|1890 photo of original Bear Flag from Barbara Warner's Book|
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|
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
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.
photo Lindy Miller 2011
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.