Sutter's Fort from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion

Early Times in New California

So short a time ago as the year 1846–short in the life of a state–California was a far away and neglected Mexican province, a country little known to the great world of commerce and adventure. In view of the marvelous resources and its many forms of wealth–gold mines, forests, climate–it is wonderful that it was so long regarded as worthless. As the period under consideration–1846–the formerly prosperous missions were all secularized and moribund, some of them in ruins.

The power of the church had waned and the mission Indians were scattered, except those that had married soldiers, sailors, trappers, and others of the early visitors to the country. Lucia Norman, a clear writer on this phase of life, truly says:

“Life at the missions was wearisome to those who through all their lives had been accustomed to roam untrammeled from one portion of the country to the other; to climb in quest of game the snowy peaks of mountains in summer, and in autumn to descend to the warm sequestered valleys to pluck the ripened fruits for their winter store; and then, again, to stand by the rapids of a mountain stream and spear the fish that came leaping down, or to sit idly by the seashore and draw in their rude nets laden with finny treasures. This excess of freedom must often have been remembered with a sigh by these apparently thoughtless creatures, as they filed into the church at dawn, and listened, without understanding a word, to the monotonous tone of the priest as he said mass, or catechized them like so many children, and then dismissed them to their breakfast of atole (a sort of gruel made of corn). After which they toiled in the fields until dinner, at which they were supplied with pozoli. After partaking of this meal they attended mass, and then returned to the gardens or fields until vespers, when they again served with atole, and dismissed early to their little adobe huts, of each one of which the fathers kept the key.

“So the missions were conducted for a long series of years–the fathers gradually becoming more and more selfish, and the Indians slowly decreasing in numbers under this foreign rule. * * *

“The missions, meanwhile, were falling to decay. The priests, perceiving that all of the administrations concurred in desiring their complete removal, grew disheartened and neglected their work, and soon left the country. In 1845 their final ruin came. Part of the missions were sold at public auction, and the others were rented. The proceeds of the latter were divided into three parts. The first paid the salaries of the remaining priests; the second was given to the converted Indians; and the third was set by as a Pious Fund for charitable purposes.”

Early in the year 1846 the white population of San Francisco proper was about two hundred, and these were chiefly colonists of an adventurous spirit. They were from Spain and Mexico. By 1847 there were about two thousand people in San Francisco and vicinity, including the settlements around the bay. The city proper had but seven hundred inhabitants. Many of the people were a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Indian, or Mexican and Indian. Spanish customs and Spanish words were quite common.

It will be well to understand the peculiarities of the people and the condition of the country before narrating the events that soon made California the most famous land of the age.

The natives were a careless and free people, fond of sports, not ambitious for worldly goods, and given to indolence. They lived a life of idyllic simplicity, somewhat after the fashion of many southern and island people. They delighted in gay dress, as do Negroes and many native races. Their hospitality to strangers was remarkable, and when tradesmen were afterward established among them–men from Boston and the east–it was discovered that the Californians of that early time were honest, though slow in settling their accounts. It will seem surprising to many that hides were still the currency of the country.

It was an event of the age when ships arrived from eastern American ports with “Yankee notions.” The people welcomed the traders and their merchandise, much of which was of a character wholly new to the early settlers of the Far West.

Early visitors say they were impressed that the natives were a proud and boasting people. Their occasional insurrections years before were full of swagger and declamation, but quite free from bloodshed and the horrors of war.

The domestic lives of the masses were examples for their visitors. Careful investigation compels the rejecting of the opinion set forth by Richard Dana and others to the effect that the women were of loose morals. The men were inclined to be reckless about gambling,[1]Note.– Monte was the favorite fame of the people, enjoyed alike by men and women. They accepted their good fortune without any lively demonstrations of joy, and their losses did not disturb … Continue reading given to peccadilloes, horse-racing, and like sports–but women were quite true to the teachings of the holy fathers. Yet the male folks were neither cruel nor ruffianly. The frontiersmen of the middle west, the “bad man from Bitter Creek” type were almost unknown to early California. They appeared after the discovery of gold, and they were dealt with under a system of so-called popular justice with which this work will deal later. Fandangos and bullfighters, bear-baiting and lariating were the chief sins and the principal amusements of the populace.

In one phase of their character they were very much like the Hawaiians and Samoans. They spread feasts before visitors, never hesitating to give the new arrival the very best they could secure. The killing of bullocks before the guest, that he might see the character of his meal, was common. Jerked beef was a favorite dish, and in many parts of the country the humidity was so slight that such meat soon “cured” itself in the sunlight, or hanging from the limb of a tree. Beans in various forms were an almost universal diet–and the Spanish dishes–heavy with cayenne and other peppers–were popular then, as they are throughout California today.

Church-going on Sundays was the prevailing habit, but after the simple services the people sought amusement. Guitar playing, singing, dancing the fandango, and like amusements were very much enjoyed. Notice should be made of the famous riders of the time–and the world has never surpassed those primitive people in horsemanship.

Tuthill–the most accurate and interesting of all the early historical writers–says that it was a poor man that owned less than a dozen horses, but he that owned one saddle was rich. But such a saddle! It was elaborately carved and artistically made in every detail. In many a tile house of one-story adobe there hung the proud owner’s saddle. The house-wife cooked tortillas (meal cakes) before an open fire, the smell of onions and red pepper scented the air, and the vaquero polished his saddle and handled it as carefully as a miser hoards his wealth.

A great event in those days was the rodeo, or annual rounding up and branding of cattle. For this purpose the animals were driven or herded together in bunches, and branded. Each owner’s brand was deposited with the alcalde, whose judicial and advisory powers were almost absolute within his field of jurisdiction.

Though the native loved his country and gave it up with deep regret he was really nor progressive nor calculated to stand and fight his battles in the new time that was fast dawning. He was not mechanical, not even a good sportsman, because never a good shot, and never much of an agriculturist. His herds and his horses were his wealth and his delight, and for more than two decades–between 1827 and 1847–it is estimated that Indian thieves stole more than ten thousand horses from the Californians. Bands of Indian horse-thieves were the pest of the country. They ate the flesh of the stolen animals.

Americans Before the Conquest

Fremont's Map
Fremont’s Map

Few people remember one incident in the history of California before the conquest, though it is mentioned briefly in nearly every volume that treats of the subject. Reference is here made to the flurry caused by Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, who heard while at Callao an unfounded report that the United States and Mexico had gone to war over the Texas controversy; so he decided to seize the ports of California before he got orders from the government. He landed at Monterey with his two ships–the United States and the Cyane–on October 19, 1842. Meeting no resistance from the surprised populace he at once hoisted the United States flag over the town, and declared California a part of the United States. He next day received news which convinced him that he had acted precipitately. He took down the flag, declared the whole proceeding a mistake, and apologized handsomely to the frightened officials. The mass of the people were disappointed at his speedy withdrawal, as they were ready to welcome any government that would better their condition, by permitting them to develop the resources of their country.

The first American ship to arrive in Monterey harbor, however, was the Otter, in command of Captain Ebenezer Dorr. She flew the American flag, and Captain Dorr made a favorable impression on the people, for he was a fine type of the old American commander.

In 1822 the Sachem arrived at Monterey from Boston. It carried away a considerable quantity of tallow and hides, and thereafter it and other vessels built up a thriving trade with the coast. The rulers soon grew shrewd enough to impose pretty stiff customs duties on the traders–and it is suspected that these duties never found their way to the home government in Mexico. The American traders prospered so much that three or four vessels took out licenses to do a coasting trade between San Francisco and San Diego. It was customary to display attractive wares in show cases on shipboard, and these lured the natives to part with their hides and tallow for the boots, shoes, calicoes, and like merchandise carried by the traders. The principal imports from Mexico at that time were food stuffs such as rice. It was easy to capture the native trade with the famous line of American wares that has led many simple-minded races to part with their wealth.

So far as can be learned, the Boston traders and the earliest of the American trappers–even from as far back as 1828, when Jedediah Smith arrived in California half famished from his overland journey–were men of brains, energy, and more than average character. This exemplifies the old rule that weaklings seldom leave home.

Many of the settlers that arrived between the years 1826 and 1846 became leaders, some of them prominent in the professions, as well as in commerce.

Franklin Tuthill says that many of the two thousand Americans living in upper California early in 1846 were retired trappers, though they soon embraced other pursuits in which they succeeded. They had come from over the mountains into the inviting climate west of the Sierras, had tarried from vessels that stopped at the various harbors, or had drifted from the Columbia river region. Trappers retiring from their hardy pursuits had taken up their residence in valleys that suited their fancy, far away from points of contact with the Mexican settlers, and in portions of the country that the missionaries had neglected. Though the friars universally opposed the settling of strangers in California for more than a hundred years, adventurers of a bold disposition now and then broke in upon the isolation of the soldiers, fathers, missions Indians, and others of the remote population.

One cannot study the remarkable fertility of resources and the rare powers of endurance of many of the pioneers of the early part of the nineteenth century–from 1826 to 1846 in particular–without feeling that reverence that all races have paid to heroes. The annals of those early times abound in revelations of virtue, courage, skills, and remarkable vitality. Emerson found inspiration and delight in the story of George Nidevir’s contact with a grizzly, and many a hero of battlefields has contended with less than confronted the plainmen of the virgin west in the early forties. There is a fascination in the stories of arduous life that come from that far-away era of western history. Stories of those frontier times charm and hold one as did the legends and Arabian tales of our youth.

It has been the observation of the later generations that the bold men that first ventured from the older communities of the east to the regions beyond the Sierras became rugged and generous. Their experiences made them broad-minded and resourceful, good-natured and liberal if there were any such tendencies in their character. The fathers of the early west were noticeable for their frankness and generosity. Though their manners often were unconventional, their good motives were seldom questioned. Their open hospitality was known to all. The rugged path-finders and mountain-climbers abolished greed, stinginess, and petty quibbling. For many years their smallest measure of value was five times the sum paid for a loaf of bread or glass of beer in the east. The plentifulness of landscape, the wastes of mountains and plains, and the grandeur of snowy peaks made the early settlers liberal with their friends, bold in danger, and fearless in the presence of mortal foes.

Unfortunately for the native Californians, unfortunately, also, for the good name of our country, all men were not of the generous type here portrayed. There were vagabonds and quarrelsome men among the early settlers, and at times they caused much trouble and delayed the coming of good-feeling between the natives and the native population, after the conquest. To this day many of the descendants of the original Californians abhor the memory of General John C. Fremont and his men. In this condemnation of his conduct they are joined by many of the pioneers, as well as by some careful historians, notably by Professor Josiah Royce, professor of philosophy at Harvard, who write a short history of the state for the American Commonwealth series. These circumstances bring us to the consideration of the conquest proper and of the events that immediately preceded it.

Fremont and the Conquest Considered

John Charles Fremont
John Charles Fremont

From the storm center that culminated in the conquest of California we must glance toward the fertile Sacramento Valley, where a sturdy American settlement, starting in 1839, had become quite strong by 1846. Owing to the aggressive character of some of the settlers, as well as to the presence of increasing numbers of foreigners, the Californians naturally became suspicious of the colony. This suspicion was confirmed by the knowledge that some of the people of the colony had really plotted for the overthrow of the rather weak government. It is certain that many of the settlers fretted under the tyrannical and shifting rule of Mexico. As many had been awarded rich grants of land by the government, however, they felt bound to support it. Captain John A. Sutter was one of the most remarkable characters of this era. He was Swiss, having been born in 1803. He was educated at a military academy at Bern, Switzerland. In 1834 he settled at St. Louis, Missouri, but soon abandoned that place for the west. In 1838 he went to Fort Vancouver, then to Honolulu, then to Sitka, and finally to San Francisco, which he reached in 1839. In 1841 he obtained a large tract of land in the Sacramento Valley. This tract he named New Helvetia, and cultivated it in wheat, raised cattle and employed hundreds of Indians and domestic laborers.

In 1844 he joined Governor Micheltorena with more than one hundred men, and aided in opposing a rebellion led by Jose Castro, for many years a leader of the disaffected. Castro finally triumphed, however, and he was in power when Fremont and his men appeared on the scene. It should be said that Sutter was not on good terms with the Mexican authorities after the success of Castro, because he had taken part with the losing forces.

Sutter's Fort from Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion
Sutter’s Fort from Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing Room Companion

In January, 1844, Sutter was visited by Lieutenant Fremont and a party of army engineers. The party was well-nigh exhausted on its arrival at Sutter’s Fort, and the hospitality of Sutter was greatly appreciated and commented on eloquently in Fremont’s report, a well written account of the land, the people, and the hardships of path-finding. As a truth, however, the country was already well traversed by the trappers, though Fremont’s report first made it know to the outside world.

Fremont’s best service to the people of the new territory was beyond question the writing of a report that awakened world interest in California; his worst service–from the native point of view–was the starting in motion a policy that led to the overthrow of the government, though the Mexican war would inevitably have led to the same result.

The events that took place after Fremont’s arrival are complicated and in many aspects unfortunate, the mysteries surrounding the situation are still quite inexplicable, and the entire truth is obscure to this day. The outlines of the story should be given in such a way, however, as to leave the reader free to decide the ethical points intelligently.

In spite of the bitter opposition of men like Abraham Lincoln, the United States made active preparations for the war with Mexico, this as early as 1845. Even as late as 1848 (when he was a congressman from Illinois) Lincoln denounced the policy that had waged this war, and in no unsparing voice he called it unconstitutional and sought to explain that the unlawful acts of President Polk in declaring the war were not to be charged to the country at large.

Alas, these prophetic words of Lincoln’s have been forgotten in many phases of history since they were uttered. it is extremely doubtful whether the career of the mistaken but gallant Fremont can stand analysis in the light of the Lincoln definition of right. The episodes connected with Fremont’s occupation of the territory that is now California have been discussed often, but it is doubtful whether a more careful analysis than that of Professor Josiah Royce, of Harvard, has ever been made. Though the Professor is loath to discuss California in these days, his time being taken up with matters philosophical, his brochure on Fremont stands as a long-drawn but careful analysis of the question. No writer can afford to overlook his painstaking interviews with Fremont and his cautious conclusions. Reduced to brief form his views would be acceptable to most all fair critics, unless perhaps to such men as Professor W. C. Jones, of Berkeley, who in his declining years has become a bitter expounder of Fremont and a defender of everything that Fremont did.

In the formative times under consideration Buchanan was secretary of state, Marcy of war, and Bancroft of the navy. Whatever plans occupied the attention of the administration were doubtless kept a deep secret, and years have hardly disturbed the secrecy of those old plans. That the idea of acquiring California was uppermost in the minds of the country’s political leaders there is little or no doubt, but the outlines of the method have never been made public.

Somewhere within the nebulous designs of the administration there was the covetous idea that the California pear was about ripe to be shaken into the laps of the expectant country, somewhat in the manner that Hawaii was plucked and coveted by the aid of our minister in 1893. Details were not fully outlined, but Washington believed that California would be one of the prizes of the Mexican war–and it was not regarded as a capital prize, either.

The Bear Flag Episode Intervenes

Pending definite movements by any of the troops or authorized agents of the United States a peculiar and rather unique revolution ensued in California, an event that reminds one somewhat of comic opera–and this was the famous Bear Flag Revolution, of which many strange accounts have been written.

The Bear Flag men believed they were the victims of great injustice at the hands of the government, and they fancied themselves a band of Spartans. Doctor Semple, afterward editor of the Californian, wrote much in justification of the revolution, but it is not clear that there was a perfect right to do what was done by the bear flag patriots.

When Pio Pico was governor–during the time now under consideration–his commander-in-chief of the military forces was José Castro, whose judgment was rather hot and impulsive. About June 1, 1846, he issued an order to Lieutenant Francisco de Arce to remove a number of government horses from the Mission San Rafael to his headquarters at Santa Clara. Davis thus describes what then occurred:

“The officer, with a guard of fourteen men, proceeded to execute the order, and was compelled to cross the Sacramento river at New Helvetia, now Sacramento, the nearest point at which the horses could swim the stream. On his way he was seen by an Indian, who reported to the American settlers that two or three hundred armed men were advancing up the valley. At this time Captain Fremont, with his exploring party, was encamped at the Buttes, near the confluence of the Feather and Sacramento rivers, about sixty miles above Sutter’s Fort. It was inferred by the settlers that the Californian force was marching north to attack Fremont. The alarm was immediately spread throughout the valley, and most of the settlers joined Fremont at his camp. There they met William Knight, who stated that he had seen the party of Californians in charge of the horses, and that de Arce had told him that Castro had sent for the horses for the purpose of mounting a battalion of two hundred men to march against the Americans settled in the Sacramento Valley and to expel them from the country; that then he proposed to fortify the Bear River pass in the mountains and prevent the further ingress of immigrants from the United States. After consultation it was resolved that a force should pursue the Californians and capture the horses, so as to weaken Castro and for the time frustrate his designs. Twelve men volunteered for the expedition, and Ezekial Merritt, the eldest of the party, was chosen captain. At daylight on the 10th of June, 1846, they surprised the Californians, who surrendered without resistance, and the horses were taken. De Arce and his men were permitted to go on without further molestation. The revolutionary movement on the part of the Americans was then fairly commenced. The party being increased to thirty-three, still under the command of Merritt, marched to Sonoma, and on the morning of the 14th of June captured and took possession of that town and military post. They made prisoners of General M. G. Vallejo, his brother Salvador, and Victor Prudon, and had them conveyed to Sutter’s Fort at Sacramento for safe-keeping. As nearly as can be ascertained, the names of the members of the Bear Flag party are:

“From Sacramento Valley–Ezekial Merritt, Robert Semple, Henry L. Ford, Samuel Gibson, Granville P. Swift, William Dickey, Henry Booker, John Potter, William B. Ide, William Fallon, William M. Scott, Henry Beason, William Anderson, James A. Jones, W. Barti, or “Old Red,” and Samuel Neal.

“From Napa Valley–Benjamin Dewell, Harvey Porterfield, John Grigsby, Frank Grigsby, William B. Elliott, Ab Elliott, William Knight, David Hudson, Franklin Bedwell, Joseph Wood, William Hargrave, Andrew Kelsey, Horace Sanders, John H. Kelly, John Gibbs, Thomas Cowie, and George Fowler.

“A garrison of about eighteen men, under the command of William B. Ide, was left at Sonoma, and in a few days it was increased to about forty. On the 18th of June, Ide, with the consent of the garrison, issued a proclamation setting forth the objects for which the party had gathered and the principles that would be adhered to in the event of success. About the same time the Bear Flag was hoisted by the revolutionists.

“Robert Semple, one of the members of the party, became editor of the first newspaper published in California. The Californian, the initial number of which was issued at Monterey on August 15, 1846. In the second issue of his paper, on the 22nd, he commenced the publication of a series of articles on the history of the revolution, and in the issue of February 13, 1847, the following, in part, appeared: ‘On the 14th of June, 1846, a party of Americans, without a leader, gathered and took possession of the fortified town of Sonoma, on the north side of the bay of San Francisco, and made prisoners of three Mexican officers–a general, a lieutenant-colonel, and captain. On the same day there was a partial organization under the name of the Republic of California, and agreed to hoist a flag made of a piece of white cotton cloth with one red stripe on the bottom, and on the white a grizzly bear, with a single star in front of him. It was painted, or rather, stained, with lampblack and poke berries. Along the top were the words, Republic of California.'”

The author of the present work has not seen so comprehensive an account in so compact a space elsewhere as in the foregoing. It covers the field fully relative to the Bear Flag episode, but it may be well to give the following from the great Tuthill, master writer on California subjects: “Fremont himself, accompanied by Kit Carson, Lieutenant Gillespie, and half a score of others, crossed in a launch to the old fort near the presidio, spiked its ten guns, and returned to Sonoma. There on the 5th of July, 1846, he called the whole force together, and recommended an immediate declaration of independence. All present united to make such a declaration, and with the same unanimity entrusted to Fremont the direction of affairs. Thus the bear party was absorbed into the battalion, whose roll-call showed one hundred and sixty mounted riflemen.”

The Conquest Proper

Batalla de Monterey - Sloat captures Monterey on July 7, 1846. Three days later, Frémont is officially informed the United States was at war with Mexico.
Batalla de Monterey – Sloat captures Monterey on July 7, 1846. Three days later, Frémont is officially informed the United States was at war with Mexico.

For many years it has been held by some writers that the Bear Flag Revolution was a logical forerunner of the conquest proper, in the sense that Fremont’s secret orders were legitimate antecedents of all that followed, a part of one plan, in fact. It would be a gross blunder to assume that Commodore Sloat, who raised the American flag over Monterey on July 7, was acting in concert with Fremont, or that he really knew what Fremont’s actions meant. Lucia Norman properly says:

“Colonel Fremont and Commodore Sloat, being ignorant of the actual existence of war between Mexico and the United States, and having acted without direct instructions from Washington, were each inclined, should any blame be attached to them, to throw the responsibility upon the other. Colonel Fremont claimed to have acted in self-defense; Commodore Sloat, from false ideas of Fremont’s position, and also to guard the Californians from the English, who had placed a squadron upon the coast to seize any opportunity that might offer of adding the country to the possessions of the crown.”

There has undoubtedly been much falsehood concerning the purposes of Admiral Seymour, referred to by Miss Norman. The presence of the British admiral in Pacific waters, with the Collingwood, has been misconstrued, if we may believe the correctness of recent developments. The admiral was not on the coast with aggressive intentions, nor was he dispatched to look for an opportunity to seize anything. And there is strong evidence that Sloat and Fremont were working at cross purposes, neither knowing anything of the other’s instructions and plans.

The following conclusions seem to be based on sufficient evidence: Fremont’s primary conduct was unofficial, and until later developments in the course of the Mexican quarrel the California revolution had no color of sanction from the central government. From the outset the navy was without definite or even vague instructions to co-operate with Fremont. It has long been held that Fremont received secret instructions from the government authorizing him to do all that was done toward reducing the natives to subjugation. The story runs to the effect that on the shores of the greater Klamath Lake, in Oregon, Fremont was handed dispatches by Lieutenant Gillespie, who had crossed the continent to convey a message that would authorize the aggressiveness that followed. it is now known that the lieutenant did bring messages and that, acting under instructions, he had committed them to memory–but it is also known–thanks to the indefatigable energy of Royce!–that the messages did not warrant what occurred. Gillespie merely made Fremont acquainted with the contents of a message to United States Consul Larkin, and there was never a message to Fremont that authorized him to become a conqueror.

Royce and others conclude that the policy of the United States throughout the conquest was tricky, infinitely petty and far beneath the dignity of a great nation. Royce submitted all the evidence to Fremont himself in his latter years, and after a thorough examination and refreshing of his memory the general was not able to extricate himself from the unpleasant position of having been a false hero this far–his acts were accidental and unauthorized, and he and his men did the natives a grave injustice.

To recur to the revolution proper it may be stated briefly that, after raising the American flag and issuing a proclamation on July 7, Commodore Sloat almost immediately resigned his command at Monterey to Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who had gone to Monterey on the frigate Congress. Robert Ritchie thus summarizes for this work the main events of the conquest from that time forward:

“To Stockton Fremont reported with his riflemen and ex-Independents and by Stockton was created major of the band, which was known as the California Battalion. Stockton abandoned the project entertained by Sloat of making terms with Pico and Castro and determined to compel their surrender by force of arms. He therefore dispatched Fremont by sea to San Diego, following himself with the Congress, which put into San Pedro harbor.

“Stockton treated contemptuously a message from Castro, praying for terms, and with his force of marines and six small guns pushed on to conflict with the Californians. But Castro and Pico fled without awaiting an attack, and Stockton, after having joined forces with Fremont, entered Los Angeles on August 13 and ran up the flag. All opposition to American rule seemingly at an end, Stockton now created Fremont provisional governor of California. Lieutenant Gillespie was left in command of Los Angeles with a garrison of only forty men, a nominal garrison was stationed at Santa Barbara and Stockton and Fremont took their departure for the north.

“Scarcely had the tiny army of occupation been withdrawn when Lieutenant J. M. Flores of the native Californian forces broke his parole, organized a considerable body of malcontents and on September 23 attacked Los Angeles and forced the capitulation of Gillespie. Santa Barbara was likewise quickly recaptured and the whole south was aflame with rebellion.

“A messenger, spurring his jaded steeds all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco without a day’s rest, brought the news of the uprising to Commodore Stockton. Opposed to the pitiful handful of men left to garrison the southern cities were from 1200 to 1400 armed and mounted Californians, who were now complete masters of the country which had seemed to be so easily subdued. Stockton and Fremont were a thousand miles away. With their number of less than a thousand men and with no means of obtaining reinforcements from the east the new Territory of California seemed lost to the Union.

Lost it would have been had not Stockton and Fremont acted with great promptness and daring. Stockton immediately dispatched Captain Mervine with the frigate Savannah to stem the tide until he could appear on the scene with fresh troops. Fremont was sent to Santa Barbara with 160 hastily enlisted troops, while Stockton himself set out for San Pedro. Fremont failed to reach Santa Barbara when expected, but put in to Monterey for more men. After a trying march over the Santa Inez Mountains in the midst of winter, Fremont, with 50 men, again took possession of Santa Barbara and pursued his march south.

“Stockton, meanwhile, had proceeded to San Diego, built a temporary fort and was anxiously awaiting relief from Fremont. Help from an unexpected quarter came to him in the person of General Stephen W. Kearney, who, having completed the subjugation of New Mexico, had pushed on to California with a small force to assist in its conquest. Learning of the state of affairs, Kearney had sent word to Stockton in San Diego, that he wished to effect a junction with him. Meeting Gillespie and a small force which Stockton had sent out to him, Kearney engaged the Californians at San Pasqual, near San Diego, with disastrous results and had to be rescued from his perilous position by a second relief force from Stockton.

With their combined forces of about 500 men, Stockton and Kearney set out for Los Angeles. But near San Gabriel on January 8, 1847, they engaged in the final and most serious battle of the war in California. The enemy with 600 mounted men and four field pieces attacked the American force with all the despairing energy of a dying cause. Again and again the beautifully mounted and utterly fearless vaqueros charged the American squares, only to be mowed down by the steady, galling fire of the trained marksmen. At last the Californians broke and fled. In their rapid retreat northward they met the tardy Fremont, coming down from Monterey with reinforcements, and to him surrendered on January 14. With the signing of the articles of capitulation at the Rancho de Cahuenga there was closed the only real war which has ever reddened California soil.

“The anomaly of two governors sitting in authority lasted until Colonel Richard B. Mason arrived to supplant Kearney as head of affairs. The two rival governors went east. Fremont was court martialed for mutiny and disobedience and recommended for dismissal from the service. President Polk sanctioned the sentence, but ordered the penalty of dismissal to be remitted. Fremont, with his native high spirits, refused the indulgence of the president and resigned his position as lieutenant colonel in the army.”

The events of the conquest have been set forth in succinct order in a paper by Honorable Winfield Davis, heretofore quoted. He thus summarizes the genesis of government in California for the period immediately following the conquest:

Commodore John D. Sloat hoisted the American flag at Monterey July 7, 1846, and by proclamation took formal possession of California in the name of the United States government. Died on Staten Island, New York, November 28, 1867.

Commodore Robert F. Stockton, by proclamation dated at Los Angeles, August 17, 1846. Died at Princeton, New Jersey, October 7, 1866.

Captain John C. Fremont, appointed by Commodore Stockton, January 16, 1847. Died at New York City, July 13, 1890.

General Stephen W. Kearney, by proclamation dated at Monterey, March 1, 1847. Died at St. Louis, Missouri, October 31, 1848.

Colonel Richard B. Mason, by proclamation dated at Monterey, May 31, 1847. Died at St. Louis, Missouri, July 25, 1850.

General Bennet Riley became military governor April 13, 1849, and served until the organization of the state government in December, 1849. Died at Buffalo, New York, June 9, 1853.

News of peace between the United States and Mexico reached California August 7, 1848. A considerable population had been attracted to the country by the discovery of gold at Coloma in January of that year, and the laws of Mexico were found unsuited to the new conditions. The subject of forming a civil provisional territorial government had been agitated from the first of the year, but it did not assume an organized form until in December. On the 11th of that month a large meeting was held at San Jose, at which were adopted resolutions in favor of holding a convention to form a provisional territorial government to be put into immediate operations, and to remain in force until Congress should supersede it by a regular territorial organization. The action of the meeting met with the approval of the people of the northern and middle portions of the country. On December 21st and 22nd, two public meetings were held at San Francisco, and resolutions were passed concurring in the plan of action suggested by the people of San Jose. Similar resolutions were adopted at meetings held at Sacramento on January 6th and 8th, 1849, at Monterey on the 31st, and at Sonoma on February 5th. These five districts elected delegates t the proposed convention–the district of Sacramento 5, Sonoma 10, San Francisco 5, San Jose 3, and Monterey 5. But the five other districts–San Joaquin, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego–failed to concur in the movement. The San Jose meeting recommended that the convention should assemble at that place on the second Monday of January, 1849. The San Francisco meeting, believing that date too early to allow communication with the remote districts, recommended that it should meet on March 5th, and that was concurred in by the districts of Sonoma and Sacramento, and tacitly by San Jose. The district of Monterey constituted its elected delegates a committee to confer with those from the other districts to obtain still further extension of the time of holding the convention. The Corresponding Committee, appointed in San Francisco, endeavored to spread intelligence of the action of the various meetings, but the inclemency of the weather and the impassable condition of the roads and streams had, up to January 24th, prevented all communication with the five districts that were unrepresented. On the last named date the committee issued a recommendation “that the time for the proposed assembling of the Provisional Government Convention be changed to May 1, 1849.” Twelve of the delegates that had been elected to the proposed convention met at San Francisco early in March, 1849, and issued an address to the people, in which it was recommended that a new election be held for delegates to meet in convention at Monterey on the first Monday in August and that the delegates “should be vested with full power to frame a state constitution to be submitted to the people of California.” To provide for their immediate wants the citizens of Sonoma, San Francisco, and Sacramento districts elected, early in 1849, district legislative assemblies. In June the San Francisco assembly issued an address recommending the election of at least twelve delegates from that district to attend a convention at San Jose on the third Monday in august for the purpose of organizing a government for the whole territory of California, such conditional or temporary State government to be put into operation at the earliest practicable moment after its ratification by the people, and to become a permanent State government when admitted into the Union. Simultaneously with this action of the assembly, though without any knowledge of it, General Riley issued at Monterey a proclamation for the election of delegates to a constitutional convention.

Professor Royce holds that with July 7, the conquest was largely begun; that Sloat hesitated at Monterey when he heard of the confusion produced by Fremont and the Bear Flag movement in the north, for the gallant old admiral had expected to find a peaceful territory, whose people were eager to become American citizens. Royce says: “sloat seems to have been unwilling to commit his government to the direct support of what naturally appeared to be an irregular insurrection.” Neither Sloat nor Consul Larkin understood Fremont’s instructions, and the mystery of his bold conduct perplexed them, as they had received no orders to do anything in violence. After Sloat had raised the flag at Monterey he tried to ascertain from Fremont the exact nature of the authority under which the latter had acted, and the commodore was disappointed when Captain Fremont refused to confide in the naval authorities or to explain why he acted as he did. Sloat thought there should have been definite orders to warrant what Fremont did in the Bear Flag revolt. History shows that there were no such instructions.

Note–Some readers will desire a few more facts concerning the alleged unauthorized actions of Fremont, as charged by Professor Royce and others. Careful students are referred to Royce’s excellent history of the state, which covers the period from 1846 to 1856, but an outline of his views may be abridged here:

Royce holds that the evidence is definite that Fremont disobeyed his orders and acted hastily and arbitrarily, also that Sloat desired a peaceful revolution and even promised Pico that he would try to quiet the troubles in the north; so, under the circumstances, Fremont was to the commodore a disturbing force that it was difficult, even impossible, to control. Our authors says: “Thus here, as through all the subsequent months, Captain Fremont’s conduct in the north remained effective as a serious hindrance in the way of the true conquest of California. it delayed the raising of the flag at Monterey a full week after Sloat’s arrival, by making him uncertain how to apply his instructions to the anomalous conditions; and when Sloat had begun to act” the conduct of Fremont and his men in the Bear Flag episode was a great obstacle in the path of peaceful settlement. Sloat and Consul Larkin realized that much had been lost by the ill-advised Sonoma episode. Says Royce: “For Larkin, the man who, of all Americans concerned with California during this crisis, best did his duty; the one official whose credit, both private and public, is unstained by the whole affair; and who personally, if dessert be considered, and not mere popularity, is every way be far the foremost among the men who won for us California,–Larkin had not been idle, not before Gillespie came, and much less afterward. He had obeyed all orders. * * * As an intriguer, he was distinctly successful, and no drop of blood need have been shed in the conquest of California, no flavor of the bitterness of mutual hate need have entered, at least for that moment, into the lives of the two peoples who were now jointly to occupy the land, had Larkin been left to complete is task. And although Sloat’s coming would have found the work still incomplete, it would, without Captain Fremont’s mischievous doings, have been well enough advanced to insure with almost perfect certainty the peaceful change of flags.”

It is then shown that two months before the Bear Flag absurdities Larkin had so far developed his plans as to have the direct assurance of Castro that he would aid the Americans in a plan to declare the country independent of Mexico “in 1847 or 1848.” This information is in Larkin’s letters to Buchanan, and may be found in the archives of the Department of State.

It is therefore concluded that Fremont had no just cause for his quarrel with Castro; that he could have had no trustworthy information of dangers that threatened the settlers from Castro or the native Californians, for there were no dangers; that Fremont had no secret message from Lieutenant Gillespie authorizing his acts of violence–and that his operations were purely aggressive, “and there will never again be a chance of making it appear otherwise.”

Royce, through the courtesy of Hubert Howe Bancroft, had access to the original of the Gillespie dispatch, and, after calmly surveying every phase of the question and reading the proof-sheets of his forthcoming history to General Fremont, the Professor says: “Here, then, to sum it all up, is our country’s honor involved in a violation of the laws of nations, under circumstances of peculiar atrocity: a war brought among a peaceful, and, in part, cordially friendly people; anarchy and irregular hostilities threatened and begun without any provocation, and with consequences that were bad enough, as it happened, and that would have been far worse had not regular warfare just then, by a happy accident, announced its robust and soon irresistible presence. The irregular deeds are the immediate work of a gallant, energetic, and able young officer, who thenceforth gets general credit as a faithful secret agent of his government, and heroic defender of his countrymen, as well as savior to us of the territory of California. His reputation gained in this affair nearly makes him president in 1856. The warfare in question is also thenceforth publicly justified by unfounded reports of Californian hostility. All this is authorized, as the story goes, by a government that thus orders sixty men to distress a vast and ill-organized land, without providing any support whereby the work of their rifles can be promptly utilized to found any new and stable government in place of the one that they are commanded cruelly to harass, without warning to assault, and thus unlawfully to overthrow.”

Royce concludes that Fremont’s explanation, made to Royce himself, “cuts off all hope that he has yet some entirely new and official revelation to make that would plainly put the responsibility for his action elsewhere than on his own shoulders or than on his father-in-law’s.” In spite of all, however, Fremont is considered by Royce as a mistaken hero, because his fame came by either a willful disobedience of orders, or a stupid misunderstanding of his duties under the circumstances.


1Note.– Monte was the favorite fame of the people, enjoyed alike by men and women. They accepted their good fortune without any lively demonstrations of joy, and their losses did not disturb their composure– Tuthill.

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