Category Archives: Conquering California

Conquering California, Part 10 of 17: A Revolting End

This is Part 10 of a 17-part series. If you’ve already forgotten what happened in the last part, do what I did, follow this link, and get yourself up-to-date.

To start at the beginning, follow this link.


A Revolting End


It was time for Plan B, for the Californios. All of Commandante General Castro’s forces in San Pablo retreated to Santa Clara, about 50 miles south. On June 30, 1846, they held a council of war, where they decided they needed to combine their strength with Governor Pio Pico’s southern forces. Then they could move north again and quash the Bear Flag Revolt.

On July 6, the army moved south again, to Mission San Juan Bautista, near Monterey, where General Castro was waiting. But the next day, somebody stopped thinking, and pondering, and mulling things over, and Plan B was dashed.

That someone who was thinking, pondering, and mulling things over, was Commodore John D. Sloat, of the U.S. Navy. He had received orders to seize San Francisco Bay and blockade California ports. But not until he was positive that war had begun. What a tricky order to follow! His superior officers knew how to cover their asses, by issuing such a vague order, and so Sloat had to figure out how to cover his own ass.

Sloat had been waiting in Monterey Bay since July 1 to obtain convincing proof of war.

He felt hesitant, but he finally decided it was better to err on the side of war, than do nothing and allow an opportune moment to slip by. He made this decison after several days of thinking and pondering and mulling over Fremont’s bold actions. He erroneously concluded that Fremont must have been acting on orders from Washington. Hell, he had to have been. After all, no normal military officer would have the audacity to do all the things Fremont was doing, without orders. Right? Hmm.

Sloat gave the go-ahead. And early in the morning of July 7, the frigate USS Savannah and the two sloops USS Cyane and USS Levant of the United States Navy, captured Monterey without firing a shot. And they raised the U.S. flag. Commodore Sloat had a proclamation in Monterey posted in English and Spanish, stating, “. . . henceforth California will be a portion of the United States.”

Old Glory being raised in Monterey, by the U.S. Navy.

On July 9, Sloat’s forces raised the American flag in Yerba Buena (current-day San Francisco).

Around that same time, Navy Lieutenant Joseph Revere was sent to Sonoma from the USS Portsmouth, which had been berthed at Sausalito. And on July 9, he had the Bear Flag lowered in Sonoma, and replaced by the U.S. flag. Soon after, the same flag replacement occurred at Sutter’s Fort.

So just like that, without a sputter, fizzle, or whimpering protest, the Bear Flag Revolt and California Republic came to an abrupt end.

One can only wonder how history would have played out, had the Bear Flaggers been better organized, and more competent and capable at conducting a revolution. Suppose they’d had a strong, intelligent leader within their own ranks, who thought for himself rather than relied upon the vulpine brain of the calculating Fremont?

And suppose that leader had found a way to unite with Californios, for independence? Would they have capitulated so quickly to the ambitions of the U.S. government? Or would they have resisted, and would California have remained an independent republic to this day?

We can only speculate. But as it stands, the California Republic lasted a mere 25 days, from June 14 to July 9, 1846.

And with the end of the Bear Flag Revolt came a new beginning. The beginning of the California Campaign of the Mexican-American War, to capture the remainder of California from Mexico. The task won’t be easy. There will be blood.

Come on back in a few days, for Part 11: The California Campaign Begins.

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.

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.

A cannon at Mission Sonoma. But not much use to the Bears, without gunpowder.

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.

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.

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.

Conquering California, Part 5 of 17: Fremont’s Return


This is Part 5 of a 17-part series. 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, follow this link.


Drive-by Massacres


He may have fumed about it, but he did as he was told by U.S. Consul Larkin. Fremont headed north for Oregon. But that was a long journey by horseback, and lots of things can happen on long journeys.

On March 30, 1846, his expedition reached the Lassen Ranch, in the upper Sacramento Valley. There, some American immigrants claimed that an encampment of Indians was preparing to attack white settlers.

This news offered just the kind of action Fremont and his men had been craving. They eagerly searched for the encampment. And on April 5, they encountered a large gathering of the Wintu tribe, near the current-day city of Redding, California.

Fremont ordered an advance on the camp.

The Wintu were pinned against the Sacramento River, and were unable to flee. They consisted mostly of women and children. They fought back as best as possible, but were no match for the well-armed advancing force.

Kit Carson was one of the attackers, and he described it as “perfect butchery”. Bucks, squaws, and papooses were cut down en masse by rifle fire. Many natives fled for the hills, or jumped in the river and tried to swim away. But they were chased down by Fremont’s men and tomahawked to death. Other members of the expedition stood on the river bank and took potshots at natives trying to swim to safety.

Up to 700 natives were killed on land, and 200 in the water, making the Sacramento River Massacre one of the bloodiest massacres of the West.

Fremont’s expedition continued into Oregon, killing Native Americans on sight, as they went. It was sort of like a modern-day, drive-by shooting rampage.

In the Oregon Territory, his forces met and murdered some of the Klamath people. But on May 9, 1846, they retaliated against Fremont, by killing several members of his expedition. Three days later Fremont conducted the Klamath Lake Massacre to “set things square”, killing 14 members of a nearby village.

But that’s how massacre math was done in those days. You set things square by taking the number of deaths on your side, then squaring it, and squaring it again. And that’s how many you kill on their side.


Fremont’s Return


In the middle of all this excitement, a U.S. Marine appeared. Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie had been sent from Washington with a secret message for both U.S. Consul Larkin, and Captain Fremont. On May 9, the same day the Klamath tribe killed members of Fremont’s party, Gillespie finally caught up with the man he was pursuing, and delivered the message. This message conveyed to the explorer that war with Mexico was inevitable.

Fremont’s eyes lit up when he read this missive. He saw an opportunity to realize his father-in-law’s Manifest Destiny ambitions, and get in really good with his wife’s side of the family. He and Gillespie immediately returned to California.

Meanwhile, more winds of war were blowing. U.S. Consul Larkin had sent a request to Commodore John D. Sloat of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron, for a warship to protect U.S. citizens and interests in Alta California. Sloat responded by sending the USS Portsmouth, which arrived in Monterey on April 22, 1846.

USS Portsmouth, sailing to the rescue.

Larkin and the Portsmouth captain, John Berrien Montgomery, learned of Fremont’s return to California. They figured the army Captain might need some support, so the Portsmouth was moved into San Francisco Bay in late-May, where it moored at Sausalito.

On May 24, 1846, Fremont arrived back at Lassen Ranch, in the upper Sacramento Valley, ready and hoping for war. There he learned about the presence of the USS Portsmouth.

He sent Lieutenant Gillespie to Sausalito to request supplies, including 8,000 percussion caps, 300 pounds of lead, one keg of powder, money, and food. His official reason for making this request was the pretext of supplying his expedition for the trip back to St. Louis. Yeah, right.

On May 30, 1846, Fremont arrived near Sutter Buttes, about 45 miles north of Sutter’s Fort, and set up camp. He decided his first move should be to take Sutter’s Fort and raise the American flag. Sutter’s Fort was in New Helvetia, which is now known as Sacramento.

Near the site of Fremont’s encampment, at Sutter Buttes. (Photo by Isaac Crumm, 1/6/07, from Wikipedia)

But first, there was more slaughtering to do. Local Native American groups were on the move, preparing for a harvest. But the paranoid Fremont imagined they were actually preparing for an imminent attack. So on May 31, he preemptively attacked the natives and killed several, in the Sutter Buttes Massacre.

Lieutenant Gillespie found the Portsmouth on June 7, and delivered Fremont’s request for supplies. These supplies were then taken by the ship’s launch, up the Sacramento River, to a site near Fremont’s camp at Sutter Buttes.

Come on back in a few days, for Part 6: The Instigation.

Conquering California, Part 4 of 17: The Instigator

This is Part 4 of a 17-part series. 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, follow this link.




Army Captain John C. Fremont seemed like the perfect man for a dirty job. A dangerous and dirty job that Polk had in mind. He was raffish and reckless. Daring and arrogant. He knew the West. And most importantly, he shared President Polk’s political views on westward expansion.

Fremont was an American explorer who had already headed two successful expeditions. In 1842 and 1843, he had explored the Oregon Trail, Great Basin, and parts of California.

Bosom buddies: Kit Carson, standing on the left, and Fremont, seated on the right.

And he had friends in low places. During his expedition of 1842, he met a mountain man and guide named Kit Carson. He hired Carson, and they got along so well, and Carson proved so helpful, that Fremont wanted to use him in all future expeditions.

Fremont was also well-connected politically. He was married to Jessie Benton, the daughter of the powerful Senator Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri. Senator Benton was avidly in favor of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny. Benton’s dream was for the United States to take over the entire North American continent. Yep, that included Canada, Mexico, and all the Central American countries. Benton wanted it all.

Benton had arranged Fremont’s expeditions of 1842 and 1843. But now he and President Polk had a much more intriguing expedition in mind. It involved some unscrupulous black ops for the government, that required great secrecy.

In 1845 he arranged for his son-in-law to survey the central Rockies, Great Basin, and part of the Sierra Nevada. But Fremont was secretly told that if war started with Mexico, he was to turn his scientific expedition into a military force and conquer California.

And he may have been told by his father-in-law, or maybe by the president himself, a few other things. Not specific things, but hint-hint inferred things. Things that require reading between the lines, taking initiative, and assuming all responsibility should everything go south.

The young explorer gladly accepted this assignment. He was eager to please his father-in-law, and anxious to prove himself in the line of duty.

Fremont began his 62-man expedition on June 1, 1845. But when he reached the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains, near present-day Colorado Springs, where he was supposed to start surveying, he suddenly tossed away his official orders. He struck out across the vast no-man’s land of alpine, canyon, and desiccated desert, that separated the Rockies from the Pacific Ocean.

California was burning on his mind.

He split his party up. And on December 9, 1845, he arrived with just 17 men, at Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley. He claimed to be conducting a scientific survey. However, he began to persuade a motley mix of American settlers to form militias and prepare for a rebellion against Mexico. He promised that if war with Mexico started, his military force would protect the settlers.

Then Fremont headed for Monterey, which was the traditional capitol of Alta California, and the heaquarters of Commandante General Jose Castro. There, he lied to the American Consul, Thomas O. Larkin, and Commandante Castro, claiming that he had merely come for supplies.

Commandante General Jose Castro.

In February 1846, Fremont reunited with his other 45 men, near Mission San Jose, about 45 miles north of Monterey. Now his forces were an alarming 62-man strong, and Commandante Castro and other Mexican officials realized they’d been duped. And they wondered what the hell this American upstart was up to.

Castro had enough of this shit and ordered him to leave California.

Well that was a big mistake, as far as Fremont was concerned. Nobody tells the Almighty Fremont to leave! So instead of going away, he and his crew of heavily armed surveyors headed south.

In early March 1846, they mounted Gavilan Peak (now Fremont Peak), to assess its military value. This peak commands the inland approach to Monterey. There, with astounding audacity, Fremont built a crude stockade and hoisted an American flag.

Castro responded to this insane provocation with a show of force, and a four-day Mexican standoff ensued. A Mexican standoff occurs when two parties square off, and neither party is able to proceed or retreat without putting itself in danger. So they must each hold their ground, while waiting for something to happen that would afford them a chance to end the confrontation.

And something finally did happen. U.S. Consul Larkin got involved, and was able to intervene. He told this crazy explorer that he supported Castro’s decision, and ordered Fremont out of the area.

Castro had a superior number of Mexican troops, so Fremont decided that maybe it was best to follow Larkin’s order.

Come on back in a few days, for Part 5: Fremont’s Return.

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