In the month of May, 1845, Mr. Fremont, then a brevet captain of engineers (appointed a lieutenant-colonel of rifles before he returned), set out on his third expedition of geographical and scientific exploration in the Great West. Hostilities had not broken out between the United States and Mexico; but Texas had been incorporated;2 the preservation of peace was precarious, and Mr. Fremont was determined, by no act of his, to increase the difficulties, or to give any just cause of complaint to the Mexican Government. His line of observation would lead him to the Pacific Ocean, through a Mexican province—through the desert parts first, and the settled part afterward of the Alta California.

Approaching the settled parts of the province at the commencement of winter, he left his equipment of 60 men and 200 horses on the frontier, and proceeded alone to Monterey, to make known to the Governor the object of his coming, and his desire to pass the winter (for the refreshment of his men and horses) in the uninhabited parts of the valley of the San Joaquin. The permission was granted; but soon revoked, under the pretext that Mr. Fremont had come into California, not to pursue science, but to excite the American settlers to revolt against the Mexican Government. Upon this pretext troops were raised, and marched to attack him. Having notice of their approach, he took a position on the mountain, hoisted the flag of the United States, and determined, with his sixty brave men, to defend himself to the last extremity—never surrendering; and dying, if need be, to the last man. A messenger came into his camp, bringing a letter from the American consul at Monterey, to apprize him of his danger: that messenger, returning, reported that 2,000 men could not force the American position; and that information had its effect. . . .

It was in the midst of dangers in the wildest regions of the Farthest West that Mr. Fremont was pursuing science and shunning war, when the arrival of Lieutenant Gillespie, and his communications from Washington, suddenly changed all his plans, turned him back from Oregon, and opened a new and splendid field of operations in California itself. He arrived in the valley of the Sacramento in the month of May, 1846, and found the country alarmingly and critically situated. Three great operations, fatal to American interests, were then going on, and without remedy, if not arrested at once. These were: 1. The massacre of the Americans, and the destruction of their settlements, in the valley of the Sacramento. 2. The subjection of California to British protection. 3. The transfer of the public domain to British subjects. And all this with a view to anticipate the events of a Mexican war, and to shelter California from the arms of the United States.

The American settlers sent a deputation to the camp of Mr. Fremont, in the valley of the Sacramento, laid all these dangers before him, and implored him to place himself at their head and save them from destruction. General Castro was then in march upon them: the Indians were incited to attack their families, and burn their wheat fields, and were only waiting for the dry season to apply the torch. Juntas were in session to transfer the country to Great Britain: the public domain was passing away in large grants to British subjects: a British fleet was expected on the coast: the British vice-consul, Forbes, and the emissary priest, Macnamara, ruling and conducting everything, and all their plans so far advanced as to render the least delay fatal.

It was then the beginning of June. War had broken out between the United States and Mexico, but that was unknown in California. Mr. Fremont had left the two countries at peace when he set out upon his expedition, and was determined to do nothing to disturb their relations: he had even left California to avoid giving offense; and to return and take up arms in so short a time was apparently to discredit his own previous conduct as well as to implicate his Government. He felt all the responsibilities of his position; but the actual approach of Castro, and the immediate danger of the settlers, left him no alternative. He determined to put himself at the head of the people, and to save the country. To repulse Castro was not sufficient: to overturn the Mexican Government in California, and to establish Californian independence, was the bold resolve, and the only measure adequate to the emergency.

That resolve was taken, and executed with a celerity that gave it a romantic success. The American settlers rushed to his camp—brought their arms, horses and ammunition—were formed into a battalion; and obeyed with zeal and alacrity the orders they received. In thirty days all the northern part of California was freed from Mexican authority—independence proclaimed—the flag of independence raised—Castro flying to the south—the American settlers saved from destruction; and the British party in California counteracted and broken up in all their schemes.

This movement for independence was the salvation of California, and snatched it out of the hands of the British at the moment they were ready to clutch it. For two hundred years—from the time of the navigator Drake, who almost claimed it as a discovery, and placed the English name of New Albion3 upon it—the eye of England has been upon California; and the magnificent bay of San Francisco, the great seaport of the north Pacific Ocean, has been surveyed as her own. The approaching war between Mexico and the United States was the crisis in which she expected to realize the long-deferred wish for its acquisition; and carefully she took her measures accordingly. She sent two squadrons to the Pacific as soon as Texas was incorporated—well seeing the actual war which was to grow out of that event—a small one into the mouth of the Columbia, an imposing one to Mazatlan, on the Mexican coast, to watch the United States squadron there, and to anticipate its movement upon California. Commodore Sloat, commanding the squadron at Mazatlan, saw that he was watched, and pursued, by Admiral Seymour, who lay alongside of him, and he determined to deceive him. He stood out to sea, and was followed by the British admiral. During the day he bore west, across the ocean, as if going to the Sandwich Islands: Admiral Seymour followed. In the night the American commodore tacked, and ran up the coast toward California: the British admiral, not seeing the tack, continued on his course, and went entirely to the Sandwich Islands before he was undeceived. Commodore Sloat arrived before Monterey on the second of July, entering the port amicably, and offering to salute the town, which the authorities declined on the pretext that they had no powder to return it—in reality because they momentarily expected the British fleet.

Commodore Sloat remained five days before the town, and until he heard of Fremont's operations: then believing that Fremont had orders from his Government to take California, he having none himself, he determined to act himself. He received the news of Fremont's successes on the 6th day of July; on the 7th he took the town of Monterey, and sent a dispatch to Fremont. This latter came to him in all speed, at the head of his mounted force. Going immediately on board the commodore's vessel, an explanation took place. The commodore learned with astonishment that Fremont had no orders from his Government to commence hostilities—that he had acted entirely on his own responsibility. This left the commodore without authority for having taken Monterey; for still at this time, the commencement of the war with Mexico was unknown. Uneasiness came upon the commodore. He remembered the fate of Captain Jones in making the mistake of seizing the town once before in time of peace. He resolved to return to the United States, which he did—turning over the command of the squadron to Commodore Stockton, who had arrived on the 15th. The next day (16th) Admiral Seymour arrived; his flagship the Collingwood, of 80 guns, and his squadron the largest British fleet ever seen in the Pacific. To his astonishment he beheld the American flag flying over Monterey, the American squadron in its harbor, and Fremont's mounted riflemen encamped over the town.

His mission was at an end. The prize had escaped him. He attempted nothing further, and Fremont and Stockton rapidly prest the conquest of California to its conclusion. The subsequent military events can be traced by any history: they were the natural sequence of the great measure conceived and executed by Fremont before any squadron had arrived upon the coast, before he knew of any war with Mexico, and without any authority from his Government, except the equivocal and enigmatical visit of Mr Gillespie. Before the junction of Mr. Fremont with Commodore Sloat and Stockton his operations had been carried on under the flag of independence—the Bear Flag, as it was called—the device of the bear being adopted on account of the courageous qualities of that animal (the white bear), which never gives the road to men—which attacks any number—and fights to the last with increasing ferocity, with amazing strength of muscle, and with an incredible tenacity of the vital principle—never more formidable and dangerous than when mortally wounded. The independents took the device of this bear for their flag, and established the independence of California under it: and in joining the United States forces, hauled down this flag, and hoisted the flag of the United States.

And the fate of California would have been the same whether the United States squadrons had arrived, or not; and whether the Mexican War had happened, or not. California was in a revolutionary state, already divided from Mexico politically as it had always been geographically. The last governor-general from Mexico, Don Michel Toreno, had been resisted—fought—captured—and shipt back to Mexico, with his 300 cutthroat soldiers. An insurgent government was in operation, determined to be free of Mexico, sensible of inability to stand alone, and looking, part to the United States, part to Great Britain, for the support which they needed. All the American settlers were for the United States protection, and joined Fremont. The leading Californians were also joining him. His conciliatory course drew them rapidly to him. The Picos, who were the leading men of the revolt (Don Pico, Don Andres, and Don Jesus), became his friends. California became independent of Mexico by the revolt of the Picos, and independent of them by the revolt of the American settlers, had its destiny to fulfil—which was, to be handed over to the United States. So that its incorporation with the American republic was equally sure in any and every event.

1 From Benton's "Thirty Years' View."

Before Fremont's invasion, California had been under Spanish and Mexican rule. It was not settled by the Spaniards until 1769; hence the interesting and picturesque old missions of California are not so old as they have sometimes been popularly supposed to be. The first settlement—that at San Diego—was founded by eighty Spanish friars and soldiers. By the end of the century eighteen missions had been established, and counted several thousand native converts to Christianity. The crops produced varied from 30,000 to 75,000 bushels per year. The missions possest about 70,000 horses and cattle. The Spanish population was never large. Bancroft estimated that in 1800 there had lived there within thirty years about 1,700 white persons. By 1810 the white population was about 2,130, by 1840, 5,700. At the time of the conquest, the total was popularly estimated at between 8,000 and 12,000.
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2 That is, Texas had been annexed to the United States.
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3 See the account of Drake's discovery in Vol. 1, page 156.
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© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman