courtrecordflight

THE FABLE OF THE STOLEN COURTHOUSE

It will always be a popular rip–roarin’ tale of Santa Rosa’s early days: How a few guys sneaked into the town of Sonoma, snatched the county records, then raced back to Santa Rosa amid fears that a furious mob of Sonomans were in pursuit. Unfortunately, it’s not true – well, not much, anyway.

Santa Rosa was born in 1854, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it was declared by fiat. The previous summer Barney Hoen and his partners joined with Julio Carrillo to lay out a future town of 70 total acres – from the creek to Fifth street, from E to A street – small enough for anyone to walk across any direction in a couple of minutes or three. At the time there was only one house (Carrillo’s) and a store. It had no reason to exist, much less thrive, except for roughly being at the crossroads between Sonoma city and settlements north and west.

But in the state election of 1853 a local land squatter, James Bennett was elected to the Assembly. The only accomplishment in his single term was to pass an act in 1854 calling for a vote on what town should be the county seat, which came as a surprise to residents of Sonoma city, which had been county central since statehood. To sway county voters (who were mainly squatters), promoters of the nascent town of Santa Rosa threw a blowout Fourth of July BBQ that was said to draw 500 people, and is heavily credited with Santa Rosa winning the vote a few months later – a story told here earlier in “CITY OF ROSES AND SQUATTERS.” When the voting results were announced on September 18, Hoen and Julio Carrillo threw another beef-a-palooza even more riotous than the July shindig, this event supposedly lasting two days and involving firing an anvil one hundred times.1

(RIGHT: James R. Williamson portrait from the Press Democrat, September 21 1904)

Besides all the free meaty eats, another argument for making Santa Rosa the county seat was that the existing county courthouse in the town of Sonoma was on the verge of falling down (that old adobe actually did collapse in 1862) and had been condemned by a grand jury. Hoen et. al. promised to donate land and build a new courthouse within six months and until then court could be held at Julio’s house, in part because he also had room to store the official county record books.

And here our questionable adventure begins – those important books had to be transferred from Sonoma once Santa Rosa was officially the county seat. And the person to do that was Jim Williamson.

Today’s housing shortage in Santa Rosa pales in comparison to the lack of places to live when the town became the county seat in the autumn of 1854. As there were then only eight (or so) houses in Santa Rosa, Williamson likely still had his camp near the corner of Fourth and D streets. Jim later boasted he was “the first white man to reside on the actual site of the city,” which I hope was a clumsy joke about the Pomo village which was here and not a racist slur against Julio Carrillo, who had an actual house on Second street.2

Jim may have been living in a tent, but he did have a light spring wagon and a pair of good mules. Here’s the version of the story which appeared in the first published history of Sonoma county:


On the day appointed, Jim Williamson, with a four-horse team and wagon, accompanied by Horace Martin and some others, went down to Sonoma, captured and brought up the archives, amid dire threats of injunction and violence from the Sonoma people, who saw, with no little chagrin, the county seat slip through their fingers. The Santa Rosans had the law, wanted only possession, and would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary to get that; as it was, they captured the archives by strategy, and the dry and dusty documents of former drowsy old alcaldes were whirled over the road as fast as Jim Williamson’s four-in-hand could take them to the new capital…

That was written in 1877 by Robert A. Thompson. When it comes to evaluating the accuracy of a historic account, generally the closer an author is to that time and place, the better – which would seem particularly true in this case, as Thompson lived here and was writing after only 22 or 23 years had passed. But it turns out Jim Williamson later was interviewed and told the story himself, revealing almost nothing in Thompson’s version was true.

Thompson either made up/exaggerated details or swallowed a dramatic interpretation he might have heard told over beers at local saloons. And this is not the first time he seems to be caught writing historical fiction; it appears he also invented Chanate, the friendly Indian who supposedly discovered the bodies of Bear Flag martyrs Cowie and Fowler.

The oldest version of Jim Williamson’s ride is exciting, but mostly fiction

 

The easiest parts of Thompson’s tale to debunk are simple facts; Williamson had two mules, not a team of four horses. Thompson omits mention County Clerk Menefee who played a major role in the doings, but claims Horace Martin was an accomplice. Martin was a remarkable fellow – see extended footnote – but it’s clear he wasn’t part of this adventure.3

Then there’s Thompson’s claim of “dire threats of injunction and violence” from Sonomans who wanted to keep the records in town and that the Santa Rosans “would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary” to get away with the books. Williamson certainly had some concern there might be legal pushback (discussed below) but he never feared being chased like a survivor on The Walking Dead.

To the contrary, the editor of the Sonoma Bulletin seemed resigned, if not downright pleased to be rid of the county seat. In his first comments right after the election, A. J. Cox remarked, “The up-country people battled furiously against us, and have come out victorious…’it is as it is, and can’t be any ’tis’er,’ which incontrovertible truth consoles us, at least.” A week later, Cox added:


Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exulting grin of some, and silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the courthouse along – not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza…

The editorial continued with a mock lament that they were now going to lose the political blowhards and “country lawyers and loafers in general” who hung around the veranda of the courthouse whittling. (Other sources mention they were not whittling so much as carving stuff into the posts holding up the veranda, which might help explain why the place went to pieces.)

Thompson later backed away from his melodramatic tale. In a smaller 1884 history just about Santa Rosa he didn’t mention the “capture” at all, only that Jim was paid $16 “for getting away with the records.” Of the six local histories which were later published, only half describe something about Williamson’s wagon ride, as summarized here.4

So what’s the real story about how the county records got to Santa Rosa? According to Jim Williamson himself, the events were more comic than dramatic.

Jim’s own telling appeared September, 1904 in the Press Democrat, which followed an April article providing further details from Williamson and others involved. My summary here mixes the two sources, but everything is transcribed below so anyone can untangle the details if desired. As it turns out, only Tom Gregory’s county history came closest to being accurate. It was written while Williamson was still alive and he loved to gab about the old days, according to his PD obituary, it is quite likely Tom heard the story directly from Jim, as they both lived in Santa Rosa. But be forewarned Tom Gregory was also a serial exaggerator and unreliable historian, so the colorful additional details he provided have to be carefully swallowed.

The first Board of Supervisors meeting following the vote was to be Friday, September 22, 1854 at the courthouse in Sonoma. After an official canvass of the returns, they were to formally declare Santa Rosa as the new county seat. Daniel Davisson, a Sonoma real estate investor with his own horse stable, was asked to have a team ready to move the official records – but when word got out around town he was apparently threatened with a boycott or harm, so he declined. This likely was where historian Thompson got the idea that there might be danger lurking.

Plan B was to hire someone from out of town, so County Supervisor R. E. Smith tapped Santa Rosa’s Jim Williamson, who was not known in Sonoma City. Smith told Jim to take his wagon there the day before and keep a low profile. He hitched up his mules (named “Jim” and “Liza” per Tom Gregory) and he and the team camped that night in a creek bed outside of town.

The next day Jim walked into town and hung around the courthouse, waiting for a signal from Smith. Once the meeting was over Smith gave the sign and Williamson fetched his wagon. “The Supervisors and clerk helped to load the archives into the wagon,” Williamson later wrote. In other words, there was nothing at all sneaky about it – the records left via the front door in the middle of the afternoon. And there really weren’t that many books; Jim recalled there was only about two wheelbarrow worth.

Riding back to Santa Rosa with Jim was County Clerk N. McC. Menefee, who had a jointless peg leg. He must have lost his leg above the knee, as the artificial limb was so long he could only ride comfortably in the wagon by resting it on the top of the footrest, which meant it was sticking straight out towards the backside of the mules. “[W]hen the wagon wheels struck a chuck hole and there would be a jolt, first one and then the other mule would receive a prod from the tip on the end of his wooden leg,” Williamson wrote.

Williamson and Menefee believed there was a chance they might be stopped. After the results of the vote were known, Lilburn Boggs, the most influential man in Sonoma after General Vallejo, asked Menefee to issue a restraining order blocking the transfer – but the County Clerk demurred “on account of pressing business.” Why Boggs sought to keep the records there is not clear; he was not challenging the validity of the election. It was probably because Boggs had been Alcalde for all of Northern California during the last years of Mexican rule, and the county books included those pre-statehood court records; had Boggs planned to write his memoirs he certainly would have wanted access to his decisions from those crucial years.

Menefee thought Boggs still might seek a restraining order from the court in Napa and send the sheriff after them. If they were pursued, their plan was for Menefee to get off and hide in the brush. As no one knew Williamson, any court order would have had to name Menefee, so the plan was for Jim to claim he was alone. (Always the colorful fabulist, historian Tom Gregory claimed the handicapped Menefee “intended to take to the woods giving the injunction a run through the brush.”)

But nothing happened. The constant poking from Menefee’s wooden leg is probably why the mules made the trip back to Santa Rosa supposedly in the record time of a hundred minutes – it was considered good time for a man on horseback to travel between Sonoma and Santa Rosa in two hours.

A more realistic interpretation of what happened

 

Then just as they reached Julio Carrillo’s house and were getting ready to unload the books, “we heard the thud of a horse’s hoofs in the distance,” Jim Williamson wrote.


As the sound came nearer and nearer, we saw that the rider was Israel Brockman, the sheriff. His horse was panting furiously, and was covered with foam. We saluted the sheriff and inquired what was the occasion of his apparently fast ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. He replied. “I just thought that I would get over here quick and find an office so as to avoid the rush.”

And there you have it – no hot pursuit, no attempted arrest, no vigilante threats and no actual showdown over the county records. The biggest concern of the day was really about someone finding housing in Santa Rosa.

Was ever thus.

 

 


1 “Firing anvils” was a popular way to celebrate political victories in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It involved packing the indentation on an iron anvil with gunpowder and placing another anvil upside down above it. When the gunpowder was ignited, the top anvil flew into the air making a deafening boom remarkably like a cannon. It was insanely dangerous – hopefully the anvil straight up, and not arcing into a crowd – and one has to ponder what sort of reckless idiot thought of trying it in the first place. Watch a video here where a “world champion anvil shooter” launches one 200 feet in the air.

2 Jim Williamson (1830-1913) operated Santa Rosa’s main livery stable through the Civil War at the corner of Third and Main, but there’s no evidence it was yet built in September 1854. The previous year he was found growing barley on ten rented acres just east of the town plaza. Farming and camp details from “Early Recollections of Santa Rosa”, Sonoma Democrat, October 6 1877; first resident remark from “Coming Golden Jubilee in Santa Rosa Recalls Memorable Drive With the County Records,” Press Democrat, April 10 1904

3 Few in Sonoma county today will recognize the name Horace Martin but we’re all familiar with his work; he was County Surveyor 1861-1862 and a contract surveyor for the county for several years before and after. He laid out the road from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg, several roads in West County, the plat map for Bodega, and probably lots of other work we don’t know about. You’ll still sometimes see mention of maps by “H. B. Martin” in the property notices which appear in the Press Democrat. But Horace’s real talents lay in inventions. He engineered miniature steam engines to run home sewing machines and ones large enough to power the printing plant of the Sonoma Democrat. It was reported he further designed a machine for making rugs, a rain-making machine he called the “Pluviator,” San Francisco’s first hydraulic elevators in office buildings, a fast steam-driven plow called “Old Jumbo” that burned through a ton of coal a day and a “Magic Calculator,” which supposedly was particularly adapted to calculating taxes. His brother-in-law, Richard Gird, operated a stock farm called Gird & Co. on the Russian River in the 1860s before moving to Arizona. There he happened to meet a penniless prospector with a bag of rocks which he had been told were mostly lead. Gird – who had a background in assaying but was himself nearly penniless – recognized the samples actually were rich in silver. They perfected the mining claim and created the Tombstone Mining District, which became the town of Tombstone. Gird and his partners walked away with millions. (More in The San Bernardino County Sun, March 31, 1963 or an internet search for “Dick Gird”.) Gird returned to California and used his wealth to buy the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino and adjacent land in San Bernardino County, creating a 47,000 acre ranch. Horace joined him there and platted out the town of Chino. Horace B. Martin died in Chicago in 1903.

4 Notes of local history book coverage:

1877 (Thompson; Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California) “On the day appointed, Jim Williamson, with a four-horse team and wagon, accompanied by Horace Martin and some others, went down to Sonoma, captured and brought up the archives, amid dire threats of injunction and violence from the Sonoma people, who saw, with no little chagrin, the county seat slip through their fingers. The Santa Rosans had the law, wanted only possession, and would not have hesitated to use all the force necessary to get that; as it was, they captured the archives by strategy, and the dry and dusty documents of former drowsy old alcaldes were whirled over the road as fast as Jim Williamson’s four-in-hand could take them to the new capital, where they safely arrived, and were deposited pro tem. in Julio Carrillo’s house, which was rented for that purpose…”

1884 (Thompson; Central Sonoma) Thompson did not mention the “capture” at all, but quotes the editorial reaction from the Sonoma Bulletin: “When the archives were finally taken the irrepressibly witty Sonoma editor gets off the following: Departed.–Last Friday the county officers with the archives left town for the new capitol amidst the exulting grin of some, and silent disapproval (frowning visages) of others. We are only sorry they did not take the Court-house along–not because it would be an ornament to Santa Rosa, but because its removal would have embellished our plaza…” Thompson continued: “Board District Attorney McNair put in a bill for $250, for helping the Supervisors to get legally out of Sonoma; he was allowed $100. The Board thought they did most of the work–at least two-thirds of it. Jim Williamson modestly put in a bill of $16, for getting away with the records, which was allowed, without a groan, as it ought to have been.”

1880 (Munro-Fraser; History of Sonoma county, including its geology, topography, mountains, valleys and streams) quotes Thompson 1877. Per the vote, Sonoma City was “feeling a presentiment of impending evil [and] were afraid to raise the issue”

1889 (Cassiday; An illustrated history of Sonoma County, California) repeats Thompson 1884

1911 (Gregory; History of Sonoma County California) Section, HOW JIM WILLIAMSON STOLE THE COURTHOUSE: By a vote of 716 to 563 the “court-house” left Sonoma, as a newspaper man of that period graphically writes, — “On Jim Williamson’s two-mule wagon.” Even with the popular decision against them the Sonoma people were loth [sic] to let the institution go, but a little head-work by N. McC. Menefee, and no little foot-work by Jim Williamson’s team of mules quietly passed the county government from the pueblo. The man and the mules also have “passed,” but their part in “the stealing of the court-house” merits honorable mention. Menefee was the county clerk, having only one leg, but he could get around rapidly. “Jim” and “Liza” were the team, but unlike the general run of mules, could, and would — and did — move with speed. By arrangement with the supervisors Williamson camped near Sonoma the night before the day of the removal, and next morning having received a quiet notification that the board had officially adopted the “move” resolution, he was at the door of the building. William Boggs and several other persons anticipating the move were trying to get out an injunction, even rushing a courier off to Napa for that purpose — but before the citizens in the vicinity were fully alive to the job, the county records, including the dusty old documents of the alcaldes, had been “rushed” aboard the wagon, and Jim and Liza were treading the “high-places” for Santa Rosa. Williamson was at the brake — which he never used in all thai wild, twenty-two mile flight, and which lasted just one hundred minutes. Menefee beside him on the spring-wagon seat, had to let his jointless artificial leg — a mere wooden stick — rest on the dash-board, the end of the “peg” only a few inches from Liza’s lively body. If she lagged ever so slightly in the mad pace she touched Menefee’s peg-leg and this would almost jump her through the collar. Dropping down into a gulch or any of the many low places of the rough road and starting to rise in the corresponding ascent Liza would not fail to get “a good punch,” and this, reports her owner, “sent the team up faster than it had come down.” Menefee expected they would be overhauled by Sheriff Israel Brockman with the writ, and he intended to take to the woods giving the injunction a run through the brush; knowing that as an official he would be sought for service of the paper, and Williamson would be left to continue the journey. Even with a wooden-leg he grittily determined to keep Brockman on the trail until Jim and Liza got home. They were not overtaken, but landed the “court-house” in Santa Rosa, — time, 4:54. Jim Williamson — everybody calls him “Jim,” is yet a citizen of the county-seat he “stole,” and the petty-larcenous character of the act in nowise detracts from his popularity. Liza and the other Jim are no more, but their famous Hundred Minute Run is a living record. District Attorney McNair for his services allowed himself $250, but the supervisors amended it to $100. Jim Williamson modestly thought $15 was enough for the mules and himself, and the board thought likewise.

1926 (Honoria Tuomey; History of Sonoma County California) No mention of the ride

1942 (Finley; History of Sonoma County, California: Its People and Its Resources) No mention of the ride

1985 (Lebaron et. al.; Santa Rosa A Nineteenth Century Town) Summarizes Thompson 1877, repeats Thompson 188. Has Williamson and Martin stealing the records at night, then riding back to Santa Rosa at daybreak “standing up in the wagon, whipping the mules, and emitting whoops of triumph.” Also claims the two-day BBQ was held to celebrate obtaining the records, not the announcement of winning the vote four days earlier.
 

Supervisor R. E. Smith employed Jim Williamson, still an honored resident of Santa Rosa Township, to go for the records. Jim hitched up a two-horse team one afternoon, went to, and through the town and camped on the other side. The next morning he drove up to the Court-house door, the records were hustled into the wagon and County Clerk Menifee on the box with Williamson, who cracked his whip, and in less time than it takes to tell it, the dusty old documents were rolling out of Sonoma…At the second meeting of the Board in Santa Rosa, Jim Williamson modestly put in a bill of sixteen dollars for getting away with the records — and the Clerk. That bill was allowed, as it ought to have been, without a groan.

– Sonoma Democrat, March 29 1884

 

Coming Golden Jubilee in Santa Rosa Recalls Memorable Drive With the County Records

In connection with Santa Rosa’s golden jubilee in September which celebrates the fiftieth anniversary as the county seat of imperial Sonoma many interesting bits of history are recollected of that memorable day half a century ago when the Board of Supervisors met in the historic town of Sonoma and after a canvass of the votes formally declared Santa Rosa to be henceforth the county seat.

There are several old pioneers residing in this county who have vivid remembrances of the stirring times circled about the making of Santa Rosa the capital city. Among this number is J. R. Williamson, who resides near this city. He is the man who handled the ribbons over the stout pair of mules who hauled the wagon carrying the county documents from Sonoma to Santa Rosa after the formal declaration of the change of county seats. It was a memorable drive across the apologies for roads leading from Sonoma to Santa Rosa of 1854. Mr. Williamson prides himself as being the first white man to reside on the actual site of the city, and the man “who stole the county seat,” as he smilingly puts it.

Some time before the canvass of the election returns in view of the bitter agitation over the removal of the county seat, Robert Smith, a brother of W. R. Smith, the pioneer Santa Rosa blacksmith, saw Mr. Williamson and arranged with him to be on hand with his wagon and team as soon as the vote was canvassed for the purpose of hurrying the county records to Santa Rosa. Mr. Williamson took his light spring wagon and span of mules and drove over to Sonoma the day before the Supervisors met. He did not go into the town as that would have been dangerous. He camped over night beside a little creek in order to avoid anybody’s suspicion as to Santa Rosa’s expectations regarding her victory.

Mr, Williamson recalls that the canvass of the election returns was held in the little adobe courthouse on the south side of the historic. Sonoma plaza. Before the meeting Smith and Williamson had agreed that the latter should be within hailing distance when the formal order should have been made by the County Fathers. The sign was to be a note from Smith to which Williamson was to get the wagon without delay.

The meeting was called and if any one hand to look from the old courthouse they would have seen a man standing outside leisurely whittling away at one of the posts supporting the porch, a favorite pastime judging from the appearance of the posts as described to a Press Democrat interviewer.

The vote was finally canvassed and Williamson got the tip and hastened to get his team. This was accomplished and in less than fifteen minutes he was at the door of the old Courthouse. Not a moment was lost as it was feared that an attempt might be made to stop the removal of the records from the old town to the new capital. All five of the Supervisors and County Clerk Menefee assisted Mr. Williamson in loading the books into the wagon. Mr. Williamson remembers that there were about two wheelbarrow loads of volumes.

Former Governor Boggs, was one of those opposed to the moving of the county records and he sought to have County Clerk Menefee to issue a restraining order to stop the taking away of the books, as he knew that they would never be returned. Mr. Menefee declined to issue any papers, “on account of pressing business,” Mr, Williamson says, and taking his seat beside Mr. Williamson in the wagon, the lash fell smartly upon the anatomy of the mules and the hurried drive to Santa Rosa with the county records was commenced.

Mr. Williamson says that they knew there was no time to lose and they fancied that in his wrath Boggs might go across into Napa county and endeavor to get the restraining order there. Both Menefee and Williamson cast their eyes behind ever and anon to see whether they were being pursued. If the restraining order was secured they knew that the Sheriff would endeavor to stop them. Menefee and Williamson planned in the event that the man of the law hove in sight that Menefee was to alight from the wagon and hide in the brush. The Sheriff did not know Williamson and Williamson was to try and bluff him out of his purpose.

The road to Santa Rosa, as stated, lay over a rough country. When the whip failed to meet with the response desired from the mules, there was another method to urge them forward. County Clerk Menefee had a wooden leg, and it was of the pegleg style. He had to let the peg rest on the dashboard of the wagon out over the backs of the mules. Consequently when the wagon lurched at every chuckhole in the road Menefee’s wooden leg served as a goad to the mules and kept them going at a breakneck speed. Mr, Williamson fifty years later cannot restrain a smile as he recalls Menefee’s pegleg goading the mules. So that a man’s wooden leg has somewhat of an important motive factor in the removal of the county records to Santa Rosa on that memorable day.

Spurred on by Menefee’s wooden prod the mules fairly flew across the country. Mr. Williamson remembers how tired he was in holding anything like a check on the animals. Santa Rosa was reached in a little over two hours. They drove direct to Julio Carrillo’s house. It had been arranged, Mr. Williamson says, as a temporary place for the keeping of the records until some other arrangements could be made. The men had not been far wrong In their guess that they would be pursued. The last of the county records had not been carried into the house when up the road, riding for dear life, his horse panting and covered with foam came the Sheriff, Isreal Brockman. If he had any papers to serve or whether he would have stopped Menefee and Williamson is a matter for conjecture. When he saw the last of the records disappear Into Carrillo’s house he explained that he had come over hurriedly to secure office room in Santa Rosa, “before the rush begun.” There were no up-to-date office buildings with electric lights and free Janitors in those days.

This Is but a glimpse of the historical significance of the golden jubilee which will be celebrated in Santa Rosa in September. Williamson and others of the pioneers who remember the incidents of fifty years ago, have enough to make an interesting novel with the central plot the removal of the county seat from the old town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa.

D. D. Davisson, the pioneer of this city, is well posted on the doings of those memorable days. He was living in Sonoma at the time and he had a number of teams. He was approached and asked if he would have a team ready to haul the county records to Santa Rosa. It had leaked out that a proposition had been made to him and he was given to understand that it would be dangerous for him and his business if he lent his team, and he did not do so. Pioneer Williamson will never forget the ride he and Menefee took or the incident connected with the pegleg.

– Press Democrat, April 10 1904

 

WILLIAMSON’S WILD RIDE
How the County Records Were Brought to This City

The accomplishment of the purport of Supervisor Fowler’s motion, namely, the removal of the archives from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, occasioned some foreboding. There were open
threats of violence from those who disliked to see the county seat removed from Sonoma, and it was also hinted that the law of injunction might be called into exercise to balk the removal of the records. It was realized that to remove the documents in safety and with success strategy would have to be employed. And so it came to pass that James R. Williamson, the well-known pioneer, whose picture appears in connection with this historical sketch, and who, still hale and hearty, resides just outside the city limits at the extension of West Third street, proved the man for the occasion. Here is Mr. Williamson’s graphic description of the task he performed.

“It was Supervisor Smith, who was by the way, a brother of William R. Smith (the latter the well known pioneer blacksmith of Santa Rosa), who importuned me to steal with the archives from Sonoma into Santa Rosa. He arranged with me to drive from Santa Rosa to Sonoma the day before the Supervisors were to pass the resolutions declaring Santa Rosa the new county seat and ordering the removal of the documents to the new seat of administration. I was to keep out of sight as much as possible until after this preliminary work had been accomplished.

“‘Jim Williamson,’ Smith said, ‘you are the only man to do this job, and do it right. When you get near the old town get around back somehow so as not to excite the suspicion of people, camp with your team somewhere for the night, and tomorrow about the time when we are in session you come up to the hall in town and be on hand where I can get a glimpse of you without delay after the act is done.’ (meaning the order for the removal of the archives). ‘When you see me give a nod in your direction, get your wagon and drive up to the door of the court house as fast as you know how.’

“Well, I hitched up the mules to the wagon and drove from Santa Rosa to Sonoma, carefully avoiding going into the town and keeping out of sight as much as possible. That night I and the mules camped in the bed of a little creek where no one could see us, a little outside of the town limits of Sonoma. It was a pretty long night. I took a coffee pot along and made some coffee. Morning came and I fed the mules and myself. I did not go up town for some time as the Board meeting was not called until 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Finally I strolled up town after I knew that the Supervisors had been in meeting for sometime, and entered the court house. There were quite a number of people around, and, seeing me there, some of them suspected that I had come on business of some sort. Supervisor Smith and one or two other members of the Board and County Clerk Menefee knew why I was on hand. I had been waiting some little time, always keeping in sight, when suddenly I looked up and saw Smith rise, and, I got the nod that I had been expecting.

“I hurried as fast as could to the camp and in a jiffy had the mules hitched to the wagon and in less than fifteen minutes I drove up to the door of the court house. The Supervisors and clerk helped to load the archives into the wagon and in less time than it takes to te11 it County Clerk Menefee was on the wagon seat beside me and we were whirling over the dry and dusty ground with the documents on tha way to Santa Rosa.”

“Menefee and I knew that we might be overtaken on the way and an effort made to force ua to give up the archives. We had planned as to what we would do in case anyone interfered. There were no roads in those days like we have today. I remember very well that Menefee had a wooden leg, and it was too long to rest in the bottom of the wagon, so he let it hang over the dash board. The wooden leg served as a goad to the mules, for when the wagon wheels struck a chuck hole and there would be a jolt, first one and then the other mule would receive a prod from the tip on the end of his wooden leg.

“Those mules made a record-breaking trip for those days from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, and luck was with us. No one interfered. Soon the old adobe in Santa Rosa hove in sight and it was not long before we pulled up in front of Julio Carrillo’s house, where it had been previously arranged the archives should be stored until Barney Hoen, Hartman and Hahman had built a court house. We had barely got out of the wagon outside Carrillo’s house, which then stood on the site of the feed mill built later by Mr. Cnopius on Second street, and which now forms the rear of two houses on Second and B streets, when we heard the thud of a horse’s hoofs in the distance. As the sound came nearer and nearer, we saw that the rider was Israel Brockman, the sheriff. His horse was panting furiously, and was covered with foam. We saluted the sheriff and inquired what was the occasion of his apparently fast ride from Sonoma to Santa Rosa. He replied. ‘I just thought that 1 would get over here quick and find an office so as to avoid the rush.’ If he had, as we believed, injunction papers to restrain the removal of the archives, he did not attempt to serve them. We carried the books into Carrillo’s house, and’ —well, that is how I brought the records from the old county seat to the new.”

– Press Democrat, September 21 1904

COUNTY SEAT OF SONOMA. — From the Bulletin we learn that in the late contest for county seat in Sonoma county, Santa Rosa proved to be the successful candidate. The Bulletin “takes on” as follows:

That’s “a gone (or going] case” from Sonoma. The up-country people battled furiously against us, and have come out victorious. What majority the new seat got we are not aware, but whatever it is, why, “it is as it is, and can’t be any “tis’er,” which incontrovertible truth consoles us, at least. By the way, the people of Santa Rosa, after being satisfied” of their success, fired one hundred guns in honor of the event — that is, an anvil supplied the place of cannon, which was “let off” one hundred times. Great country this, fenced in or not.

– Sacramento Daily Union, September 20 1854

 

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THE MANY DEATHS OF COWIE AND FOWLER PART II

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.

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

 


SIDEBAR: HUNTING THE ELUSIVE BEARS
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.”

 

A TRUE HISTORY OF THE BEAR FLAG

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.

EDITOR OF SONOMA COUNTY DEMOCRAT:

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.

JULIO CARRILLO

– Sonoma Democrat, June 4, 1864

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