Today was the 163rd Anniversary of California’s Bear Flag Revolt. So we went down to Sonoma Plaza to see the annual ceremony. To bring you up to speed, the Revolt was an incident during the Mexican American War (the war that produced the Alamo) where a group of American settlers stormed onto Sonoma Plaza, took the California Governor, General Mariano Vallejo, prisoner and declared California a Republic under the protection of the United States. The Republic itself lasted about a month before American troops came in and replaced the Bear Flag with the Stars and Stripes. A month after that, US gunships took the Mexican Naval stronghold of Monterey and California was well on its way to transitioning from Mexican to US property.
Hearing about it this way makes it all sound very Bunker Hill. The little hometown ceremony, ably conducted by the Native Sons of the Golden West, stressed the heroic nature of these Bear Flaggers. There was even a nice letter from the Governator praising these historical figures for ushering in the birth of California statehood.
All fine and dandy, but not quite the real story. And the real story is so much more fun. Until it comes to the sad part. But first the humor.
According to accounts I’ve read, the Bear Flag Revolters were actually sort of revolting. They were rough and tumble settlers and miners who had been allowed to homestead in California, but under Mexican law, were denied the benefits of citizenship and in some cases being deported. (Quel ironie considering today’s immigration issues!) The Bear Flag Revolt, rather than being a spontaneous patriotic response to the Mexican American War, was more like a drunken brawl. After much liquor, a plan was hatched and a flag was hastily painted up. (Trivia note: the flag was made by a William Todd, a first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln. Not that that has anything to do with the story.) The rabble of thirty or so smelly miners then stormed on to the Plaza and planted the flag. Right where a plaque stands today. According to some contemporary accounts, most passing Mexican citizens had no idea what was going on and gave the whole thing little attention. The flag was apparently so crudely made that many Sonoma citizens thought it was a pig. The group then staggered their way over to Vallejo’s house and told him he was a prisoner.
Vallejo, ironically, had previously come to the conclusion that perhaps an alliance with the United States would provide better governance for California than the distant and corrupt Mexican government. And being the gentleman that he was, Vallejo humored the rabble of Bear Flaggers by serving them a meal and some of the wine from his vineyards while attempting to calm them down. But he made note in his diaries that the Bear Flag rabble wasn’t exactly the type of American government he wanted to welcome:
“If the men who hoisted the ‘Bear Flag‘ had raised the flag that Washington sanctified by his abnegation and patriotism, there would have been no war on the Sonoma frontier, for all our minds were prepared to give a brotherly embrace to the sons of the Great Republic, whose enterprising spirit had filled us with admiration. Ill-advisedly, however, as some say, or dominated by a desire to rule without let or hindrance, as others say, they placed themselves under the shelter of a flag that pictured a bear, an animal that we took as the emblem of rapine and force. This mistake was the cause of all the trouble, for when the Californians saw parties of men running over their plains and forests under the ‘Bear Flag,’ they thought that they were dealing with robbers and took the steps they thought most effective for the protection of their lives and property.”
Check the link above to General Vallejo to hear the whole story of how he was eventually disposessed of most of his land, despite very friendly overatures to the American Government. My concern now is this Bear Flag Celebration. It was lovely. The Seabee Cadets presented the colors, the Native Sons of the Golden West read a little of the history. It as all very dignified and orderly. But wouldn’t it have been so much more fun if the Native Sons had dressed as drunken miners and recreated the whole crazy scene. Then someone playing Vallejo could have circulated among the crowd serving wine and calming us all down. And where was that Pig-Grizzly flag? Let’s have a little more authenticity, folks.
I hung around as long as I could, sure that there would be a drunken miner recreation. I’m convinced I saw one in years past. But maybe it was just in my wishful thinking.
Besides, Andy, as an Englishman, gets very nervous at American ceremonies celebrating the defeat of colonizers. A sore spot I guess. He was hopping up and down on one foot and saying he needed to get to the other side of the Square for a latte. He’s the same way on the Fourth of July.
So we left without seeing if there would be a drunken miners recreation.
I’d suggest it to the Native Sons, but I don’t want them to react badly and ban me from their chicken barbecue which happens later on today. It’s one great chicken barbecue.
But I still maintain that strict authenticity would have really spiced up the doings. If the Native Sons want to go for it next year, we’ll supply the wine.