San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


Colonel J. C. Fremont.COLONEL John C. Fremont is generally considered the conqueror of California; where his exploits, undertaken with so small a force and against such superior numbers, place him on a par with the famous heroes of the days of chivalry. Yet to the bold, daring and energetic measures adopted and prosecuted by Commodore Robert F. Stockton, as we shall hereafter see, may justly be ascribed the final reduction of the country. Holding a commission in the topographical corps of engineers, a great part of Fremont’s duties had hitherto consisted in exploring the districts of country around the base of the Rocky Mountains, and the best lines of communication from the Missouri to Oregon and California. In 1845, Fremont was instructed by the War Department to ascertain a shorter and more southerly and convenient route to the Columbia River. In the execution of this duty, he reached Monterey in California, in the month of January, 1846. Allusion has already been made to the jealousy with which the successive immigration of American settlers was viewed by the Californians, or rather the Mexican authorities. Accordingly, when Fremont appeared with his small force near Monterey, General José Castro, the commandant at that town, had his suspicions aroused as to their ulterior intentions, and prepared to dispute their farther progress. To allay these suspicions, Fremont, leaving his little army, hastened to Monterey and made such personal explanations to Castro as seemed to satisfy the latter that he had no reason to be alarmed at the appearance of the Americans. Castro having confessed himself satisfied on the subject, Fremont returned to his people; but, shortly afterwards being informed by the American consul at Monterey that the Mexican general secretly intended to attack him, he at once occupied a strong position in the neighborhood, and displayed the American flag. Castro meanwhile having thought better on the subject, especially after reconnoitering the American position, determined to leave those foolish, obstinate people alone.

Fremont, thus freed from molestation, proceeded on his proposed route to Oregon. He had gone but a little way when he found that hostile Indians (supposed to have been urged on by the Mexican authorities), barred his farther progress; and learned with extreme surprise and indignation, that Castro intended to attack the American settlers, and expel them from the country. Upon ascertaining this fact, Frernont took the bold resolution of declaring war against California, and of carrying it too into the very camp of the enemy. His force, at this time consisted of only sixty-two men. On the 15th of June, in pursuance of this determination, he, or others acting under his advice, surprised and took possession of the military post of Sonoma, part of the spoils of which place were nine cannon and two hundred and fifty stand of arms. Four days previously they had also cut off an important convoy from Castro’s camp. It is true that various contradictory accounts have been given of Fremont’s personal connection with these events; and it is difficult to ascertain the real state of the facts. If he had no active share in them, which is probably the true state of the case, it is certain that he formed the resolution mentioned above, just when the noted “bear-flag” party had actually surprised Sonoma, and that he immediately cordially joined them.

After the capture of Sonoma, Mr. William B. Ide, a native of one of the New England States, who had immigrated to California the previous year, and a man of courage and intelligence, was intrusted with the command of the small garrison. At the same time he issued a proclamation explaining the views of the American party, the reasons for their present act, and the principle on which they proposed to conduct their future proceedings. This proclamation is as follows:—

A proclamation to all persons and citizens of the District of Sonoma, requesting them to remain at peace, and follow their rightful occupations without fear of molestation.

“The Commander-in-chief of the troops assembled at the fortress of Sonoma, gives his inviolable pledge to all persons in California, not found under arms, that they shall not be disturbed in their persons, their property, or social relations, one with another, by men under his command.

“He also solemnly declares his object to be: first, to defend himself and companions in arms, who were invited to this country by a promise of lands on which to settle themselves and families; who were also promised a Republican Government; when having arrived in California they were denied the privilege of buying or renting lands of their friends; who, instead of being allowed to participate in or being protected by a Republican Government, were oppressed by a military despotism; who were even threatened by proclamation, by the chief officers of the aforesaid despotism, with extermination, if they should not depart out of the country, leaving all their property, arms, and beasts of burden; and thus deprived of their means of flight or defence, were to be driven through deserts inhabited by hostile Indians to certain destruction.

“To overthrow a government which has seized upon the property of the missions for its individual aggrandizement; which has rained and shamefully oppressed the laboring people of California, by enormous exactions on goods imported into the country, is the determined purpose of the brave men who are associated under my command.

“I also solemnly declare my object, in the second place, to be to invite all peaceable and good citizens of California, who are friendly to the maintenance of good order and equal rights, and I do hereby invite them to repair to my camp at Sonoma, without delay, to assist us in establishing and perpetuating a Republican Government, which shall secure to all civil and religious liberty; which shall encourage virtue and literature; which shall leave unshackled by fetters, agriculture, commerce, and manufactures.

“I further declare, that I rely upon the rectitude of our intentions, the favor of heaven, and the bravery of those who are bound and associated with me, by the principles of self-preservation, by the love of truth, and the hatred of tyranny, for my hopes of success.

“I furthermore declare, that I believe that a government to be prosperous and happy, must originate with the people, who are friendly to its existence; that the citizens are its guardians, the officers its servants, its glory its reward.

Head Quarters, Sonoma, June 18th, 1846.”

These sudden, bold, and unexpected proceedings produced much alarm and excitement among the Mexican authorities, as we may learn from the following copy of the translation of a long epistle—too interesting to be omitted, and now published for the first time—addressed by his Excellency, Don Pio Pico, the governor of California, to Thomas O. Larkin, Esq., the United States consul at Monterey: —

“The undersigned, Constitutional Governor of the Department of the Californias, has the deep mortification to make known to Mr. Thomas O. Larkin, Consul of the United States of North America, that he has been greatly surprised in being notified by official communications of the General Commandancia of this Department and the Prefecture of the Second District, that a multitude of foreigners of the United States of America have invaded that frontier, taken possession of the fortified town of Sonoma, treacherously making prisoners of the military Commandante, Don Mariano G. Vallejo, Lieut. Colonel Victor Pruden, Captain Salvador Vallejo, and Mr. Jacob P. Leese, and likewise have stolen the property of these individuals.

“The undersigned can do no less than make known to the Consul of the United States, that acts so extraordinary and alarming have caused very great grief.

“Until the present the Departmental Governor is wanting the least positive information that would give him to understand of a declaration of war between Mexico and the United States, and without such information he judges the course pursued at Sonoma the most atrocious and infamous that can be imagined, so much so that the like is not seen among barbarians.

“They have attacked the rights of the people, breaking the established social compacts; profaning the sacred soil of another nation; indeed scandalously usurping an integral part of the Mexican Republic, and what is more provoking still, as an ignominious libel, is the folly of the principal of this multitude of foreigners, William B. Ide, the separation of the Mexican Union. This act tends to excite the mind of the undersigned, and causes him to suspect that the Government of the United States are concerned in this matter, which certainly should increase his regrets.

“Mr. Thomas O. Larkin will permit the undersigned to say to him frankly that he has witnessed with extraordinary coolness the invasion of the Department, and that he has failed to note the general movement of all the inhabitants, in defence of their country and liberty; he has not been known to make any arrangement that might make the invaders recede from their abominable designs, and prevent the misfortunes which they can cause by means of hostile provocation: misfortunes that the Departmental Government will place to the responsibility of the chief authors before God and the entire world. So base management as observed on this occasion highly compromises the honor of the United States, and if it shall have such a stain upon itself, there is no doubt that it will be graven eternally in the remembrance of all nations, and will cause it to be despised.

“The undersigned believes that the Consul of the United States will agree with him, that the acts committed by the party of foreigners, Americans, have the appearance of actual and downright robbery; also that the Consul will agree with him, that his indifference to prevent such fatal results, seeing that they were subjects of his own nation who were violating this part of the Mexican Republic, compromises more and more both nations.

“The undersigned in fulfilment of his duties sees himself obliged to recommend to the Consul, Thomas O. Larkin, that he make declarations of the occurrence which has happened at Sonoma, to exact full satisfaction from him, hoping that he will use all the means in his power to escape in time such terrible consequences, and finally to protest solemnly, in the name of the Departmental and Supreme Government of the Nation, that it is decidedly opposed to all aggressions, defending to extremity its independence, liberty, inalienable rights; repeating that the principal authors are responsible to the Representative of the United States near this Department for those abuses and results of corrupt designs from which they are not deterred.

“The undersigned hopes, from the prudence and judgment of the Consul of the United States at Monterey, that, admitting the justice that assists him, the answer to this letter (and imploring that it may soon come), may be in accordance with (veneboles) desire.

“God and Liberty!

Santa Barbara, 29th June, 1846.”

Thomas O. Larkin, Esq.To this indignant and piteous missive, Mr. Larkin returned the following answer:—

Consulate of the United States of America,
Monterey, Cal. July, 5th, 1846.

Governor of California.

“SIR :—The undersigned, Consul of the United States of America for California, has the honor to acknowledge the reception of His Excellency’s letter of the 29th of last month, which was received yesterday afternoon.

His Excellency may be well assured that the undersigned is duly sensible of the great importance of the subject brought before him, and is compelled to say that he cannot alone enter into any mode for the expulsion of the foreigners who have taken possession of Sonoma. He is bound not only to protect his countrymen in California from any unjust oppression, and settle in an amicable manner any dlsputes in which they may be concerned; but firmly to refuse them support when they have been wilfully guilty of any infractions of the laws of this Department, giving aid to the Authorities in such cases, which aid has been refused by the Governor and Prefect.

The undersigned must assure His Excellency was wrongly informed when told he made no exertions to aid the proper Authorities, and His Excellency can learn that the undersigned has used the only means in his power as a Consul, and that the Consular service had not been accepted.

His Excellency is pleased to say that the Americans engaged in this affair are responsible to this Consulate. The undersigned must observe that he knows not where this responsibility exists, and will not underrate the good sense of his being in the idea that he believes Consular letters would have effect on the persons in question, or that the Authorities would have given him soldiers to bring into Monterey an equal number of Americans, when General Castro, with three times their force, did not see proper to expel those who took Sonoma.

The reasons brought forward by His Excellency as proofs that the Government of the United States is concerned in this matter, not being sustained, will, being by the undersigned proved to be erroneous, require no farther assertion on his part to convince His Excellency on the subject.

The undersigned has the honor to renew to His Excellency the Governor of California, assurance of his deepest respect and consideration.


While these epistles were being interchanged, Fremont was proceeding to the valley of the Sacramento, where the chief settlements of the American population were, with the intention of enlisting recruits for the farther prosecution of the war. A garrison of only fourteen men had been left at Sonoma, which was shortly afterwards increased to about forty. Scarcely had Fremont departed, when General Castro prepared to attack the feebly manned post. News of that general’s movements speedily followed Fremont, who instantly, with only a troop of ninety riflemen, hurried, night and day, to the relief of the garrison. He arrived just in time to frustrate the designs of Castro. To follow up his original scheme, Fremont next called a meeting of the Americans at Sonoma, on July 4th,1846; when, acting on his advice, the assembly proclaimed the independence of the country, appointed Fremont governor, and declared war against Mexico.

Meantime, nothing was known of the condition of affairs in the United States, nor that actual hostilities had taken place between them and Mexico. While this ignorance existed in California, there was equal want of knowledge in the United States respecting the proceedings on the opposite side of the continent. Very comprehensive measures to conduct the war on all sides had been formed by the American government. Not only were American generals advancing on the Rio Grande and on Mexico itself, by way of Vera Cruz and Jalapa, but an expedition under General Stephen W. Kearny, was formed to proceed across the whole continent, from the Missouri, first to Santa Fé, and after the expected reduction of New Mexico, farther west to California. This latter province had long been desired by the Americans, and the government was now determined, since circumstances rightfully permitted the attempt, to secure the country. To further this undertaking, Congress ordered a corps of mounted riflemen to be raised, the command of which was given to Captain, then first created Lieutenant-Colonel, Fremont, and who, from his knowledge of the country, and his being there at the very time, seemed the most proper person on whom the honor of the command could be bestowed.

A regiment of volunteers, a thousand strong, to serve during the war in California, was likewise raised in New York, and placed under the command of Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson, to whose energy and ability the formation and organization of the corps was chiefly owing. This regiment, though it arrived in California too late to take any part in the actual hostilities of the war, was subsequently of great service in preserving the peace of the subjugated country. Col. Stevenson reached San Francisco March 7th, 1847, and immediately afterwards his regiment was divided into companies, which were severally stationed at Sonoma, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Monterey, which last place, first was head-quarters, afterwards removed to Los Angeles. So desirous was the United States Government to preserve California at all hazards, that particular care had been taken, in the raising of this regiment, that the men composing it should be of good habits, and as far as practicable, of various pursuits, and such as would be likely to desire to remain in the country at the end of the war.

While these measures were being carried out by Congress, General Kearny, having left Fort Leavenworth, on the Missouri, in June, 1846, was marching, at the head of sixteen hundred men, across the deserts which lie between that place and Santa Fé. After the capture of Santa Fé, and the proclamation of New Mexico being now a portion of the American republic, and after making the necessary arrangements for strengthening his power there, Kearny, at the close of September, 1846, proceeded farther west to California, to carry out the instructions given him by Congress. He had gone but eleven days’ march from Santa Fé, when he met an express from Commodore Stockton and Colonel Fremont, bearing despatches to Congress announcing the conquest of California. Kearny, then dismissing two hundred of his dragoons, to assist in the reduction of New Mexico, continued his progress westward, accompanied by a troop of only one hundred men, and two howitzers. His course lay across the wild and untrodden country east of the Gila, down which river he next proceeded, until he approached the frontier of California. Meanwhile, Americans there were completing what we have seen they had begun, the reduction of that country.

At the time when Fremont was forcing the Mexicans out of California north of the Bay of San Francisco, Commodore Sloat, who was then in command of the American squadron in the Pacific, being apprised of the actual commencement of hostilities between the American and Mexican states, had seized upon Monterey. This was done on the 7th of July, when the American flag was hoisted, and the following proclamation read. It is not our intention to give a detailed history of the war in California; but since this proclamation was the first formal announcement of the intentions of the American Government, while the documents previously quoted were very important in themselves, we have been induced to give them all at length, though they perhaps swell this branch of our subject more than was at first contemplated.


“The central government of Mexico having commenced hostilities against the United States of America, by invading its territory, and attacking the troops of the United States stationed on the north side of the Rio Grande, and with a force of seven thousand men under the command of General Arista, which army was totally destroyed, and all their artillery, baggage, &c., captured on the 8th and 9th of May last, by a force of two thousand and three hundred men, under the command of General Taylor, and the City of Matamoras taken and occupied by the forces of the United States, and the two nations being actually at war by this transaction, I shall hoist the standard of the United States at Monterey immediately, and shall carry it throughout California.

“I declare to the inhabitants of California, that, although I come in arms with a powerful force, I do not come among them as an enemy to California: on the contrary, I come as their best friend, as henceforth California will be a portion of the United States, and its peaceable inhabitants will enjoy the same rights and principles they now enjoy, together with the privilege of choosing their own magistrates, and other officers for the administration of justice among themselves, and the same protection will be extended to them as to any other State in the Union. They will also enjoy a permanent government, under which life, property and the constitutional right and lawful security to worship the Creator in the way the most congenial to each other’s sense of duty, will be secured, which, unfortunately, the central government of Mexico cannot afford them, destroyed as her resources are by internal factions and corrupt officers, who create constant revolutions to promote their own interests and oppress the people. Under the flag of the United States, California will be free from all such troubles and expenses; consequently, the country will rapidly advance and improve both in agriculture and commerce, as, of course, the revenue laws will be the same in California as in all parts of the United States, affording them all manufactures and produce of the United States, free of any duty, and all foreign goods at one quarter of the duty they now pay. A great increase in the value of real estate and the products of California may also be anticipated.

“With the great interest and kind feeling I know the government and people of the United States possess towards the citizens of California, the country cannot but improve more rapidly than any other on the continent of America.

“Such of the inhabitants of California, whether native or foreigners, as may not be disposed to accept the high privileges of citizenship, and to live peaceably under the Government of the United States, will be allowed time to dispose of their property and to remove out of the country, if they choose, without any restriction; or remain in it, observing strict neutrality.

“With full confidence in the honor and integrity of the inhabitants of the country, I invite the judges, alcaldes, and other civil officers to execute their functions as heretofore, that the public tranquillity may not be disturbed;
at least until the government of the territory can be more definitely arranged.

“All persons holding titles to real estate, or in quiet possession of land under color of right, shall have those titles guaranteed to them.

“All churches and the property they contain in possession of the clergy of California, shall continue in the same rights and possessions they now enjoy.

“All provisions and supplies of every kind furnished by the inhabitants for the use of the United States ships and soldiers, will be paid for at fair rates; and no private property will be taken for public use without just compensation at the moment.

Commander-in-chief of the U. S. force in the Pacific Ocean.”

A despatch was immediately forwarded by land to Commander Montgomery, who landed at Yerba Buena without opposition, took possession of the place, hoisted the American standard on the public square, and posted the proclamation of his commanding officer. Fremont, hearing of these proceedings, took possession of the mission of San Juan.

Source: Frank Soulé, John H. Gihon, M.D., and James Nisbet. The Annals of San Francisco. 1855: San Francisco.

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