Mexican California and the Bear Flag Revolt

No one can fully understand the relationship between Mexico and the United States without also understanding the history of Spain, of New Spain, its transition to the Republic of Mexico, and of course the concomitant relationships between the American colonies in rebellion, the emerging United States, and Spain.

Mexico’s war of independence from Spain was not a single, coherent even.  It was a series of evolutionary local and regional struggles that culminated in a revolutionary civil war.  Armed insurgency did develop, but in the beginning, Mexican independence wasn’t inevitable.  Events inside New Spain were ignited by happenings in Europe, including Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain in 1808 and subsequent questions about the legitimacy of crown rule, owing to the fact that Napoleon placed his brother Joseph on the Spanish throne.  The issue was further complicated by the establishment of regional juntas ostensibly designed to maintain the authority of the House of Bourbon throughout Spanish America.

Flag of New Spain

Flag of New Spain 1542-1821

The first challenges to Spanish Crown rule in the Americas (New Spain) was over elitist’s disaffection with the Crown’s policy of cancelling encomienda grants following the death of grant holders.  It was thus a matter of self-interest that led Don Martín Cortés y Zúñiga, 2nd Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca (1532–1589), the son of Hernan Cortes, to conspire against the Crown.  Spanish authorities solved this problem by exiling Don Martin and executing his co-conspirators.  In an unrelated event in 1624, elites ousted a reformist viceroy who sought to break up rackets (from which they profited) and curtail clerical power in New Spain.

By these examples, we can see that the Age of Revolution was well underway when Napoleon invaded the Iberian Peninsula and destabilized Spain and its overseas possessions.  It is also important to remember that the American colonies successfully gained their independence in 1783 with the help of both the Spanish Empire and France’s Louis XVI —not because they were necessarily fond of  Anglo colonists, but because of their contentious relationship with the British Empire.

The extent to which the American Revolution may have inspired the French Revolution of 1789, or the Mexican Revolution of 1810 does offer us an interesting discussion, but what we know to be true is that revolutionary tension in New Spain was a consequence of efforts by the Spanish Crown to increase its power, decrease the influence of the Catholic Church, exercise greater control over the royal bureaucracy, and undermine the financial position of American-born Spanish elites through increased taxes.

Mexico wasn’t alone.  Beginning In 1808, Spanish-American colonies, one by one, began a move toward independence from Spain.  Spanish California felt the effects of rebellion even before the movement took firm root.  Spain’s navy, hard-pressed for ships, was unable to resupply California’s missions, presidios, and pueblos north of San Diego.  The resulting increased demand for goods prompted local authorities to ignore Spanish policies by relaxing trade restrictions imposed on non-Spanish merchants.  It was a matter of colonial survival and having thus opened the door to foreign influence in Alta California, Californios (California-born Spaniards)  became accustomed to contact with sailors, merchants, hunters, and trappers from England, France, Russia, and, of course, the United States.

Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla

Fa. Miguel Hidalgo

In any case, after Napoleon’s invasion of Spain in 1808, the legitimacy of Viceroy José de Iturrigaray came into question.  Concurrently, the question of autonomy for New Spain arose from among liberal minded American-born Spaniards.  Conservative elements opposed this proposition and when Iturrigaray attempted to mediate a solution between the two factions, Gabriel de Yermo led a coup d’état against the Viceroy.  Iturrigaray was deposed and imprisoned.  In his place, Pedro de Garibay was installed as viceroy.  Of course, since Garibay was not a crown appointee, he in turn was viewed as illegitimate by creoles.  Radical conspiracies such as these led to the armed insurrection of Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.  It was the spark that ignited Mexico’s War of Independence, which lasted from 1810 to 1821.

Cross of Burgundy CA Flag

The Cross of Burgundy Flag was California’s first flag, symbolizing Spain’s authority

Word of Mexico’s independence reached Alta California in 1822.  The Republic of Mexico vacated Spanish trade restrictions (which were being ignored anyway) and not only were Californios allowed to trade with foreigners, they were encouraged to do so.  Another important policy shift concerned foreign immigration and settlement.  The Mexican Republic decreed that foreign-born persons could hold title to Mexican land once they had become naturalized citizens of Mexico and converted to Catholicism[1].  In Spanish California, land grants to individuals were few, with title to the land always remaining with the Crown.  Under Mexican law, governors were encouraged to increase land grants for individual ranchos and make them unconditional.  Perhaps most important of all, Mexico’s government was intent upon secularizing the missions, which is to say, remove the control of Franciscan priests over native Americans and mission property.

Secularization began in earnest in California around 1834.  Theoretically, Franciscan priests administered mission lands in trust for native-Americans living there when the missionaries first arrived, but the fact was that very few Indians benefitted from the mission system while it was still going strong; they certainly didn’t benefit from it at its end.  Supposedly, each Indian family who remained loyal to the faith and their mission was guaranteed a small allotment of land, and some did receive it, but the handful of Indians who tried to make these lands productive gave up after a few years and moved back to the wilderness.  California’s natural state is wasteland[2].

Most of the missions’ adobe churches and outbuildings quickly fell into disrepair, even despite the hard work of dedicated priests who struggled to continue their ministries.  Ultimately, most mission lands were disposed of in large grants to white Californios, or to recently arrived, well-connected immigrants from Mexico.  Between 1821-1834, Mexico issued fifty grants for large ranchos (on average measuring 14 square miles).  Between 1834-1846, Mexico encouraged settlement of Alta California by offering well over 600 large grants of land to citizens of Mexico.

Mexico Flag 1823

Mexican Flag of 1823

Thus, after 1834, a new culture sprang up in California: the legendary life of the ranchero and his family in a society where cattle-raising and the marketing of beef and hides became the central focus of economic life.  Along with the end of the missions came the end of any interest in local manufacturing.  California ranchers, their lands generally close to the southern California coast, became more and more dependent on the goods provided by the foreign merchants who went to California in search of hides.

As British, Canadian, and Americans pioneers made their way to the Pacific Northwest (present-day Oregon and Washington) there was an inevitable encroachment of non-Mexicans into northern California.  In increasing numbers, British, Canadian, and American trappers and Mountain Men made their way into northern California and across the Sierras further south.

Before 1824, there were few permanent residents of non-Hispanic birth living in Alta California, but their numbers steadily increased during the early Mexican California period.  The first citizens from the United States to arrive overland in California were trappers led by Jedediah Smith in 1826.  The first organized group of settlers from the United States who crossed the high plains to California was the party led by John Bidwell and John Bartleson in 1841.

Once in California, Bidwell went to work for Johann August Sutter (1803-1880), the most important of the foreign immigrants in Mexican California.  A German-born Swiss businessman, Sutter arrived in San Francisco in 1839 and obtained an enormous grant of 48,000 acres at the junction of the Sacramento and American Rivers, where he established “New Helvetia,” a settlement with a fort, orchards, vineyards, and wheat fields.  Sutter’s Fort soon became a stopover for Anglo settlers who followed the Bidwell party through the Sierras (including survivors of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846).  Added to this population were trappers and hunters who wanted to settle down, and merchant sailors who jumped ship.

California Red Star Flag 1836

California’s Red Star Flag 1836

Mexico had always had trouble managing its distant provinces; true in Texas, and equally true in California.  The last governor sent to California from Mexico City was Joseph Manuel María Joaquín Micheltorena y Llano[3] who served briefly from 1842-1845.  Micheltorena took with him to California a dozen or so soldiers and criminals who he employed as enforcers to carry out his policies.  The Rancheros rebelled and Micheltorena was defeated at the Battle of Providencia.  He afterward left California and was replaced by the locally popular Pío de Jesús Pico who was elected to office on 22 February 1845.  Unofficially, in electing Pico, California had achieved home rule.  Eighteen months later, California would encounter an even greater challenge.

At the beginning of 1846, California was home to a native population of less than 100,000[4] and around 14,000 permanent (Mexican) residents.  Of the total non-native inhabitants, 2,500 were foreign born.  Of those, around 500 individuals arrived from the United States after 1840.

Diplomacy is an art and a science.  It is an art because it involves the function of establishing and maintaining affable relations with individuals representing their own countries, whose history, traditions and cultural values are quite often unique and disparate.  It is a science because of combinations of complicated factors that challenge those relationships.  No one has ever accused the United States of having a tradition of competent diplomats.  Accordingly, diplomatic relations between the United States and Mexico have been both warm and contentious.

At the beginning, the question of recognizing Mexico as an independent state politically divided high-ranking officials of the United States (such as Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams).  Hesitation in doing so may have been a genuine desire to heed George Washington’s advice and avoid foreign entanglements, or it may have been the product of anti-Papist sentiments among the United States’ protestant elite.  Nevertheless, the United States did recognize Mexico in 1822, but America’s push for territorial expansion led Mexican officials to question the trustworthiness of the United States government.  These Mexican officials were at least endowed with a keen sense of the obvious.

Recognition of Mexico became official when President James Monroe received José Manuel Zozaya as Mexico’s Minister to the United States and reciprocated by sending Joel Robert Poinsett as its first Envoy to Mexico City on 1 June 1825.

Northern Mexico was a vast, untamed wasteland known, in Spanish, as Tejas.  Few Mexicans resided there.  It was a harsh land mostly populated by vicious hostiles.  Mexico no more “controlled” this area than it did Michigan, so at the time it seemed like a good idea to offer citizenship to Anglos who were willing to risk their lives by settling Tejas.  The history of this relationship is well known to us, but for a review see the series in this blog titled Spanish America, Spanish Texas, and Mexican Texas.

No one could describe the relationship between the United States and Mexico as entirely friendly, or at least do so while maintaining a somber expression.  Cordial on occasion, yes … but never friendly.  Never trusting.  The same can be said about the relationship between citizens of Mexico and the United States.  Cordial?  On the surface, yes.  Respectful?  No.  And this mutual distrust, contempt —or call it what you will, has existed for so long now that I cannot imagine it will ever change.

In 1836, Anglo settlers in Texas declared their independence from Mexico.  The United States recognized the Republic of Texas (as an independent country) on 7 March 1837.  The first President of Mexico, Sam Houston, always believed that the success of Texas would depend on its annexation to the United States, which is what Mexican officials always believed was a long-term goal of the expansionist United States.  On 23 August 1843, Mexico’s foreign minister informed US Envoy to Mexico, Waddy Thompson[5], that US annexation of Texas would be grounds for war with Mexico.

On 1 March 1845, outgoing President John Tyler signed a congressional joint resolution favoring annexation of Texas.  Three days later, newly inaugurated President James Knox Polk noted his approval of “a reunion” of the Texas Republic with the United States.  Mexico promptly severed diplomatic relations with the United States on 28 March 1845.

The border of Texas, as an independent country, was never the subject of agreement between Texians and Mexicans; in fact, Mexico rejected the idea that Texas was an independent country at all.  In their view, Texas was a Mexican state in rebellion and nothing more.  Nevertheless, Texians claimed the Rio Grande as its southern border (Treaty of Velasco), but Mexico argued that the term “Rio Grande” was actually the Nueces River, since in Mexico, the Rio Grande is called Rio Bravo.  Reference to the Rio Grande as a boundary of Texas was omitted from the Congressional resolution in order to help secure its passage in the US Senate.  President Polk, of course, a chum of Sam Houston, claimed the Rio Grande and when Mexico sent forces across it into southern Texas to stake its claim, armed dispute resulted.


General Zachary Taylor

In July 1845, President Polk dispatched General Zachary Taylor to Texas; by early October, Taylor commanded 3,500 American troops on the Nueces River.  He was ready to seize the disputed land by force.  While this was going on, Polk assured the US Envoy in Alta California that the United States had no ambitions in California, but at the same time, as a post-script, the president offered to support the independence movements of Californios.

When Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, Alta California became a territory (as opposed to a full state), it’s capital in Monterey.  Between 1821 and 1848, Mexico experienced 40 changes in government, an average tenure in office of about 8 months … and Alta California, a vast though sparsely settled backwater that paid little to nothing in revenues to the Mexican state, was largely ignored.  Foreign-born settlers in Alta California were always a minority, but their numbers were increasing with more births than deaths.  Nearly all migration to California was by sea, which serves to illustrate California’s relative isolation.

Hostilities with Mexico began after Texas was admitted as the United States’ 28th state on 29 December 1845.  Several armed engagements between Mexican and US forces in Texas led the United States Congress to declare war against Mexico on 13 May 1846.  Californios first learned of this war in June.

In 1846, the only regular armed force available to the United States in California were sailors and Marines serving aboard ships of the Pacific Squadron.  Anticipating that war with Mexico would result from the admission of Texas (or, perhaps, the hope that such events would take place), the US Navy sent additional vessels to the Pacific “to protect American interests.”  Eventually, nearly half of the Navy’s 30 ships of war were operating off the coast of California.

Fremont J C 001

John C. Fremont US Army

The only other military force then in California was a company of thirty US Army topographers, mountain men, guides, explorers, and hunters.  The company commander of this odd group was Captain John C. Fremont[6].  Fremont’s supposed mission on the Pacific Coast was to explore the Great Basin, but Fremont was carrying secret orders and instructions[7] in case of war with Mexico.  Upon his arrival in California at the end of 1845, technically an illegal encroachment, Fremont defied local authorities who questioned him about his purpose for being in California.  Eventually, Fremont agreed to lead his party out of California.

Fremont and  his men were in the process of leaving California (en route to present-day Oregon) when they learned that a state of war existed between the US and Mexico.  He led his men south back into California and began to agitate among a small group of dissident American settlers near Sonoma.

The political situation in California was tense in 1846.  Approximately five-hundred American settlers lived in California (as compared to between 10,000 to 14,000 Mexicans), but these numbers were increasing.  Mexican-Californians were concerned that many of these settlers were less interested in becoming citizens of Mexico than they were in annexing California to the United States.  Again, we can say that these Mexican-Californios were prescient.  For their part, the American settlers distrusted Californio leaders, fearing they would initiate pre-emptive attacks against them.

In early June, emboldened by Fremont, a dozen or so of these Americans seized a large herd of horses from the Mexican army with the intention of curtailing Mexican military activities (although some people might describe their behavior as horse stealing).  On 14 June, another group of men led by William B. Ide and Ezekiel Merritt invaded the largely defenseless Mexican outpost of Sonoma, just north of San Francisco.  Fremont and his soldiers did not participate, though he had given his tacit approval for the attack.  Merritt and his men surrounded the home of retired Mexican general Mariano Vallejo and informed him that he was a prisoner of war.  Vallejo, who was favorable toward America’s annexation, was more puzzled than alarmed.  He invited Merritt into his home to discuss the situation over drinks.  Ide later entered the home and disrupted what had been a pleasant chat by arresting Vallejo and his family.

CA Bear Flag 1846

Flag of the Bear Flag Revolt

Having won a bloodless victory at Sonoma, Ide and Merritt declared California an independent republic.  With a cotton sheet and some paint, they constructed a makeshift flag with a crude drawing of a Grizzly Bear, a lone red star[8], and the words “California Republic” at the bottom.  This short-lived independence movement became known as California’s Bear Flag Revolt.

After the “rebels” won a few minor skirmishes with Mexican military forces, Fremont officially assumed command of the Bear Flaggers and occupied the unguarded Presidio of San Francisco on 1 July.  Six days later, Fremont learned that American forces under Commodore John D. Sloat[9], USN had taken Monterey (without a fight) and officially raised the American flag over California.  On 25 June, Captain Fremont gave his support to the rebellion.  Fremont was “elected” as governor of the Republic of California on 5 July 1946.

Sloat J D 001

Commodore J. D. Sloat, USN

The Bear Flag Republic was short lived.  Four days later, Commodore Sloat occupied San Francisco and Sonoma, claimed California for the United States, and replaced the bear flag with that of the United States Flag.

When, on 10 July Captain Fremont learned that the United States was at war with Mexico, he fully cooperated with Commodore Sloat and his executive officer, Captain Robert F. Stockton, USN.  Stockton, promoted to Commodore and replacing the ailing Sloat, assumed command of all land operations on 23 July.  He promoted Fremont to Major and appointed him to command the California Battalion of Mounted Rifles, which totaled 428 men.  Stockton further incorporated the California Battalion into the US military so that the men would receive regular pay.

Major Fremont selected 160 of his men and traveled by ship to San Diego where, with Stockton’s Marines, captured Los Angeles on 13 August.  He later led an expedition to capture Santa Barbara.

Kearney S W 001

BrigGen Stephen W. Kearney

In December 1846, Brigadier General Stephen W. Kearney arrived in California with orders to establish military control.  The under-manned general mistakenly believed that the war in California had ended and was surprised when former governor Pio Pico attacked him at the Battle of San Pasqual.  Stockton dispatched troops to drive off Pico’s Mexican lancers.  The incident opened a dispute between Kearney and Stockton, the question being which of them had overall command of the military effort in California.  When Kearney ordered Fremont to attach the California Battalion to Kearney’s command, Fremont, believing that he was under the command of Commodore Stockton, refused.

On 16 January 1847, Stockton appointed Fremont military governor of California and then departed from California for other duties.  Why he did so, given the presence of Brigadier General Kearney, is unknown.  Nevertheless, Fremont functioned for a few weeks as governor without controversy until he learned that he had little money available to him to administer his duties.  Previously unknown to either Stockton or Fremont, the Navy Department had dispatched orders for Commodore Sloat (and his successors) to establish military rule over California.  Kearney did not have enough manpower to execute such orders and was therefore forced to rely on Stockton’s Marines and Fremont’s battalion until reinforced with regular Army troops.

On 13 February, the War Department sent specific orders to General Winfield Scott detailing Kearney as military governor of California.  General Kearney failed to inform either Stockton or Fremont of these orders, so that when Kearney again ordered Fremont to enlist his battalion under Kearney’s command, Fremont refused for a second time.  Also, the men of the California Battalion voted to refuse joining the US Army.  Again, this is a bit odd since Fremont’s company of topographers were part of the US Army.

Fremont traveled to Monterey to discuss the situation with Kearney, acknowledged that Kearney was officially the senior military officer in California, and committed to obeying lawful authority.  Subsequently, Kearney sent Colonel Richard B. Mason (Kearney’s heir-apparent) to inspect Fremont’s troops and deliver further orders.  Fremont and Mason had issues, however, and Fremont ended up challenging Mason to a duel.  An arrangement was made to postpone the duel and Kearney ordered Fremont to accompany him back to Fort Leavenworth.

At Fort Leavenworth, Fremont was officially charged with mutiny, disobedience to orders, illegal assumption of powers, and conduct unbecoming an officer.  After his formal arrest, Fremont was ordered to report to the Adjutant-General at the War Department to stand trial.  Ultimately, Fremont was found innocent of mutiny, but the court convicted him of disobedience and conduct unbecoming.  President Polk approved the conviction, but owing to Fremont’s service in war, commuted his dishonorable discharge and reinstated him into the US Army.  Polk’s action was no doubt an effort to placate the powerful Senator Thomas H. Benton, who was also Fremont’s father-in-law.  Fremont subsequently resigned his commission and returned to California.

Special Notes:

  1. Military governors of California from Sloat to Mason promised Mexican-Californios that the United States government would guarantee their land titles under Mexican and Spanish law. This guarantee was reiterated in the Treaty of Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War.  The question, however, was tabled between 1848-1850 owing to the California gold rush.  Anticipating that the issue would ultimately end up in US courts, confidential agents of the United States began to assemble the archives of the California missions, land surveys, and grants.  In the end, this assemblage amounted to 300 books of 800 pages each, all of it in the Spanish language.
  2. In 1851, the US Congress, aware of Mexican land claims in California, created the US Land Commission. It began a long, exasperating process that lasted through the 1880s; nearly every case went from the desk of the land commissioners to a federal district court.
  3. The burden of proof of claim rested with the claimant. It was a situation where claimants had to appear in San Francisco at their expense, present their documents, and hire attorneys to obtain title in US law to what was already theirs.  The process was unfair because it deprived Californios of their land and their wealth.  If people today ever wonder why people of Mexican descent harbor animosity toward “Anglos,” this could be one reason.  Another consequence of the land commissions was that no one with any brains was interested in purchasing land in California when there was always a good chance that a court would take that land away in future years.  The process had an unfortunate impact on land sales for many years into the future.


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, online edition
  2. Bancroft, H. History of California, 1846-1848.  History Publishers, 1886.
  3. Castelo, E. Californians Before the Gold Rush.  Independent Publishing, 2015
  4. Hittell, T. H. History of California, Volume II.  University of California, 1885
  5. Rolle, A. and Arthur C. Verge. California: A History.  Wiley & Sons, 2015
  6. Madley, B. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.  Lamar Publishers, 2017


[1] This was essentially the same arrangement offered to Anglo settlers in Texas.

[2] Modern ecologists will tell you that were it not for California’s water-piracy scheme, most of southern California would quickly return to its natural state.

[3] Micheltorena (1804-1853) was a brigadier general in the Mexican Army who served as adjutant-general, commandant-general, and inspector of the Department of Alta California.  Micheltorena was born into a prominent Basque family in Oaxaca de Juárez.  He was appointed governor of Alta California by President Antonio López de Santa Anna.

[4] Within 50 years, 80% of California’s native population was destroyed due to European diseases and an official policy of genocide sponsored by the government of California, happily assisted by land or gold hungry new arrivals.

[5] Thompson (1798-1868) was a wealthy attorney and politician from South Carolina best known for introducing a resolution calling for a convention to nullify the so-called Tariff of Abominations.  Thompson served as US Envoy to Mexico (1842-1844).

[6] Fremont was an American explorer, military officer, and politician. He was a complex man who developed, over many years, a high opinion of himself.

[7] Captain Fremont’s instructions were never revealed to anyone outside the White House.

[8] Some people claim that California has been a communist state ever since.

[9] John Drake Sloat (1781-1867) was orphaned and raised by his maternal grandparents.  He graduated from the USNA in 1800 and served as sailing master under Commodore Stephen Decatur during the War of 1812, during which he was meritoriously advanced to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the capture of HMS Macedonian.  He was promoted to command the Pacific Squadron as Commodore in 1844.  Following the capture of Monterey, he served as the first military governor of California.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to Mexican California and the Bear Flag Revolt

  1. larryzb says:

    Demographically, California is being recolonized, in a sense, by Mexico.


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