Three things about the Bear Flag Revolt you probably remember from school: It started in Sonoma; people thought the bear on the hand-painted flag looked more like a pig; a couple of Bear Flag rebels named Cowey and Fowler were killed. How, why, and where their deaths occurred remains a mystery and the details are still highly controversial, even over 170 years later.
Cowie and Fowler became instant martyrs to the independence cause, in great part because it was said they were horribly tortured to death while being held prisoner. Generations of history buffs have sought to find where they are buried, both to honor them and to determine if there’s any truth to that story. The latest quest for their graves has been led by researchers Bill Northcroft and Ray Owen and involved archaeologists and anthropologists from SSU. The Press Democrat has offered several articles on the search.
This article explores only the impact their deaths had on the Bear Flag Revolt. The following article looks at what was written about the incident at the time and how their tragedy developed into the stuff of myth. If you would like more background on the whole Bear Flag story, a very good summary can be read at history.com and Wikipedia provides tons of detail. The virtual museum at bearflagmuseum.org is also a good resource. But an important detail commonly overlooked is that there wasn’t much unanimity on either side prior to these events:
THE CALIFORNIOS There were roughly 8,000 Mexican-Californians in the territory of Alta California during 1846. (Writers at the time interchangeably called Hispanic Mexican citizens “native Californians” or simply, “natives,” which has caused confusion in recent years among authors who presume it’s a reference to Native Americans – a term coined during the 1960s). Personally generous and hospitable to the American outsiders, their government in the 1840s regularly called for all immigrants to be expelled. Some, including members of Santa Rosa’s Carrillo family, were fiercely loyal to the provincial government. Others, including General Mariano Vallejo, remained neutral or aided and abetted the rebels, believing California would fare better under American control after decades of neglect from Mexico – and Spain before it.
THE AMERICANS Those writing about the 1846 events called all 2,000 non-Hispanic immigrants in Alta California the “Americans,” although about one out of four was English, Swiss, Prussian or another nationality. Some became Mexican citizens by marriage or service in order to own land; others had ill-defined notions of “Manifest Destiny” – that this place rightly belonged to the U.S. and Americans should be entitled to do what they like. Nor did all support taking up arms against Mexico; Bear Flagger William Baldridge believed “making war upon the Californians was an act of great injustice” and “a large, if not a majority of Americans then in California” feared it was too much of a risk they would end up “killed or driven out of the country in a short time.”
In the first week of June, 1846, Northern California was rife with rumors that Commandante General José Castro had an army marching towards the North Bay and was destroying immigrant homesteads along the way. It wasn’t remotely true but to many it was completely believable; in March Castro had issued his most bombastic proclamation yet, calling John C. Frémont and his men a “band of robbers” and appealing to Californios to take up arms. “…I invite yourselves under my immediate orders at headquarters, where we will prepare to lance the boil which (should it not be done) would destroy our liberties and independence…”
The American’s fears seemed confirmed when it was discovered General Vallejo was sending Castro 170 government horses (which the settlers hijacked intercepted). Seeking leadership from Frémont, the famous U.S. Army Captain told them he couldn’t let himself or his forces get mixed up in anything, but it would be a swell idea for the civilians to take some prominent Mexican nationals hostage in order to provoke Castro into an act of war against the United States. Then all non-Californios could immediately evacuate California as war raged. Simple, really.
Amazingly, some twenty men went along with this (non) plan. Several believed Frémont wasn’t serious about staying out of the action and would soon gallop to their support; others, including William Ide, felt war was coming to the area regardless and it would be better to strike first, but didn’t trust Frémont as he had walked away from a similar confrontation earlier.
Off they went from Frémont’s camp north of Sacramento headed towards Sonoma, the only military outpost in the region. Since they would be outmanned and outgunned by the Mexican garrison ready to fight with cannons, they needed the advantage of surprise. They stayed off the main roads and used animal trails to cross the ridges, traveling through the last night. Along the way the picked up another dozen volunteer revolutionaries.
When they rode into Sonoma Plaza at daybreak on June 14 they found it empty. Not even a guard on duty. The only military presence was General Vallejo and his brother, Salvador. Even the tiny compliment (which was apparently only eight soldiers) was absent, having left to help drive that herd of 170 horses to Santa Clara – and when the horses were stolen intercepted, all the soldiers continued to their destination in Santa Clara.
The rest of the backstory you likely have read many times. As the Cowie-Fowler story begins, General Vallejo has been taken prisoner and Bear Flag “captain general” William Ide has proclaimed California an independent republic. Every day more volunteers are arriving at Sonoma, The Commander of the American sloop-of-war then in the Bay Area has said the U.S. will remain neutral and not supply the Bears with arms or gunpowder. Word of the uprising has just reached the provincial capitol of Monterey but it will be a week before a small division of soldiers will reach the North Bay. Meanwhile, a group of around a dozen local Californios has formed and is roving the countryside, waiting for the regular army troops to arrive so they can together attack the American insurrectionists. Over the Sonoma Plaza flies a newly-made flag with the name, “CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC” and the profile of a bear that looks more like a pig. It is later said that it was stitched together by a young saddler named Thomas Cowie.
Even if the garrison had been fully manned, the Mexican soldiers couldn’t have put up much of a fight. William Baldridge, considered the most reliable of the Bear Flag memoir writers, stated the cannons were in such disrepair they couldn’t be moved very far. The armory was stocked with obsolete English fintlock muskets, too long and heavy to be useful to the Bear Flaggers, and “they had but little ammunition, and that all the powder they had was of a poor quality, being very coarse and dirty.” It was the need for better gunpowder that sent Cowie and Fowler away on their ill-fated mission.
Thomas Cowie was from St. Louis and came West in 1843 with the Chiles party, which also included Baldridge. Cowie spent a few months as a member of Frémont’s troupe and later went to work for another Bear Flagger, Thomas Knight (think Knights Valley).
Fowler remains a complete unknown. Baldridge and others didn’t know his first name; sometime later it began to be written he was called George. There was a prominent Napa Valley family named Fowler and the Bear Flaggers rested near their ranch before advancing on Sonoma, but if he was even part of that clan he was a distant cousin. While a St. Louis area newspaper later noted the death of former resident Cowie, no hometown papers can be found lamenting Fowler.
It was probably on June 18 when Cowie and Fowler volunteered to fetch the gunpowder and after a couple days passed, a party of five men was sent out. They returned with the powder and a Californio prisoner, who had a gruesome story to tell about what happened to the pair. (Again: This article is just about reaction to the killings; the stories about how they died are covered in the next piece.)
The prisoner apparently also identified a Californio named Padilla as the leader of the guerilla band, at the same time as “we had just learned that that sixty armed Californians were scouring the country west of Sonoma,” according to Baldridge. As another Bear Flagger, sent on an errand to Bodega had not returned, it was presumed this group had captured or killed him as well. A company of about twenty eager volunteers went out in a mission of rescue – or revenge, if the opportunity allowed. They reached Padilla’s adobe (near Stony Point) and burned it, then proceeded south where they bumped into the guerillas, who had joined up with that small division of soldiers sent from Monterey. Such was the “Battle” of Olómpali.
The day after that, June 25, Frémont and his boys finally rode into Sonoma, courageously ready to join the fray on day 11.
Frémont led 134 men – about half of them recruited from the ranks of the Bear Flaggers – towards San Rafael, expecting to combat the Mexican forces (which the Bears had soundly bested at Olómpali with only about a tenth as many men). They didn’t find the troops, but the next morning a small boat was spotted crossing the Bay. Captured were 19 year-old twin brothers Francisco and Ramon de Haro along with their elderly uncle, José de los Reyes Berreyesa. They were killed.
What happened became a matter of great dispute. When Frémont was running for president as the candidate for the newly-formed Republican party in 1856, the pro-Democrat Los Angeles Star newspaper published a letter from Jasper O’Farrell claiming he was there and Frémont’s scout, Kit Carson, wanted to take them prisoners – but “Frémont waved his hand and said, ‘I have got no room for prisoners.'” Other accounts seem intended to absolve Frémont of direct responsibility: Carson shot them because he was ornery and drunk, the captives were gunned down while trying to escape, and in Frémont’s 1886 memoir, he claimed his Indian scouts killed them because everyone was so distraught by the murders of Cowie and Fowler.
At some point the story developed that killing them was proper and necessary because they were murderous assassins. Yes, they were carrying orders to Captain De la Torre, the commander of the small Mexican division – the message concerned details about reinforcements – but now they were said to be an advance force on a mission intent on wiping out the Americans. In an 1870 memoir by the skipper of a ship recruited by Frémont, it was claimed “…they were armed, and had written orders from Castro to De la Torre to ‘kill every foreigner they found, man, woman, and child.’ These three men were shot on the spot: one of them was a notorious villain.”
This wasn’t the only alarming rumor about the Mexicans planning genocide. In his account of the Bear Flag Revolt, leader William Ide lied about a proclamation from General Castro ordering loyalists to “fall on and kill the Bears of Sonoma, and then return and kill the whelps afterwards.” These stories were in circulation at the time and for years later, although historian H. H. Bancroft did his best to knock down the messager-assassin story in his 1886 California history, calling it an “absurd fabrication.” But the “whelps” slander lived on; it can be found quoted in later biographies, 20th century magazine and newspaper articles, and even appears in a novel published last year (2015).
Coupled with the tale of Cowie and Fowler’s gruesome deaths, these rumors became the rallying cry for Americans to band together against the Californios. The peaceable majority of Americans now were hearing fearful warnings concerning imminent threats – marauding banditos roaming the countryside and bloodthirsty soldados sneaking across the Bay and did you hear about what terrible things they did to those two young men. It’s difficult to imagine a more potent mix of propaganda to justify going to war against your actual neighbors.
The history of the short-lived California Republic was mostly locked in stone by the 1880s as the last of the American memoirs appeared. Cowie and Fowler are always in there somewhere – which is remarkable, if you think about it; can you name another war with such patron martyrs?
What we retell today about those events isn’t much different from what they were writing back then, which is to say it is almost entirely just the American side of the story as viewed 30+ years later. Primary source documents are few, and the obstacles to exploring anything about the Californio viewpoint is daunting; for starters, Gen. Vallejo wrote a five-volume set of memoirs in 1875 which were translated into English – but never published.
Historian Bancroft was famously neutral, allowing readers to sort through evidence and come to their own conclusions. But he recoiled at Frémont’s execution-style murder of the old man and teenagers and the notion it was somehow defensible because of what happened to Fowler and Cowie. His contrast of the two incidents, “A MURDER BY FREMONT,” is a must-read, if only for this small passage which casts the Bear Flag Revolt in a different light:
The killing of Berreyesa and the Haros was a brutal murder, like the killing of Cowie and Fowler, for which it was intended as a retaliation… The Californians, or probably one desperado of their number, had killed two members of a band of outlaws who had imprisoned their countrymen, had raised an unknown flag, had announced their purpose of overthrowing the government, and had caused great terror among the people – the two men at the time of their capture being actively engaged in their unlawful service. In revenge for this act, the Bears deliberately killed the first Californians that came within their reach, or at least the first after their own strength became irresistible.