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Version of the first Bear Flag as told by Nathaniel Merrill, the uncle of Bear Flagger H. Ford, to Warren N. Woodson of Corning (date unknown).

First Bear Flag

This is the famous "Bear Flag." Note the similarity with our present California State Flag.

       There had been persistent rumors throughout the spring (of 1846) that the California authorities were going to drive American settlers out of the country. From mouth to mouth, words passed that General Jose Don Castro was making war preparations and was inciting the Indians of Sacramento Valley to rise up against the Americans as soon as the grain fields were far enough advanced to be combustible.  Captain Sutter, giving credit to these rumors, was already in active campaign against some of the lawless tribes.  Captain Fremont, who with his scientific expedition, had been for some time in California and had defied California authorities by hoisting the American Flag on Gavilan (Gabilan), or Hawk Peak, located thirty miles from Monterey, had left California on his way back east through Oregon.  Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie, of the Marine Corps, who was accredited as a confidential agent of the President, arrived from Monterey at Sutter's Fort on April 28th, and on May 1st. reached Lassen's place and engaged Lassen to take him and catch up with Fremont's party. On May 2d, with Peter Lassen, Neal Sigler, Stepp, and a negro servant, Ben, he was on Fremont's trail. This party, riding hard, passed through Ide's place that day.

       On the 7th, two men were sent in advance and the others encamped at the outlet of Klamath Lake, unable to ford the river and having had nothing to eat for forty hours. On the morning of the 9th, a party of Indians made their appearance. With apparent kindness they gave the travelers fresh salmon and ferried them over the water in canoes. After a day's journey, some thirty miles, Gillespie met Fremont at sunset, by a stream named from the event of that night, Ambuscade Creek. The sixteen tired travelers retired early and were soon sound asleep. Fremont sat up later than the others to read his letters and dispatches from home. The Indians were thought to be friendly and no watch was kept.  Just before midnight the camp was attacked by Indians, and Basil Lajeunesse and a Delaware man were killed.  The sound aroused Kit Carson and Owens, who gave an alarm. The Indians fled, after killing with their arrows a Delaware man by the name of Crane. Among the number of dead left behind was a chief who had helped Gillespie that morning with food and transportation further south.  The next morning they started northward to join the main body, burying their slain comrades on the way.  The party passed Ide's place and returned to Lassen's rancho on the 21st, from where, in a few days, they moved and established a camp on the Marysville Buttes. The return of Fremont to California incited more rumors and hopes in the hearts of the American settlers.

       It was sometime in the last days of May, 1846. when a young man by the name of Henry L. Ford, a partner of William Moon, stopped his foaming horse by the cabin of William Ide and told him that he was informed by the courier from the south, that General Castro was assembling horses on which to send out a company of Mexican soldiers with orders to burn the crops and buildings of and dispossess and expel all American settlers found located north of Sutter's Fort.  Ide made hurried preparations for departure, gave some instructions to his wife and the rest of the family, said goodby, and accompanied by his son William left with Ford south toward Moon's house.  It was this Ford, who had previously had about four years of service as a dragoon in the U. S. Army, who on this occasion served as the Paul Revere of California, hurriedly riding, as he did, as far south as the Yuba River, where Marysville now stands, giving to the scattered settlers the alarm of approaching danger at the hands of the Mexicans.

       The Moon house, built of hewn oak in 1845, and destroyed in 1910, was located about two miles south of Woodson Bridge, and became the rendezvous of promoters of the Bear Flag party. Among them were Ide, Ford and Merritt from the present Tehama county, with Semple and some others from Colusa. They quickly organized in a company to protect their homes and families, to fight the Mexicans, "if it takes all summer," and as some of them proposed, to have their own state much after the plans of those of Texas, "The Lone Star State."

       I am giving here a new version of the first Bear Flag, as told by Nathaniel Merrill, the uncle of H. Ford, to Warren N. Woodson of Corning. Mr. Merrill began bookkeeping and clerking for the firm of Moon and Ford January 24, 1850. According to Mr. Merrill's claim, it was young Ford who, appreciating the propriety, if not the necessity of having some sort of insignia or banner under which to march, and if needs be to fight, was the author of the Bear Flag.

       This flag was made from a washed one hundred pound flour sack, which had been shipped to California from Chile. A red star and a red border for this improvised flag were cut from a worn flannel shirt. In the upper left-hand corner of this flag was a star, and facing the star was a crudely painted grizzly that the Mexicans mistook it for Co-Chi-No, or a little hog. Along the lower face of this flag were painted the two words, "California Republic."

       The other version, on which many historians have agreed, was told by Todd, that Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, Henry L. Ford and William Todd made the Bear Flag in the house where they made their headquarters. No doubt several Bear Flags were made in that month of June, 1846.

       The settlers elected Ezekiel Merritt, who knew the country well, as their captain, and proceeded toward Fremont's camp, to confer with him on the protection of the settlers and for checking the attack of Don Castro. Fremont firmly stated to them, that as an officer of the U. S. government, with an exploring party, he could not assist in attacking the Mexicans, except in self-defense.  Kit Carson and others under the command of Fremont, begged to be released, that they might go with the revolutionists, but Fremont refused.

       Now exciting news came by messenger from the south, that a private secretary of Castro, by the name of Francisco Arce, accompanied by Lieutenant Jose Maria Aliso and eight vaqueros, were herding 170 horses to Santa Clara.  The horses were secured by Castro from Vallejo in Sonoma, and as Arce stated along the route, were going to be used to mount the troops for driving the American settlers out of California. The small group of American revolutionists held a short meeting and decided to strike the first blow at General Castro, also maybe to provoke an attack by Mexicans on Fremont, and by that break his neutrality.

       Arce, after crossing the Sacramento River at Knights Landing reached Sutter's Fort on June 8th. The party of twelve Americans, under the command of Merritt, started on his trail on the afternoon of June 9th. In passing New Helvetia, the company was increased by two new recruits. Crossing the American River late in the evening, they made their first stop on the ranch of Allen Montgomery, who not only furnished them with supper, but he and the other men joined the party.  Arce, with his escort, had stopped for the night at the rancho of Murphy, using his corral for their horses, while Merritt and his men camped within three miles of the place. At early dawn on the morning of June 10, 1846, they swooped down upon the unsuspecting Arce and Aliso and disarmed them and their men.  Being gentlemen, in their own rough and ready code, they returned some horses which belonged to Arce personally, and to the rest of his party, and they restored also their arms. Then they made him the bearer of the message to Castro, that if the latter wanted his horses he could come after them. On his return, Arce also reported to Castro that the insurgents had declared their intention to take Sonoma. This declaration was a subject of official announcement at Monterey, two days before Sonoma was captured, which proved that Arce and Aliso had not falsely reported the utterance of Merritt and his followers.

       Within forty-eight hours after they had started on their expedition, the revolutionists were back in the neighborhood of Fremont's camp, with the band of captured horses.


       The company, increasing its number to twenty, and still led by Ezekiel Merritt, departed the same afternoon in the direction of Sonoma. That night they reached Gordon's on Cache Creek, where they stopped for refreshments and then made a night march to Napa Valley, where they arrived on the forenoon of June 12th. They remained in Napa Valley for two days, with the evident purpose of strengthening their forces and scouting in Sonoma.  Thirteen additional men enrolled, in the company which numbered now thirty-three, and consisted of the following: Ezekiel Merritt, William Brown Ide, John Grigsby, Robert Semple, William Hargrave, H. L. Ford, William Todd, William Fallon, William Knight, Sam Kelsey, G.P. Swift, Sam Gibson, W. W. Scott, Benjamin Dewell, Thomas Cowie, Horace Sanders, Henry Booker, Dave Hudson, John Sears and most of the following: J. H. Kelly, C. C. Griffity, Harvey Porterfield, John Scott, Ira Stebbing, Marion Wise, Ferguson, Peter Storm, George Fowler, John Gibbs, Andrew Kelsey and Benjamin Kelsey.

       It was about midnight of Saturday, the 13th of June when this company of frontiersmen took to saddle and proceeded across the hills intervening between Napa Valley and the Pueblo of Sonoma.   Just at daybreak they reached that fortified stronghold of Mexico in California and without arousing its inhabitants, surrounded the house of General Vallejo. Dressed in leather hunting shirts, many of which were very greasy, they were about as rough looking men as one could imagine.

       None of the party knew much of Spanish, so when Vallejo opened the door of his mansion and demanded to know what they were there for and under whose orders the men acted, he did not get much of an explanation, but was assured by gestures and a few words by Knight, who spoke a little Spanish, that he was under arrest and that he would suffer no bodily harm.

       The die was now cast. Thirty-three men, acting on their own authority, had now begun a rebellion which would have a profound effect on their own lives and on the affairs of this area which heretofore had been rather loosely controlled by the far away Capital of Mexico. The story of William B. Ide, who assumed leadership of the Bear Flag party a short time later, is an inspirational story of a man who rose to the occasion when others became fearful of the consequences of the action they had taken. Without assurances from the United States of America that they might expect protection and assistance, Ide and his men began to plan a Republic. The California Republic. This excerpt from: William B. Ide, President of California

I am giving here a new version of the first Bear Flag, as told by Nathaniel Merrill, the uncle of H. Ford, to Warren N. Woodson of Corning.
http://www.jspub.com/4grdch05.html  on February 15, 2007



April 5, 2007

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