California and the Mexican War
The Legacy of the Grizzly Bear
By Mark J. Denger
California Center for Military History

Few members of California's Organized Militia, the "army and navy of this state," the men and women who proudly wear the symbol of their state military force, or who march under their state flag, know much of its origin.

Only a handful of guardsman or reservist of this state know the names of Thomas O. Larkin, Archibald H. Gillespie or John C. Fremont, or the chronicle of the California Battalion, or of the events leading to the Bear Flag revolt and how the Bear Flag revolt plays a part in the State's history.

Surprisingly enough, it is even more unusual to find a person who knows the names of Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, William Todd or Henry L. Ford, and what contribution they made in the adoption of the grizzly bear as the distinctive symbol of this state.

The story of the Grizzly Bear as a symbol of our state military force seems obscure and at best almost legendary. The names of Captain John C. Fremont, Thomas O. Larkin, Archibald H. Gillespie, William B. Ide, Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, William Todd and Henry L. Ford seem to be surrounded by a Vail of mystery. Who were these men? What were their contribution? As their story unfolds, so to does the legacy of California's most distinctive symbol -the Grizzly Bear.

The story rightly begins with the election of James K. Polk as President of the United States in November, 1844. President Polk was elected on a platform declaring for the annexation of Texas. When he entered upon his administration in March of the following year, he set upon accomplishing five major objectives: the reduction of the tariff, the establishment of an independent treasury, the settlement of the Oregon question, the acquisition of California - our chief concern here, and the annexation of Texas.

California, then a province of the newly formed Republic of Mexico, was a former possession of Spain and had come to be thought of as a capital prize not only for the United States, but for the governments of England, Russia and France. Without question the United States enjoyed a special advantage. The frequent changes of government and the revolutions in both Mexico and in the province of California created a feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction among many of the Californians.

In the spring of 1846 the population of California was estimated at about ten thousand, exclusive of Indians, and the foreign population, mostly from the United States, was placed at about two thousand. The immigration of Americans had so increased that it became apparent to many Californians that this new population movement would, if its immigration increased in the same ratio, in a few years change the government and institutions of California forever.

With these demographics, President James K. Polk now vigorously promoted his policy of the acquisition of California. His first hope was to purchase the province of California; but three alternative methods soon presented themselves. The first alternative was the hope of a revolt of leading Californians against Mexican authority, aided by willing American settlers; the second was the patient watchful waiting, while more and more Americans infiltrated the province; and the third alternative was the forcible seizure of California in the event of war with Mexico, which was rapidly becoming imminent.

At this point it is appropriate to introduce Thomas O. Larkin who had been appointed by the President as United States Consul to California. Thomas Larkin was devoted to the idea of a peaceful acquisition of California, involving no military operation or bloodshed. Thomas Larkin, a great influence in the political and social arena of Mexican government, and "the pioneer of the acquisition," because of his watchfulness of the threatening movements of England and France, clearly perceived the tenuous hold of the Mexican government on California. His was a policy of conciliation with the Mexican residents of California and was a major influence upon some of the most capable of their leaders, including General M. G. Vallejo, who thought it would be better to cast in their lot with the United States than with any European power.

But it was Captain John C. Fremont's expedition to California, beginning in the spring of 1845, that would soon make him the central figure in the actual conquest of California. In that year, 1845, the Governor of California, Manuel Micheltorena, was deposed and the duties of the office was assumed by Pico Pico. It was at this point that General D. Jose Castro became the commander of the military in California. General Castro assumed an aggressive policy toward the foreigners promulgating a proclamation requiring all Americans to leave the country, but no immediate steps were taken to enforce the order and little attention was paid to it.

However, these circumstances changed when Captain Fremont's expedition, consisting of sixty well-armed men, entered California in January, 1846. It should be pointed out here and now that Fremont's men were "citizens and not soldiers" and that Captain Fremont had obtained permission from General D. Jose Castro to winter in the San Joachim Valley and conduct explorations toward the Colorado River, on condition that his forces would keep back from the populated coast.

It has been suggested that General Castro had granted permission to Fremont to winter in California, and after the latter had rejoined his party, received orders from the Mexican government not to allow him to enter the province. It was at this point that General D. Jose Castro decided that Fremont was acting in bad faith and issued peremptory orders to Fremont to leave the country. Fremont characteristically "peremptorily refused compliance with an order insulting to my government and myself." Fremont, it is also claimed, was informed of Castro's attempt to arouse the Mexican inhabitants against him by Thomas Larkin. Mr. Larkin, still attempting a peaceful resolution, also informed him that when it became generally known that a number of American settlers would offer to join him. Fremont, not wishing to compromise his Government, declined their aid, marched his small party of sixty men to within thirty miles of Monterey, took up a fortified position on the Sierra Nevada, hoisting the American flag on March 5, 1846, and prepared for resistance.

A few days later, while General Castro was making preparations to dislodge him, Captain Fremont withdrew, before any actual attack was made, retiring briefly to Sutter's Fort for provisions and proceeding on the way to Oregon. On reaching the Klammath Falls region of Oregon, however, Fremont's progress was hindered by hostile Indians.

It is at this point that an even to the highest importance to the history of California occurred, an event that has perhaps involved more discussion and aroused more controversy than any other event in our history -- the "Gillespie Mission."

The Gillespie Mission

Captain Fremont's presence in California, as well as his conduct, was reported by General Castro to the Mexican government, and increased the excitement resulting from the annexation of Texas and the concentration of troops at Corpus Christi.

Pursuing his march to Oregon, Fremont was overtaken by Lieutenant Archibald H. Gillespie, of the United States Marine Corps, who, in November, 1845, was ordered by the President and the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Bancroft, to proceed to California by way of Vera Cruz, thence to Mexico City, and on the shortest route possible to Mazatlan, to watch over the interests of the United States and counteract the influence of any foreign or European agents in that country with objects prejudicial to the United States. Lieut. Gillespie also was given dispatches to the United States consul at Monterey, Mr. T. O. Larkin, Esq., and for Captain John C. Fremont, and a letter of introduction to the latter from the Hon. James Buchanan, Secretary of State. Lieut. Gillespie was informed that he would find Captain Fremont in California on the Sacramento, and when he joined him he was to confer with and acquaint him fully with his instructions, it being crucial that they act in concert and with great vigilance.

As the next sequence of event shows, much depended on these events. Precisely what the contents of the secret message given to Fremont is unknown. This mystery has been a source of controversy and speculation by historians ever since. Nevertheless, these dispatches brought Captain Fremont to a decision to return at once to California instead of continuing to Oregon.

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Updated 8 February 2016