It’s too late for the sesquicentennial year, but Santa Rosa should declare every April 15 Gus Kohle Day. On that date in 1868 he became a hero for taking his axe to a building on the town square.

It was the most exciting thing to happen in Santa Rosa that year; as described here earlier, there was nary a whoop of celebration when the town was officially incorporated. Other than a heated debate over proposed routes for the soon-to-come railroad, it looked like 1868 would be completely forgettable.

Then on that mid-April morning, Gus came downtown to open his Court Saloon on Exchange Avenue facing the west side of the plaza (now Old Courthouse Square). There was a commotion because a trio of carpenters and a local farmer were well underway putting up a small wooden building, having worked through some of the night. Gus knew what this was about; everybody in town knew what was going on.

The southwest corner of the Santa Rosa Plaza c. 1870, as seen from Third Street. Image courtesy Sonoma County Library



The trouble began a few months earlier around Christmas of 1867, when Julio Carrillo couldn’t get a sack of flour.

Santa Rosa – as every local schoolkid knows – was built on the 2,000+ acres Carrillo inherited from his mother, Doña María, in 1849. Fast forward a mere five years and the town (albeit unincorporated) was now the Sonoma county seat, thanks in part to Carrillo and the three other founders offering to build a new courthouse here for free. They also donated a couple of acres for a central plaza, with Julio giving the entire western half. At that moment in 1854 he was likely the wealthiest man in Sonoma county after his brother-in-law, General Vallejo.

About a dozen years passed. Julio Carrillo had lost all of his land and supposedly gambled away the rest of his inheritance. Gaye LeBaron called him a “born loser” which seems harsh, but he was indeed a pauper thanks to his exceedingly bad judgement and boundless generosity – not to mention having twelve children. Thus he found himself being told by a storekeeper that he didn’t have enough credit left to buy a simple sack of flour.*

“Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza,” wrote historian Robert Thompson. And typical of Julio’s lousy dealmaking, he took the lowball offer of $300 for what would have been the most valuable property in town.

The first news about the “re-deed” appeared in the Santa Rosa paper shortly after New Year’s Day, 1868. Yeah, the plaza was looking a mite scruffy, the editor admitted, but it belonged to the town and “Mr. Carrelio” (his name was misspelled throughout the whole item) can’t un-donate it. The three men who gave Julio the money were all locals – two farmers and a butcher – and they would only “waste their money and make themselves obnoxious to their fellow citizens” by trying to claim ownership, commented the Sonoma Democrat.

In March both sides rattled sabers. A crew from the town repaired the fence and installed gates to keep cows and pigs from wandering into the plaza (an ongoing problem) while a San Francisco lawyer, hired by the three who gave the cash to Julio, ordered the work to be stopped.

A month later came the showdown. One of those who believed he actually had a valid deed was Wesley Woods (often misspelled Wood), a farmhand who worked for Barney Hoen. The small frame building he and the carpenters were constructing probably had no purpose other than to claim possession of the land. Although this was never a “squatter’s rights” issue, Woods and the others could point to the structure as an improvement on the property, which would complicate legal matters considerably.

Whether Gus Kohle knew that point of law or not is moot; what’s important is that he spared Santa Rosa a courtroom headache by taking immediate action. “Procuring an axe, he went into the plaza, and in the course of a few minutes completely demolished the new building, leveling it with the ground.”

Woods and the carpenters were arrested. All but Woods were released by the court because they were simply hired workers, but Woods’ San Francisco lawyer got him a jury trial, where he was found guilty and fined $38.75. “This is the first act in the performance. What will be the next step we are not prepared to say,” remarked the Democrat.

Kohle’s timely intervention earned him a cheery salute in the Sonoma Democrat: “Gus. Kohle, of the Court Saloon, feeling extremely jolly on Tuesday [sic] morning last, over his victory gained in the plaza, like the good, clever man that he is, wanted us to feel likewise – so he brought us a keg of Miller & Fried’s superior Lager. Here’s to you, Gus.” That kind of praise wasn’t unusual, however. His saloon (motto: “Beer at reasonable rates”) was next to the newspaper’s office and he was always plying the staff with free booze for plugs. Another example: “Why is Gus Kohle so fat, prosperous and good looking? That’s what’s the matter, There is only one reason for it, and that is that he always comes into our office with lager at the proper time. Gus is a brick, sure.” (That was a joke because Kohle’s family owned the brickyard.)

The group that thought they owned the plaza did not give up, however. Details are sketchy, but they sued to evict Santa Rosa from its own public park – arguing “the town never formally accepted the gift and furthermore, that the conditions precedent to its taking effect have not been complied with.” (Huh?) The court threw out the case. They filed a lawsuit again, this time from Marin county, and again were “non-suited” by the judge. It was now near the end of 1870, probably about two years after they gave the money to Julio Carrillo.

“Returning immediately to Santa Rosa,” the Democrat reported, “they once more entered on the disputed ground, and shortly after daylight, on Friday morning, another rough board shanty presented an ugly appearance on the plaza.”

The paper stated “an old citizen of the town” tried to smash it up but he “was knocked down and driven out of the enclosure in a very rough manner.” That could have been Gus again, as he still had the Exchange street saloon; but he was 50 years old at the time, and it’s doubtful a reporter would call that elderly (particularly after all the free beer he was pouring down their gullets).

Again the shanty was torn down and the men behind it were arrested (Wesley Woods was still the only one named). A trial was held and this time the case was dropped because the work was done at night and there were no witnesses.

That was the end of the matter; the town council had rushed through a new ordinance explicitly making it illegal to put up a building in the plaza and they did not try again.

Some dangling questions remain. None of those caught in the plaza deal were wealthy, yet they hired San Francisco attorneys – in their last trial, a judge – to represent them. One of the later articles mentions “Wesley Woods, Henry Mutz, and several other parties,” although “A. Berry” was the only other person ever named. Were they selling partnerships to pay for their legal defense?

Also, it seems odd that they spent all that money but did not sue Carrillo for fraud. Perhaps Julio – ever the terrible negotiator – did not get his $300 after all because he agreed that the deal would be contingent upon them perfecting the land title.

Regardless, the plaza that would become Courthouse Square was safe from being carved up – or at least it was until 1967, when the city split it down the middle with a road. And as explained in my article about Santa Rosa’s centennial celebrations, our progress-minded civic leaders also were planning to sell off the eastern half of the square for commercial development. Preservationists blocked that from happening, thank goodness, but it might have been harder to prevent if we all woke up some morning to find Hugh Codding had built a preemptive shack on the place.

* The “sack of flour” angle makes the story seem as if it could be apocryphal, but I think it’s true. Robert Allan Thompson wrote about it just 15 years after the event, and his book was published in Julio’s lifetime. A transcript of the entire passage can be found below.


1866 map of Santa Rosa; detail from earliest wall map of Sonoma County



A RAID ON THE PLAZA.— Several years ago, when our flourishing town was in its infancy, it was the recipient of a handsome and valuable gift of a piece of ground, lying ia the heart of the town, for a public square or plaza. Messrs. Hahman and Carrelio were the generous donors. Our old citizens will recollect the high appreciation in which this liberal act was hold at the time. Under the immediate care and personal supervision of Gen. Hinton, since deceased, the plaza became an ornament to the town, and was regarded with pride and pleasure by old and young. Since the old gentleman’s death, however, less care has been given to it, and our public square, though still both a benefit and an ornament to Santa Rosa, is not what it was formerly. This seeming neglect may have operated on the mind of one of the donors, Mr. Carrelio, for we learn he has actually sold and conveyed to certain parties in town all his right, title and interest in the square, and that they design building upon it, leaving simply room for the running of the main street through the same. Of course they will not be permitted to do anything of the kind. We imagine that the “right, title and interest” of Mr. Carrelio in the property mentioned, after donating it to the town for public use, is neither more nor less than that of any other citizen. The parties to whom he conveyed can take no more than he owned at the date of making the deed, which is simply nothing at all. They may possibly, acting under bad advice, waste their money and make themselves obnoxious to their fellow citizens, but in the long run they will be the sufferers by the operation. Santa Rosa, by virtue of a free gift, and long use and occupation, owns the plaza, and under no circumstances will her undoubted right to it be given up. We advise the parties, for their own sake, and the credit of the town, to abandon this vain and unwarranted undertaking. It is only causing ill feeling and useless expense and trouble.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 4 1868

UNDERGOING REPAIRS. —The Plaza is undergoing repairs, the fence being straightened up, new gates put in, etc. We understand that the parties now endeavoring to deprive the county of its claim upon the Plaza have ordered the work to be stopped, but no attention has been paid to it. Let the work go on, and the plaza be properly improved.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 14 1868

…The attorney engaged for the purpose of taking away the plaza from the town ridicules the idea of the matter being contended, and thinks that all be will have to do for his clients is to go up to Santa Rosa and take possession of it. I think the gentleman will find out that he will meet with more opposition in this matter than be anticipates.

–  Sonoma Democrat, March 14 1868

ROW ON THE PLAZA.— Late on Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning some parties entered the public plaza of Santa Rosa, and began putting up a small frame building thereon. Daylight revealed the objectionable structure to the gaze of our citizens, and great was the indignation which followed. Marshal Parks proceeded to the spot and arrested Wesley Wood, James Hayward, Edward Minott and William Harrow. Gus Kohle also had a hand in the business. Procuring an axe, he went into the plaza, and in the course of a few minutes completely demolished the new building, leveling it with the ground. The parties arrested were bound over to appear for trial next Tuesday. Three of the parties arrested are carpenters, who were employed to do the work by others who claim the plaza under a bill of sale, as is well known, and have sent to San Francisco for an attorney to attend their case. The people of Santa Rosa have no patience with such nonsense, and those interested in this attempt to grab the public square have made themselves very unpopular.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 18 1868

Gus. Kohle, of the Court Saloon, feeling extremely jolly on Tuesday morning last, over his victory gained in the plaza, like the good, clever man that he is, wanted us to feel likewise—so he brought us a keg of Miller & Fried’s superior Lager. Here’s to you, Gus.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 18 1868

THE PLAZA WAR.—Last Week we mentioned the arrest of Wesley Wood and three others for unlawfully entering and erecting a building on the public square of Santa Rosa. On Tuesday they were brought to trial before Recorder Middleton, charged with violating a town ordinance. J. W. Owen, of San Francisco, appeared as counsel for the defendants, and P. B. Hood, City Attorney, represented Santa Rosa. The first day was spent in endeavoring to get a jury, great difficulty arising from the line of examination adopted by the defense. The Court finally refused to give the counsel the latitude he claimed in this respect, as it was evident that it would be next to impossible to obtain a jury. Mr. Owen thereupon threw up the case, and left the court room. On motion of the Town Attorney, all the defendants but Wood were discharged. They were simply workmen, and had no intention of committing any offense. Next day the jury was competed, the following persons being sworn to try the case… A verdict of guilty was returned against Mr. Wood. The Court then fined him $38.75, the bare costs of the proceedings. This is the first act in the performance. What will be the next step we are not prepared to say.

– Sonoma Democrat, April 25 1868

GUS. KOHLE.—Our old friend Gus. Kohle has taken up the bet that we offered recently, that he could not furnish us with more lager than we could dispose of. The other day he rolled another keg of excellent beer into our office, and announced his determination to come out of the contest victorious, as he had the Healdsburg brewery to back him. All we have to say is, “let the fight go on !”

– Sonoma Democrat, May 9 1868

Why is Gus Kohle so fat, prosperous and good looking? That’s what’s the matter, There is only one reason for it, and that is that he always comes into our office with lager at the proper time. Gus is a brick, sure.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 18 1869


More of the Plaza Troubles.

Some two years since our citizens were apprised of the fact that Wesley Woods, Henry Mutz, and several other parties claimed to be the owners of the public plaza of Santa Rosa, basing their claim, we believe, on the purchase of all the right, title and interest of the original owner, who had previously given the land to the town. It is asserted, on the part of claimants, that the town never formally accepted the gift and furthermore, that the conditions precedent to its taking effect have not been complied with. About the time mentioned Woods and others hastily erected a shanty on the Plaza, and claimed to be in possession. Considerable indignation was aroused by this proceeding, and the building was summarily torn down and the parties arrested for violating a local ordinance. Subsequently they brought a suit in ejectment to recover the land, and were non-suited when the case came up. Then a change was made to Marin county, where the matter rested for some time. Last week, however, the case come up in that county, and again the Plaza “jumpers” were non-suited. Returning immediately to Santa Rosa, they once more entered on the disputed ground, and shortly after daylight, on Friday morning, another rough board shanty presented an ugly appearance on the plaza. The parties, this time, appeared determined to maintain their supposed rights, and an old citizen of the town, who attempted to batter down the structure on his own account, was knocked down and driven out of the enclosure in a very rough manner. The town trustees soon after took the business in hand, a warrant was issued for the arrest of the “jumpers,” and Marshal Park ordered to remove the building, all of which was done in a vigorous and summary way. The parties now await trial for breaking a town ordinance, the plaza is once more free from shanty encumbrances, and “order reigns in Santa Rosa.”

– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1870
The Plaza Case.

The trial of Wesley Wood and others, for breaking down the Plaza fence, etc., came up before Justice Brown on Tuesday last. Judge Tyler, of San Francisco, appeared for tbe defendants, and Barclay Henley and James McGee for tbe city. After an interesting and protracted trial, defendants were discharged. Although several persons were present at the time the fence was removed, not one could be found who had actually seen who did it, or even knew at whose instigation it was done, Tbe impression prevails that it was a put-up job, one party taking down tbe fence before daylight, and the other going to work to erect tbe building shortly after. So far as the merits of the claim to the Plaza go, tbe case remains just where it did before. The City Trustees, however, have passed an ordinance which will make any attempt on tbe Plaza more certain of conviction and punishment hereafter.

– Sonoma Democrat, December 10 1870
Gus Kohle.

There are in all cities and towns some peculiar persons who are well known by reason of some phase of character to all inhabitants. Such a person was the late August Kohle, who died on Friday last and was burled on Sunday. He was born in Hanover, Germany, Dec. 10th, 1820, and was therefore at the time of his death in his fifty-ninth year. When a youth he shipped from Bremen as a cabin boy and went to Havanna, [sic] where he remained twelve years. In 1849 he came to California and in 1859 settled in Santa Rosa, where be subsequently married and has since resided. By industry as a laborer, brick manufacturer, etc., he accumulated considerable property and at one time owned most of the frontage on the west side of the Plasa. At an early day he took great interest in the improvement of the Plaza, and as Sexton did most of the work in laying out and improving the Cemetery grounds. He was also an original member of the Fire Department, and served many years as Steward of Engine Co. No 1, being at all times one of its most active and efficient members. To attend meetings, and wear the uniform on gala days, was not with him the whole duty of a fireman. Be took hold of whatever would promote the efficiency of his company, whether in the heat of battle with the flame, or in work about the engine and its appurtenances, that it might at the first tap of the alarm bell be ready for any emergency. Gus Kohle had his faults—who has not? but during his long residence here made for himself a good name. He was industrious, charitably disposed, honest in dealing with his fellow-men, and always made good his Word. His sphere was humble; his opportunities were slight; but in spite of these drawbacks he died respected by all who knew him, as was evidenced by the very large attendance at his funeral of the citizens of Santa Rosa, without regard to creed or nationality. He has laid aside the burden of life. His memory, like his face, will soon fade from the minds of men, but he will be remembered by all who have been associated with him in the department as a faithful fireman. He was also a member of the Pioneer Association of Mendocino, Sonoma, Napa and Marin counties, and of the German Club of this city. The companies composing the Fire Department, and the German Club, in a body, escorted his remains to the Cemetery. At his special request his funeral was conducted by Santa Rosa Engine Co. No. 1. At the grave the German Club united in singing “Des Freundes Abschied”—The Friend’s Farewell—and the remains were committed to the grave. A wife and three children mourn the loss of a kind and affectionate husband and father. As an old citizen and member of the Fire Department we pay this tribute to his memory.

– Sonoma Democrat, November 27 1880

…One day he sent [sic. went] to a prominent merchant of the city, and was refused credit for a sack of flour. Stung to the quick, in the heat of his indignation he re-deeded half of the Plaza to Henry Mutz, Wesley Wood and A. Berry for $300 in cash. These parties endeavored to take possession of the property, but were prevented. The matter finally got into the courts, and was decided in favor of the county, to which Carrillo had originally given the land. He claimed, when he re-deeded it to Mutz, Wood and Berry, that the conditions of the gift to the county had not been fulfilled. The case was tried in Marin, and the title of the county to the land was fully sustained.

– Central Sonoma: A Brief Description of the Township and Town of Santa Rosa …
By Robert Allan Thompson 1884 pg. 69-70

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Writing history’s easy if you do the homework and know the facts; what’s hard is getting across the flavor of the time. Even a town like Santa Rosa is a pretty alien place when you reach back to its earliest days, 160+ years ago, because glimpses of what it was like rarely appeared in the local newspapers – why would subscribers want to read about what they saw every day?

While researching the next item to appear, I stumbled across a little poem in a Civil War-era Santa Rosa paper which was supposedly written in 1856. As poetry it’s sheer doggerel (as the editor admits) but it’s not without its charms.

The poet looks back at the old days – meaning a couple of years prior – when Santa Rosa was little more than a saloon, a store, and Julio Carrillo’s corral. Now there were three or four stores, a stable, a hotel, flour mill and a church. Why, there was even a building with two stories! This had “made Santa Rosa a —— of a place,” but it’s left to Gentle Reader to decide whether the author’s missing word was meant to salute or spit upon the changes wrought by progress.

The poem might have been written later or earlier than 1856, although it really doesn’t matter. The last line is a pitch to elect “Dr. Johnson and me,” which is probably a reference to J. Neely Johnson (elected governor in 1855) as no one named Johnson was running for a Sonoma county office in that time period.

(ABOVE: Advertisement from the 1857 Sonoma County Journal)


LOCAL VERSES. – The following doggerel was picked up in the streets of Santa Rosa in 1856. The author of the lines is not known, but suspicion rests upon one “Horace,’ of the olden time:

Not far from the ford at the forks of the creek,
between where Jack Stiles and Peters made brick,
Where Colgan kept bar in a temperance Hall,
Where the small-pox pitched into J. W. Ball—-
Stands a neat little town that was located near
The house of a Spaniard, named Julio Carrillo.

Two years ago you could see nothing more
Where that little town stands, than a tavern and store,
Where they retailed their whiskey at two bits a pull,
And when low, with creek water they kept their casks full;
Where they marked up their goods, and complained of the times,
When they’d get the last red of their customer’s dimes.

But a short time ago, I recollect well,
There were big droves of cattle in Julio’s corral,
And near where that barber has stuck up his pole
Once a horse bucked me head over heels in a hole;
I disliked that arrangement, and whom would it please?
I asked, as I sat with my hands on my knees.

Those times, we wouid work all the week, hauling rails,
And Sundays, were as proud as a dog with 2 tails!
We’d get up our ponies and get a gal each
To ride with to meeting, to hear Riley preach;
Then we’d hump ourselves home and get us some grub,
Then each pop a dirty shirt into a tub;
We’d give it a twist, a squeeze, and a rinse,
Then hang it out doors to dry on the fence;
The dog would soon carry it under the floor,
And we’d sit down and cuss, for we had but one more.

But 2 or 3 years have wrought a great change,
Have swept off the cattle, have fenced up the range,
Built a house for the archives brought over the hills,
And Cameron’s, the Scotchman’s and Leffingwell’s mills;

Made men out of monkeys, and princes of goats,
Old cows of young heifers and bacon of shoats;
Have spread Spanish needles all over the ground,
And brought down potatoes to 2 cents a pound;
Put the deuce in the ladies and mud in the lanes,
And married maids to unfortunate swains;
Drawn the first wrinkle on many a face,
And made Santa Rosa a —— of a place.

We’ve some of the fastest get-ups of the age,
There’s Doc. Boyce’s mare and Chil. Richardson’s stage;
Fast horses, fast youths, with their Jacks, Kings and Queens,
And gaIs who are mas before reaching their teens.

You know Charley Smith (the first of the name)
Who built the log house for the set-em-up game,
Though somewhat religious he couldn’t forbear
To furnish a chance for a strike and a spare;
At daylight, at midnight, at sunset, at noon,
You could hear the pins fall at this bowling saloon,
While their incessant lumbering endangered the quiet
Of a most worthy citizen—Thomas H. Pyatt.

There’s Jim Williamson’s stable, Eureka Hotel,
The house kept by Mat and old Kitty Purcell,
The 2 story hall for the Mason and Son,
Know Nothing, Odd Fellow, and Thousand and One.

Your taverns, your dead falls, your 3 or 4 stores,
And then there are those fruit stands, Billy Gray’s and Mam More’s,
Will make you a city with council and seal
If you’ll put Dr. Johnson and me at the wheel.

– Sonoma Democrat, January 30 1864

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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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