THE MANY DEATHS OF COWIE AND FOWLER PART I

All we know for certain is this: Somewhere around Santa Rosa, their lives ended on the last day of spring. The Bear Flag Revolt was not even a week old.

(Regrettably, this article had to be split into two parts because of its length – yet another technical reason why I am migrating this blog to SantaRosaHistory.com. Footnotes for this part are included here but the full set, along with transcribed materials mentioned below, appear in part two.)

The stories about the horrific deaths of Cowie and Fowler dumped gasoline on the bonfire of anxieties among American immigrants in the North Bay. Earlier that June of 1846 rumors spread that the fearsome Mexican Army was on the march, preparing to drive them out of the territory – or maybe slaughter them in their beds. In truth, the Mexican government had trouble remembering anything existed beyond Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and probably had barely enough soldiers north of Los Angeles to fill a modern high school gym. When a small division of Mexican soldiers encountered armed settlers at the “Battle” of Olómpali they quickly retreated, even though they outnumbered the Americans by about four to one. More on the background and immediate American reaction to the deaths can be found in the earlier article, “TWO MARTYRS FOR THE FLAG OF THE BEARS.”

From the Californio viewpoint, the small immigrant population just suddenly went nuts, declaring they were taking over and starting a new country. “The running up of this queer flag caused much fear to the families of the Californians established in the neighborhood of Sonoma, Petaluma and San Rafael,” General Vallejo wrote in his memoirs, adding the ranchers would not have been so alarmed if it were the United States declaring annexation. But the aristocratic Vallejo and his brother – who represented the rule of law in that part of Alta California – were prisoners of this little breakaway rebel group and the citizens didn’t know what they should do. A few “seized their machetes and guns and fled to the woods, determined to await a propitious moment for getting rid of the disturbers of the peace,” the General continued. In other words, they formed a patriotic resistance force to hold on until order was restored by the mighty Mexican Army, see above.

Leading the Californio militia here was 22 year-old Juan Padilla who owned Rancho Roblar de la Miseria (think of the Hessel-Roblar Road-Two Rock area). Padilla only had been in the area a few months but had some official Mexican government credentials as being recently the alcalde of Yerba Buena. Estimates of the number of men riding with Padillia ranged from a dozen to upwards of 200, the higher numbers probably the product of fevered imaginations from American alarmists. There was another Californio militia from the Napa area trailing the Americans taking General Vallejo and other prisoners to Frémont’s camp on the American River, but one of the few things certain about the Fowler and Cowie story is that they were put to death while in Padilla’s custody. The most concise account of what happened was told in Bancroft’s history:1

On the 18th or 19th, Fowler and Thomas Cowie were sent by Ide to obtain a keg of powder from Moses Carson at the Fitch rancho on Russian River. Disregarding the advice of Ide and Ford, they are said to have neglected all precautions, and to have followed the main road. Before reaching their destination they were captured by a party of Californians under Juan N. Padilla and Ramon Carrillo… It was near Santa Rosa that the two Americans were captured, under circumstances of which nothing is known. They were killed by their captors, and they are said to have been mutilated in a most horrible manner.

After they had not returned in two days, Bancroft continued, “…Sergeant Gibson [was sent] with four men to Fitch’s rancho. Obtaining the powder, but no news, Gibson started back, and near Santa Rosa was attacked by a small party of Mexicans, one of whom was wounded, and another brought captive to Sonoma. It was from him that information was first obtained about the murder.”

Almost everything written there by Bancroft came from the 1851 recollections of Henry L. Ford, the second in command at Sonoma and the guy who was really running the show (“Commander” William Ide was lost in the weeds, trying to decide if posterity would remember him as being more like George Washington, Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson).

Bancroft thought Ford was a trustworthy source but there were others who remembered things differently – sometimes very differently. There are multiple versions of where they were captured and killed and who was involved.  The various accounts fall into two rough categories: American and Californio, each further divided up by when the claims appeared. The first versions are those that mostly were written close to 1846:

FIRST AMERICAN   Warning: The descriptions of torture in this section are quite graphic.

The earliest version of the Cowie and Fowler story was published about ten weeks later in The Californian, the first newspaper in the province of Alta California. The author is not named but as the paper was founded shortly before by Bear Flagger Robert Semple he is the likely writer. Here is part of what Bernardino Garcia, known as “Four Fingered Jack” (because he supposedly was missing a thumb) reportedly told his captors at the Sonoma jail:

The party after keeping the prisoners a day or two, tied them to trees, then stoned them, one of them had his jaw broken, a riata (rope) was made fast to the broken bone and the jaw dragged out, they were then cut up, a small piece at a time, and the pieces thrown at them, or crammed in their throats and they were eventually despatched by cutting out their bowels.

An earlier military dispatch, written July 25 by Captain Gillespie from Frémont’s forces, told the same basic tale: “The Californios first shot the two Americans, tied them to trees, cut off their privates, scared [sic] their breast on either side, broke their jaws, and disfigured them with knives …they then threw the bodies into a ditch… “2

And although it didn’t appear in print until ten years later, Alexis Godey, another of Frémont’s men wrote about the same thing: “…their bodies presented a most shocking spectacle, bearing the marks of horrible mutilation, their throats cut, and their bowels ripped open; other indignities were perpetrated of a nature to disgusting and obscene to relate.” He continued by writing Cowie was well-known and popular, so “…the sight that his lifeless remains presented, created in the breasts of many of his old friends a feeling of stern and bitter revenge…”3

Then there was this statement from Bear Flagger William Baldridge, in an unpublished account requested by Bancroft: “It was stated and believed by some that after they surrendered, they were tied to trees and cut to pieces with knives, but if anyone stated positively that they were put to death in that way, I failed to hear it.”

Notice Garcia did not confess involvement with the killings, laying full blame on “the party,” which the article specified as a “small party of Californians under command of one [sic Juan] Padilla.” This was probably wise of him; in mid-July correspondence between Commander Montgomery of the American man-of-war sloop Portsmouth anchored off Sausalito and John Grigsby – the Bear left in charge of the 50-odd men remaining at the Sonoma fort after the others rode off with Frémont as part of the “California Battalion” – it was decided that Garcia and the other prisoner should remain in jail to protect them from being lynched.4

The accounts by Frémont’s men seem to confirm the mutilation story until you look at the calendar. By all accounts Fowler and Cowie were killed on June 19th or 20th somewhere near Santa Rosa. But Gillespie and Godey rode in with Frémont on the 25th, so if they actually saw the bodies, the remains would have needed to be close to Sonoma and still unburied, for some awful reason.

Also, this: Frémont and the California Battalion left Sonoma on July 6 and ten days later Grigsby wrote to the naval commander, “We have found the two men who were lost on the Santa Rosa farm, horribly mangled.” Thus none of Frémont’s crew ever viewed the bodies – and neither did any Bear Flaggers until the victims had been decomposing for nearly a month. Conclusions about what all this implies is discussed at the end of this piece.

Also in question is where Fowler and Cowie were headed. Bancroft stated flatly they were going to “the Fitch rancho on Russian River” without his usual thorough and long-winded footnotes. Baldridge supports that: “A man on Russian River, about one day’s travel from Sonoma, sent us word that he had a keg of powder and if we would sent after it he would give it to us.”5

But the Californian newspaper – in the same article describing the horrific deaths – claimed they were headed to Bodega, and that destination appears in several early and modern histories. This is probably a confusion because Bear Flagger William Todd and another man were sent on a mission towards the coast around the same time, carrying some note from Frémont (I suspect it was an appeal to Captain Stephen Smith to join the revolt and alert them of any Mexican troop ships appearing on the coast). Todd and his companion were captured by Californios and taken to Olómpali.6

William Ide wrote they went in yet another direction; he claimed Fowler and Cowie were “sent to Doct. Bails, a distance of about 20 miles, to obtain a keg of powder which had been purchased.” In many ways this possibility is the most reasonable. Doctor Bale had a substantial rancho where the Bears had rested before their assault on Sonoma, so Ide and the others had knowledge of what stores he had available. His place, however, was on the Napa River above St. Helena.

Thus depending whom you believe, Cowie and Fowler were going north, west, or east.

FIRST CALIFORNIO   There were no early printed Californio accounts of the Bear Flag Revolt except for Osio’s 1851 history (see sidebar in part 2, “HUNTING THE ELUSIVE BEARS”), and he does not mention Padilla’s militia or the Cowie and Fowler incident. But original documents published by Bancroft and others later give a remarkably thorough account of the doings of Padillia’s Californio homeland defense force from the capture of Cowie/Fowler around June 19 until the group faded away five days later when it merged with the soldiers at Olómpali.

In one of Bear Flagger Grigsby’s reports to Commander Montgomery he lists names or partial names of twelve men who were believed involved with the killings. Most were obscure locals except for José Ramón Carrillo, the 25 year-old son of the famous Santa Rosa family. But writings that appeared later show Carrillo’s group was separate from Padilla’s – Carrillo captured Cowie/Fowler and turned them over to Padilla, who murdered them.

Later that summer Carrillo was in San Diego where he gave a court deposition about the doings in the north. Bancroft summarized that testimony in a lengthy footnote concerning Cowie and Fowler (see sidebar in part two), writing: “Carrillo took the two men and delivered them to Padilla, who, against his advice and that of others, insisted on having them shot. Four men under a corporal were sent to shoot and bury them.” (Carrillo added he had reported what was done to Commandante General José Castro and he approved.)

In his memoirs, General Vallejo also made a distinction between the separate “command(s) of Captains Padilla and Ramón Carrillo.” Vallejo’s wife, Francisca – a sister of Ramón – said Bear Flag leader Ide strong-armed her into write a letter to both of them. Ide wanted a meeting and their promise not to attack Sonoma, warning Francisca that she and her family, who were under house arrest, would be killed “as soon as the California guerrilla men came in sight over the Sonoma hills.” She did as he asked, but also packed her brother a little something extra:7

…I agreed to write the letters that Ide requested of us and, in order to ensure the life of the messenger, we asked him to give us a passport…so that the Indian Gervasio might travel freely with his oxcart loaded with hides. At night we ordered Gervasio to place among the hides a dozen pistols, ten pounds of powder, four flintlocks and six sabers. He left in the direction of Petaluma. On the road he met my brother, Ramón, turned the weapons over to him and then continued on his way to Petaluma.

Ide apparently made the demand a day or two before the Bears discovered Cowie and Fowler were dead. Ramón replied to his sister June 22, writing from “Sierra de Petaluma”:

…I tell you not to have any fear that this force which I have reunited is for the purpose of doing any damage to that señor or his force. It is true that we have many armed Indians and people of class, and if we had any intention of doing any damage we would have done it…the only design for which we have united ourselves has been to guard our interests and to lay claim in a legal way to the peace which has been promised us…

Probably needless to say, the meeting did not occur; by the time Francisca must have received his reply, events had moved on and the Bear Flag irregulars were heading for Olómpali. His letter – with its defense-only message – did not mention Cowie and Fowler  (Ramón’s entire letter, in both Spanish and English translation, can be read here).

The Carrillo and Padilla forces again met up at Olómpali, and in his later court testimony provided one of the few first-hand Californio versions of what happened there: “After joining Padilla I proposed to him to set free his prisoners, and he did so before the fight. Then the foe fell upon us, all being under the command of [Captain Joaquin de la] Torre, who ordered us to mount and fire; but seeing that he could gain no advantage, since most of his men ran away, he ordered the rest to retire. We formed again in the plain, where we were not attacked; and then we retreated to San Rafael, with one man killed and two wounded.”


1 All references to H. H. Bancroft in this article refer to his History of California Vo. 5 1846-1848 published in 1886.

2 Officer Gillespie and Other Military Officers from the Pacific Squadron’s Dispatches to the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, MS 89, Reel 33. National Archives, San Bruno, California. Cited in Scheiner (see sidebar)

3 October 1856, New York Evening Post cited in Walker, Dale; “Bear Flag Rising”, 199; pg 132-133

4 National Archives Squadron Letters cited in Warner; The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage; 1996, pg. 183. The second prisoner was named as “Blas Angelino” in that correspondence of Grigsby and Montgomery on July 16 and 18. Ford said he took the prisoners with them as he and the irregular volunteers went in search of the Californio militia and ended up at Olómpali. He did not explain why; perhaps he feared they would not be adequately safe in the Sonoma jail or maybe he anticipated he might need them as hostages to trade for the missing Bears.

5 The Fitch property was Rancho Sotoyome, which encompassed modern Healdsburg and lands to the east, including all of the Russian River nearby. Henry Fitch, married to the eldest of Doña María Carrillo daughters, was not a player in the Bear Flag story as he and the family lived in San Diego where he was part of the local Mexican government.

6 The party of Bears who confronted the soldiers at Olómpali were the rescue party for Todd and the other man. Todd was released unharmed at the start of the battle, but strangely, there is no conclusive answer about what happened to the other guy, who was reported as both killed and rescued. His name was Francis Young but usually mentioned as “English Jack,” “the Englishman” or specifically, “the dumb Englishman.” He was actually Canadian.

7 Vallejo’s “Historical and Personal Memoirs” vol 5, cited in Rosenus (see sidebar) pg. 147-148

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