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Introduction to Babe Williams'
As this is being written, it is only a few months until the 150th Anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt. Plans are being finalized for celebrations of the numerous significant events which took place in 1846 - from Fremont's raising of his flag on Gabilan Peak to the Bear Flag Revolt and then to the series of first hoistings of the U.S. flag in the various places throughout California. Of all these, the Bear Flag Revolt and its flag have provided Californians with the most powerful events and symbols. Californians, and others, have been enamored of the Bear Flag Revolt virtually since it began.
At least a number of the Bear Flaggers met and sought to preserve the history of the Revolt as early as the Fall of 1846. In February 1847, California's first newspaper published a description of circumstances related to the flag with the announced purpose of saving those details for posterity, effectively comparing the Bear Flag with the U.S. flag in significance. By 1855, the believed "original Bear Flag" was obtained from the U.S. Navy and eastern seaboard and placed in custody of the Society of California Pioneers, as a cherished relic. The "original" and copies of it were used commonly in commemorative celebrations and parades. Following its founding, the Native Sons of the Golden West became obsessive promoters of the Bear Flag. In 1911, with the strong promotion of the N.S.G.W., the legendary Bear Flag became the official flag of the State of California. For 150 years, historians, professional and amateur alike, have reviewed, analyzed, investigated, and written of the Revolt, its participants and flag. Only occasionally have they avoided argument over the facts, motives and meaning of the Bear Flag Revolt. All of this attention has been given to the relatively minor events and childlike flag of 1846, though these matters played no real role in U.S. sovereignty, nor eventual statehood for California.
The writer is of the belief that there is something about the Bear Flag Revolt and its banner which has and does touch the Californian spirit. This Bear Flag "SOMETHING" is inherent in the controversial nature of the Revolt and in its mixture of motives, emotion, actions, and even in the anti-climactic nature of its ending. The Revolt is not simple, nor pure. It is human, good, bad and complex. It is an enigma, a combination of fears, strength, greed, altruism, pomposity, meanness, ignorance and intelligence. Californians seem to have always relished their humanity. Maybe, it is this flawed humanity of the Bear Flag Revolt which has successfully served as myth and emblem for us.
To know and understand the Bear Flag Revolt except in its outlines requires a knowledge and understanding of the times, the politics, and the nations and people involved. George W. "Babe" Williams was one of these people. In 1846, Babe Williams was a strapping 26 or 27 year old emigrant from Missouri to California. As of May 1846, he had been working for businessman, American vice-consul, William Leidesdorff for 7 months. A chance meeting with Archibald Gillespie, according to Williams, brought Babe into the events which became the Bear Flag Revolt.
Babe Williams' version of the events and his involvement appears to have been recorded in the early 1890s, almost a half-century after the events of '46, when Williams would have been in his early 70s. It was long after the Bear Flag Revolt had become legendary. This makes it difficult to judge the accuracy of the "history" which Williams tells us. One must also take into account that the author of Williams' report of events, Tipton Lindsey, knew and clearly liked and respected Williams. What actual, specific impact this had on what was reported and how it was reported is impossible to tell. These are facts which must be noted, but do not eliminate the value of Williams' eye-witness story. It is much better to have another person's view, right and wrong, than not to have it at all.
The writer's primary interest respecting the Bear Flag Revolt is in the flag (or flags) itself. This flag has been a focus of much controversy over the past century and a half. Babe Williams' statement holds much of interest, and details either unique to Williams or, at least, not commonly found in other sources. A review of these distinctions may be of interest to the reader.
After Merritt, Semple, Grigsby, et al. left Sonoma about 11:00 a.m. on June 14, 1846 to take their prisoners to Fremont, it is common to find reference to approximately 24 Bear Flaggers remaining at Sonoma and also common to read or conclude that the original Bear Flag was not created until after the prisoner group had left, i.e., that there were about 24 Bear Flagger "suspects" for involvement in this act of flag making. Williams adds a further wrinkle to this subject since he seems to indicate that out of the 24 men at Sonoma many, 16 or 17, left for some time period and were not present at the time the Bear Flag was made. Only 7 or 8 men of the original 32-34 man group were around. Williams gives names to a number of these who were present - himself, William Todd, and Henry Ford, leaving 4 or 5 unnamed.
Williams also gives to Fremont the credit for advising the Bear Flag men to lower the Mexican flag, if successful in taking Sonoma, and to raise "some sort of flag of our own." To date, Williams' report is the only one seen which gives to John Charles Fremont the credit for originating the idea for a flag, albeit saving credit for the actual design and creation to members of the Revolt itself. With Fremont's Gavilan Peak raising of his, U.S. style flag only 3 months past, a suggestion by him to thumb the nose at the Mexican Californios with another flag certainly is psychologically appealing.
Babe Williams interestingly claims that he and two others "went to an Italian store and purchased two or three yards of common, unbleached domestic." An Italian store? By this, unless there was some colloquial meaning for this phrase, one must assume that Williams meant a store operated by an Italian emigrant then living at or near Sonoma. Here is one fact from Williams which should be able to be investigated. Was there an Italian emigrant operating some sort of shop in the vicinity of Sonoma, which would, or could possibly, have had such material? The existence of such a shop would add credibility to Williams. The absence of such a location would cause one to wonder what trick of memory could have caused Williams to make such a mistake of specific fact.
Williams notes that the work on the flag occurred "on an old work bench", not the ground as at least one report has suggested. He also confirms, as do most sources, the role of William Todd in drawing the original flag. He contends the star was drawn "with a piece of red chalk". Other sources have described "lamp-black and poke-berries," "outlined in ink, and filled in with red paint," "Linseed oil and Venetian red," "with ink drew the outline of the bear and star," "a pot of berry juice". The author is unaware of any other report of the claimed use of "red chalk."
The bear on the Bear Flag has been described primarily as being in one of two different positions: (a) either on all fours as is the bear of the State Flag (passant), or (b) standing on two legs in an attack position (rampant). Williams reports that the bear was standing, placing him with the minority. Williams' view is contrary to Todd's descriptions and his accreditation of the passant bear - flag which for 48 years was held by the Society of California Pioneers. This flag was destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but photographs of it still exist. The Todd flag has been traced convincingly from Sonoma on July 9, 1846, until it was donated to the Society in 1855.
The Todd passant-bear flag carries a reasonable probability of being the flag lowered at Sonoma at the time the U.S. flag was raised there in July 1846. Todd's description of a spelling error still visible on the original flag also lends credibility to the flag at the California Pioneers. On the other hand, Todd's accrediting testimonials were not made until the early 1870s, a quarter-century after the events. Those statements of Todd do not answer the question of how many flags Todd participated in making. cf. Williams ("a dozen Bear flags made and floated") Was the flag lowered on July 9, 1846, the same flag as first raised on or about June 14th? We simply do not know.
Babe Williams adds interesting details in his reference to "a narrow binding on the outer end and upper side." Again, these are details unique to Williams' description to the best of the author's knowledge, and serve the possibility of providing details with which to judge nominees for the Williams' Bear Flag.
Of all of the statements about the Bear Flag from George W. Williams, the one of greatest significance to overall Bear Flag history is the following: "I have no doubt that within the next ten days [from June 14, 1846] there were a dozen Bear Flags made and floated. Every one who had a boat, store, or public place, desired them, and many of them made Bear Flags." This one statement may serve as a basis of explaining the many conflicting reports about the flag of the Bear Flag Revolt, although adding little to determining which was the first.
Any Bear flag made in a show of support of the Sonoma Revolt and dating prior to July 9, 1846, carries with it substantial significance. However, until such time, if ever, that contrary, convincing evidence is located, a flag design drawn by William Todd bearing a single star, with some sort of bear as suggested by Henry Ford, and a red stripe along its bottom must receive tentative credit as the original design.
©William J. Trinkle 1996
March 26 , 2007
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