Time to get rid of the Bear Flag

Los Angeles Times - - OP-ED - By Alex Abella Alex Abella is a jour­nal­ist and novelist. His lat­est book, “Un­der the Burn­ing Sun­set,” will be avail­able this fall.

One hun­dred and sixty nine years ago in a fron­tier town, a band of thieves, drunks and mur­der­ers hoisted a home-made flag and de­clared them­selves in re­volt froma gov­ern­ment that had wel­comed them. In­sti­gated by an ex­pan­sion­ist neigh­bor­ing power, the rebels aimed to take over com­pletely and im­pose their lan­guage, cul­ture and mores on the land. The re­volt suc­ceeded be­yond any­one’s ex­pec­ta­tions.

That fron­tier town was Sonoma, the land was Cal­i­for­nia, and the rebels, Amer­i­can set­tlers spurred on by promises of help from U.S. Army Cap­tain John Fremont. The rebel stan­dard, the flag of the so­called Cal­i­for­nia Repub­lic, be­came the Cal­i­for­nia State Flag. It’s time Cal­i­for­nia dump that flag, a sym­bol of bla­tant il­le­gal­ity andr acial prej­u­dice. Like the Con­fed­er­ate cross of St. An­drew, the Bear Flag is a sym­bol whose time has come and gone.

When the Leg­is­la­ture voted to adopt the rebel stan­dard as the state flag in 1911, Cal­i­for­nia was in the grip of a racist, jin­go­is­tic fever. The mea­sure was spon­sored by Sen. James Holo­han from Wat­sonville, a mem­ber of the Na­tive Sons of the Golden West. Thiswas an or­ga­ni­za­tion whose magazine, the Grizzly Bear, de­clared in the very is­sue in which it an­nounced the in­tro­duc­tion of the bill, “Close the pub­lic school doors to Ja­panese and other un­de­sir­ables NOW! Close the doors through which aliens can legally own or lease the soil of Cal­i­for­nia NOW!”

The ob­vi­ous in­tent of the mea­sure was to glo­rify the Bear Flag­gers, who were hailed as whole­some pa­tri­ots. But that was far from the truth.

Its leader, Ezekiel Mer­rit, was de­scribed by his­to­rian H.H. Ban­croft as “an un­prin­ci­pled, whiskey drink­ing, quar­rel­some fel­low.” Known as Stut­ter­ing Mer­rit, hewas a thief who in 1848 re­port­edly stole 200 pounds of gold from his business part­ner. Wil­liam Todd, who de­signed the flag, came from a fam­ily of Ken­tucky slave own­ers (his aunt was Mary Todd, Abra­ham Lin­coln’s wife). The group’s first lieu­tenant, Henry L. Ford, was a U.S. Army de­serter who had im­per­son­ated his brother to es­cape de­tec­tion. Sam Kelsey, the sec­ond lieu­tenant, along with his brother Ben, was a geno­ci­dal ma­niac who killed hun­dreds of Pomo In­di­ans in Clear Lake. Amer­i­cans vis­it­ing their ranch re­ported that “it was not an un com­mon­thing for them to shoot an In­dian just for the fun of see­ing him jump.”

Why did the Bear Flag re­volt oc­cur? Be­cause these rogues were also il­le­gal im­mi­grants who feared they might be de­ported by the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment. They de­spised the na­tive, Span­ish-speak­ing Cal­i­fornios, whom they called greasers. Re­fus­ing to be­come cit­i­zens, a move that would have granted them vot­ing rights and land, they looked to the Amer­i­can takeover of Texas as an ex­am­ple.

En­cour­aged by Fremont, the Bear Flag­gers kid­napped themil­i­tary com­man­der of Sonoma, stole hun­dred­sof horses and pro­claimed a repub­lic that at best rep­re­sented a few hun­dred Amer­i­cans out of a pop­u­la­tion of10,000 in Cal­i­for­nia.

Al­though the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­lic was short-lived— it lasted from only June to July 1846 — the Bear Flag­gers were par­tially re­spon­si­ble for how the state ul­ti­mately en­tered the union.

Ten­sions be­tween Mex­ico and the United States had been grow­ing for years and al­ready an Amer­i­can Pa­cific squadron was an­chored off Cal­i­for­nia’s Cen­tral Coast. When U.S. Com­modore John Drake Sloat was in­formed of the Bear Flag re­volt, he felt his hand had­been forced. Say­ing he’d rather be ac­cused of do­ing too much than too lit­tle, he be­gan the U.S. oc­cu­pa­tion of Cal­i­for­nia, land­ing 250 sailors and Marines and hoist­ing the Stars and Stripes over Mon­terey. With few weapons, lit­tle am­mu­ni­tion and no or­ga­nized mil­i­tary, the Cal­i­fornio gov­ern­ment was un­able to put up­much re­sis­tance.

Iron­i­cally, the com­modore chose to in­vade right when U.S. Con­sul John Larkin was bring­ing him a Cal­i­fornio plan to de­clare in­de­pen­dence from Mex­ico as a pre­lude to an­nex­a­tion by the United States. Had Cal­i­for­nia en­tered the Union vol­un­tar­ily, it might have been able to im­port its own laws and cus­toms, much like Louisiana had done with its ju­rispru­dence of Span­ish and French origin. In­stead, as a conquered ter­ri­tory, Cal­i­for­nia was sub­ject to Amer­i­can laws.

Cal­i­fornios had in­sti­tuted a demo­cratic gov­ern­ment, pa­ter­nal­is­tic and of­ten be­set by po­lit­i­cal con­flicts, yet multi-eth­nic and racially in­te­grated, whereas the Amer­i­cans, among other things, de­nied civil rights to blacks and In­di­ans.

Na­tive Amer­i­cans were the first vic­tims of the vi­o­lent con­quest pro­voked by the Bear Flag­gers. In1846, there were about 150,000 Na­tive Amer­i­cans in Cal­i­for­nia. While many of them had in­te­grated into Cal­i­fornio so­ci­ety, about 75% con­tin­ued to live as they al­ways had in the state’s cen­tral val­leys and moun­tains.

Once sub­ject to the U.S. gov­ern­ment, how­ever, they faced mass ex­ter­mi­na­tion. At­the slight­est provo­ca­tion min­ers and set­tlers would burn en­tire rancher ias, or Na­tive Amer­i­can vil­lages, slaugh­ter­ing all the in­hab­i­tants, men, women and chil­dren. By the late 1850s, after years of mur­der and vir­tual slav­ery, only about 30,000 were left alive in Cal­i­for­nia.

Cal­i­fornios did not fare well ei­ther. They saw their lands, the­main en­gine of their cat­tle rais­ing econ­omy, taken over by squat­ters.

Amer­i­cans would de­scend on a prop­erty, build homes, put up fences and till the fields with­out pay­ing rent or com­pen­sat­ing the owner in any way. Among them was Wil­liam Ide, once pres­i­dent of the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­lic, who squat­ted and then filed a pre­emp­tion claim for prop­erty in what is now the south­ern part of the city of Red Bluff. By the 1880s, Cal­i­fornios were bro­ken, po­lit­i­cally and fi­nan­cially.

So — slave own­ers, mur­der­ers, thieves, drunks and squat­ters. These are the peo­ple we want to re­mem­ber with their stan­dard as our state sym­bol?

THE FLAG is a salute to an un­sa­vory bunch who led a re­volt.

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