tuomeysign2

CALL IT MT. ST. HONORIA

At the very top of Mount St. Helena is a marker commemorating the founding of Fort Ross in 1812. Why there is a sign concerning a place 32 miles away is not explained, and should anyone examine the monument further, a deeper meta-weirdness is revealed: It’s really a sign commemorating an earlier sign.

After slogging up that steep and unforgiving trail for about three hours, a weary hiker also gets a mental workout in trying to grasp what the monument actually stated – which was that on this spot in 1912, a group of descendants of famous people put up this sign because on this spot there used to be a sign reading, ‘two Russians were at this spot in 1841’ which was removed from this spot in 1853.

Whew.

Intrigued but hopelessly confused, our intrepid hiker pulls a mobile phone from his/her backpack, certain that the cell towers also at the summit will provide a blistering signal (and hopefully not enough microwave energy to cause actual blistering).

From the internet, our visitor learns the monument actually describes how the mountain was named – which is a bit odd considering “Helena” does not appear anywhere on the marker. To paraphrase the top three results currently found by Google: During the 18th century Baron Count Rotchef visited Fortress Ross with his beautiful young wife Princess Helena, who was held in high regard by her people because. Helena joined a Russian survey party who ascended the peak in 1841, where they left a copper plate inscribed with her name and the date.

And that wasn’t all; had our hiker Googled a bit further, (s)he would have discovered that as the Russians came down from the mountain, an Indian chief tried to kidnap the princess.

As Gentle Reader can surely guess, there’s a whole lot of hokum to this story – problems that began even before the strange marker-about-a-marker was placed up there in 1912. It’s been like a very old and pretty tangled ball of yarn that everyone likes to handle but no one bothers to unwind and fix.

Here is what we know to be facts: Some Russians actually climbed the mountain in 1841 and left a copper plate there. There really was a “Princess Helena” around here at the time. End of facts.

We don’t know who the “Helena” was in the name, if the Russian named it before the day of their visit, or even that the Russians named it at all. Alexander Rotchev – the last administrator of Fort Ross and Helena’s husband – did not mention the mountain at all in his memoirs.1

The only written evidence the Russians were on the mountain at all comes from Ilya Voznesensky, who was sent to the Russian colonies by the Imperial Academy of Sciences to document the territory. All he states in his travel journal is that on June 16, 1841 he climbed “one of the highest mountains on whose summit no one had then yet been.”2

His journal didn’t mention the plaque or that anyone else was with him, but there were two names scratched into the metal: His and Yegor Chernykh, an agronomist who was at Ft. Ross to train the colonists in better farming techniques. Together they traveled widely in the area, visiting Pomo villages and mapping the Russian River as far as modern Healdsburg.

And, of course, there’s the copper plaque, which we know was actually on the mountain from a sighting of it in 1851. A letter to the Daily Alta California (transcribed below) described how nine men climbed the mountain and found a copper sheet about three feet square, “upon which was engraved hieroglyphics not by us decipherable.” The group – none of whom had obviously seen Cyrillic – wondered if it could be Aztec, or the “handiwork of the Mongolian race as far back as the time of Confucius.” The (un)helpful editor of the newspaper explained they saw the “latitude, longitude and altitude of the mountain, as ascertained by a party of Russian navigators,” and that “it is said that similar copper-plates were placed on several other high peaks in the vicinity of the coast.”

By 1866 the sign was gone. Another correspondent to the Alta wrote, “some years ago a fool or vagabond vandal removed an inscription that had been left on the summit” and the next year another informed the paper, “at the summit I found the post on which the Russians affixed the copper plate which was taken down several years ago by some persons who gave it to the State Geological Survey.”

And that’s the last we hear from anyone who had first-hand knowledge of anything related to the sign. Notice, too, that no one had yet claimed the Russian visit or the copper sign had anything to do with naming the mountain “Helena.” That all changed forty years after the Russians had gone away.

(By the way: The village of St. Helena was given that name in 1855 because the local chapter of the Sons of Temperance men’s group already called itself the “St. Helena Division.” As their Division names usually reflected a town or landmark, it’s safe to presume the mountain was commonly called Mt. St. Helena by then.)

From what I can find, the 1880 Sonoma county history was the first place the princess-namesake story shows up. The claim appears in a lengthy quote from Charles Mitchell Grant, an explorer and member of the Royal Geographical Society who then lived in the Bay Area. He had no expertise about the Russian colony at Fort Ross but twenty years earlier he had bummed around China and Russia, so apparently that made him an authority on all things Russian.3

Besides Grant’s matter-of-fact claim that the mountain was named for the administrator’s lovely wife, he also dishes up the first printed version of the kidnapping story. Grant wrote, “The beauty of this lady excited so ardent a passion in the heart of Prince Solano, chief of all the Indians around Sonoma, that he formed a plan to capture, by force or stratagem, the object of his love…”

That’s a paraphrase from a story in General Vallejo’s unpublished memoir, where supposedly Vallejo’s key Indian ally, Chief Solano (Suisun tribal leader Sem-Yeto), meets Princess Helena while she and her husband are visiting Vallejo in Sonoma. That night Solano tells Vallejo he planned to abduct her and asks for Vallejo’s approval. Vallejo is horrified and shames Solano into abandoning the notion. A translation of the full tale is found in the footnote.4

This isn’t the place to really dive into a full analysis of the story, but I’ll say only I don’t believe it happened as Vallejo described. It fits too perfectly with the school of humor which could be called the “wise captain and the fool,” where a stupid person is the butt of the joke because he must be instructed on how to behave properly. Vignettes with that theme were popular in newspaper entertainment pages during the 19th and early 20th centuries, usually with an underlying racist message – “those people” have strange ideas and aren’t as good as the rest of us.

The less titillating info in the 1880 history was further news about the Russian plaque: “In the year 1853 this plate was discovered by Dr. T. A. Hylton, and a copy of it preserved by Mrs. H. L. Weston of Petaluma, by whose courtesy were are enabled to reproduce it. The metal slab is octagonal in shape, and bears the following words in Russian: RUSSIANS, 1841 E. L. VOZNISENSKI iii, E. L. CHERNICH”.

Unfortunately, that terse description left unexplained whether Dr. Hylton took it away with him or just traced over what was written. Nor was it explained how large the original was. It was later stated the paper copy given to Mrs. Weston was only about five inches across and shaped like an octagon.5

If nothing more was written of the tale of the Russians on Mt. St. Helena, it would have ended up as an obscure anecdote to the history of Fort Ross. But starting in the early Twentieth Century, the story was transformed into a myth about the mountain of the beautiful princess and her thwarted Indian paramour. And all that is thanks to Miss Honoria R. P. Tuomey.

Honoria Tuomey was born in 1866 at her family’s ranch off of Coleman Valley Road. Most of her life she was a grammar school teacher and principal in West County; the Sonoma County Museum has a box of her memorabilia which is greatly filled with yellowed photos of her posing with farmkids in front of one-room schoolhouses. She started by writing poetry and had a lengthy profile of Luther Burbank printed as a Sunday feature in a 1903 Los Angeles paper; Gaye LeBaron wrote a 1990 profile of Tuomey worth reading for general background on her life and works.


(RIGHT: Honoria Tuomey, 1912. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum)

Tuomey is best known today for her two-volume Sonoma county history published in 1926, and although LeBaron’s remarks about those books might seem unkind, they really are worthless except for the biographies that makes up the entire second volume. The first book is interjected with a mish-mash of random facts, dubious hand-me-down stories and bits of melodramatic narrative  – complete with made-up dialog. Parts are even irrelevant to Sonoma county history; while there’s hardly a word about the Chinese there is a full chapter on “the French in California.” Overall it’s even worse than Tom Gregory’s 1911 history, and I suspect some of his research came from tall tales he swept up in Santa Rosa barrooms.

Honoria’s history focused on West County – which isn’t at all a bad thing, as all the other local histories dwelled heavily on Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Sonoma. Still, LeBaron quipped, “It weighted so heavily toward the coast that it threatened to tip the whole county into the Pacific Ocean.” So it’s not surprising Tuomey’s book contains much on the history of the Russians and Fort Ross, with four chapters on it – far more coverage than she gave the Bear Flag Revolt and founding of the state.

Her passion for the Russian colony extended to the legend of the lost marker on Mt. St. Helena, twice climbing the mountain in search of clues, as she later revealed in an article.  “For several years I had read and researched, and interviewed old settlers, and all to no avail so far as obtaining a clue either to the existence and whereabouts of the plate, or its possible location on the mountain.”6

Tuomey’s quest for the marker ended when she came across an old pamphlet mentioning the business about Dr. Hylton and Mrs. Weston. That she didn’t realize the same info could be found in Sonoma and Napa county histories published in the early 1880s says lots about her scholarship.

With an eye on placing a replica on the very same rock to mark the centennial of Fort Ross, Honoria got busy. She asked the Kinslow Brothers – a company more accustomed to carving tombstones – to donate a marble plaque, with this engraved in the center: “RESTORED JUNE 1912 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE FOUNDING OF FORT ROSS.” She asked a Santa Rosa jeweler to engrave three copper plaques: a reproduction of the original Russian, another with an English translation, and the largest of all with the names of some of Sonoma county’s famed Mexican and American families. And she trekked up the mountain for a third time by herself to make sure she knew the proper place for all this to go. Say what you want about Honoria Tuomey, but she had remarkable dedication to her mission; she was around 45 years old while doing all this.

And thus on the 20th of June, 1912, Honoria led a small army of celebrants climbing up the mountain. At the summit the American flag was raised, messages and poems were read and speeches delivered. There was a stirring benediction and everyone sang “America” at the end. I have absolutely no doubt this was the happiest moment of her life.

Honoria Tuomey at the dedication of the Mt. St. Helena plaque. 1912. Photo courtesy Sonoma County Museum

 

A few weeks later the San Francisco Call presented a Sunday feature on the ceremony with an article by Tuomey. Per the Russian visit in 1841, she wrote:


…The complete personnel of this doughty expedition is not revealed in any records of history, but besides Doctor Wosnesenski and his friend, E. I. Tschernech, it included the handsome young Helena, Princess de Gagarine, wife of Alexander Rotcheff, the last governor of Ross settlement, and John Edward Mcintosh, grantee in 1837 by General M. G. Vallejo of the rancho Estero Americano to block Russian encroachments inland; also a small guard of soldiers. There were some lively thrills on that trip of some forty miles, not the weakest being occasioned by the attempt of old Chief Solano to abduct the princess. Up the rough, almost perpendicular side of the mountain the party mounted to the summit of the north peak, the highest point of elevation. Here upon a flat rock the copper plate was spiked and additional blocks were fitted to form a cairn. While the others knelt, the princess, raising her right hand, proclaimed the name of the mountain forever “Helena” in honor of her royal mistress and namesake, Helena, empress of Russia…

In this new, never-before-told version, it’s getting pretty crowded up there at the summit, what with the princess, the soldiers and all. But thank goodness an armed escort was along on this trip because an Indian chief tried to snatch the princess. It’s all a perfect example of classic Honoria Tuomey: 10 percent was probably true, 10 percent was iffy, 10 percent was clearly junk and the rest was stuff she heard somewhere and thought it sounded good.

It would be easy to presume she just made most of that up, but thanks to her 1924 article, we learn her embroidered details came from Dan Patton, who ran the Mount Saint Helena Inn (7 miles from Calistoga on highway 29) back when Tuomey was on the hunt for all things Russian.

It seems Patton was pals with William Boggs, a notable figure in Sonoma and Napa counties in the decades after statehood. Boggs had known a guy (no name given) who supposedly was one of the soldiers in that pack of Russians who went up the mountain in 1841; when the rest of his countrymen abandoned Fort Ross and left for Alaska at the end of that year he was left behind for some reason. The Russian told the story to Boggs who told the story to Patton who told the story to Tuomey.

“Documentary evidence may not always be obtainable, may not exist,” she wrote, “but the free testimony of those who have lived and made history can be accepted, when known to have come down to us through veracious channels.” Dear Honoria; I know a few people who might disagree with you on that – namely every historian.

Tuomey had other novel and elaborate ideas about how the mountain came to named that won’t be detailed here. In a series of coincidences which Robert Ripley might have found hard to swallow, she believed it was independently christened “Saint Helena” three times – first by a Spanish friar, then by the Russians, and finally by Captain Stephen Smith of Bodega Bay.

Honoria R. P. Tuomey died in 1938. Besides the plaque on the mountain, she left hand-painted signs all over the county marking historic events – most (all?) are gone now, or stored away. But her real legacy is the unfortunate trail of misinformation about the Russian connection to Mt. St. Helena.

One afternoon I dived down the rabbit hole to see what people were writing about it since Honoria’s heyday. In travel guides, books, newspaper and magazine articles I found 27 new and unique details to the three Tuomey theories before I stopped counting. Some lowlights:

The princess on the mountain named it after her aunt, the empress of Russia (who wasn’t her aunt or named Helena); her arms were flung wide, Christlike, or she knelt in prayer as she named it after her patron saint; Russian sailors prayed or sang hymns. Another thread had Chief Solano and other Indians capturing the party at the base of Mt. St. Helena when Salvador Vallejo happened to come riding along to rescue them, or General Vallejo having to negotiate their release with the Vallejo silverware being Rotchev’s gift for saving his wife. The original plaque was given to the Society of California Pioneers museum in San Francisco by Dr. Hylton, where it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake although it was never there.

Never, ever, is the simplest and most likely explanation discussed: That the “plaque” was possibly just the equivalent of 19th century grafitti – two guys taking a break after a long hike and scratching their names on a piece of scrap metal.

As of this writing (December, 2017) the park is closed because Mt. St. Helena burned in the Tubbs fire. I have been unable to reach anyone in the park service who can tell me whether the marker is still intact; the copper could have melted or the whole thing could have been run over by a big CalFire truck.

But if it’s really gone, let’s not rush to replace it – we don’t need to keep inspiring people to write phony history. Should the sign be indeed replaced, let’s at least offer an honest representation of what it said: “Russians Eli and George, June 1841.” And just leave it at that.


1 Most of Rotchev’s papers were destroyed in a 1974 fire, but in the Argus-Courier, October 12, 1963, there was a quote from a 1942 letter from Mrs. Harold H. Fisher: “Mr. Redionoff (chief of Slavic Divison, Library of Congress) wrote me that the A. G. Rotchev memoirs do not mention the mountain…”

2 The odyssey of a Russian scientist: I.G. Voznesenskii in Alaska, California and Siberia 1839-1849 by Aleksandr Alekseev, 1987

3 An overview of Charles Mitchell Grant’s travels appeared in the Royal Geographical Society’s 1862 proceedings. Grant had only one leg and frequently had to travel in a cart when the only transport available was via camel or mule.

4 When Senor Rotcheff…came to see me, he was accompanied by his wife, the Princess Elena, a very beautiful lady of twenty Aprils, who united to her other gifts an irresistible affability. The beauty of the governor’s wife made such a deep impression on the heart of Chief Solano that he conceived the project of stealing her. With this object he came to visit me very late at night and asked my consent to putting his plan into effect. The story horrified me, for if it should unfortunately be carried out my good name would suffer, for no one would be able to get it out of his head that my agent had acted on my account; and besides seeing the country involved in a war provoked by the same cause which actuated the siege of Troy, I, who had never hesitated at expense or trouble to please my visitors…would be stigmatized as the most disloyal being that the world had ever produced. It was necessary for me to assume all the authority that I knew how to assume on occasions that required it to make Solano understand that his life would hang in the balance if he should be so ill-advised as to attempt to break the rules of hospitality. My words produced a good effect, and that same night, repenting of his conduct, he went to Napa Valley, where I sent him to prevent him from compromising, under the impulse of his insane love, the harmony which it was so urgent for me to reestablish with my powerful neighbors…But, fearing that Solano might ambush them on the road, I went to escort my visitors to Bodega. (Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez translation as found in “Spanish Arcadia” by Sanchez, 1929)

5Dr. Thomas A. Hylton was a Petaluma physician in the mid-1850s, and H. L. Weston was the publisher of the Petaluma Journal, having purchased it from Thomas L. Thompson in 1856. His wife was mentioned in 1868 for her skilled needlework for having crocheted portraits of famous men and even De Vinci’s Last Supper. Caroline died in 1909, having lived in Petaluma for 52 years, and Henry died in 1920.

6 “Historic Mount Saint Helena” by Honoria Tuomey, California Historical Society Quarterly, July, 1924

 

The reproduction plaque and English translation (Image: Wikipedia Commons)
In The Presence Of Representatives Of The Sonoma Pioneer Families Of
General M. G. Vallejo – Senora M Lopez De Carillo
Captain Henry D. Fitch – Captain Stephen Smith
Jasper O’Farrell – C. Alexander
Donner Party – Bear Flag Party
And Of
The Native Sons Of The Golden West
The Spanish, British, Russian And Mexican Consuls At S. F.
Dr. T A Hylton Removed The Original Plate From This Rock
In May 1853 And Gave A Copy To H. L. Weston Who Has
Authorized Miss Honoria R. P. Toumey
To Make This Restoration
The Mysterious Copper Plate on the Top of St. Helena.

A correspondent of the Marysville Democrat writes as follows:

“Napa Valley is unquestionably one of the loveliest spots on this earth… At the upper end of the ralley rises St. Helena, an abrupt, lofty mountain — the highest peak north of the bay — upon the very highest point of which there rests, or did rest, a copper plate, the history of which is buried in the silent tomb of oblivion.

“As wonderful as that relic of by-gone ages is, I do not recollect ever having seen even a newspaper paragraph in relation to it. Eight years ago last July, three gentlemen from San Francisco, three from Sacramento city, two from Napa and myself, having heard of the existence of said plate, ascended that mountain’s rugged form and gratified as far as possible, our curiosity. It was indeed a wonder. The plate was thin, about three feet square, upon which was engraved hieroglyphics not by us decipherable, notwithstanding that our company, altogether, understood five different languages.

“While wondering over the defunct history of that old copper plate, we could not help speculating upon the probable race so advanced in the arts which could possibly have occupied this interesting country at so remote a period. Is it not possible that this continent mar have once been connected with the north-eastern coast of Asia? One might be led to look upon that valuable plate as a piece of handiwork of the Mongolian race as far back as the time of Confucius, were it not that the characters do not resemble their language.

“Again, it is not impossible that the original Aztec tribe, the founders of those splendid ruins of Yucatan, may have originated from the Caucasian stock, and gradually worked their way towards Bhering’s Straits [sic] down the continent, having temporarily occupied different portions of the now Alta California in the course of their gradual migration.”

The mysterious character alluded to in the above correspondence, are those of the latitude, longitude and altitude of the mountain, as ascertained by a party of Russian navigators, who made a hasty survey of the coast, when the Russians had possession of the coast near the mouth of Russian river, and expected to hold a large part of California. It is said that similar copper-plates were placed on several other high peaks in the vicinity of the coast.

– Daily Alta California, January 1 1860

Places of Note.

…To me, one of the most interesting points is Mt. St. Helena, not because of any peculiar natural attraction, but it haa bern consecrated by the footsteps of the great Humboldt, and I never look up to that dark mountain pile without feeling as if it had been rendered a sacred spot by the influence of such a presence. Some years ago a fool or vagabond vandal removed an inscription that had been left on the summit by that greatest of philosophers. It was a copper plate set in the rock, and was a valuable memento of long years of the past.

– Daily Alta California, August 30 1866

LETTER FROM CALISTOGA

…At the summit I found the post on which the Russians affixed the copper plate which was taken down several years ago by some persons who gave it to the State Geological Survey. It should be replaced with another plate containing a translation of its inscription…

– Daily Alta California, May 3 1867

 

ACROSS THE MAYACMAS.

…St. Helena, the highest and most shapely mountain in this lofty chain, is visible from base to crest, the line of light and shadow on its rugged slopes is so plainly marked, its clean-cut outline against the sky is so well defined that it is difficult to realize the intervening space of foot-hill, valley and wooded Slope, which makes up the foreground of this far-reaching and surprisingly beautiful landscape. This view of St. Helena, or at all events a similar one, doubtless, inspired the Russian naturalist Wossnessensky, who was the first to ascend it, and who named the mountain in honor of his sovereign, the Empress of Russia. He imbedded, in a rock on the summit a copper plate, to commemorate the event. Upon the plate was inscribed the date of the ascent, “June 12, 1841,” the name Wossnessonsky, and that of his companion, Techernich, and the word “Russians,” twice repeated in the Russian language and once in Latin. This plate was removed by some vandal and afterwards came into the possession of members of the so-called State Geological Survey, who probably took it out of the State where it has no local interest.

– Sonoma Democrat, May 28 1881

 

THE SHORT STORY CLUB HAS MEETING

Miss Honoria R. P. Tuomey read a charming description of the life and writings of Robert Louis Stevenson, having secured the local color for her sketch by a visit to his old camp on the southwest side of Mount St. Helena. It was here that he wrote “The Silverado Squatters.”

– Press Democrat, June 19 1910

 

RESTORATION ON ST. HELENA
HISTORIC PLATE TELLS OF RUSSIAN OCCUPATION
Old Spanish Families Represented at Notable Ceremonies on the Mountain’s Summit Thursday

On Thursday last, June 20th, the great Mount St. Helena was awakened from its sleep of age into a new historical life. Its rocky gorges, its thorn-brushed ridges and its lone wild peak away up against the blue sky, all rang with the echo of a Voice. It was the Voice of the age one hundred years distant from the white hand of the Czar of all the Russias. One hundred years away from the black bearded Muscovite who toiled and climbed from old Fort Ross by the Pacific, through primeval redwood forests o’er meadowlands deep grassed, but angered into life by the growl of the grizzly and the leap of the stag. On and on they came, those Russians of the frozen sea and the aurora land of ice. Wosnesenskl, the Third, Tschernech, and their beautiful princess, up and up the steep mountain side, scaling the cliffs and tearing their chaparal pathway to the wild, desolate peak of the great unnamed mountain.

The story is of June, but the pathway was as December, wild in its every setting. The sacred burden of their pilgrimage was a rudely carved copper plate bearing the inscription
RUSSIANS
P. L. WOSNESENSKL III
E. I. Tschernech
RUSSIANS
This in the rude character lettering of the kingdom of the Czar. This they bolted to a rock of the peak in June of 1841, and as they stood on this great mount “Helena.” Later, woven in a triple story of romance, it became the “Sainted” mountain.

The years that made this story of christening have gone, and too, the rude plate of record was taken from its fastenings and lost to the world forever, save its replica on a film of paper, almost miraculous in its preservation.

Another age has come, the years of the city, the orchard, the vintage; the years of the puffing engine, the harnessed bird of the air, and conquered light of the clouds. It is the day of “Restoration,” and the great mountain feels the footprints and hears the sound of the English-speaking voice.

Sonoma county may well be proud of the little lady who made possible this day of restoration on the old mountain peak.

The notable historical event in all its minute detail and plan, was under the skilled management of Miss Honora R. P. Tuomey, an educator and writer of Sonoma county. She bears a great love for the preservation of these historical landmarks and, too, of telling the story in writing of those days and times, of those men and incidents of early days of this western life.

To Miss Tuomey was given the authority of restoration, and well did she complete the task in every detail. As a princess of the Russians first gave the mountain name, so it was but fitting that a lady of this western land should replace it under the western sun.

It is a long, interesting story, the story of the original plate, of its placement and its final untimely destruction, of which limitations deny in this brief article.

The day of the restoration last Thursday was one of threatening clouds and storm. Invitations had been issued to representatives of the pioneer families of the county and a few guests. Those going to the summit of the mountain from the southern portion of the county chose to go by the Patton toll house trail; those going from this city and section were to climb the mountain from the west, over a trail of steep ascent and heavy with overgrown brush. Those in the party from the Healdsburg section were…

… The copper plates were given by Hood Brothers of Santa Rosa, and the marble tablet by Kinslow Brothers. Harry Parks had charge of the masonry work and bolting to the rock, and was assisted by Mr. Frates…

.. Bolted to the rock on the peak of the great Mt. St. Helena, the story retold, a companion of the mighty storm, the blow of the wind; the drift of the snow and the flash of the clouds of heaven, this tablet bolted to the mountain peak shall stand forever, a leaf from the page of history of the great State of California.
J. M. ALEXANDER.

– Healdsburg Tribune, June 27 1912

 

RUSSIAN TABLET IS RESTORED ON MT. ST. HELENA
THE 100 TH ANNIVERSARY OF FONT ROSS SEES A NOTABLE CEREMONY IN THE HISTORIC SONOMA PEAK

By Honoria R. P. Tuomey

EARLY in June, 1841, there arrived at Fort Ross an adventurous naturalist attached to the national museum of zoology at St. Petersburg, Dr. P. L. Wosnesenski, commissioned to make collections on the northern Pacific shores of Asia and North America. From the summit of Mount Ross this enterprising man of science saw on the far eastern horizon a quadruple peaked mountain looming conspicuously above the lower summits of the Coast range. Speedily he organized a party, caused a copper plate to be made and inscribed by the artisans at Ross and pioneered a journey to the mountain that until then had been unvisited and unnamed by the Russians who had seen it from afar for a generation.

The little riding party passed across pastoral Sonoma, occupied by Indian tribes not wholly friendly and claimed by Mexico, always hostile to the Muscovite “intruders,” whose stout stronghold she dare not attack.

The complete personnel of this doughty expedition is not revealed in any records of history, but besides Doctor Wosnesenski and his friend, E. I. Tschernech, it included the handsome young Helena, Princess de Gagarine, wife of Alexander Rotcheff, the last governor of Ross settlement, and John Edward Mcintosh, grantee in 1837 by General M. G. Vallejo of the rancho Estero Americano to block Russian encroachments inland; also a small guard of soldiers.

There were some lively thrills on that trip of some forty miles, not the weakest being occasioned by the attempt of old Chief Solano to abduct the princess. Up the rough, almost perpendicular side of the mountain the party mounted to the summit of the north peak, the highest point of elevation. Here upon a flat rock the copper plate was spiked and additional blocks were fitted to form a cairn.

While the others knelt, the princess, raising her right hand, proclaimed the name of the mountain forever “Helena” in honor of her royal mistress and namesake, Helena, empress of Russia.  The party returned without mishap to Ross, and the close of 1841 saw the settlements at Ross and Bodega abandoned in obedience to the imperial decree to quit this region, since it had finally been found unsuitable for the purpose for which it was founded in 1812—the victualing of the Russian possessions In the Aleutian islands.

The plate disappeared from the mountain and, while our California historians mention its disappearance, they do not claim to have seen it, and all give its inscription incorrectly in part and misstate the method of its depositing. They give the first word as “Helena,” whereas, that name does not appear, the christening by the princess de Gagarine being entirely verbal. Nor did she call it “Saint Helena.” By two successive coincldences the mountain was named “Saint Helena,” first by a missionary in the early 30’s and in ’42 by Captain Stephen Smith, whose ship, the St. Helena, brought him to Bodega bay. It is stated that a post was erected and the plate nailed thereto, while in fact it was secured to a rock.

The lost Russian plate became one of my quests in my study of local history. For a long while I could find no clew. Finally, while a guest at the Mount St. Helena inn – the tollhouse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Silverado Squatters” – I was shown by the host Dan Patton, a venerable and widely known Napa pioneer, a copy of an ancient local publication that led me soon to make a pilgrimage to Petaluma. There I called upon a courtly old gentleman for half a century prominent In Petaluma’s business and social life, now, at four score and six, retired within the beauties of his fine old home and big, old fashioned flower garden. After a little teasing of his memory, crowded with the recollections of his long and busy career, Mr. Weston unearthed in his antique secretary a long forgotten scrap of paper, the only copy In existence of the Russian plate. It is of heavy, white linen paper, an octagon 5 1/8 inches in diameter. The face bears this inscription, given here in English:

“Russians, June, 1841, P. L. Wosnesenski III, E. I. Tschernech, Russians.” The latter word, “Russians,” is in Latin. “Jose,” Spanish for Joseph, appears across the upper left corner, and we may but conjecture that this Jose was an Indian or Mexican guide. The remainder of the inscription is in Russian. Upon the reverse side is penned the autographic certification: “Exact copy of the inscription found on a copper plate nailed to a rock on the summit of Mount St Helena by T. A. Hylton in May, 1853.”

“Doctor Hylton gave me this copy, made by himself In 1853,” said Weston. “He was an old friend and fellow townsman. He died on his way east In 1859.”

The seeker after rare historical relics can best appreciate my rapture on that day.

The year 1912 is the centenary of the founding of Ross settlement, and June the anniversary month of the Wosnesenski party’s visit to Mount St Helena. Therefore June, 1912, was fixed as the time to erect a memorial tablet.

The north peak is accessible from more than one point But the only cleared trail leads up the south peak and along the summit, starting at the Mount St. Helena inn, 2,300 feet elevation, on the highway between Calistoga and Middletown. The inn possesses a superabundance of hospitable spirit, but is rather limited as to actual bed and board accommodations. So invitations to the restoration ceremonies were limited to those whose presence was deemed necessary to give dignity and significance to the occasion. The list included Hon. Hiram W. Johnson, governor of California; the consuls at San Francisco of Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Mexico, since each of those countries in succession claimed this territory.

Rev. John R. Cantillon, representing the early mission fathers and particularly Padre Benito Sierra, who as chaplain of the sloop Sonora celebrated at Bodega bay the first religious services ever held on Sonoma soil.

Mrs. L. Vallejo Emparan, daughter of General Mariano G. Vallejo of distinguished memory. Juanita Bailhache Waldrop, Temple Bailhache, Benjamin E. Grant Sr., Benjamin E. Grant Jr., descendants of Captain Henry D. Fitch, accomplished New England shipmaster, Pacific coast merchant and grantee of several large tracts, including the peninsula of Coronado, the Potrero in San Francisco and the Sotoyome rancho near Healdsburg; also relatives of Senora M. I. Lopez de Cabrillo, grantee of the Rancho Cabesa de Santa Rosa and mother of Mrs. Vallejo, Mra Fitch and Mrs. J. B. R. Cooper.

Mrs. Stephen M. Smith and daughter. Mrs. E. Juanita Smith-Rose, of San Francisco, relatives of Captain Stephen Smith, who In ’42 received title to the great Bodega and Blucher ranchos without renouncing his prized American citizenship, but only on condition that he establish certain manufactories. Captain Smith brought round the Horn from Massachusetts a whole shipload of machinery, including the first steam engine ever brought to California, plants for a saw mill, grist mill, tannery, distillery, etc., and four skilled mechanics to erect and manage them. He came the best equipped pioneer that ever settled on this coast. On his way he called at a Peruvian port and married a young Castllian lady, Dona Manuela Torres, to whose brother, Don Manuel, was granted the region about Fort Ross, known as the Muniz rancho.

Miss Elena O’Farrell. daughter of Jasper O’Farrell, who surveyed much of San Francisco, one of whose streets bears his name, and who barely escaped lynching at the hands of irate owners of lots along Market street because he sliced deeply enough into their property to give to the infant city the wide thoroughfare he foresaw it would need. Mr. O’Farrell bought the Ranchos Estero Americano and Canadade Jonive adjoining the Bodego rancho. He made his home at Freestone, renaming his estate the Analy ranch in memory of the principality of Analy in Ireland, ruled for centuries by the O’Farrells, princess of Analy.

Mrs. J. V. A. Frates. daughter of the venerable James McChristian, survivor of the Bear Flag party, and niece of Mrs. Jasper O’Farrell.

George Donner Ungewitter, grandson of George A. Donner of the illfated Donner party.

Mr. Julius M. Alexander, nephew of Cyrus Alexander, a pioneer settler in Alexander valley.

Mr. H. L. Weston, possessor for 59 years of the only existing copy of the Russian plate.

Mr. Donald Mcintosh, grandnephew of John Edward Mcintosh, present at the ceremonies of June, 1841.

Claude O. Howard, district deputy grand president of the Native Sons of the Golden West.

Mr. George Madeira, Mr. Dan Patton and a few other friends, including Mr. and Mrs. Fred. Cummings, Mr. and Mrs. Jirah Luce, Mra A. H. Graeff, Miss Nina Luce, Emile Bachman, T. G. Young, Calvin E. Holmes and Harry Parks, who as a member of the establishment of Kinslow Bros., marble workers of Santa Rosa, who generously donated the marble slab, went along and, assisted by Mr. Frates, made a capital piece of work by securing the tablet In place.

Upon a roughly set tufa platform some 4,500 feet above the level of the Pacific a streak of blue to the west, the party assembled after a reunion and lunch. Three-quarters of California lay smiling below under clear skies. The long serrated wall of the Sierras ran along the eastern horizon, sharply notched where the Truckee flows. Shasta’s white peak to the north, Whitney lording it In the south, Hamilton, Diablo, Tamalpais, Lassen, the northern Buttes lesser features. The bay and city of San Francisco lay near. Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties spread immediately below.

The program opened with the raising of the American flag. Father Cantillon’s invocatlonal utterance followed. Messages were read from Mr. Weston, Governor Johnson and the consuls at San Francisco for Spain, Great Britain, Russia and Mexico, accompanied by the raising In turn of the flag of each of those countries. The bear flag again waved and dipped to Its great successor, the stars and stripes The stories were recited of Cabrillo, Drake, Bodega, the Ross settlement the mission at Sonoma, the raising and lowering of the bear flag and Captain Stephen Smith’s Bodega flagpole. Mr. Patton contributed most of these historical sketches. A poem, ‘The Restoration,” by Julius M. Alexander, was recited by Mrs. Waldrop. Mr. Howard, on behalf of the Native Sons, made a stirring address Benediction and the singing of “America” closed the exercises.

The memorial tablet is of white marble, an octagon 18 inches in diameter and one inch thick. The engraved copper plates are recessed and riveted In place and the slab is fastened with long extension bolts set with solder far into the tufa boulder. Americans are finally commencing to learn that memorial tablets and other monuments are meant to be left intact and not carried away piecemeal as souvenirs. So we feel that this newly erected memorial to the Russians and the Sonoma pioneers will be safe under the sun and the snow on the summit of Mount St. Helena.

There were many intensely funny and a few near tragic incidents on the trip. There was the surreptitious attempt of a well known Healdsburg physician and his son to circumvent the Healdsburg section of the party and scale the mountain by an almost inaccessible ridge to raise a crude Russian flag on the summit and throw bombs at the rest, but the attempt failed ingloriously because those burlesque adherents of the czar got lost and had to return home in chagrin. Then there was the veteran mountain climber, who sat down to rest on the Kellogg trail, was left by his fellows, wandered miles to the inn and finally left on the outbound stage for San Francisco, still laden with 15 pounds of ham, an American flag and a canteen. Again there was the modest Healdsburger upon whom some wag had palmed two left shoes for the climb, and who will, because of an innocent but unlucky observation of Father Cantillon’s, be known for the rest of his life as “the left legged man.” And then the fair daughter of an ancient house, who showed the fearless blood of her ancestors by hastening to view an old, yellow, fierce eyed rattlesnake, declaring it the first of its kind she ever had encountered, and which, through the mercy of providence, was pleased to continue gliding into the brush instead of turning upon its admirer, almost, in her eagerness, treading on its many rattled tail.

– San Francisco Call, July 28 1912

 

FOURTH OF JULY GREETING FROM CALL
Two Thousand Pounds of Red Fire Will Burn
MESSAGE TO FLASH TO PEOPLE FROM HISTORIC TABLET
In Every Direction Will Be Seen The Call’s Best Wishes and Faith in Great State

When selecting a location to make a red fire display upon the night of July 4, The Call chose a spot full of historical significance, for on the very top of Mount St. Helena, where, on the night of July 4 The Call’s red fire will blaze, stands a bronze tablet defying time and weather and telling of a visit made there in 1841 by the Russians.

The original tablet was long ago removed from its place upon the rocks because of the value attaching to it as an historical relic. This removal took place in May, 1855, in the presence of representatives of the Sonoma pioneer families of General M. G. Vallejo, Captain Henry D. Fitch, Jasper O’Farrell, members of the Donner party and Senora M. Lopez de Carillo, Captain Stephen Smith, C. Alexander of the bear flag party, the Native Sons of the Golden West, the Spanish. British. Russian and Mexican, consuls at San Francisco.

COPY OF TABLET PLACED
Actively in charge of the work was Dr. T. A. Hylton,. who. took a literal copy of the inscription and gave it to H. L. Weston, who a little over a year ago authorized Miss Honora and P. R. Toumey to place upon the rock which bore the original tablet the copy which is now there. The inscription is as follows: “Russians. June, I841. C. L. Vosnisenki III. E. I. Tschernegi. Russians.”

The original tablet was destroyed when the Pioneer building was lost during San Francisco’s great fire, and today all that remains to mark the visit of the Russians to this part of California at that early period of the state’s history is the present tablet, which stands defying the winter’s winds and snows .and the blaze of the summer sun to tell of that visit of the Russians who scarcely realized the splendor of the domain, which they overlooked.

WHERE MESSAGE WILL FLASH
Within 10 feet of the spot where tliis tablet rests will flare on the night of July 4 a message of good will, from The Call to its California friends…

– San Francisco Call, June 15 1913

 

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THE MANY DEATHS OF COWIE AND FOWLER PART I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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