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Independence Day in Sonoma: July 4, 1846

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

Californio factions could not bury their differences even to face a common foe. Even the California government was divided. In the north, at Monterey, Castro held the office of military commandante general, while in the south, at Los Angeles, Pío Pico occupied the office of civil governor. Castro controlled the army, the custom’s house, and the revenue it brought in; Pico had the support of the diputacíon, which met in Los Angeles. Pico and Castro mistrusted each other. They were on the verge of leading troops against each other when news reached them that Anglo-American settlers in Sonoma, north of San Francisco Bay, had risen in revolt.

The revolt had begun in this way. On May 30, 1846, Frémont had sent two messengers out to rouse Anglo-American settlers to his camp on the Sacramento. “Notice is hereby given,” said the notice, “that a large body of armed Spaniards on horseback, amounting to 250 men, has been seen on this way to the Sacramento Valley, destroying crops, burning the houses, and driving off the cattle. Captain Frémont invites every free man in the valley to come to his camp at the Buttes immediately.” Of course, it was all a lie; but it was the first assault in the “neutral conquest” Frémont had planned for California.

Sonoma, showing the town plaza and the flag pole on which the Bear Flag was raised. Historic American Buildings Survey, by George Gibbs, 1851.
Sonoma, showing the town plaza and the flag pole on which the Bear Flag was raised. Historic American Buildings Survey, by George Gibbs, 1851.

About a week later, news reached Frémont that some men sent by General Castro had requisitioned 200 horses at the rancho of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo in Sonoma. Without delay, a band of Frémont’s men, under Ezekial Merritt, rode out and, the next day, captured the horses at Murphy’s Rancho, south of Sutter’s fort. After driving the horses to Frémont’s camp, Merritt gathered about 20 men and rode to Sonoma.

At dawn of Sunday, June 14, General Vallejo awoke to find his house surrounded by the most disagreeable-looking men—all armed, many dressed in buckskin, some without shirts, some shod, others not. They were Merritt’s men, and Vallejo, knowing he could not resist the rabble, quietly surrendered. Taking Don Mariano and others prisoner, Merritt’s men escorted them to Sutter’s fort, where Frémont, who claimed no involvement in the action, ordered them confined.

Sutter’s Fort in 1849
Sutter’s Fort in 1849

The Anglo-American settlers, now in full revolt in the north, were a motley band. Some were respectable farmers, but others were mere adventurers; others were bloodthirsty, unruly denizens of the unruly West. The revolt, which lacked all cohesion, might soon have fallen apart had it not been for William Brown Ide, a Massachusetts Yankee, who organized the disparate band. On the very day of Vallejo’s capture, Ide raised a flag—white, with a red flannel horizontal stripe at the bottom, a star in the upper left-hand corner, and rather pig-like Grizzly Bear image right of the star—and proclaimed the independent “California Republic.” Unable to receive help from Commodore John B. Montgomery on the U.S.S. Portsmouth, anchored off San Francisco (his government, said Montgomery, was not yet at war with Mexico), Ide nevertheless issued a proclamation declaring that the settlers had been driven to revolt by the “principles of self-preservation . . . the love of truth, and the hatred of tyranny.”

Three days later, at Santa Clara, General Castro learned of the revolt at Sonoma. Issuing a proclamation that called on Californios to “arise in mass, divine providence will guide us to glory,” he gathered three divisions, totaling 160 men. Some younger Californios, led by a 22-year-old barber, Juan Padilla, and the school keeper, José Ramón Carrillo, commenced unofficial hostilities against the “Bears,” as the insurgents were called.

Early in July, Frémont decided to drop his neutral façade. On July 4 he arrived in Sonoma, where an Independence Day celebration was in full swing, complete with the booming of cannon, a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a fandango. The next day, Frémont took command of the Bears saying he would lead them in the struggle to “free” California from the “usurper” Castro. The Pathfinder knew he was acting illegally—he, a United States army regular, had received no news of a declaration of war against Mexico. Six days later, though, when he was at Sutter’s fort, he received news that legitimized his act. Commodore John Drake Sloat, commander of the United States Pacific squadron, had taken Monterey and raised the stars and stripes on July 7. This meant only one thing—Mexico and the United States were at war.

A Fandango for (Mexican) Independence

The fandango was a popular dance in Spanish and Mexican California—so popular, in fact, that the Franciscan missionaries in California complained that the Californios would neglect their religious duties, but never a fandango! This performance, commemorating Mexican independence, is performed by Grupo Segrel.

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