It was a short-lived episode in American history, and yet it was more far-reaching than anyone at the time could have imagined.
The Republic of California, which existed for just 25 days between June and July 1846, laid the foundation for the territory’s entry into the United States.
But his most visible legacy is the current official state flagwhich waves ubiquitously and is reproduced a thousand times on postcards, t-shirts, mugs and other merchandise of what cool.
It is very likely that you will recognize it: on a white background, its central motif is a bear grizzy or gray — Ursus arctos horribilisa subspecies of the brown bear that disappeared years ago from these parts and today is only found in areas of the northwestern United States, Canada and the Kamchatka Peninsula (Siberia)—walking on green grass and a red star.
At the bottom, above a red stripe and with a typography sans serifhas written California Republic.
The flag pays homage to the one they raised 176 years ago in the plaza of Sonomaa town — today a city — north of San Francisco, some American settlers of European origin who had risen up against the government of Mexico, to which that territory called Alta California then belonged.
It was precisely because of the rebel banner that the event is known as the Bear Flag Revolt.
But experts agree that its origin began to take shape in the neighboring territory: Texas.
The Texas Precedent
In the mid-19th century, Mexico controlled vast tracts in what is now the southwestern United States.
Deeply worn and impoverished by the 11 years of war that led to its independence and with the aim of improving its economy, the Mexican government promoted the colonization of said territories, among them the Californias, New Mexico and Texas.
To do this, it would allow the sale of quantities of land at a low price, on credit and with tax exemption and customs for five years to any foreigner who wanted to become a Mexican citizen and agreed to abide by Mexican law.
As a result, large numbers of people from other countries settled on the fertile plains of Texas and became legal citizens, including scores of Americans. According to reports by General Manuel Mier y Terán, who later became an insurgent, for every Mexican there were at that time eight English-speakers.
The increasingly marked tensions between the population led, in 1835, to a separatist rebellion from which the Republic of Texasan independent colonist-led nation that lasted until the US Congress voted in 1845 to add it to the union.
In January of the following year, President James K. Polk would authorize General Zacarias Taylor to advance with his troops towards the Rio Grande (Rio Grande for the US), Mexican territory. And after clashes with the troops of the Mexican army, the US declared war on them in March 1846.
The US declaration of war against Mexico would not be known in Alta California until July, but with the precedent of Texas, the Californios -Mexican inhabitants- were aware that their government was “too poor, unstable and weak” to prevent American colonists from taking control.
So he tells the magazine History Linda Heidenreich, who in her book This Land Was Mexican Once (“This Land Was Once Mexican”) examines the Latino experience in the Bear Flag Revolt and other insurrections.
It was in this context that the explorer and US Army officer John C. Frémont arrived at Fort Sutter (near present-day Sacramento, the capital of the state of California) with a group of soldiers.
Officially on a scientific expedition, it is not clear if he was given the task by the president of encouraging a rebellion of Americans also in Alta California.
Be that as it may, “word spreadwhether it was true or not, of the Mexican government was preparing to expel all Americansand that they would have to leave without their cattle or their weapons,” local chronicler and veteran journalist Gay LeBaron tells BBC Mundo.
“And the idea of leaving Alta California like that and going back into the void, because at that time everything between California and the Missouri River was Indian territory (of native peoples), it was overwhelming,” he continues. “That is the argument that has gone down in history as the reason for the start of the Bear Flag Revolt.”
The uprising of “the bears”
On June 10, a group of settlers led by the fur trapper Ezekiel Merritt he crossed the Sacramento River and headed for Sonoma.
They called themselves “the bears”, inspired by the animal that at that time still inhabited the valley. The insurrection was imminent.
Along the way, more men joined them, until adding about 30 by the time they arrived at the municipality June 14according to the historian and ethnologist Hubert Howe Bancroft in his chronicles on the West.
There they surrounded the house of the military commander Mariano G. Vallejo, who after a brief negotiation surrendered and was taken prisoner.
Barely 24 hours after the arrival of the “bears”, the rebel banner flew in the Sonoma square.
The manufacture of the flag was supervised by William L. Todd, nephew of Mary Todd, wife of the future president Abraham Lincoln, it is told on the page of the California Museum, a state center located in Sacramento.
A California woman donated a piece of tan muslin, and the partner of John Sears, one of the rebels, sewed a red stripe torn from a petticoat down the bottom. They then drew a star in the upper left corner and a bear next to it, using a brownish mixture of brick dust, linseed oil, and Venetian red paint, and wrote California Republic in black, in the center.
A republic had been born, as proclaimed by William Ide, whom the rebels chose as their leader. It wouldn’t last long though.
The 26th of June fremont he officially began his campaign to annex California to the US, starting from Fort Sutter with 130 men, Bancroft said. He arrived in Sonoma on July 3 and immediately got commanding the “bears”.
Four days later, on July 7, a US Navy frigate and two sloops, under the command of Commodore John D. Sloat, defeated the Mexican Coast Guard from the port of Monterey, California.
In view of this, the bear flaggers they abandoned the idea of creating an independent republic and joined the fight to incorporate Alta California into the United States.
The Stars and Stripes flag replaced the Bear flag in Sonoma Square.
The US invasion of Mexico ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in 1848, by which the latter formally ceded Alta California and other territories, and the Texas border was established on the Rio Grande. The US thus came to have 2.1 million square kilometers more under its dominions. And the Mexican territory was reduced by 55%.
The way in which California was annexed to the US totally marked the future dynamics of that state, Alex Abell, journalist and author of Under the Burning Sunset (“Under the burning sun”), a saga of the era of California ranches.
“If it had voluntarily entered the union, it could have imported its own laws and customs, but as a conquered territory, it was subject to American law,” he explains.
“And the Californians had instituted a democratic, paternalistic and often beset by political conflicts, but multiethnic and racially integrated, while the Americans, among other things, denied civil rights to blacks and natives,” he continues.
Heidenreich also points to a change in social hierarchies: “In both California and Texas a new racial system was created. And those who had considered themselves Spanish or white came to be seen as brown or to be called greasers“he told the magazine History. They were already second-class citizens in their own land.
The outlook would be strengthened with the discovery of gold in Coloma, near Sacramento. The ensuing “gold rush” transformed California from a sparsely populated region to a bustling economic center controlled by white Americans.
But to all this, what happened to the “bear flag”?
From the flag of the republic to that of the state
The original banner flown by the rebels in Sonoma was eventually donated to the California Pioneer Society, established in 1850.
“But it was lost during the great earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906,” Ted Kaye, secretary of the North American Vexillology Association (NAVA, for its acronym in English), explains to BBC Mundo.
Even so, the basic design of the bear, the star and the text California Republic it continued to be used by a group called Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, an organization of pioneers and their descendants, says the flag expert.
And that same group promoted In 1911 the California State Legislature adopted the bear flag as the official state flag. (The one used today was the 1953 standardized version.)
However, because of what the insurrection meant to the original inhabitants, Abella thinks it’s time for California to ditch the bear flag.
“It’s time for California to get rid of that flag, a symbol of flagrant illegality and prejudice racial,” he wrote in an article published in Los Angeles Times in 2015, a position that — he tells BBC Mundo — he continues to maintain.
Opinions like yours have not been made public.
“That is part of the problem in California: that this is a culture in which we are always emphasizing the future, the future, what we can create, and not what has been,” he tells BBC Mundo.
“We have a tendency to forget what happened, not realizing that many times, by not examining the past, we are doomed to repeat it.”
Other experts consulted for this article agree that there has been no revisionist movement.
But what does seem to be there is a growing awareness that the Bear Flag Revolt is “a complex story greatly simplified”.
This is what Alexis Boutin believes, an archaeologist who studies human skeletal remains, an expert in the Middle East, who teaches at Sonoma State University and who got fully involved in the subject when in 2014 a local group began looking for the graves of two Americans killed during the insurrection.
“One of the simplifications is that it was a bloodless revolt. But obviously there was: we were precisely looking for people who had died in it, ”he recalls about the project.
“And through my research I realized that they had not only murdered Americans of European descent, but also Californians Y to Mexican-Americansand that the story had many faces”, he tells BBC Mundo.
Over the years, he assures that it is being recognized “more and more the complexity of the history, of how people of multiple ethnic origins were involved in the revolt, that back then the bear flaggers they were illegal immigrants,” he says.
“As recognition of the multicultural nature of our society grows, and as acceptance and inclusion grows, this history is beginning to be addressed, albeit very slowly, in a more critical way“.
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