Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Monday, January 10, 2011

Recreating the California Bear Flag of 1846

     When it came to this particular project, I think the making of the flag was the easiest part of the process. Even though I thought I knew a little about the original Bear Flag's origins, nothing could prepare me for the convoluted, contradictory and confusing history of its creation and possible creator(s) that my research uncovered. In order to keep this blog in the spirit of fun and discovery, I think it's best to start with an accurate but brief description of the events leading up to the flag's creation. What will follow is a pared down version of the original flag's long journey, its return home and it's eventual demise. Intersperced, will be lists of claimants who wished to share in the fame of its creation and an amazingly creative collection of what said claimants felt the original flag was made of. Finally, I will reveal my choices that led to what I feel is a viable replica of the lost original.

1890 photo of original Bear Flag from Barbara Warner's Book
      I would like to say that if I had stumbled onto Bill Trinkle's virtual Bear Flag Museum http://www.bearflagmuseum.org/ earlier, it would have saved me a lot of grief and saved Patricia Keats of the Society of California Pioneers http://www.californiapioneers.org/ a lot of paper. Mr. Trinkle's site is an incredible repository of Bear Flag history and well worth a visit to peel back the layers of stories regarding our State's banner. Patricia Keats is the Director of the Library at the Society of California Pioneers and without her help, my project would have never progressed. She generously copied and shared many rare documents that helped me chart the risky waters of our state flag's often muddied history.

     The original Bear Flag was constructed sometime between June 14 and June 17, 1846 and was intended as a statement of revolution against the ruling Mexican authority. War between the U.S. and Mexico had begun and the once welcomed settlers, many of them Americans, felt compelled to take action. They truly believed they were about to be expelled from their homes. On June 14th, they seized the town of Sonoma , which at the time was the military center of Northern California. Their bloodless takeover was so successful that they spontaneously decided to declare California a "Republic". Every new republic needs a flag and so it came to be. The "Bear Flaggers" proudly raised their new flag in the Plaza of Sonoma and there it flew until July 9, 1846. The flag's basic design was a rectangle of natural cotton cloth with a red stripe sewn to the bottom. In the upper left corner was a painted red star and next to the star was a red bear, on all fours, facing the star. Under the star and bear,  the words CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC.were written in ink.

     On July 9th the Bear Flag was lowered and replaced with the Stars and Stripes by Navy Lt. Joseph Warren Revere ( yes, that Revere Family). Revere handed the rebel banner to an unamed Bear Flagger who was standing by. That person, in turn, handed it to 16 year old, John Elliot Montgomery. John worked on the ship U.S.S. Portsmouth as a clerk to his father the Commander and had accompanied the Navy squad to secure Sonoma for the United States. The Bear Flag traveled back to the Portsmouth in San Francisco bay, with the young Montgomery. From there the flag traveled with the ship, all the way back to the Boston Navy Yard and was stored away as a memento of the Mexican War. The Bear Flag movement was so ingrained into early California history that its legendary symbol was never quite forgotten by the pioneers.

 1896 Replica at Sonoma State Historic Park
     In 1855, California Senators, Weller and Gwin, requested that the Navy return the Bear Flag to California. The Navy considered the flag of no real importance to them and honored the request. The flag arrived in California in time to be in the September 9th Admission Day Parade in San Francisco. After its public showing, it was widely hailed in the press as the returned "Flag of the Pioneers". The flag was placed in the care of the Society of California Pioneers and was displayed proudly on the wall behind the bar in the Society's Saloon at its San Francisco Office. In 1890 a photograph of the fading and soiled relic was taken. Considering the historical importance of the flag, not to mention is frailty, it's no surprise that a replica was made of it in 1896 to fly in Sonoma for the 50th Anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt. The final act of the Bear Flags physical history would play out in 1906 when San Francisco suffered its horrific earthquake. The destruction and fires that followed wiped away a lot of California's history and the Bear Flag became a memory. But wait ! We have a photo, right ? and a replica ? Yes, they survived but that's only part of the story. Starting in 1855, with the flag's return, controversy began as to the authorship of the original flag, who helped design and make it, what it was made of and if it was even the right Bear Flag. Some of the myths exist to this very day.

     I had promised to list many of the people who claimed to have been involved in the creation of some sort of Bear Flag during the events of the Bear Flag Revolt. Some disputed which one was the true or first Bear Flag or who was involved in the design or execution of the well known surviving flag. So here goes, William L. Todd, Henry L. Ford, William J. Scott, Ben Duell, Thomas Cowey (Cowan), Patrick McChristian, Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, ____ Currie, Nancy Kelsey, Chepa Mathews, Mrs.John Sears, Mrs.W.B.Elliot, Mrs.William Hudson, Mr.J. Grigsby. Next is a list of the various materials supposedly used in the Bear Flag's creation. I gleaned these from all the accounts I found , white cotton, brown domestic, unbleached domestic, Chilean flour sack, white petticoat, manta cloth, coarse cotton, red flannel (petticoat), red flannel (man's shirt), blackberry juice-brick dust-oil, poke berries, rusty nails, Venitian red, red chalk, Spanish brown, black ink, charcoal and grease, lampblack.

Montgomery's drawing courtesy of
Society of California Pioneers
     The controversy surrounding the design of the flag that was on the pole in Sonoma, on July 9, 1846 was laid to rest in 1953, when the letters written by John Elliot Montgomery (remember him?) to his mother in 1846, were discovered at Yale University. John had illustrated two of his letters with drawings of the familiar Bear Flag up the pole in Sonoma. The same flag that he had carried back to the ship. The great California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft waded in, in his "History of California". Giving it his best shot, he felt that there was no doubt that William L. Todd was the artist who had made the flag that flew in Sonoma and was later destroyed in 1906. Todd himself was summoned to examine the relic banner and authenticate it. He declared it to be no other than the one he painted in Sonoma in 1846. He even recounted the misspelling of the word Republic. Todd had laid out the words in ink and mistakenly written Repubic. Realizing his mistake, he lettered over the wrong letters, to make the correction. This is often confusing to people today who see a double period at the end of the words, not realizing the correction. Todd made a declaration of his authorship in 1868 but it didn't end the controversy until the conclusive evidence surfaced in 1953.

     To this day, the one myth that survives, is that Nancy Kelsey was the Betsy Ross of the Bear Flag. A contemporary play has even been written about her involvement. There is a story that she might have been involved in helping Peter Storm craft a bear flag before June 14, 1846. A possible contender for the "first" bear flag, but there in no evidence that she was involved in helping create the Todd flag.

My replica
photo Lindy Miller 2011
     So, armed with the details in Todd's declaration of 1868 and the information in A.H. Greenly's article in the "Yale University Library Gazette" of 1953, "More Light on the Original Bear Flag of California", I proceeded to plan my interpretation of the original. The best copy of the 1890 photo of the Todd flag, is found on page 201 in Barbara R. Warner's "The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage". If you look closely, you can see that Todd made the first star smaller, then enlarged it. To my eye, it appears that he spilled some of the paint in three spots, two inside of the star and one on the field. I settled on the overall dimensions of my interpretation to be 58 1/2" x 37". The body of the flag would be of unbleached muslin (brown domestic). For the red stripe, I chose a lightweight wool flannel in an appropriate madder red color, suitable for a petticoat or a shirt. I carefully pieced three bits of the wool together as the 1890 photo and  '96 replica revealed. For the paint, I mixed boiled Linseed Oil with Venitan Red pigment (a common red paint of the time). In an earlier experiment, I had mixed blackberry juice, brick dust and linseed oil together just to see what it looked like. It turned out to be purple instead of the usually described red, so I decided against it.  In order to replicate the ink that Todd might have used, I had to figure out how to make Oak Gall Ink. The common ink of our ancestors, right? Not quite something you will find at Staples. After considerable testing, I finally found the perfect formula of ground oak galls, iron sulfate and gum arabic. It gave me a nice black ink that over time would fade to brown. All the parts were sewn together with linen thread and I used a hemp cord for the hoist. My dream is to someday fly my replica on the flagpole in Sonoma's plaza as sort of a final blessing.

       Now the best part of the story for those that don't know. The Bear Flag became our official State flag in 1911, so this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Flag of the Pioneers as our State's Banner. Although the current version is an "improved" facsimile of the original, the key elements remain.


  1. Nice blog.
    Nice to see:
    1. Photo of original
    2. Photo of replica
    and as a bonus:
    3. Montgomery's drawing
    4. and your replica

  2. oh and happy "100" Bear Flag Day :)

  3. Thanks for the vote of confidence and appreciation. It is always nice to find that our work at the Bear Flag Museum has been appreciated.

    Bill Trinkle, Exec. Director

  4. Hi Jim,

    Thanks for sharing all your work. I have a question about your view of Todd's description. I also am a fan of Trinkle's Museum and have read Todd's description there in his letter of 1878.

    In the letter Todd says "If it is the one that I painted, it will be known by a mistake in tinting out the words "California Republic." The letters were first lined out with a pen, and I left out the letter I, and lined out the letter C in its place. But afterward I lined out the letter I over the C so that the last syllable of "Republic" looks as if the two last letters were blended. 

    It is the very last part that has me scratching my head. I am inclined to think that this means that in the final version of the flag it still looked like the "i" and the "c" were touching. This suggests to me that the flag in Warner's book is also a copy.

    I would be very interested to hear your view on this.

    I know you addressed the issue in a different way--as if the outlining of the mistake were left but the final filled-in letters were corrected. I appreciate the pains you took to research the various histories and the decisions you made in crafting the replica and to my mind seem to know more about it that most--thus my question.

    I am an artist using the flag as a starting point to make paintings (meaning though I'm interested in the truth of the original flag my own versions do not attempt to recreate the original exactly).

    I can be reached at erik@erikbakke.com and my work can be seen at

    Thank you.


  5. We're staying in Marble Quarry, on the outskirts of Columbia. We were in one of the book stores in town and came across your site from the flag that was there. Check it out:

    Thanks for publishing all the great research you're doing. More comments soon!

  6. Peter G. MeyerhofAugust 7, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    There was a second photograph taken of the original Todd bear flag by the Tabor studio in San Francisco about 1900. It is a much more detailed photograph and shows that Todd did not "spill ink in three places." Those are shadows on your copy. Todd wrote he created this flag on June 18. Captain Montgomery who saw the Todd flag a few days later estimated that the red color (of both the star and bear) was created from berry juice, brick dust, and oil. Several witnesses, I think Todd included, say that the black writing was simply "lamp-black."

    Actually there is abudant evidence that there was another Bear Flag which was raised on the morning of June 14 featuring a bear (colored black) raised on his haunches and facing a star. I can give you a list of many in the original Bear Party who describe this flag. However perhaps the most authorative witness of this flag was Lt. John Missroon who arrived in Sonoma on June 17 and described the flag he had seen to his fellow officers on the Portsmouth a few days later. It was the bear standing on his hind legs in what appeared to be an aggressive pose. Similarly Lt. Joseph Revere describes this flag in his book as flying over Sonoma, in spite of the fact that he was the one who would lower the Todd flag and have ample opportunity to examine it in July 1846.

  7. Jim,
    I have enjoyed reading your blog on the bear flag. My father is an historian and wrote an artical on the bear flag revolt. It is one of hie favorite articals he has written. As a tribute to him and the artical I thought I would attempt to replicate the flag. I say attempt now that I have read the details of your recreation of the flag. This brings me to ask, would it be possible to commision you to creat a scaled down version of the flag you created? Please contact me at globalimagesinfo@gmail.com This would be for Christmas. Thank you for all you work,