What you didn’t learn in history class about California’s flag

California's state flag flies next to the U.S. flag
(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash )
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday, July 3. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

How much do you know about California’s flag?

It’s that stars-and-stripes, American-flag-waving time of year. And throughout the Golden State, the California flag typically takes a place of honor beside it.

But how much do you know about the origins of the state flag — the grizzly bear perched on a patch of green, the red star high on the left, the words “California Republic” below?

It’s a story rooted in a cunning land grab by white insurgents who hastily drew a rough image of a bear and hoisted their crude flag over what had been Mexican territory, proclaiming it to be the California Republic. Some of those men abused and enslaved Indigenous people in their quest for wealth and power.


To help unravel it all, I talked to Michael F. Magliari, a history professor at Chico State and an expert on Indian slavery and “unfree labor” in California and the Southwest during the Gold Rush and Civil War eras.

First, a quick recap: In June 1846, a small group of American settlers who had moved into Mexican-controlled land in what is now northern California launched a sneak attack on the town of Sonoma, capturing a Mexican general.

The uprising came as the Mexican government was moving to evict many of the settlers from land they had claimed but few had legal standing to hold. So the American rebels banded together to oust Mexican authorities and claim California as their own — and they wanted a flag to make it official.

What became known as the bear flag was hastily designed by one of the insurgents, William Todd, whose family owned slaves in Kentucky. Todd was the nephew of Mary Todd, wife of Abraham Lincoln.

“The original bear flag was famously crudely drawn,” Magliari told me. “A lot of people thought the silhouette of a grizzly bear looked more like a hog, and so it was ridiculed.”

The star was a tribute to the Lone Star from the flag of Texas, which formed after a similar rebellion of American settlers against the Mexican government in that territory.


The bear flag was hoisted over Sonoma, proclaiming the “California Republic.” But the scheme was short lived — and, it turns out, unnecessary. The U.S. government had declared war on Mexico about a month earlier, but that news had not reached the rebels. Weeks later, U.S. troops and the Navy arrived to occupy and claim California as American territory, and the “California Republic” was dead.

“The only enduring, long-lasting legacy of the Bear Flag Revolt was the flag,” Magliari said.

He explained that many of the Bear Flaggers, as they are now called, left a trail of violence against Indigenous people on the land they seized under the pretense of manifest destiny.

“It’s often said that these guys were all illegal immigrants,” Magliari said. “They were all on board with the program of acquiring California by conquest if necessary. And they were all part of ... [what’s] seen as the vanguard of American imperialism.”

California joined the Union in 1850 as a free state. And while the enslavement of Black people was illegal on paper, slavery endured in many forms in the Golden State’s early decades. California’s first legislators codified “an array of unfree Indian labor systems,” Magliari explained, which were carried over from Spanish and Mexican rule.

The California Indian Act of 1850 legalized bound child labor “under the guise of wardship of Indian children,” he noted, along with indentured servitude, debt peonage and convict leasing. At the time, Native Americans were arrested, often for minor crimes, then auctioned off to landowners to complete their sentences as bound laborers.


Many Bear Flaggers participated in those systems as they took land and developed ranchos, Magliari said.

Among them was Andrew Kelsey, who settled in the area of Clear Lake. His sister-in-law, Nancy Kelsey, is believed to have stitched the first bear flag. Kelsey and his partner Charles Stone “were notorious for enslaving and abusing local Pomo Indian laborers,” Magliari noted.

Some of their victims revolted in 1850, killing Kelsey and Stone, and taking food to feed their starving village before fleeing to a small island on the lake. In response, the U.S. Army arrived and slaughtered hundreds of men, women and children in what became known as the Bloody Island Massacre.

Another Bear Flagger, Granville Swift, struck it rich during the Gold Rush and forced Native Americans to work the mines for him, Magliari said.

In the leadup to the U.S. Civil War, white California settlers sympathetic to the South reportedly flew bear flags in support of the Confederacy.

So how did the banner raised by insurgents with a legacy of racist violence become our state flag?


Largely thanks to a fraternal organization called the Native Sons of the Golden West, founded in 1875 with a mission to preserve California’s “colorful history of the Gold Rush and early-day statehood.”

For many, the NSGW is viewed as “a pretty benign historical society,” Magliari said. It still exists, operating museums, funding preservation work, putting up historical markers and doing charitable work.

But the group has another legacy, he noted, rooted in “strong, prevailing attitudes of white supremacy” that were common in U.S. society and many fraternal orders in the early 20th century.

I’ll unpack more about that legacy in Friday’s newsletter.

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Have a great day, from the Essential California team:

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