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 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

Read More


The first versions of the Cowie/Fowler story were written close to 1846, as detailed in part one of this article. The later versions were primarily the accounts which popped up between 30-50 years later, and over time new details emerged – or, perhaps, were just made up:

LATER AMERICAN   Bancroft’s scholarly California history set began appearing in 1884 and was a great reference, but it wasn’t cheap or easy reading – eye-crossing footnotes crammed with minutiae sometimes filled entire pages. A well-funded library might include that sort of deep resource but most of our California ancestors learned everything they knew about the Bear Flag Revolt from the county histories which began to appear around the same time. Those books were found in many homes because they were mostly vanity bios of locals who paid the publisher to be commemorated as an absolutely remarkable person. The chapters about state history were filler to lend the books gravitas and the same text was reused across all editions.

The Cowie/Fowler section from the 1880 Sonoma County history (which is the same for the histories of Marin, Alameda, Stanislaus, San Benito, etc. etc.) displays the mishmash of information found in these books. Although sources aren’t mentioned, nearly everything there came from three newspaper articles.

The bones of that narrative came from the Henry L. Ford memoir trusted by Bancroft, so that’s the good news about the county histories version. Long after Ford had died, a friend of his edited a paraphrased version which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin (unknown date) and the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel on March 11, 1876. Here is that summary of what Ford remembered, a mere five years after the events:

On Thursday, the 18th, Lieutenant Ford sends two men, named Cowie and Fowler, to Fitch’s rancho for a keg of rifle powder. Before starting, he cautioned them to avoid traveled roads, as he apprehended the possibility of trouble from native Californians. The men observed this caution for about ten miles, when for some reason they struck into the main road to Santa Rosa. When within about two miles of that place they were surprised by a party of Californians, and were put to death in a shocking manner…on Saturday, the 20th, Lieut. Ford orders Sergeant Gibson to take four men, and by night repair to Fitch’s rancho, and learn, if possible, the whereabouts of the missing men, and get the powder. These men went as directed, and obtained the powder, but could learn nothing concerning the missing men. On their return, just at daylight, as they are passing Santa Rosa, they are attacked by three or four Californians; they turn upon their assailants and take two of them prisoner and bring them with them back to Sonoma. From the prisoners they learn the fate of Cowie and Fowler, who were butchered in the most horrible manner.

The county histories also pulled information from an 1874 article which appeared in the Santa Rosa paper. The account published in the Sonoma Democrat, transcribed below, was widely reprinted in other papers at the time. In this short, unsigned article, it was revealed some thought the drawing on the flag “looked more like a hog than a bear,” Cowie supposedly sewed the flag, and other little fun flaggy facts. Its significant contribution to the Fowler/Cowie story in the county books was identifying the location of their bodies (more or less) as being on a particular farm off modern-day Chanate Road. The original article additionally claimed they were captured a short distance from Rincon Valley.

Source #3 was lifted from a San Francisco newspaper item concerning “Three-fingered Jack” (he either lost another digit somewhere or maybe everyone was miscounting all along). This time the county histories copied the paper’s entire section on the Cowie and Fowler’s killings with brazen plagiarism, sometimes changing a word here and there but usually not. The worst of it was that the story they were stealing was a lie.

Although the 1853 newspaper prefaced their version of their murders by stating it was “substantially” the same as what was published “in the local papers of this place, in 1846,” this was far more horrific than the original tale told in the Californian which is included in part one. From the Alta California newspaper of July 31, 1853:

…the two young men above named started to go from their homes, near Sonoma, to Bodega. On their way, not far from Petaluma Creek, they encountered a party of native Californians, all armed, by whome they were taken prisoners. They were kept guarded until the next morning, when a council was held to determine their fate. A swarthy New Mexican named Padilla, and a Californian called Three-fingered Jack, were most active in denouncing the prisoners as only deserving death, and their counsel prevailed. The unfortunate young men were stripped, bound to a tree with the lariats of their captors, and for a while the inhuman wretches practiced knife-throwing at their naked limbs, in the manner that savages are said to torture their victims at the stake by experiments with their tomahawks. The men prayed to be shot. The fiends then commenced stoning the victims. One stone broke the jaw of Fowler. A miscreant advanced, thrust the end of his riata through the mouth, cut an incision in the throat, and then made a tie by which the jaw was dragged out! The perpetrator of this horrible cruelty was Jack. Cowie, who had fainted, had the skin stripped from his arms and shoulders.

Both men were now slowly dispatched with knives. Nothing can exceed the sufferings in the slow torture to which they were subjected. Pieces of flesh were cut from their bodies and crammed into their mouths. They were eventually destroyed by cutting out their bowels.

The first local history actually written by someone local was the the booklet-sized 1884 Santa Rosa history by Robert Thompson, publisher of the town’s Sonoma Democrat. He offered only two short paragraphs on Cowie/Fowler, but introduced several memes which have endured, primarily that their bodies were found by an Indian named “Chanate,” which supposedly meant, “blackbird.” If accurate, that man wasn’t from anywhere around here.8

Thompson also wrote they were captured near where Richard Fulkerson lived in 1884. The county atlas from a few years earlier shows him owning several disjointed places north and east of Santa Rosa, including a large parcel near Rincon Valley, which may confirm the 1874 story. Fulkerson also owed all the land around (what became) the Rural Cemetery and the road north passed right through the middle of it – thus a possibility they were caught in the vicinity of today’s Franklin Avenue.

But the most intriguing nugget was presented like a throwaway – that Juan Padilla’s militia had commandeered the Carrillo family rancho. Here is what Thompson wrote in full:

…Cowie and Fowler were captured by Juan Padillo, [sic] who had charge of a band of marauders, and had taken possession of Señora Carrillo’s residence, the old adobe on Mrs. F. G. Hahman’s farm, near Santa Rosa.

The two unfortunate men were captured near where Mr. Richard Fulkerson now lives. They were then taken up the valley, above the County Farm, where they were shot. Their bodies were mutilated and thrown into a stream, a prey for the wolf and the coyote. A charitable Indian named Chanate–in English, Black Bird–less a savage than the slayers of poor Cowie and Fowler, went up and told Moses Carson of the condition of the bodies, and he came down and buried them beneath a pine tree.

Shift forward several years and it’s the 50th anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt. On June 14, 1896, Thompson gave a lengthy speech in Sonoma, published by Santa Rosa’s Sonoma Democrat as “Conquest of California.” The Indian was now named “Chanati” (nope, still not a Pomo word) and was no longer alone; now he and Mose Carson, “with the aid of other friendly Indian hands buried the bodies of these poor men beneath the pine trees.” In this telling Cowie and Fowler were held captive at the Carrillo adobe overnight, then taken to the place of their execution the next morning because Doña María Carrillo “objected to any violence to the men on her ranch.”

…They were taken to the Carrillo adobe house on Santa Rosa creek, now the Hahman farm, and were kept there all night. Mrs. Carrillo, who owned the place, objected to any violence to the men on her ranch.

On the morning of the 19th they were led out by their cruel and heartless captors. They were taken up the little valley on which the county farm is situated beyond the line of Mrs. Carrillo’s ranch, a point then and now one of the most unfrequented places near Santa Rosa. It is a lovely spot at the mouth of a little cañon which opens from the Rincon ridge into Pleasant valley.

There were a number of pine trees in this dreamy and lovely little vale. Here poor Cowie and Fowler were dragged. Destitute of human sympathy, reckless of consequences, the cruel captor, Padilla, three-fingered Jack as he was called, bound them with rawhide riatas to two trees. They were hacked with knives, riddled with bullets, and not satisfied with this their dead bodies were mutilated and dishonored in a brutal manner, and were then pitched into a rivulet which ran down into the beautiful vale below. The outraged bodies were discovered a few days after by an Indian named Chanati (Blackbird) who, less a savage than Padilla, told Mose Carson of their condition. Carson came down, and with the aid of other friendly Indian hands buried the bodies of these poor men beneath the pine trees…

As before, there was no mention of where he learned this stuff, which no one had mentioned before.

LATER CALIFORNIO   There is no more important resource about Alta California than the five volumes of memoirs General Vallejo presented to Bancroft in 1875. They were even translated into English. But the University of California has never published any of it, which (in my humble opinion) is a disgrace to the school. But at least sections related to the Bear Flag Revolt are available online and are worth reading in full.

There are several surprises in Vallejo’s section on the Cowie/Fowler incident and it has to be remembered he did not know about any of this firsthand, as he was locked up with his brother and others at Sutter’s Fort.

According to the General, the men were captured much farther away from Santa Rosa, on the Yulupa Rancho (think somewhere around SSU or a little east). They were tied to trees while riders were dispatched to contact the Californio ranch owners supporting the defensores asking them to meet that evening to decide what to do with the prisoners. Vallejo said nothing about them being moved to the Carrillo adobe or elsewhere and as mentioned above, he was very clear Juan Padilla and Ramón Carrillo were commanders of separate militias.

As the assembled group was discussing the issue that night, “Three-fingered Jack” Garcia interrupted the meeting to announce he had just killed Cowie and Fowler. “I thought you here were going to decide to free the prisoners and, as that is not for the good of my country, I got ahead of you and took the lives of the Americans who were tied to the trees,” he said, according to Vallejo.

Yet another variant of Fowler/Cowie story was passed down through the Carrillo family:9

When Thomas Cowie and George Fowler (members of the Bear Flag Revolt) came from Sonoma to Mark West Creek to get ammunition stored there and stopped at Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa, they accepted hospitality and, in return, committed all kinds of atrocities. They included the raping and killing of Ramón’s wife before vigilantes (defensores) could arrive to help the Carrillo family.

The Señora didn’t want trouble on her property and begged everyone to leave. The vigilantes took Cowie and Fowler up the hill to the north of the rancho (the location of the Sonoma County Hospital). These murderers were killed but first were given some rough treatment in revenge for the crime they had committed at the adobe.

Rape and murder are accusations not to be thrown around lightly and if such an awful thing happened, the burden of proof begins with explaining why absolutely no one ever wrote about it. Ramón’s letter from the Petaluma hills, written only two or three days after his wife was supposedly murdered, does not mention her and displays no emotions towards the Americans – it is a cool, dispassionate message written as a diplomat seeking a peaceful armistice.

Likewise, it’s inconceivable Vallejo wouldn’t mention the killing of a family member (she would have been the wife of his brother-in-law). In his memoir he complained at length about the uncivilized behavior of the Bears and told the story of Damaso Rodriguez, an 80 year-old retired soldier who died after being badly beaten up at Olómpali, a “…venerable old man who had fallen as a victim of the thirst for blood that was the prime mover of the guerrilla men.”10

Nor is there any real evidence he was married. All the Carrillo family book stated was, “…Ramón married a beautiful girl named Rosita but no records have been found of the marriage. They must have been married in Sonora, Mexico because Ramón went to Mexico about that time. It is recorded that they went to a dance together. As they danced so beautifully together, everyone applauded.” Ramón did marry (or remarry) about eight months later.

The Rosita rape/murder story is so threadbare there’s nothing more to discuss about it – except for the fact it is still being discussed. Gaye LeBaron has written it up for at least forty years (it was a section of her 1988 Valentine’s Day column entitled, “The Avenging Lover”) and it has become de rigueur to raise it as a possibility whenever Cowie and Fowler’s deaths are mentioned. I object to this strongly; it turns their killings into a simplistic tale of Carrillo and his fellow Californios seeking revenge. And to preview the wrapup below, I believe this is an historic injustice to Ramón Carrillo, who appears to be just about the only major player in the Bear Flag Revolt cast of characters who comes out smelling like roses.

José Ramón

Ramón died in 1864, shot in the back while riding his horse on the road near Cucamonga. A couple of weeks later a letter from his brother Julio appeared in the Santa Rosa paper, denying the “infamous falsehoods” which were being spread about Ramón (more on this letter below). In the following weeks other letters appeared testifying to his good character. “He was not a desperado,” wrote a man from Sacramento. “He possessed too high a sense of honor and self-respect to have ever been connected with outlaws.” True or no, newspapers statewide had reported he was a notorious bandito.

In the months before his death it was reported the “Ramon Carrillo gang” was being hunted by the Los Angeles Vigilance Committee for supposedly killing a deputy in Santa Barbara. Some authors have suggested Carrillo was shot by a “vigilante” seeking to avenge Fowler/Cowie, but it’s clear from the contemporary papers that people were wondering whether he was murdered by someone part of the LA Committee, infamous for lynch mobs which mainly killed Latinos.

“Jose Ramon Carrillo, who has acquired much notoriety of late, has signified his desire to come in and surrender himself to the law, provided he can have a legal examination and trial, without falling into the hands of the Vigilance Committee,” reported the Alta California on Christmas Eve, 1863. Two months later the paper said it was believed “…he was skulking in the mountains with some twenty or more adherents, and that the military in this district had orders to shoot him on sight. Rumor now says that he will join a company of volunteers for the U. S. service, and that he has always been a good, true and loyal citizen.” Shortly thereafter, two members of his “gang” were nabbed and promised to squeal on their hideout.

Whether or not he was actually a highwayman is not a debate to have here – but before judging anyone who lived in Southern California during that era, read a new book, “Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles.” Imagine the most violent Quentin Tarantino movie and multiply the senseless brutality by ten.

Why Ramón chose to leave Northern California and his family is unknown, but after he and his men retreated with the Mexican soldiers after the battle at Olómpali, Carrillo continued moving south. He appeared in San Diego during August where he gave his testimony, then taking a part in the 11th-hour battles in Chino and San Pasqual shortly before the Mexican-American War came to an end in California. In February, 1847 he married Maria Vicenta Sepulveda Yorba, a widow with a large ranch and four children – together they would have another eight. The ranch near Mount Palomar ran large herds of livestock and horses, was an important stagecoach stop and included a trading post. He was a U. S. postmaster for a time and in the early part of the Civil War, was a scout for the Union when there were fears that the Rebels were about to invade Arizona from across the Mexican border. Quite a bit of detail about this side of his life is documented on a webpage from the San Diego History Center.

It sounds like a thoroughly mundane life, but José Ramón Carrillo was far from being a mundane man; he famously killed bears armed only with a knife and proved to be an excellent commander in the war with the Americans. It’s his fearlessness combined with lawless, turbulent conditions in Southern California which gives the “Carrillo gang” stories any credibility, and helps explain why his story came to be completely entangled with the myth of Joaquín Murieta.

Murieta was an actual robber who had a small gang that stole gold and horses in the Gold Country between 1852-1853 and killed at least 20 people, mostly Chinese immigrants. Said to be among those riding with him was a man named Carrillo plus…wait for it…our old friend, Four/Three Fingered Jack. The public was so frightened of these men that the state legislature created the “California State Rangers” to track them down. In July, 1853 the Rangers had a shootout with a group of Mexicans in the Central Valley and claimed they killed Murieta, sawing off the guy’s head and Jack’s hand as proof.

The next year a small book appeared: The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit written by a man named John Rollin Ridge. This was entirely a work of fiction, gleaned from hearsay and newspaper articles over the years. The plot had Murieta being nearly whipped to death, his wife Rosita raped and his brother hung on false accusations, all within the first dozen pages. The rest of the book described how he hunted down and killed the Americans responsible. Here Jack was Murieta’s savage henchman and the Cowie/Fowler story was rehashed to show how heartless he was (now he also was credited for cutting out their tongues and “punching out their eyes with a knife”). “Carillo” was named as part of the gang, and twice the book had Murieta stopping by the rancho of “José Ramune Carrejo.”

That book received little notice (only a single copy is known to still survive) but shift forward five years to 1859, when a version was serialized in the popular Police Gazette along with topnotch illustrations. Almost entirely plagiarized, among the small changes was the detail Murieta’s wife was raped AND killed in front of him.

Suddenly the Murieta story became a sensation. It was translated into Spanish with the setting moved, as appropriate, to different countries. Over the following decades plays were written and dime novel publishers churned out knockoff stories about “the Mexican Robin Hood.” You don’t have to squint very hard to see the “Zorro” character emerging here.

The tale evolved over time and lent itself to both blood ‘n’ thunder action stories and lost love romances – the most prominent of the latter being a book-length poem published in 1882, “Rosita: A California Tale.” Here Rosita was not the spouse of Murieta, but one of his followers named Ramón.

Finally, it’s worth noting a 1910 best-seller, “Celebrated Criminal Cases of America” flatly claimed “Murieta’s true name was Carrillo” without offering any proof. This new spin has trickled down to today; do a Google search on “Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo” to find hundreds of places – including Wikipedia – which state matter-of-factly that the terrorist outlaw was indeed a Carrillo.11

How to make sense of all this? The problem with the Cowie/Fowler story is that there is too much information. They were headed to Healdsburg/Bodega/St. Helena; they were killed by torturers/firing squad/Garcia alone.

All that’s certain is the story we tell today has an undeserved certainty. In the earliest accounts about half the time it was stated they were headed towards Bodega; after the 1874 Sonoma Democrat article appeared, it was settled fact they were going north to the Fitch Rancho. The same anonymous article established they died at a very particular spot, and that’s where we’re looking for them today (without much luck). Ten years after that a local history introduced the character of Chanate, and now the story always includes the friendly Indian. Similarly, the sufferings they endured became more awful. The original 1846 account was gruesome but only a few lines long; by the time it was retold in 1853 it was much longer because more horrific details were added, and that was the version used in all those county histories. The story kept building up like layers of sediment in slow moving waters.

Digging out provable truth after 170 years seems as unlikely as the odds we’ll be digging up the bodies in the foreseeable future, but a good place to start might be looking closely at the mutilation story.

As discussed above, it’s doubtful any of the Bear Flaggers actually saw the bodies of Fowler and Cowie until almost a month had passed. Yet in that gap there were four descriptions of the mutilations (counting the version printed in The Californian, where the latest news cutoff was the Battle of Olómpali). That Baldridge hadn’t heard the story suggests it was only being spread by a faction of the Bear Flaggers, who passed it on as gospel truth to newcomers, including Frémont’s men. So where did they learn about the horrible things done to the two young men? The only source could be prisoner Bernardino Garcia – or more likely, what someone heard a comrade say about what Garcia said. Thus a key part of the story rests on the honesty and truthfulness of “Four Fingered Jack.” Swill that distasteful thought around for a moment.

Add to that: Even when their whereabouts were discovered, the bodies had been buried by Chanate and the other helpful Indians, according to the popular Thompson version. Did the Bear Flaggers take time out from the war to dig them up and do a field autopsy?

Next to consider is the means of death. Slow torture goes along with mutilation so again, raise your hand if you think old four-fingers was telling the whole truth and nothing but. Vallejo’s version, with Jack sneakily killing them while the rancheros debated what to do, certainly sounds reasonable although that would place their graves somewhere near the SSU campus. But I’d put my money on Ramón Carrillo’s account – that he turned them over to Padilla who had them shot and buried.

I’ve come to believe Ramón Carrillo is the only player in the Bear Flag drama with an unassailable character. Once it’s understood his militia was on patrol separate from Padilla’s group, more of the whole story makes sense. He argued with Padilla over keeping them prisoners but lost. Later, Comandante Castro told Carrillo he backed Padilla’s execution of them. When testifying to these events he easily could have simply told the judge they were killed and left it at that; instead, he made a point of registering his dissent.

When other prisoners fell into his hands, it seems Carrillo did not turn them over to Padilla. Bear Flaggers William Todd and “the Englishman” were captured on a mission shortly after Cowie/Fowler but were not harmed. Carrillo wrote to his sister they were then being “detained in our camp” and when the two militias reconnected at Olómpali, Carrillo testified, “After joining Padilla I proposed to him to set free his prisoners, and he did so before the fight.” (Todd ran to safety under the line of fire but the other guy apparently was too frightened to budge, hence his new nickname: “The dumb Englishman.”)

Another alternative reading worth a ponder: Carrillo might have dropped Fowler and Cowie off with Padilla and did not learn what happened to them until a few days later, when the two militias again met up at Olómpali. Ramón’s letter to his sister from the Petaluma hills did not mention their fate, instead noting “…we have never thought of doing the least damage with our arms, as we have not done up to the present…” implying he believed no blood had been spilled. And after Ramón’s death his brother Julio wrote an impassioned letter to the Sonoma Democrat (transcribed below) which seems to support that idea, insisting Ramón  “…was not even aware that these men had been taken prisoners until after they had been killed.” That’s not completely true since he apparently captured them, but it didn’t mean he stuck around for their deaths.

Julio’s 1864 letter about his brother continued with this observation: “The act was disapproved of by all the native Californians at the time, excepting those implicated in the killing, and caused a difference which was never entirely healed.” That simple statement was the single most profound thing anyone had yet written concerning the events of the summer of 1846.

When the Bear Flag Revolt began William Ide penned a manifesto declaring they were establishing a multicultural utopian California Republic. Ramón wrote to his sister that his aim was only to protect the rancheros and hold Ide to his promises. Then someone on the Californio side killed Fowler and Cowie. Then someone on the American side killed the Haro teenagers and their elderly uncle. Lofty principles were forgotten and it became a neighborhood gang war, each side hunting the hunters on other side. And like in a gang war, both sides wanted to absolve what they did by claiming the other guys drew first blood.

Those unhealed wounds and regrets lingered for decades. Vallejo’s 1875 account of the Bear Flag Revolt is filled with resentment against the Americans; he had been a good friend to the settlers both personally and professionally yet they treated him abusively, ransacked his house and threatened to kill his family. Neighbors who stood on different sides still had to live next to each other after the dust settled and it became American territory, but it wasn’t sometimes easy. Antonio Coronel – a prominent Mexican who crossed paths with Ramón Carrillo in Southern California – was up here in 1849 and went out for a drink with a friend to a Sonoma saloon. As summarized from his memoirs:12

One day he and compadre Juan Padilla were waiting for the wet January weather to clear, when a former Bear Flagger began to bully Padilla for having served as Bernardo Garcia’s henchman in the wartime atrocity against Cowie and Fowler. Padilla insisted that the charge was a lie, and the American replied with an assault. After a severe beating, Padilla lay in an upstairs room, hovering near death for several weeks, while below his accuser continued to threaten his life. Only Coronel’s good reputation and the intercession of friendly Americans restrained the former Bear Flagger.

Towards the end of the 19th century the Americans had come to memorialize all things about the Bear Flag Revolt, particularly the story of how the flag was designed and the martyrdom of Cowie and Fowler. Conflicting views were not welcome; during the 50th Bear Flag anniversary, Robert Thompson ranted at length about Bancroft being a “biased historiographer” and “self-constituted historian” who was “unfair to the pioneers” by not being properly deferential to Frémont and the other Americans – even suggesting he would regret his words if some of the more kick-ass original Bears were still around to teach him a thing or three.

Forgotten was that many Americans at the time had mixed feelings about ousting the Mexican government, with Bear Flagger Baldridge plainly saying it was an injustice. Forgotten was that the American settlers were not in real danger or acting in self-defense. And forgotten was that no matter how noble their original ideals, the Bear Flag Revolt was part of a war of aggression – and as Americans we like to think we denounce countries who do things like that.

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

8In regional Pomo vocabularies around this area, the word for “blackbird” varies slightly but always begins with a “ts-” sound (crow was consistently “Kaai”). In Southern Pomo, for example, the present location of Windsor was called “Tsco-le-cawi” which meant, “blackbird water.” The closest I can find to “Chanate” in any historic word list is “Chel-hay,” which was a name for a valley oak sometimes used in the Healdsburg Pomo dialect.

9 “History and Memories: the Carrillo family in Sonoma County” by Alma McDaniel Carrillo and Eleanora Carrillo de Haney; 1983

10 Damaso Rodriguez – a career soldier and who was 64 years old, not 80 – was an invalid and had been on the payroll as part of Vallejo’s small retinue in Sonoma for about nine years. While Bears may have indeed beaten him up in front of his family, Osio does not mention this incident in his history of the battle at Olómpali. Nor did Rodriguez apparently die from cause, as several days later he filed a claim worth $1,243 with the U.S. for cattle and other property stolen by Frémont’s men. (The U.S. did honor some Bear Flag-period claims like this when a receipt was provided – see Bancroft p. 462.)

11 The introduction to the University of Oklahoma edition of Ridge’s original book has more details on the twists and turns of the Murieta story. The author suggests the notion that Murieta was really a Carrillo came from a 1909 Overland Monthly article supposedly written using “authentic sources.” There it’s stated both Joaquin Carillo [sp] was Murieta’s real name, then a few pages later that Carillo “was also an alias of their chief.”

12 Pitt, Leonard; The Decline of the Californios, 1970; pg 50


The story of the Bear Flag Revolt may be captivating, but the confusion surrounding the Cowie and Fowler episode shows how little is really known for certain.

The main problem is few primary sources are available. At the time there were no newspapers published in California – it would be three months before the pro-American “Californian” broadsheet appeared and offered the first detailed accounts of what had happened (the full Cowie-Fowler report can be read in issue five). Another obstacle is that for thirty-some years the Revolt was treated as an odd little footnote to the Mexican-American War. Letters from the aging Bears sometimes appeared in papers and the Revolt was sometimes given a page or two in profiles of John Frémont or memoirs about the Gold Rush, but it wasn’t until historians Bancroft and Josiah Royce paid attention and it was glamorized in the flood of county histories that it gained traction as an important event in its own right. That’s a long time for details to fade and myths to develop; imagine what we might believe today about the JFK assassination, for example, had little been written about it before the year 2000.

The chapter of General Vallejo’s memoir on the Bear Flag Revolt is available online and is worth reading in full, even though he was a prisoner during most of this time and learned details second hand. Bancroft considered William Baldridge’s “‘Days of ’46” as “by far the most valuable and complete” account of the Revolt and it’s given due emphasis here. For anyone interested in researching further, Bancroft offered a lengthy discussion of Bear Flag sources as well as scooping up every scrap of information he came across about Cowie and Fowler. A single-page PDF of that summary is available for download through the Comstock House digital library. An 1890 magazine article, “The ‘Bears’ and the Historians” was helpful in sorting out the evolution of the myths surrounding the Revolt.

The best overall book on the events is Alan Rosenus’ “General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans” written in 1995. Antonio María Osio’s 1851 “The History of Alta California” is now available in English translation and along with Vallejo’s chapter, offers the Californio viewpoint (Cowie and Fowler are not mentioned). Also very useful is a thesis written by Patricia Campos Scheiner, “Californio Resistance to the U.S. Invasion of 1846.”

A list of works best avoided would be long, but near the top would be the books written by and about the “Commander” of the California Republic, William B. Ide: “Who Conquered California?” and “Scraps of California History.” Both were published around 1880 by his brother and based on their conversations before his death in 1852 and a long, descriptive letter he supposedly wrote quite soon after the events. But as described in the previous article, Ide was an alarmist who promoted fear to justify his actions. And historian H. H. Bancroft found those books are “…everywhere colored by a violent prejudice, sometimes amounting to a mania, against Frémont, whom Ide honestly believed to have robbed him of his fame as a conqueror and founder of a republic.”



The circumstances connected with the transfer from Mexico to the United States of sovereign power over the territory of California is of absorbing interest. As time goes on this interest will increase, and the historian of the future will search wearily through the dusty records of the past for facts which at this time may be obtained from active participants in those stirring scenes. We have the following statement from a former citizen of this county of the facts connected with the raising of the Bear Flag, why it was made and of what material. These facts can be established by persons now alive. They are of peculiar interest to the citizens of Sonoma county. The neighboring town of Sonoma was the scene of the event, many of the participants were afterwards our neighbors and friends, some of them still reside among us. On the morning of June 14th, 1846, about daylight thirty-three armed men, who had organized in Napa Valley the previous day, arrived in the town of Sonoma, the headquarters of the Mexican military commandant, Gen. M. G. Vallejo. This small band had selected from their number Capt. Merritt, of Sacramento Valley, to lead them. They entered the town, meeting no resistance; went first to Gen. Vallejo’s quarters, arrested him, his brother Salvador, and Victor Prudon, Alcalde of the town. They sent them as prisoners under guard to Sutter’s Fort. The rest of the revolutionary party remained in possession of the town. Among them were three young men, Alexander Todd, Benjamin Duell and Thomas Cowey. A few days after the capture in a casual conversation between these young men, the matter of a flag came up. They had no authority to raise the American flag and they determined to make one. Their general idea was to imitate, without following too closely, their national ensign. Mrs. W. B. Elliott had been brought to the town of Sonoma by her husband from his ranch on Mark West creek for safety. The old Elliott cabin may be seen to this day on Mark West creek about a mile above the Springs. From Mrs. Elliott[,] Ben Duell got a piece of new red flannel, some white domestic, needles and thread. A piece of blue drilling was obtained elsewhere. From this material, without consultation with any one else, thes-e three young men made the Bear Flag. Cowie had been a saddler. Duell had also served a short time at the same trade. To form the flag Duell and Cowie sewed together alternate’ strips of red, white, and blue. Todd drew in the upper corner a star and painted on the lower a rude picture of a grizzly bear, which was not standing as has been sometimes represented, but was drawn with head down. The bear was afterwards adopted as the design of the great seal of the State of California. On the original flag it was so rudely executed that two of those who saw it raised have told us that it looked more like a hog than a bear. Be that as it may, its meaning was plain—that the revolutionary party would, if necessary, fight their way through at all hazards. In the language of our informant, it meant that there was no back out; they intended to fight it out. There were no1 halyards on the flag-staff which stood in front of the barracks. It was again reared, and the flag which was soon to be replaced by that of the Republic for the first time floated on the breeze.

The Americans were short of powder. It was known that Mose Carson, a brother of Kit and Lindsey, who at the time was Superintendent of the Fitch ranch, had at that place half a keg of powder. Just after the flag was raised, Thomas Cowey and a man named Fowler volunteered to go to Russian River and secure this powder. They came up the valley and attempted to cross the Rincon Valley to avoid Santa Rosa. Within a short distance of this place they were surprised by the Mexicans and both were killed. Their mutilated remains were afterwards found and they were buried where they fell, upon the farm now owned by John Underhill, two miles north of Santa Rosa. No stone marks the graves of these pioneers, one of whom took so conspicuous a part in the event which gave to the Union the great State of California. Alexander Todd still lives in the State and will confirm this statement in every particular.

– Sonoma Democrat, August 8, 1874


The Murder of Ramon Corrillo.


I desire through your paper to brand, as it deserves, a foul aspertion [sic] upon the name of my brother, Ramon Corrillo, who was recently murdered in a most cowardly manner near Los Angeles.


But I wish more particularly to call attention to an old charge, which I presume owes its revival to the same source, to wit: That my brother, Ramon Carrillo, was connected with the murder of two Americans, who had been taken prisoners by a company commanded by Juan Padilla in 1846.

I presume this charge first originated from the fact that my brother had been active in raising the company which was commanded by Padillo, and from the further fact that the murder occurred near the Santa Rosa farm, then occupied by my mother’s family.

Notwithstanding these appearances, I have proof which is incontestable, that my brother was not connected with this affair, and was not even aware that these men had been taken prisoners until after they had been killed. The act was disapproved of by all the native Californians at the time, excepting those implicated in the killing, and caused a difference which was never entirely healed.

There are, as I believe, many Americans now living in this vicinity, who were here at the time, and who know the facts I have mentioned. I am ready to furnish proof of what I have said to any who may desire it.


– Sonoma Democrat, June 4, 1864

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Joaquin Carrillo died in 1911 following an illness, which was undoubtedly worsened by his death and burial twelve years earlier.

The Carrillos, as every Santa Rosa school kid knows, settled here in 1838 and the head of the family, widow María Ignacia de Carrillo, applied to the Mexican government for a land grant covering most of modern-day Santa Rosa. A few years later her eldest son, Joaquin, obtained a grant on an even larger tract of land between Santa Rosa and Forestville (roughly). Between the two of them, mother and son owned the equivalent of about 34 square miles. Doña María died before California statehood and her property was split amongst many of her other children; Joaquin kept his land holdings intact and when the Americans recognized the legitimacy of his Mexican land grant he was the owner of 13,316 acres of prime Sonoma County real estate.

His obituary in the 1911 Press Democrat was brief, noting his family and Vallejo in-laws “together owned a good part of Sonoma county in the later days of Mexican dominion,” but didn’t specifically mention the land grant at all or that he operated a hotel in Sebastopol. At age 19 he married in 1849 and moved to Sonoma County, living in Santa Rosa since then according to the PD. The Republican – which came out in the late afternoon – shamelessly plagiarized most of its obit from their morning rival, mainly adding just a paragraph about the land grant.

The first clue that both obituaries had serious errors was that this man was a little too young. Several county histories already published by that time had detailed the Mexican land grant was awarded to him in 1844, which was when he would have been fourteen, by the newspaper’s “19 in 1849” chronology, and that would have happened five years before he supposedly even arrived in Sonoma county, according to the obits. An editor (both editors) should have noticed the dates didn’t jibe – it was almost as if they had mixed up details about entirely different people.

In fact, they had scrambled together the life stories of two men who were close to the same age, lived most of their lives only a dozen miles apart, had nearly identical names and were both married to women called Martha. (You cannot imagine some of the eye-crossing mistakes found in amateur genealogies trying to construct Carrillo family trees from that period.)

Untangled details of both Joaquins follow but in summary, there was the son of Doña María, who was the land grant guy and Sebastopol hotelier: Joaquin Victor Carrillo y Lopez III (1820-1899). For the purposes of this article, we’ll call him “Sebastopol Joaquin.” The man who had just died was Jose Joaquin Victor Carrillo y Montano (1829-1911) who married a daughter of Doña María. Here we’ll refer to him as “Santa Rosa Joaquin.”

To be fair, it must be noted that someone at the Press Democrat did understand they were writing the obituary for Santa Rosa Joaquin; their version correctly noted that Julio Carrillo – the youngest son of Doña María and a colorful local character who had died a quarter of a century earlier –  was the deceased man’s brother-in-law. Still, the PD confused everything else by devoting much of its obit to an appreciation of the “Carrillo family” (without being clear that meant his wife’s family) and their role in local pre-statehood history (which all happened before this fellow came here).

But as muddled as the PD version was, the Santa Rosa Republican obituary was worse, with its paragraph about his having the land grant – and a few days later, the paper dug the hole deeper with an anecdotal story that was clearly about Sebastopol Joaquin.

Clearly, no one from either paper had bothered to contact members of the family, even though by 1911 the Carrillo clan had grown to a remarkable size – nine of Sebastopol Joaquin’s 17 children (!) were still alive at the time as were five of Santa Rosa Joaquin’s ten, not to mention all the grandchildren and cousins and spouses of everybody.

What to make of this? It speaks to the diminished prestige of the Carrillo name by that time, perhaps. The 1905 obituary for his wife (who was the last living member of the founding family) was also brief and padded with historic generalities; like the garbled 1911 obits, it was pretty much the boilerplate “old pioneer” death write-up. The papers didn’t want to waste too much space because readers probably wouldn’t remember that old-timer and besides, there probably wasn’t much of a story to tell, anyway. In the case of Sebastopol Joaquin, however, the latter certainly was not true; some details of his unhappy life were never reported in any newspapers.

“Sebastopol Joaquin” Carrillo and “Santa Rosa Joaquin” Carrillo, dates unknown

“Sebastopol Joaquin,” who called himself Joaquin Carrillo, came to Northern California with his mother and siblings when he was 16, sometime in the year 1837. Five years earlier an older sister married a rising star in the Mexican military named Mariano Vallejo, who was now Comandante General of the “Free State of Alta California” as well as having the enormous 66,000-acre land grant of Rancho Petaluma. Doña María and her nine unmarried children lived with them in Sonoma for about a year. During that time a smallpox epidemic swept through the Indian communities of the North Bay, decimating the population. (General Vallejo chose to vaccinate only fellow Mexicans and a few members of the friendly Suisun tribe.) When the Carrillo family embarked to build their own adobe in what would be Santa Rosa, they settled in the center of Bitakomtara Pomo homeland, newly laid waste by the disease.

Sebastopol Joaquin requested his own land grant in 1843. The Mexican governor wouldn’t approve it because surveying hadn’t been done by the adjacent ranchos but he applied again a few months later and this time his petition was promptly granted. That was very unusual; approval usually took up to a decade and his neighbor’s land hadn’t surveyed itself in the meantime. It was further expected that a claimant had already made improvements on the property – but he had not yet built a home there or planted a single crop. Likely his claim was pushed through by his brother-in-law, General Vallejo, for strategic reasons; tensions were high just then because John Sutter, who had purchased Fort Ross from the Russians, was blustering about raising a private army and taking over the northern part of Alta California. The road from the coast was mostly the same as Bodega Highway today and went directly through this land, making it imperative that it be in friendly hands. (The government was so worried about Sutter’s threats that 300 soldiers were sent up from Mexico but according to a biography of Sutter, about half of them were convicts who looted and pillaged ranchos as they marched up the coast.)

There’s not as much written about Sebastopol Joaquin as his famous mother and infamous brothers, Julio and José Ramón; there’s a chapter about him in a handwritten Carrillo family history1 and he’s always discussed regarding his Rancho Llano de Santa Rosa land grant. Unfortunately, most of this information is unsourced and usually incorrect. It’s often claimed he took up arms during the 1846 Mexican-American War (that was his brother, Ramón), fought the Bear Flaggers at the “Battle” of Olómpali (no chance) and was held prisoner by the Americans (it was brother Julio). It’s often said he was once the “mayor” of Sonoma (not really) and sometimes that he divorced his first wife (nope). Almost never mentioned is the single most noteworthy event in his life – that his son tried to kill him.

Skipping ahead a couple of years to 1846, Sebastopol Joaquin is now 25 and building a small adobe at the crossroads of what would become downtown Sebastopol. Like his mother, the spot he picks is right next to a Pomo village, where a few years before ten to twenty people were dying every day from smallpox. (Nothing can be found about his relationship with either Indian or Chinese people, the latter having a large community in the town from the 1880s onwards.) Unlike the rest of his family who seemed mainly interested in livestock, he appears inclined to farming, and is mentioned in county histories growing hundreds of acres of corn, barley and wheat.

At the start of that year he was also appointed second jueces de paz for the town of Sonoma, which meant he was secundo alcalde. In 19th century Mexico and Alta California, this was something like, “assistant general civil servant.” The only specific account I can find in the Bancroft histories of California of someone functioning as 2º alcalde is a guy supervising roadwork.

That was also the year of the Bear Flag Revolt, when General Vallejo was famously arrested by the Americanos and held prisoner at Sutter’s Fort, which was the home of his nemesis from just a few years earlier. After some debate, the Bears decided to also lock up Sonoma’s primo alcalde José Barryessa. Seeing his boss arrested, Joaquin ran away.

And apparently that was the end of his involvement with the Mexican-American War.

He married Maria Guadalupe Caseres in 1849 just as Gold Rush Americans were starting to flood the Bay Area. He was still farming but began identifying himself as a hotel keeper in the 1860 census, also the year when the first mention can be found in local papers about his Analy Hotel, which was described as if it were already a well-established concern.2

Over two decades the Carrillos had ten children (11, according to some genealogists who say their first born was a daughter who died in childhood). These were prosperous years; according to items in local newspapers they owned two Sebastopol hotels (the Analy and the Pioneer), a saloon and a boarding house.3 The census reports between 1850-1870 show a net worth between $26-60 thousand, which would be the equivalent of $100-150 million today, adjusted for inflation. Even as he kept selling off chunks of his land, Sebastopol Joaquin remained one of the wealthiest men in the North Bay.

Then in 1865, his wife Guadalupe sued for divorce, asking the court to put their holdings into receivership until such time as she would be awarded a “suitable portion of his property.”4

Her complaint was that her husband was a “habitual drunkard and almost constantly intoxicated,” not to mention a man of “lewd, vulgar and indecent conduct” who should not be allowed to have custody or any control over their children’s lives. Sebastopol Joaquin “has for several years been and still is squandering and wasting his property,” she told the court. He was a man of “extreme cruelty” who had been “violently beating and kicking” her and threatening to kill her with a knife. She described specifically an incident a few months earlier, when he climbed through her bedroom window at night, pulled her from bed by her hair, and dragged her out in the middle of the street as she screamed for help from the neighbors.

Divorce was unusual at that time in America but not unheard of, particularly in California which had a divorce for every 355 marriages, close to double the national rate in 1870 (the first year statistics were collected). Divorce proceedings were rarely covered as news, however – a surprising glimpse of Victorian prudery in an era when the most gruesome details of suicides were described in loving detail. The silence of the newspapers was particularly unfortunate in the case of Carrillo vs. Carrillo because we don’t know exactly what happened, except the case was dismissed.

And unless a scholar or Carrillo family member hand copied the original judgement, we’ll never know the outcome: All of these hand-written documents were microfilmed decades ago and the originals destroyed. Some of the pages from Guadalupe’s divorce case and her probate are clearly written and easily read on the film but about forty percent of all these pages are completely illegible. Presumably written in faded ink on yellowed paper, the negative images on film are black with scattered dark gray strokes – the technician photographing these documents didn’t know (or care) the results would be unreadable. Of the six page court decision, the only words that can be made out are “State of California” which must have been written in a bolder hand or with better ink. Thank our previous generation of penny-wise county administrators for throwing away our collective history to save the astronomical costs of setting aside a few shelves of storage space somewhere. End of rant.

Sans the court judgement, we still can be certain the case was dismissed, however, because that is the notation in the civil case index. Perhaps they reconciled; two more children were born after the divorce suit was filed. It does appear he gave her the financial security she wanted from the suit; after she died her estate was appraised at over $48,000 and it all was property from his original land grant. The family history says the 1,200 acres Joaquin had retained was appraised at $46,000, although no source for that number was given.5

Guadalupe’s death on May 15, 1874 apparently opened family scabs. One of the first documents filed with the probate court was his challenge to her last will and testament, where she had left most of the estate to her children. Joaquin’s affidavit claimed it was not actually her will; that it was signed without witnesses; that at the time of the signing she was not in her right mind; that it was not really her signature and anyway, she signed it under duress after getting bad advice.6 (Talk about a scattershot assault!) His challenge to the will was apparently denied – see above, re: illegible microfilm – but the probate churned on for a year and a half. And, by the way, the probate documents confirmed there never was a divorce: He was always described as her husband.

Not long after the first anniversary of her death, Sebastopol Joaquin remarried. His bride was Martha “Mary” Caffera-Springer; her father was an Italian ship’s captain who went to sea with his wife one day and neither returned. She was raised by James and Mary Springer, farmers in Bodega who had no children of their own. At the time of their marriage Joaquin was 54; she was 19.

Her age meant she was four years younger than his oldest living son, Henry (Enrique, actually) who was also administrator for his mother’s estate. Henry was also guardian of his younger siblings, per Guadalupe’s request – she still considered Joaquin an unfit parent.

(RIGHT: Analy Hotel at its most well-known location at the SE corner of Main street and Bodega Avenue, c. 1890. By this time Carrillo was living in Santa Rosa and had sold the hotel to John Loser. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

About six weeks after the wedding, Henry tried to kill his father. “The cause of the shooting was a long standing family quarrel,” the Petaluma Argus dryly reported in a small item on July 30, 1875. Henry was arrested and held on $2,000 bail. Nothing more ever appeared about the incident; possible reasons for Henry’s anger at his Poppa might include (and probably isn’t limited to) his remarriage to such a young woman, his insulting challenge to Guadalupe’s will or his old habit of drunkenly beating Henry’s Momma without mercy.

Aside from his gunshot wound, Sebastopol Joaquin had little complaint about the outcome; Guadalupe generously left him a third of her property. A month after the shooting he petitioned the court for immediate possession. It would be understandable for him to want a quick end to any dealings with trigger-happy Henry the estate administrator, but it might be because he badly needed the money. He probably wasn’t actually poor but clearly his fortune was severely diminished. In the same edition of the Argus that mentioned his shooting there was a list of everyone in Analy Township who had been assessed at $10,000 or more; of the 27 names listed, Guadalupe’s estate ranked #5 but Joaquin wasn’t there at all.

In the next few years there were dwindling mentions in the papers of Sebastopol Joaquin or his hotel or saloon, and in the 1880 census he again called himself a farmer. Eight years later he was no longer living in Sebastopol, but at the modest house in Santa Rosa at 421 First st. (between A and B streets). It was not a nice part of town, just down from the smelly coal gas plant.

When he died on July 15, 1899 the Press Democrat gave him a nice but brief obituary (transcribed below). Hopefully he treated his second wife better than Guadalupe; she gave birth to seven children, all but two living to adulthood. He is buried in Petaluma’s Calvary Catholic Cemetery.

“Santa Rosa Joaquin” formally called himself Jose Joaquin Victor Carrillo. He was born 1829 in Cabo San Lucas and his father was the brother of Joaquin Carrillo II (husband to Doña María and father of Sebastopol Joaquin). His wife was Maria Marta ‘Martha’ Juana Carrillo y Lopez (1826-1905), a younger sister of Sebastopol Joaquin. Thus besides having the surname Carrillo by birth, he was a first cousin to both Sebastopol Joaquin and his own wife. They married in 1855 and he had no involvement with building the Carrillo Adobe or the Mexican-American War or had any Mexican land grant. He might never have even met his infamous namesake cousin.

Most of we know about he and his wife comes from an article that may (or may not) have appeared in a 1900 San Francisco newspaper Sunday feature.7 Regrettably, almost every historical fact found there is dead wrong, but the author apparently did interview Marta and hopefully there’s better accuracy where events of her life were discussed. The piece does have a slightly different Carrillo origin story that’s worth mentioning.

The story usually goes that Doña María brought her large family to Sonoma County at the encouragement of her son-in-law, General Vallejo. In this version, the death of her soldier husband in 1836 left the family nearly destitute. A priest told her about the “…beautiful and fertile country, far to the north, where a home might be built and land in any quantity obtained for the taking.” The article claimed the priest “urged the widow of his friend to go to this country west and north of the Sonoma Mission, picturing its beauties, its adaptability to cultivation, the docility of the natives, who, he said, could be employed at farming and herding.” The priest was named “Father Ventura” in the article but details match Fr. Buenaventura Fortuni, who headed the Sonoma mission from 1826-1833 and certainly knew this area. After 1835 he was at Mission San Luis Rey which was not far from San Diego where the Carrillos lived, so a discussion of this nature certainly could have happened.

A newsworthy bit in the article revealed Marta inherited 1,600 acres “lying between Santa Rosa Creek and Matanzas Creek” where she apparently built a home. “One day Dona Marta was served with a notice of ejectment,” the article continued, and “when she protested she was shown what purported to be a deed to the property, signed by herself,” even though she was illiterate and “could not even scribble her own name.” Salvador Vallejo, the husband of one of her sisters and the younger brother of General Vallejo, supposedly had faked her signature to sell the land. Even though it meant the theft of her birthright, “she would not bring disgrace on the family by making complaint.”

(RIGHT: “Santa Rosa” Joaquin Carrillo and family, date unknown. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The article accurately stated she married her cousin, Santa Rosa Joaquin, in 1855. “Their early married life was one of many hardships and privations until the husband by hard work had accumulated a little fortune of three or four thousand dollars.” With that nest egg they bought an acre of land and built a house at 1049 Fourth street, halfway between Brookwood and College avenues extending back to Allison Way. (That address is now an office building in the hideous “streamline moderne” architectural style better suited to Los Angeles.)

It is unclear how Santa Rosa Joaquin supported his family of ten children. In the 1860 census he called himself a vaquero, so perhaps he was a cattleman; after that he told the census-takers he was a farmer. Theirs was a modest life.

The only detail found about them was an anecdote from around the turn of the century, when children and grandchildren would visit their home on Sundays and holidays. Santa Rosa Joaquin had a parrot with had a vocabulary comprised entirely of Spanish cuss words. Joaquin and Marta were reportedly always terrified the kids, who only spoke English, would repeat what they heard the parrot squawk.

Marta died in 1905 after a marriage of over fifty years. True to form, the Press Democrat obituary confused her family with the Sebastopol Carrillos and stated, “Many years ago the deceased and her husband were very wealthy and owned large tracts of land in this county.” Santa Rosa Joaquin died in 1911, of course, and together they are buried in the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery at Santa Rosa Memorial Park.

And now the Believe-it-or-not epilogue: If having two Joaquin Carrilos in the immediate family wasn’t confusing enough…there might have been a third.

The most notorious figure in early California statehood was Joaquin Murrieta, the leader of a Mexican bandit gang that terrorized 49ers and settlers in the early 1850s. He was later portrayed in dime novels as a heroic Robin Hood-like character avenging injustices on behalf of oppressed Mexicans, but he was a real person who robbed and killed and scared the Americans half to death. In 1853 the governor authorized a company of California State Rangers to capture or kill the “party or gang of robbers commanded by the five Joaquins.” It was called the “Five Joaquins Gang” because the leaders were supposed to be all named Joaquin: Joaquin Murrieta, Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Ocomorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela – and Joaquin Carrillo. (There was also a really vicious guy named Manuel, but “the Five Joaquins Plus Manuel” sounds more like a circus acrobat act than a paramilitary organization of fearsome outlaws.) A few months later the Rangers had a shootout with a group of Mexicans in the Central Valley and claimed they had killed Murrieta, sawing off the guy’s head as proof to claim the reward money.

Chances are nil that the Joaquin Carrillo who belonged to the Murrieta gang was either Santa Rosa Joaquin or Sebastopol Joaquin (or for that matter, the Joaquin Carrillo who was a Southern California District judge in the same era). But at least one researcher has claimed it possibly might be another of Doña María’s children: Sebastopol Joaquin’s younger brother, José Ramón. Historian Brian McGinty wrote about this in an often-cited journal article on the Carrillo family:8

Most frequently he was referred to as “Ramón,” following the not infrequent practice among Spanish-Californians of dropping the first given name. At other times he was confusedly called “Joaquin,” the proper name of his brother. Because of José Ramón’s constant activity during the years from 1846 to 1864, during which time he was often referred to as “Joaquin Carrillo” or “Carillo,” it seems possible that he was partially responsible for the composite legend of Joaquin Murrieta.

It’s not so impossible that José Ramón might have been involved with Murrieta. He was cut from a different cloth than the other Carrillo men; he was an adventurer and soldier who fought bears armed with a knife, using his horse’s soft leather saddle bags as his only shield. He commanded Mexican troops in several important battles in the 1846 Mexican-American War including the Battle of San Pascual, the bloodiest conflict ever to take place in California. After the war that journal article mentions there were stories of him being a highwayman at the same time as Murrieta and rumors of buried treasure near his ranch in Cucamonga.

But using his brother’s name as an alias (possibly while engaged in criminal activity, no less) seems unbelievable – although that article does acknowledge José Ramón’s grandson assisted with the research, so perhaps there might be something to it. Had he died in Santa Rosa and the local reporters gotten whiff that he was AKA Joaquin Carrillo, however, you can be sure his obituary would have been a glorious swirl of confusion.


1Alma MacDaniel Carrillo and Eleanor Carrillo de Haney: History and Memories – The Carrillo Family in Sonoma County. Undated handwritten manuscript, 94 pp.

2John Cummings: Early Sebastopol Part 2. 2005, North Bay Regional Collection, Sonoma State University Library

3These all might be differing descriptions of the same hotel. Cummings (ibid.) suspects the Pioneer might have been a relaunch of the Analy c. 1869, as the two hotel names never appear simultaneously in period newspapers. The earliest Sanborn fire map (1891) showing the Analy Hotel indicates it had a saloon, and any hotel easily could be called a boarding house.

4Guadalupe Carrillo, Plaintiff, vs. Joaquin Carrillo, Defendant: July 22, 1865, District case number 493

5op. cit. MacDaniel Carrillo and Carrillo de Haney, pg. 36

6Probate for estate of Guadalupe Carrillo: Reel 19 #688

7“‘Sonoma Valley Before the Gringoes Came,’ written for the Sunday Bulletin, March 11, 1900”: undated and anonymous, 7 typewritten pp. Gaye LeBaron Collection, Sonoma State University Library

8Brian McGinty: “The Carrillos of San Diego: A Historic Spanish Family of California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, March 1957


Joaquin Carrillo, one of the first white residents of what is now Santa Rosa, passed away at his home, 1039 Fourth street, at 1:30 this morning. He had resided at that place for the past 26 years and in Santa Rosa since 1849.

Mr. Carrillo was born in the town of Pabosa Lucas, Lower California, 81 years ago, but moved to Santa Diego when a child. He lived in San Diego until 19 years of age, when he married and removed to Sonoma county settling on the present site of Santa Rosa.

The Carrillo family were pioneers in San Diego under the old Spanish rule. Joaquin was a brother-in-law of Gen. Vallejo, one of the principal characters of California’s early history. Both the Carrillo and Vallejo families were prominently connected with the affairs here in the time of the American pioneers, and in the time before the Americans came.

Both families were numerous and wealthy, and the two together owned a good part of Sonoma county in the later days of Mexican dominion. Julio Carrillo, brother-in-law of the man who died this morning, passed away in this city several years ago, and was likewise early identified with the town and county.

Mr. Carrillo had been feeble for several years, but had not been confined to his bed until about three months ago.

He is survived by five sons and three daughters. Albert Carrillo of Eureka, John Carrillo of Guaymas, Mexico, Eli and Andrew Carrillo of Santa Rosa; Abe Carrillo of San Francisco; Mrs. Phantry of San Francisco; Mrs. Olarlo of Guaymas, Mexico and Mrs. John Welty of San Francisco.

Preparations for the burial will be delayed until response is had from John Carrillo, in Guaymas, who has been asked by telegraph whether he can come to attend his father’s funeral.

– Press Democrat, April 1, 1911

Joaquin Carrillo, one of Santa Rosa’s first white residents, passed away on Saturday morning at 1:30 o’clock at the age of 81 years. Deceased was at one time the owner, under Spanish grant of Llano de Santa Rosa, the 13,336.55 acre grant stretching from a little west of this city to Sebastopol and south to the Cotati Rancho. Three square leagues in Santa Rosa and Analy township is called for in the grant, which was confirmed to Joaquin Carrillo by the District Court of March 24, 1856.

Mr. Carrillo was born at Cabo San Lucas, Lower Calif., but with his parents and their large family of children, moved to San Diego when but a small child. His parents were pioneers of San Diego. At the age of 19 Joaquin Carrillo came to Sonoma county with his bride and settled on the present site of Santa Rosa. He had been a resident of Santa Rosa since 1849 and had lived in his home at 1039 Fourth street for the past 26 years.

Joaquin Carrillo was a brother-in-law of General Vallejo and between the families of Vallejo and Carrillo nearly the whole of Sonoma county was owned. It was from this pioneer that much of what is known of the earlier history of this county was secured and chronicled.

Mr. Carrillo had been confined to his bed for the past three months, but for several years before that had been in feeble health. Arrangements for the funeral will be made when word is received from John Carrillo, a son residing at Guaymas who has been asked by wire if he can be present at the funeral.

Mr. Carrillo is survived by five sons and three daughters. Albert Carrillo of Eureka, John Carrillo of Guaymas, Mexico, Eli and Andrew Carrillo of Santa Rosa; A. Carrillo of San Francisco; Mrs. S. M. Shantry of San Francisco; Mrs. Olague of Guaymas, Mexico and Mrs. John Welty of Santa Rosa.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 1, 1911
Mrs. Tyler Recalls Happenings of Early Days

Mrs. Flora E. Tyler of this city recalls some interesting events in the life of Joaquin Carrillo, the pioneer of this county, who passed away on Saturday morning.

Mrs. Tyler was then a girl and made her home in Sebastopol, and attended the school there with a number of his relatives.

At the time of the civil war Mr. Carrillo owned the hotel at Sebastopol, and there a fair and banquet was held for the benefit of the wounded soldiers. People for miles around came on horseback to attend the festivities and a gala times was enjoyed. Not long age [sic], when the old building was torn down, a paper bearing the date of 1864 was found, and it gave an account of the fair.

Mr. Carrillo owned considerable land, and it took in what is now Sebastopol, and reached nearly to Santa Rosa. The road leading from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol was lined with Castilian roses, planted there by Carrillo and when passing the young people would stop and gather bunches of them. They were a bright pink and very fragrant. They are seldom seen now.

Another interesting event related by Mrs. Tyler was the lassoing of a grizzly bear by Mr. Carrillo while returning from his honeymoon. As he neared the bridge at the laguna a big grizzly bear crossed his path and he started to lasso it. The bear was more than he bargained for, and had it not been for the aid of a man who was with him, he might have been killed. In those days all traveling was done on horseback and his bride rode beside him on her fine pony.

Mr. Carrillo and his bride first lived at Sebastopol and later moved to Santa Rosa.

– Santa Rosa Republican, April 4, 1911
Joaquin Carrillo’s Eventful Life Is Ended
Was the Oldest Surviving Pioneer of Sonoma County and Was Well Known

A black knot of crape on the door of a humble little cottage on First street Saturday caused many people to stop and reflect over a life, which at one time in the early history of Sonoma county had a wide influence. The life called to mind was that of Joaquin Carrillo which had ended after a year and a half of incapacity through suffering. This morning at Petaluma from St. Vincent’s church his funeral will take place at ten o’clock, the cortege leaving the residence on First street about seven o’clock.

The last years of the old pioneer’s life were spent unostentatiously. His days were passed very quietly. He was about ninety years of age when the last summons came and his eyes were closed in death. He came to Sonoma county in 1838 and laid claim to being the oldest pioneer of Sonoma. After his arrival here he settled near Sebastopol where it is estimated he owned at one time many thousands of acres of land. His brother was Julio Carrillo, who also owned a great portion of the county.

The deceased was a native of California. He was known all over this section. He leaves six grown children, Andrew J., Lee A., Joseph, Jennie and Mary Carrillo, and also a number of other relatives. Mrs. General Vallejo is a sister of the deceased. By many a hearthstone in Sonoma county the old man’s stories of early days were heard with eagerness and a reverence was felt for that white crowned head over which the clouds and sunshine of more than three score years and ten had passed. The funeral today will doubtless be largely attended by many of the deceased old-time acquaintances.

Among the children by the deceased’s first wife are Mrs. Millie Miller of San Francisco, Lupe Carrillo of Oakland, Mrs. Lulu McCord of Hanford, Mrs. Kate Alpine of Duncans, Mrs. Agnes Perry of Occidental, Raymond Carrillo of Ferndale. His second wife survives his and also their five children first named.

– Press Democrat, July 19, 1899

Joaquin Carrillo, the oldest pioneer of Sonoma county, is dead. After a year and a half of constant suffering he passed peacefully away last Saturday at his home on First street, Santa Rosa.

In 1838 deceased came to Sonoma county and settled near Sebastopol. Here he resided for many years and at one time conducted a hotel on the corner of Bodega and Petaluma avenues. Many years ago he owned thousands of acres of land in this section, but, like many other pioneers, he dispensed hospitality with such a free and generous hand that he died in poverty. Many a man who to-day enjoys wealth and plenty can look back to the time when he was started out on the road to prosperity by Joaquin Carrillo…

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 19, 1899

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