In 1846, California was a part of Mexico, and known as Alta California. For some years prior, and with increasing frequency, Americans and other non-Mexican nationals had moved to Alta California. The relations between the Mexican citizens, their government representatives and these foreign travelers to Alta California were not always friendly. During the first half of 1846, these immigrants, including the Americans, were concerned that actions might be taken against them by the Mexican authorities.
In March 1846, there had also been serious tensions and near conflict between the Mexican authorities and U.S. Captain John C. Fremont and his band of about 60 men. They had been in Alta California since November 1845 on an exploratory expedition. War between the U.S. and Mexico had been imminent for some time and was actually declared against Mexico by the U.S. on May 13, 1846. This was not known in Alta California until July 1846.
As a result of these circumstances, and for reasons which are not too clear on June 10, 1846, a small group of these resident Americans living north of San Francisco Bay captured from Mexican Lieutenant Francisco Arce a band of horses being taken to Mexican Commandante General Jose Castro. Previously, Lt. Arce may have made statements threatening the horses would be used by Castro to drive the foreigners out of California. The taking of these horses was the first stroke of an insurgency which came to be called the Bear Flag Revolt.
After taking the horses and leaving early on June 11, 1846, a group of these Americans headed to the small town of Sonoma to take control of the town. They collected further men along the way having a total of 33 or 34 men by the time they reached Sonoma near dawn on Sunday morning, June 14, 1846. The group took control of Sonoma without firing a shot. They captured the leaders and officers at that place. Several of the Mexican men, including General Mariano Vallejo, were taken as prisoners, first to Captain Fremont and then to Sutter’s Fort located in what has become Sacramento. About 25 of the men were left at Sonoma, the exact number being unclear.
At some point between dawn on June 14 and noon on June 17, 1846, the remaining men at Sonoma created a flag to stand for their insurgency. The exact timing of the creation is not clear from the documentary records. The flag that was created was a white field with a red stripe at the bottom edge, with a star in the upper left ("hoist") corner and a grizzly bear. The flag soon came to be called the “Bear Flag” and the insurgency came to be called the “Bear Flag Revolt.” The men of the Revolt were named the “Bear Flaggers.”
The Bear Flag Revolt lasted for about a month. On July 7, 1846, the U.S. Flag was raised by the American Navy at Monterey in Alta California. On July 9, the U.S. Flag was raised over Yerba Buena (soon to be called San Francisco). That same day, on July 9, 1846, a Bear Flag was lowered at Sonoma and the U.S. Flag was raised at that location. The Revolt had lasted a total of 31days, from June 9 to July 9, 1846. The Bear Flag had flown from June 14, 15 or 16 to July 9, 1846, a mere 24 to 26 days. California has been part of the United States ever since those days, ultimately becoming a State on September 9, 1850.
The Bear Flag lowered at Sonoma (possibly the "original") was given to the 16 year old son of U.S. Navy Commander John B. Montgomery, John Elliott Montgomery and taken to the U.S.S. Portsmouth. The Bear Flag story does not end there. Young John E. Montgomery wrote his mother on at least two occasions in the last half of 1846, describing the Bear Flag (including making two drawings of it) and the events surrounding it. These two letters did not resurface until over one hundred years later, but have served to confirm significant details about the flag. Unfortunately, John E. Montgomery disappeared shortly after these letters, along with an older brother in November 1846, on a mission to deliver pay to troops stationed at Sutter’s Fort. There is no clear evidence of what happened to them.
As a result, the Bear Flag came into the possession of Commander Montgomery and traveled with him and the Portsmouth; a copy of the flag made on the Portsmouth. These flags were turned over to the Commandant of the Boston Navy Yard by May 15, 1848 and were mislaid and forgotten; and then were turned over to J. C. Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy at the end of January 1854. Finally, in 1855, the flags were turned over to California’s two Senators, John B. Weller and William M. Gwin. Senator Weller donated the two flags to the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco on September 8, 1855. The next day, the fifth California Admission Day anniversary, the Bear Flag was paraded through San Francisco. The Bear Flags remained with the Society of California Pioneers until April 1906, when the flags were destroyed along with the Society’s San Francisco headquarters in the San Francisco earthquake.
Returning to 1846, by September, following a meeting in Sonoma, a committee was established to investigate and gather together all information related to “the bear-flag party.” It is believed this committee issued a report in May 1847. Then, on February 13, 1847, The Californian, the first newspaper in California, published a description of the original Bear Flag. One of the publishers of the newspaper, Robert Semple, had been a Bear Flagger.
In 1850, the Society of California Pioneers was organized in San Francisco for persons who had arrived in California by 1850 and their descendants and to preserve, promote and protect California history. Over the years the Society both protected and promoted the Bear Flag.
In 1875, the Native Sons of the Golden West (N.S.G.W.) was established in California and later joined by the female equivalent, the Native Daughters. The organizations promoted recognition of California history, assisted in creating monuments to various events and persons, and within the course of their first 50 years spread throughout the State. Usage of the Bear Flag itself and on emblems of the groups, including banners and pins, became widespread. The full impact of the Native Sons and Daughters on usage and recognition of the Bear Flag has yet to be fully investigated. It is expected to be substantial, given the growth of the groups between 1875 and 1925. The political significance of the native Sons became enormous in the first decades of the 20th Century, when many if not a majority of California politicians were members.
In 1909, the Native Sons adopted a resolution at their annual convention to promote the State of California adopting the Bear Flag as the first State Flag. In January and February 1911, these events came to fruition and on February 3, 1911 the Bear Flag became California’s State flag at the signing of State Senate Bill 291 by Governor Hiram Johnson. The Bear Flag has remained the California Flag since that time.
In the mid-20th Century statutes were adopted requiring the flying of the Bear Flag at various buildings and locations within the State. In 1953, the design of the Bear Flag was standardized with enactment of detailed specifications for the flag. On February 3, 2011, the Bear Flag will celebrate its Centennial Anniversary as the Flag of the State of California.