For a flagpole to merit its own postcard, it had better be a darn special flagpole. And the old pole at the Sonoma plaza – which in 1846 first flew the Bear Flag of the California Republic, then a few months later, the first U.S. flag over the new state – was such an important historical artifact that there were (at least) two postcards of it, one without even any kind of flag waving from the top. For more than sixty years after statehood, every Admission Day (September 9 – mark your calendar!) brought out a grizzled veteran of the Bear Flag Revolt to solemnly raise the stars and stripes once again up that venerated old stick.
Yes sir, the Bear Flag flagpole was really something special – until it fell over and everyone discovered it wasn’t the fabled relic after all.
(RIGHT: 1907 postcard. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)
The winds that blasted through the Sonoma Valley in the spring of 1910 caused enormous destruction, blowing down barns and tearing off roofs. But most lamented by the Press Democrat was the lost flagpole: “One feature of the damage done that is most regretted perhaps is the demolition of the old flag pole upon which the Bear Flag was raised, familiarly known as the ‘Bear Flag Pole’ so interesting to visitors.” Then a few days later, a letter from William Boggs arrived on the desk of PD editor Finley.
William M. Boggs was one of the most memorable “pioneers” in Sonoma County, and not only because he seemed to know everyone significant in early California; Boggs also liked to write, particularly about historical errors. We met him earlier when he wrote to the Press Democrat and corrected mistaken ideas about the Petaluma Adobe. Now he was clearing up facts about the flagpole – and because he was William Boggs, it was natural that he was also a participant in the story.
The flagpole that fell down, Boggs wrote, was a replacement made by the Americans. The real “Bear Flag Pole” was smaller and stood about fifty feet away from the current location. Nor did anyone regard it as important at the time; “It was finally taken down and cast aside and some boys cut it up for fire wood,” Boggs wrote.
Boggs stated the new pole was erected by George Stoneman, then a lieutenant, while Sonoma was still being used as a U.S. Army presidio. (Stoneman was posted to Sonoma 1849‑1851.) It was near Boggs’ house where Stoneman’s men dressed a redwood log to become the new flagpole, but that’s not why Boggs remembered it so well.
It seems that one day while the log was still lying on blocks he went for a buggy ride with a lady. While they were returning to the plaza, he heard pounding hoofbeats; the soldiers who had been drilling outside of town had decided to race back to their barracks, and in the lead was Major General Philip Kearney holding the bridle reins in his iron hook, his left arm having been amputated during the War with Mexico. “His horse leaped a wide mud-hole in the middle of the street and passed me at a break-neck speed,” Boggs wrote. The mule pulling his buggy panicked and Boggs lost control. It ran into the plaza with Boggs and his lady friend bouncing along behind. The mule headed for the log and jumped over it.
|The leap was a high one, carrying the buggy over the top of the big log, the step of the buggy plowing through the bark. The sudden shock broke the top off of the buggy and the lady went over the back of the seat into the top of the buggy.|
No one was hurt (surprisingly enough) and Boggs concluded, “…and that is why I remember the flag staff.” Well, I should say so.
Boggs was a soldier during the Mexican-American War, so he wasn’t around during the Bear Flag Revolt. But a participant in the uprising shared Boggs’ interest in historical accuracy, and wrote the Press Democrat to clarify another disputed point: When was the Bear Flag actually raised?
It’s well established that the key event was when the Bear Flaggers took prisoners of General Mariano Vallejo and other Mexican officers in Sonoma, and that indisputably happened June 14, 1846. But was the “California Republic” actually flying by the end of that day? Writing in his 1886 History of California series, Hubert Howe Bancroft thought it doubtful:
|The balance of testimony is therefore in a sense in favor of the 14th; but the evidence is very slight indeed; and it must be regarded as doubtful whether the insurgents had time on that Sunday afternoon to devise, manufacture, and hoist their new banner; especially if, as some say, the halyards were broken, so that the flag-staff in the plaza had to be lowered and raised again.|
The Americans were really, really interested in what was taking place over in Sonoma and the commander of the sloop of war “Portsmouth,” anchored in Sausalito, sent a small party of soldiers to find out what was going on. The report written June 17 had the first mention of the flag: “The insurgent party has hoisted a flag with a white field, with a border or stripe of red on its lower part, and having a star and bear upon it.” So we know the flag went up sometime between June 14-17.
(RIGHT: 1910 postcard. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Bear Flagger Henry Beeson, however, wrote the PD to state the flag was indeed raised the first day. (His letter, transcribed below, only also appeared in a small regional magazine and may be of interest to genealogists and local historians.) Beeson died in 1914, making him the last survivor of the Bear Flag Party. He made his final public appearance in 1908, raising a facsimile of the Bear Flag from the facsimile flag pole, and yes, there was a postcard of the occasion.
The flagpole bonafides and flag-raising date are not the only bits of misinformation about the Bear Flag Revolt. Aside from the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake, I have not explored another story where every book, article, and web page seems to have so many mistakes. (An accurate, but basic history of the Bear Flag Revolt can be found at the bearflagmuseum.org web site.) For example, the artist who painted the original flag, William L. Todd, is always mentioned as being a relative to Mary Todd (Mrs. Abraham) Lincoln, but he’s identified as a nephew in some places and others as a cousin (he was a first cousin and her same age). In the semi-official “Story of the Bear Flag” written in 1911 when it was designated as the official state flag, our own hometown historian Tom Gregory went further and claimed Mr. Todd’s middle name was “Lincoln,” which would have shown his parents to be prescient – the future president was only nine years old when little William L. was born.
Gregory’s entire account is enjoyable reading as long as you keep in mind that it is roughly equal parts well-known fact and humorous bullshit. While it’s true later commentators said that Todd’s original flag included a poor silhouette painting of a Grizzly Bear that more resembled a Brown Bear or a pig, Tom Gregory took that many steps further and made up comic dialog he placed during the event: “…the curious town-people who looked, laughed and said it was ‘el porcino’ and an English sailor present voiced in his natal vernacular that idea when he said that it was ‘nothing so like a bloomin’ red ‘og.'”
Boggs also wrote in his letter to the Press Democrat that the original pole additionally served as a “whipping post for those who committed petty offenses,” and thank the lord Tom Gregory didn’t know about that detail; the mind reels to think of the lurid embellishments he could have added to the story.
BEAR FLAG POLE IS DEMOLISHED
Sonoma, May 16–A wind storm, more terrific than has ever been known in the history of this place, swept over the Sonoma Valley from seven o’clock Sunday night until noon today when it subsided, leaving in its path a big amount of damage.Bear Flag Pole Demolished
One feature of the damage done that is most regretted perhaps is the demolition of the old flag pole upon which the Bear Flag was raised, familiarly known as the “Bear Flag Pole” so interesting to visitors.
[..]– Press Democrat, May 17, 1910
PIONEER BOGGS WRITES OF OLD “BEAR FLAG POLE”Memorable Race In the Old Town of Sonoma
Editor Press Democrat–Will you please do me the favor by correcting a historical error that the press and even the citizens of the historic old town of Sonoma are making in perpetuating the old “Bear Flag Pole” on which the original Bear Flag was hoisted.
The flag staff with a cross tree that has stood at the northeast corner of the plaza in Sonoma, and reported as recently blown down, is not the original Bear Flag pole or Mexican Flag staff on which the Bear Flag party hoisted the original Bear Flag. The staff alluded to as having fallen down was built and erected by Lieutenant Stoneman, afterwards General Stoneman, and later Governor of California, was made from a large tree, and hauled from the redwoods in the Sonoma mountains. It was set up near the northeast corner of the plaza of Sonoma town and a moss tree, like a ship’s mast, spliced to it to lengthen it out. The original tree before it was dressed off was mounted on blocks and being from two to three feet in diameter, with the bark on, was near my residence while being prepared by Lieutenant Stoneman’s men, and when finished was raised and set in the ground about fifty feet from where the old Mexican pole or flag staff that the Bear Flag party utilized to hoist the Bear Flag. The latter described pole or original Mexican flag staff stood immediately in front of the quarters or barracks just the width of the street in front of the main entrance to the barracks, whereas the Stoneman flag staff was set up about fifty feet east or nearer the corner of the plaza. The old Bear Flag pole was made of a single small tree and only about from six to eight inches in diameter. It stood in its place for a number of years, and was used by the authorities of the town as a whipping post for those who committed petty offenses. It was finally taken down and cast aside and some boys cut it up for fire wood.
I have a good reason to remember the flag staff erected by Lieutenant Stoneman. While it was mounted on blocks or pins of small pieces of wood prior to being dressed off, and during the headquarters of the army at Sonoma, when Colonel Joe Hooker, Stoneman and many other officers of the regular army were stationed there, Major-General Phil Kearney was there as a guest of the staff of General Persiper Smith. He was better known as “One Armed” Phil Kearney, one of the bravest and best officers in the United States army. A daring and reckless rider, he lost his arm in charging at the gates of the City of Mexico. He wore an iron hook by which he held the reins of his steed. He had taken a company of Dragoons out west of town while at Sonoma, to put them through some cavalry drills, and after the exercise proposed to race back to the barracks. It happened that I was out in that direction with a lady in a single buggy, with a top, driving a fine, large American mule, and as I was returning toward the plaza I heard the rattle of the soldiers in their race back to the barracks, with General Kearney far in the lead. He passed me on his fiery black horse with his iron-hook arm holding the bridle reins and his saber in the other hand. His horse leaped a wide mud-hole in the middle of the street and passed me at a break-neck speed. My mule took fright at the approach of the company and the rattle of the sabers and ran into the plaza, and up the street in front of the barracks, where all the men left in the barracks had turned out to see the race between General Kearney and his men. They scared my mule, already frightened, so that I could not hold it and it left the street and leaped over this large tree that was mounted on blocks, two or three feet off the ground. The leap was a high one, carrying the buggy over the top of the big log, the step of the buggy plowing through the bark. The sudden shock broke the top off of the buggy and the lady went over the back of the seat into the top of the buggy. I ran the mule up against the adobe building nearest to me. The lady escaped unhurt and no damage was done to the buggy, except the bending of the iron step which caught in the bark of the undressed flag staff. The mule’s leap over the top of the log must have been about five feet. And that is why I remember the flag staff that has stood so many years at the northeast corner of the Sonoma plaza, and erroneously called the “Old Bear Flag Pole.”
My wife saw some boys cut up the original Bear Flag pole that had been taken down and thrown on the ground near where it had stood.
I resided in Sonoma about seventeen years, from 1846, and am quite familiar with the early settlement and occupation by our people of that historic old town, and I am sorry to see so many mistakes made in our press about the early events of our Golden State.
W. M. BOGGS
Napa, May 21, 1910.– Press Democrat, May 21, 1910PIONEER BENSON WRITES OF THE BEAR FLAG PARTY
Henry Beeson, an aged survivor of the famous “Bear Flag Party” at Sonoma, has written a short, but intensely interesting sketch of the events of that occasion with a few details of the incidents leading up to the “raising” for the Cloverdale Reveille which is well worth preserving. Mr. Beeson says:
“I wish to correct some erroneous impressions that have been made by some journals and other publications regarding the raising of the “Bear Flag” in old Sonoma, on June 14th, 1846, the month and day being anniversary of the adoption of the American flag by the Continental Congress in 1777. Standard historians have not agreed as to the exact date of that occurrence, one placing it as June 12, and another June 15, but I can clearly recollect the day as being Sunday, June 14. The publications referred to were of the last celebration of Admission Day, September 9, at Santa Rosa. It had been long and universally known that I happened to be one of that once famous party of thirty three who raised the “Bear Flag” and I am now the sole survivor.
“The latter incident was omitted in the celebration proceeding of those publications referred to. We selected Ezekial Merritt, one of the oldest of the party as our captain, and our acquaintance with each other, one and all, became lasting. I have attended many celebrations of Admission Day in Sonoma and several of them in company with two of my life-long friends, the late Ben Duell and Harvey Porterfield, then survivors of the flag-raising, but now long since dead. The last I attended was in 1908. when I raised the facsimile of the flag we first flung to the breeze on June 14, 1846, the original having been destroyed by the earthquake and fire of San Francisco in 1906. I have preserved as a valued souvenir, a likeness of the last three survivors of the party, together with a list of names of entire thirty-three.
“Another esteemed and old time friend, Jas. McChristian, was one of Fremont’s famous battalion that entered the town of Sonoma next day to that of raising the flag. Mr. McChristian and I had been in close touch with each other during a trip of six months, having in 1845 crossed the plains together in the train of about 100 wagons from Indian Nation to what is now Sacramento, when it fell to my lot to drive an ox team all the way, about 3000 miles, and to travel most of that distance afoot.
“Next year to the close of the Mexican war in 1848 our family circle, consisting of the Anderson and Beeson families, emigrated to Lake county, where we remained until a threatened uprising of the local Indians there, and the death of Andy Kelsey at their hands when we took our hurried departure and journey by slow stages via Cloverdale, until we reached the site of Boonville, in good old Anderson Valley on May 3, 1852. I am now of the age of 82, making my house with my daughter, Mrs. H. Newton Ornbaun of Ornbaun Valley, Anderson township, Mendocino county, surrounded by loving children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. My mother Mrs. Walter Anderson, who was the first white person who died in Anderson Valley from natural causes.”– Press Democrat, November 4, 1911