By 1846, the political temperature in California was already tense. California was home to a small number of Mexican settlers even though it was nominally controlled by Mexico. The region was composed of a large population of U.S citizens whose population continued to grow.
The Americans were not interested in becoming Mexican subjects, neither did they trust Mexican leaders; therefore, Mexican leaders became worried that the Americans would soon initiate the annexation of California. On the other hand, most Americans became fearful that the Mexicans would launch a preemptive attack to halt any rebellion after rumors of an impending war reached California.
During the spring of 1846, John C. Fremont, together with a small corps of soldiers, arrived at Sutter’s Fort (near present-day Sacramento). Fremont was an army officer and an explorer, and it was not clear whether he had been sent to encourage an American rebellion or whether he was on a different mission. From appearance, it seemed as though Fremont and his group had visited because of a scientific survey.
However, the bold soldier soon began persuading some Americans to form rebel groups and prepare for a war with Mexico. On June 14, 1846, a group of 33 Americans, under the stewardship of Ezekiel Merrit and William Ide, launched a rebellion. The Americans took Fremont’s advice and invaded the Mexican outpost of Sonoma, which was largely defenseless.
Fremont and his group did not partake in the rebellion though Fremont had given his strategy on how to carry out the attack. Merrit, together with his men, surrounded the home of Mariano Vallejo, the retired Mexican general, and informed the general that he was to become a prisoner of war. Vallejo had been an advocate of American annexation, and he was puzzled by their move.
He invited the rebels into his home so that they could discuss the situation over alcohol. After some hours, Ide showed up and ruined the ‘party.’ He arrested Vallejo and his family and ended what had turned into a nice chat.
Merrit and Ide then declared California an independent republic after gaining victory at Sonoma. They later constructed a makeshift flag using a cotton sheet and some red paint. The flag had an unrefined drawing of a grizzly bear, bore the words “California Republic” at the bottom, and had a lone red star. The independence movement was referred to as the Bear Flag Revolt from then henceforth. Strangely, the flag would prove more enduring than the government that it was supposed to represent.
After minor encounters with the Mexican authorities, Fremont then took official command of the “Bear Flaggers” and on July 1, occupied Presidio of San Francisco. Fremont then discovered (six days later) that American forces had taken Monterey without fighting and had officially raised the American flag over California. The forces were under the control of Commodore John D. Sloat.
The Bear Flaggers did not see the need of keeping their “government” since their sole mission was to annex California and make it part of the United States. The California Republic faded three weeks after its birth.
The new republic was short-lived because the U.S military soon began occupying California. The flag then became the official state flag after California joined the union.