History Pages: 9 - Bear Flag Revolt

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One version of the Bear Flag

The Bear Flag Revolt was another of the comic-opera events in California history that later chauvinists have attempted to imbue with patriotic significance (as they have with the 1836 Alvarado coup). On Wikipedia, the "Bear Flag Revolt" article was moved to the grander-sounding title of "Bear Flag Republic", even though no actual political entity or government was established. The Revolt is mainly notable as the unofficial beginning of the Mexican-American War in California. Some important early northern California persons could be discussed here, including Vallejo, Castro and Sutter, but we'll stick to those with local connections.

In the first half of the 1840s, political turmoil continued to grow in California. Many Californios (e.g. Alvarado) dreamed of independence from the far-away government of Mexico. Meanwhile, some of the increasing numbers of American immigrants had a different dream: to make California part of the United States. Some of the newcomers found work at Isaac Graham’s sawmill (now Felton) or at Joseph Majors’ Rancho San Agustin (now Scotts Valley) grist mill. Then, late in 1845, a harbinger of big changes for California came to Santa Cruz; John C. Fremont.

Fremont was leading his third surveying expedition to the far west, with legendary wilderness guide Kit Carson, when the start of the Mexican-American War was triggered by U.S. annexation of the Texas Republic in 1845. It took awhile for the conflict to spread to the Pacific coast, but by the time the Fremont party arrived at Sutter’s Fort, tensions were high. Fremont’s subsequent movements in California were hard to reconcile with a peaceful surveying mission. He sought out places where there were concentrations of Americans – like Rancho Zayante. It soon became apparent that Fremont was recruiting volunteer soldiers (assisted by Thomas Fallon) for his own soon-to-be-created army unit, which became known as the California Battalion. The older frontiersmen like Graham and Majors decided to stay home this time, but at least two of their adventurous younger employees answered the call and marched with Fremont in July of 1846 to Sonoma, to take charge of what the Bear Flag rebels had begun. William Blackburn became a 2nd Lt. in the new unit, and Paul Sweet also enlisted. These two men had only been in the area a short time, but returned after the war to become prominent locals. Blackburn was elected as the first American alcalde of Branciforte/Santa Cruz and, after the new state and county were established, the first county judge.

Blackburn House sign.png

None of these pioneers got a statue in the park in Santa Cruz, let alone a city name like Fremont, but you can find their names on a few signs. The best local tribute to Fremont can be found in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. There’s a local legend that Fremont, during his 1846 visit, camped inside the lightning-hollowed base of one of the Big Trees. So they named the tree after him and put up a nice bronze plaque. There’s also a Fremont Avenue up the river in Glen Arbor.

A few years after the war, Paul Sweet moved out to the upper Arana Gulch area. To get to his old homestead, you travel on Paul Sweet Road. William Blackburn acquired and farmed much of the downtown Santa Cruz area south of Laurel Street. His house, built in 1854, is one of the oldest surviving wood-frame structures in the county. He also built a sawmill up Branciforte Creek, in an area still shown on USGS maps as Blackburn Gulch (upstream from where today’s Jarvis Road takes off from Branciforte Drive).

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War (or the Conquest of Alta California, if you look at it from the Mexican perspective), California became a United States possession. The Bear Flag Republic lasted only twenty-five days before Fremont’s troops raised the Stars and Stripes. The Bear Flag itself, however, became [in modified form] the flag of the brand-new State of California in 1850.

The war also created a new group of immigrants to California - U. S. military personnel and veterans. The best known among them went on to greater fame in the Civil War: Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman, Henry Halleck, and others. Sherman once owned land near Watsonville. A few veterans ended up in soon-to-be Santa Cruz County, most of them members of the 1st Regiment of New York Volunteers, including the unit's commander, Jonathan D. Stevenson. Stevenson himself at one point attempted (unsuccessfully) to lay claim to a large tract that included Point Santa Cruz and most of today's Westside. Members of Stevenson's regiment who also came to Santa Cruz included John Dreher, Frank Ball, and others.

Next: History Pages: 9 - The Territory