earthquake.

In 1911, the Bear Flag was adopted as California’s official state flag. Only this time a better artist was employed. The bear looked much more like a bear than a pig. And it was bigger and more centered on the flag.

And the interesting words, California Republic still appeared below the ursine symbol. Today California sports the fifth largest economy in the world, so it could really be its own republic. And I’m sure there are many red states that wouldn’t mind if we seceded.

Maybe with just a little more illegal immigration, we can pull it off.

California’s state flag, as it appears today. Now I see the bear. It’s walking across someone’s well watered lawn.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 16: The Conquered After Conquest.

Conquering California, Part 14 of 17: The Battle of Rio San Gabriel

This is Part 14 of a 17-part series. There’s no need for embarrassment. Everyone has dementia to some degree. So If you’ve forgotten what happened in the last part, you can follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

The Battle of Rio San Gabriel

 

After the Battle of San Pasqual, General Kearny spent several weeks in San Diego, licking his wounds.

Then he decided it was time to retake Los Angeles. But could he? General Jose Maria Flores seemed invincible. Against all odds, he had defeated a force much larger than his, at the Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun. There’s no doubt Americans felt a little apprehensive about facing Flores again.

But on December 28, Kearny and Commodore Stockton decided to give it a try. However, unlike in the Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun, this time they brought along horses, wagons, and most importantly, six cannons, to take care of that gun. They led a 600-man force on a 120-mile march toward Los Angeles.

General Flores awaited with 300 men and two cannons, while dug in on a 50-foot high bluff above the San Gabriel River. His position was at a key ford of the river, with the intent to block an approach on Los Angeles from the south. It was about 10 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, in the current-day city of Pico Rivera.

On January 8, 1847, they clashed in the Battle of Rio San Gabriel. And Flores proved to be not quite so invincible after all. The six American cannons quickly silenced the two Californio cannons. Flores’ men bravely charged the Americans, but they only had makeshift ammunition, and little gunpowder. They were easily repulsed.

The Battle of Rio San Gabriel.

Then Kearny’s men charged, with overwhelming numbers. Flores’ men could not hold out, and withdrew in retreat. The battle lasted just 90 minutes.

Stockton and Kearny’s forces pursued, and on January 10, 1847, encountered Flores’ Californio militia at a place called La Mesa. This is near where the city of Vernon now stands, and is about 4 miles south of Los Angeles.

Here, the Battle of La Mesa, the last battle of the California Campaign, was fought. Within 15 minutes, Flores’ forces were defeated by the overwhelming firepower of American artillery.

Most of his men had had enough. They deserted the battlefield and went home. Flores held a final council, where he transferred command to General Andres Pico. He released all his prisoners, and then fled to Mexico.

The Siege of Los Angeles was over, and within a few days the pueblo was reoccupied.

 

The Treaty of Cahuenga

 

Three days after the Battle of La Mesa, on January 13, 1847, General Andres Pico and Lieutenant Colonel John C. Fremont approached each other alone, in the Cahuenga Pass. This is the present day site of Universal City, and Universal Studios, in the Hollywood Hills. And this was a very apt place, because the scene could have been straight out of a Hollywood movie.

John C. Fremont

A few weeks earlier, in Santa Barbara, a Californio woman named Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez had all the audacity to ask for ten minutes of Fremont’s time. He went ahead and granted it.

Those ten minutes stretched to two hours. She used every diplomatic skill at her disposal, and urged Fremont to negotiate a generous peace. She held his hand and asked that he agree to pardon Pico, release prisoners, guarantee equal rights for all Californians, and respect property rights.

Fremont felt moved. He was initially suspicious, but finally concluded that her intentions were good. He agreed to keep her wishes in mind, should the opportunity for a peace treaty arise.

Bernarda accompanied Fremont as he continued his march south toward Los Angeles, while reclaiming territory for the United States. On January 12 they came near the camp of General Andres Pico and his formidable lancers, at the Cahuenga Pass. Tensions rose. It seemed a new battle was looming.

Bernarda then left Fremont and traveled alone to Pico’s camp. She told him of the peace agreement that she and Fremont had been discussing. It sounded interesting to Pico, and he agreed to meet with his adversary.

The next day, January 13, 1847, Pico and Fremont approached each other alone, man-to-man. And without firing a shot, they agreed to the peace treaty that Bernarda had been pushing.

The treaty was put to paper, with the first seven articles written almost exactly the way Bernarda had suggested. Fremont and Pico signed it, ending all hostilities and bringing a lasting peace to Alta California.

The Treaty of Cahuenga was also influential in the drafting of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 12, 1848, which ended the Mexican-American War.

A generous peace was guaranteed for both sides. Everyone could return to business as usual. Except that now, Alta California belonged to the United States.

For the U.S. government, the conquest of California was finally complete.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 15: California After Conquest.

Conquering California, Part 13 of 17: The Battle of San Pasqual

This is Part 13 of a 17-part series. If your photographic memory has failed you, and you’ve forgotten the last part, you can follow this link and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

Kearny’s Journey

 

U.S. Army General Stephen Watts Kearny.

After losing the Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun, things were looking bleak for the U.S. military. But that’s okay, the cavalry was coming. U.S. Army General Stephen Kearny had recently conquered New Mexico, and was now on his way to California with a mighty force of 300 dragoons.

Kearny was in charge of the Army of the West. In June, 1846, he led this army out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and down the Santa Fe trail. In August and September, he entered Las Vegas and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and took this territory for the United States. He then headed west for Alta California.

On October 6, 1846, in Socorro, New Mexico, Kearny met Kit Carson. Carson had been tasked with carrying messages to Washington about the state of hostilities in California. Carson assured Kearny that California had been secured and the situation was well under control. And a very fine officer whom he knew personally, named Captain Gillespie, was keeping the peace in Los Angeles.

I guess Carson failed to watch CNN at any of the motels he stayed at, after leaving California. Instead he must have watched FOX.

With this reassuring fake news, Kearny sent 200 of his precious dragoons back to Santa Fe to aid with the occupation there. He also sent Carson’s message east with a different courier, and asked Kit to guide him to California.

Now Kearny only had 100 dragoons. And their mounts were worn out after having already traveled over a thousand miles. But Kearny encountered a herd of mules being driven to Santa Fe, and he seized on the opportunity by purchasing 100 of them. These new mules replaced the worn-out mounts. The only downside to this transaction was that these mules were untrained, and kind of difficult for his dragoons to handle. And we can assume they were rather stubborn.

Finally, in late-November 1846, Kearny and his tired men crossed the Colorado River. They headed toward San Diego, over the Colorado desert, and over the coastal range of mountains. And that’s when he encountered the deposed tyrant from Los Angeles, Major Archibald Gillespie, with a force of 30 men.

Yes, “Major” Gillespie, now. Apparently in the Marine Corps, this is the rank they promote you to when you’re a major asshole.

Major Gillespie had been tasked with the hangdog duty of informing General Kearny about the Siege of Los Angeles, and how he had lost control of the southern California occupation. On top of that, Gillespie also informed the dismayed general that a large fighting force of Mexicans was just a few miles away.

 

The Battle of San Pasqual

 

General Flores had found out about this General Kearny. So he had sent Governor Pio Pico’s brother, Mexican Army General Andres Pico, out to find him. And General Pico commanded a force of 150 highly skilled Californio lancers.

Andres Pico, in 1850, proudly sits in full fiesta regalia.

These lancers were now camped in the San Pasqual valley, just six miles away from Kearny and Gillespie, and just 30 miles northeast of Kearny’s final destination. Which was the pueblo of San Diego.

It was December 6, 1846, and a terrific battle was brewing.

Pico was unaware of Kearny’s presence, and vulnerable to surprise attack. But Kearny wanted to assess Pico’s strength, so he sent out a scouting party. The scouting party approached close to Pico’s camp, and then stupidly stirred up some noise. This alerted some of Pico’s lancers. They gave chase, and during this pursuit some fool within the scouting party lost his blanket marked “U.S.”, along with his dragoon jacket.

From this blanket and jacket, Pico was able to surmise that the scouting party was part of a much larger force that was coming against him. In other words, the scouts sent by Kearny did more to inform Pico, than to inform Kearny.

Pico felt worried. He did not know that Kearny had left most of his dragoons in New Mexico. And it seemed foolhardy to face a force as large as he imagined Kearny’s to be. He decided it would be best to vamoose. Escape. Get the hell out of there.

The day had faded, and the tenebrous fingers of twilight were creeping over the San Pasqual valley. It had been raining, and a cold dampness that felt like death, filled the air.

As Pico’s lancers were pulling up stakes to decamp, the scouting party returned in the dark of night to Kearny, and sheepishly issued their report. Well, goddamn, fuck-it-all-to-hell, Kearny must have thought. Now he’d lost the element of surprise.

But Kit Carson and Gillespie had been reassuring Kearny that the Californios were cowards. And like many white Americans, they all thought of themselves as superior to the Spanish-blooded race. So Kearny figured that his seasoned veterans could easily whip Pico’s forces anyway, surprise or no surprise.

Kearny worried that Pico was going to try to block him from reaching San Diego. Which wasn’t true. At that moment, Pico was actually trying to get the hell out of Kearny’s way.

With this worriment, combined with racial hubris, Kearny made one of the stupidest decisions in U.S. military history. He impulsively decided upon an immediate attack.

It had been pouring rain all day. Their firarms and gunpowder had been drenched. Worse than that, nobody bothered to check their firearms, in their haste to prepare for battle. Had they done so, the attack would have undoubtedly been called off. But instead, Kearny sent his men into battle virtually unarmed.

An oval-shaped moon hung halfway up the sky, and the midnight air was cold and wet. Pico’s men were still in camp, in the process of leaving. Kearny’s men rode their mules up a ridge, about a mile or so from their camp, below. The general boldly pointed his saber, and ordered his men to surround the camp and take as many prisoners as possible.

They descended in a column down a rocky path, and were soon immersed in low clouds and fog. Things started to get confusing, in the misty moonlight. It was a literal fog of war. Kearny ordered a trot. But one of his officers at the front, whose name was Captain Johnston, misheard. He raised his saber and shouted “Charge!”

Kearny is quoted as having exclaimed, “Oh heavens! I did not mean that!” Yeah, right. I’ll bet it was more like, “Holy shit! I didn’t say ‘charge’, goddamnit!”

The men on mules were more than a thousand yards away from Pico’s camp when they began galloping helter-skelter toward the lancers. Captain Johnston rode straight up on some of Pico’s men, and they opened fire, killing him instantly. The Californios had few guns, but they had apparently taken better care of their gunpowder than had Kearny’s dragoons.

Pico’s men grabbed their lances and horses and fled down the San Pasqual valley. An officer named Captain Moore ordered another charge, and off the unarmed dragoons galloped, pursuing the armed, retreating lancers.

The mules under Captain Moore’s dragoons were untrained, and some in poor condition. They all galloped at a different pace. Soon Moore’s men were stretched out in a thin, scraggly line, in their pursuit.

Battle of San Pasqual, by W. Francis.

Suddenly the lancers wheeled about. They realized how separated from each other their pursuers had become. And in the gray moonlight, they noticed how ungainly they rode, upon their untrained mules. And besides, they had pride. They weren’t about to allow men on mules chase them down.

They were highly skilled horsemen, these lancers. And now was time to put their skills to use. They began surrounding isolated soldiers. They swung their reatas, and lassoed them off their mules. And then they stabbed them to death with their willow lances.

Among those killed was Captain Moore.

Whenever dragoons tried to defend themselves using their firearms, all they heard was a click. They realized that with their wet gunpowder they were defenseless, and could do nothing but attempt to flee. And so the pursuers became the pursued, while being systematically hunted down in the glimmering fog, lassoed, and skewered.

Pico’s lancers surrounding Gillespie, at the Battle of San Pasqual.

Some of the lancers recognized the hated Gillespie, and they enveloped him and stabbed him repeatedly. They drove a lance into his chest, just above his heart, piercing his lung.

General Kearny was not immune. He took a lance wound to his back.

This desperate fray lasted just 15 minutes. But during that time, the lancers slaughtered 17 to 30 of Kearny’s men (accounts vary), with many others wounded.

Kearny and his soldiers fought back hard with all they had. Which was just rifle butts and sabers. But it was enough to allow Kearny, Gillespie, and the remaining survivors to retreat to a low hill, now known as Mule Hill.

Pico promptly surrounded them. And in the ensuing hours before dawn, he could have moved in and massacred them before they had a chance to dry their gunpowder. To this day it’s unclear why he did not. But it could be that he sensed the overall cause of the Californios was lost, and he was pondering the possibility of amnesty.

Kearny was blocked for several days by Pico’s lancers, and could not break through. But Kit Carson managed to slip through Pico’s lines, and headed to San Diego to alert Commodore Stockton.

Stockton quickly dispatched a force of 200 marines and sailors, who dispersed the Californios in short order. They then gave Kearny escort, helping him to finally limp into San Diego on December 12, 1846.

The Battle of San Pasqual was the bloodiest battle of the California Campaign. Both sides have claimed victory in this clash, and historians still haven’t agreed as to which side actually won.

An American historian might assert that Kearny won, in that he managed to reach San Diego with most of his men. Even if some resembled pincushions.

But a Mexican historian might argue that Pico won, in that he put Kearny at his mercy, and could have wiped him out. And he managed to stall Kearny’s advance, and inflict significant casualties on Kearny’s dragoons. And most importantly, he demonstrated to racists like Kearny, Gillespie, and Kit Carson, that Californios were neither inferior, nor cowards, and were not to be trifled with.

Hell, they beat the U.S. Cavalry. And with sticks for weapons.


The fighting hasn’t stopped. Come on back in a few days, for Part 14: The Battle of Rio San Gabriel.

Conquering California, Part 12 of 17: The Siege of Los Angeles

This is Part 12 of a 17-part series. If you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, maybe I should hold a pop quiz. Oh, what the hell. Just follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

The Siege of Los Angeles

 

Captain Gillespie thought he could push the citizens of Los Angeles around. He saw Mexicans as an inferior race, and held contempt for them for giving up the fight so quickly.

But he didn’t count on the fact that these were rough-hewn folks, who didn’t stand for much shit. Hell, they were pioneers on the California frontier, and were no strangers to hardship and trouble.

Also, they had Captain Jose Maria Flores to help them out.

Captain Flores was a Mexican patriot. He had served under Commandante General Castro. He knew how to fight, and wanted to do whatever he could to keep Alta California in the hands of Mexico.

Those who want to bully others should keep guys like Flores in mind. Remember, you can only go so far while pushing people around, before the crowds part and a heavyweight stands before you, prepared to knock your block off.

On September 23, 1846, the Siege of Los Angeles began, when a firefight erupted between 20 or so Californios, and the occupying Americans. This struck a spark that ignited the Angelenos.

The next day, Captain Flores took advantage of the fervor, and organized several hundred Californios. They besieged Gillespie’s forces, and forced them to retreat to a high point, now known as Fort Hill. Soon, 600 indignant citizens had joined Flores’ forces, and they completely surrounded the improvised fort.

Gillespie’s situation grew desperate. His men had no water, and they were so outnumbered they had no chance of holding off such an overwhelming mob of pissed off people.

On September 29, Flores issued an ultimatum. Surrender within 24 hours, or face the consequences. Which would likely be a massacre.

On September 30, Captain Gillespie surrendered. He signed articles of capitulation, and then he and his troops came down from Fort Hill. And Flores was respectful and gracious. He allowed them to march out of town with all the honors of war. The defeated troops retreated south to San Pedro, where they boarded a ship and sailed away.

Map showing the retreat route of Gillespie, to San Pedro.

Flores then began reclaiming Alta California. Within days, his forces took back Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo to the north, and the territory to the south of Los Angeles, up to, but not including San Diego. That pueblo remained in American hands.

But the war was back on.

Flores’ early successes were impressive, but a sensible military analyst might consider them to be Pyrrhic victories. His forces were stretched thin. And he had only 200 men, and few arms and ammunition. It would be very difficult for him to defend this territory.

 

The Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun

 

The U.S. military quickly responded, by sending an intimidating force of 420 Americans. This included 203 United States Marines, and an assortment of sailors and Bear Flaggers, under the command of U.S. Navy Captain William Mervine. They landed at San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles, on October 6, 1846.

But immediately upon landing, an unfortunate event occurred, when a cabin boy was killed by friendly fire. Perhaps an omen? But with such a large force, what else could possibly go wrong?

Flores, who by now was General Flores, couldn’t spare many men to counter the invaders. But he managed to dispatch 50 mounted Californio lancers, under Captain Jose Antonio Carrillo. Plus, one lone cannon.

Their lone, 4-pound brass cannon (meaning, it fired 4-pound cannonballs) had been a ceremonial cannon, fired on special occasions in the Los Angeles Plaza. When American forces initially entered Los Angeles, it had been hastily buried on the property of an old woman. Hence, it became known as the Old Woman’s Gun. When the Siege of Los Angeles began, the Californios unearthed it and deployed it for battle.

On October 7, Captain Mervine’s infantry began marching north from San Pedro, over Manuel Dominguez’ 75,000 acre, Rancho San Pedro. And while they marched, they were harassed by the enemy from the hillsides around them. Perhaps another omen?

They stopped at some abandoned adobe buildings on Dominguez’ rancho, and made camp for the night. But they didn’t get much sleep. An advance detachment of Flores’ troops kept plinking at them from a distance, sending yet more omens.

The next morning they began to advance again, with bleary eyes and weary feet. And I wouldn’t doubt they were mad as hell at the Californios, for disturbing their sleep so much. They soon came to the Dominguez Hills.

And it was here that Carrillo’s meager forces, at great peril to themselves, and against all odds, bravely confronted this mammoth American battalion.

Carrillo had his lancers run their horses back and forth across the top of the Dominguez Hills, stirring up a vast, billowing dust cloud. This made it appear that there were many more troops than just 50 lancers.

Then his forces opened fire upon the Americans, with their lone, brass cannon. The Old Woman’s Gun. They’d fire from a hidden position in some brush, then withdraw it and quickly transport it to another hidden position. They’d fire again, and withdraw again, rapidly changing positions. This made it appear that they had much more than just one cannon at their disposal.

This is an old military trick, when outnumbered and outgunned, and is sometimes surprisingly effective.

The problem for the Americans was that they were ill-prepared for combat like this. They brought no horses, wagons, or artillery with them. They could not send mounted scouts up the hills to determine just how many troops they were actually facing. And they had no wagons to hide behind, or artillery to take out the cannon (or, cannons?) that continued to fire at them.

And they were caught out in the open like sitting ducks. It was a shooting gallery, for the Mexicans.

After an hour of being shot at from various, unpredictable positions, four U.S. Marines had been killed, and 12 others had been wounded. Meanwhile, there were zero casualties on the Mexican side.

Captain Mervine had enough. He and his battered forces got the hell out of there. They beat a retreat back to San Pedro, and within five hours had boarded their ships berthed in San Pedro Bay. They brought their 12 wounded Marines with them, as no man is to be left behind, but ten died from their injuries within a day. All-in-all, 14 U.S. Marines and one cabin boy were lost in this military humiliation.*

The Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun remains one of the few battles in history lost by the United States Marine Corps.

It was now apparent that the cakewalk was over. From here on, the conquest of California would be hard fought by both sides.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 13: The Battle of San Pasqual.


*Note: Accounts vary, from four to 14 deaths. By Captain Mervine’s own account, seven died, including one death from disease. However, battlefield commanders tended to undercount their losses, to save face. So I go with the high estimate of 14, plus one cabin boy.

Conquering California, Part 11 of 17: The California Campaign Begins

This is Part 11 of a 17-part series. If your brain leaks as badly as mine, you might have forgotten what happened in the last part. Try following this link, to get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


 

The California Campaign Begins

 

By mid-July, 1846, enough news and information had reached American forces in California to leave them feeling confident that a war with Mexico had begun. However, official notice of the U.S. war declaration with Mexico did not reach them until August 12, 1846. They should have used email.

Commodore Sloat was 65-years-old and tired of all this shit. The old fart wasn’t feeling well, and he just wanted a desk job. So on July 23, he transferred command of the Pacific Squadron to Commodore Robert Stockton who, at age 50, was younger and more eager for action.

It was a smart move for Sloat, as he ended up living 21 more years.

The young and yare Stockton commanded up to 650 marines and sailors. He got busy right away, and ordered Fremont to secure immigrant volunteers to assist with the occupation of northern Alta California.

It’s hard to say how big the pool of immigrants was, for Fremont to draw from, because the Mexican census had a citizenship question that left illegal immigrants feeling wary about answering honestly. Okay, maybe not. I just made that up. But some estimate this pool to be about 800 fighting-age males. And of these, Fremont managed to enlist 160 volunteers.

In addition, Fremont also commanded the California Battalion, consisting of his 60-man expeditionary force and 150 Bear Flaggers. Thus, Fremont offered a militia of 380 men, for the disposal of Stockton.

The American marines, sailors, and militia easily took over control of cities, ports, and pueblos in northern California, including Sonoma, New Helvetia (current-day Sacramento), Yerba Buena (current-day San Francisco), and Monterey. They were even able to occupy some southern Alta California pueblos and ports. And all while only rarely firing a shot.

 

The Occupation of Los Angeles

 

But southern Alta California still concerned Commodore Stockton. 8,000 people lived there, and most were Mexican. There were very few immigrants in that region. Most of the Californios lived in the Pueblo of Los Angeles, which was the capitol of southern Alta California, under Governor Pio Pico.

A section of Los Angeles, as it appeared to artist William Rich Hutton in 1847.

Pico and the citizens of Los Angeles strongly favored keeping California out of U.S. hands. They didn’t like us gringos. Therefore, Stockton figured he might have to use military force to capture the pueblo, in order to complete the conquest of California.

Stockton ordered Fremont to San Diego, to prepare to move northward to Los Angeles, if needed. He then landed 360 men in San Pedro, about 25 miles south of the pueblo. And that’s all it took to scare the hell out of the Mexicans. When this happened, Commandante General Castro and Governor Pio Pico got cold feet, and fled to the Mexican state of Sonora.

Therefore, on August 13, 1846, Stockton’s army entered Los Angeles unopposed. And boy was he happy. He figured he had the world by the tail, with all his recent success. His increased self-confidence drugged his brain, and put to sleep much of the natural worry and caution that good military officers are advised to maintain.

In his hubris, he left U.S. Marine Captain Archibald Gillespie in charge, with a small garrison of 36 men. Think about it. Just 36 men, to rule over thousands of upset Mexicans.

This was the same Gillespie, then a Lieutenant, who in May, had found Fremont in Oregon, and delivered the message from Washington that war was imminent. He may have been a good messenger, but putting this man in charge of a town like Los Angeles proved to be a mistake. Gillespie’s head was too big, and his garrison was too small.

Stockton left town, trusting Gillespie could handle the trivial matter of keeping order in this conquered pueblo. But he didn’t count on all this new authority going to Gillespie’s head. The captain realized that here he was, with a new, higher rank, and in charge of an entire town! And as far as he was concerned nobody had better dare challenge his authority.

Gillespie began behaving like a tyrant. He imposed martial law, which left the locals very angry. Then he and his garrison began browbeating and bullying the citizens. And they were a proud people, these citizens, who shared Governor Pico’s sentiments about U.S. occupation.

There was no way in hell they were going to stand for such disrespect coming from a pendejo like Gillespie.


Come on back in a few days, for Part 12: The Siege of Los Angeles.

« Older Entries