San Francisco History

The Annals of San Francisco


Commodore Robert F. Stockton.COMMODORE Robert F. Stockton arrived at Monterey in the Frigate Congress, on the 15th of July, 1846, and on the 23d of that month assumed command of the squadron, Com. Sloat having left on that day to return to the United States. The bold and comprehensive mind of Stockton perceived at once the circumstances by which he was surrounded. He was deeply impressed with the grave and important trust that devolved upon him. But he was neither dismayed nor perplexed with the importance of his position nor the difficulties he was compelled to confront. With a decision of character, promptitude and sagacity worthy of commendation, he adopted the plan of a campaign, which the most complete success vindicated, and which, if judged by its results, is unsurpassed in the most brilliant records of military achievement.

For a correct appreciation of the motives which governed Com. Stockton, as well as of the ability with which his plans were conceived and executed, we must briefly advert to the condition of California at that time, and the circumstances that influenced his course. The country was sparsely inhabited; its population chiefly clustering around isolated settlements at great distances apart, or in the neighborhood of ranches, scattered with wide intervals, over its vast surface. Large bodies of Indians occupied much of the territory. To defend themselves from these and the predatory incursions of more warlike tribes in the interior of the continent, the Californians were necessarily familiar with arms. They were hardy and expert horsemen, and excelled in all equestrian performances. Possessed of a fleet and admirable race of horses, they had all the elements of the best cavalry force, in which indeed consisted their chief military strength. At this period the Californians were greatly incensed against the United States. They were ignorant of the declaration of war with Mexico, and considered the demonstration of Fremont and the immigrating parties reported to be approaching, as unprovoked aggressions. They were disposed to treat all Americans as lawless adventurers or freebooters, whose designs were hostile to the peace and authority of Mexico. The colonization of California by citizens of the United States for the purpose of ultimate annexation (as in the case of Texas), they determined to defeat by the most decisive measures. Accordingly, Andreas Pico issued a proclamation intended to stimulate the most sanguinary treatment of all Americans. The occupation of Monterey and some other ports on the coast by Com. Sloat, was viewed by the Californians as parts of the same aggressive scheme, indicated by the elevation of the “Bear Flag” by Fremont, and the approaching immigration. Com. Stockton, aware of these hostile feelings, was painfully solicitous for the safety of the enterprising companies of immigrants which he knew were crossing the Rocky and Snowy Mountains. He concluded that unless a diversion was produced of the Californian forces—unless they were kept fully employed in their own defence, or absolutely dispersed, that the fate of the immigrants would be inevitable. They would be slaughtered in detail as they arrived, jaded, exhausted and enfeebled by their long and arduous journey. Besides, it was quite evident, that if left at liberty to concentrate their troops. the Californians would overwhelm and repossess themselves of Monterey and other ports, at which the flag of the United States had already been elevated by Com. Sloat on the eve of his departure.

The Provincial Congress of California were in session at this time, and under the influence of British agents, the most lavish grants to them of vast tracts of territory were in progress of consummation. There was reason to believe, that in contemplation of the ultimate cession of California to the United States, the Provincial Congress intended to render the acquisition of the territory as valueless as possible. Corn. Stockton, aware of these proceedings and designs, was determined to frustrate them. He was well informed of the strength of the enemy, while, he was aware, they were totally unacquainted with his available force. He had really but three hundred and fifty men who could be spared for active service on land, with which to oppose the Californians, about fifteen hundred strong, and composed, for the most part, of the finest cavalry in the world. But the commodore knew that these people were not familiar with the enemy they were to meet, and that to magnify the efficiency of his own strength, it was only necessary to excite the fears of his adversary. The boldest, most decided and adventurous measures, only, could therefore be relied on for success. To disperse the military organization of the enemy, crush all resistance, occupy the prominent positions in the interior around which the population was collected, and thus to acquire and hold possession of the country, he foresaw would afford security to the approaching immigration, and baffle the cupidity of British agents and the crafty malevolence of Mexican animosity; while it would effectually facilitate, at the close of the war, any negotiations for the cession of California which our Government might institute. The quiet possession of the country, after its subjugation, would be likely to render Mexico better disposed to relinquish the sovereignty which her people were so incapable of defending. Thus informed, and with these views, Com. Stockton, on the 28th July, issued the following proclamation:—

“On assuming the command of the forces of the United States, on the coast of California, both by sea and land, I find myself in possession of the ports of Monterey and San Francisco, with daily reports from the interior of scenes of rapine, blood and murder. Three inoffensive American residents of the country, have within a few days been murdered in the most brutal manner; and there are no Californian officers who will arrest and bring the murderers to justice, although it is well known who they are and where they are. I must therefore, and will, as soon as I can, adopt such measures as may seem best calculated to bring these criminals to justice, and to bestow peace and good order on the country.

In the first place, however, I am constrained by every principle of national honor, as well as a due regard for the safety and best interests of the people of California, to put an end, at once and by force, to the lawless depredations daily committed by General Castro’s men upon the persons and property of peaceful and unoffending inhabitants.

“I cannot, therefore, confine my operations to the quiet and undisturbed possession of the defenceless ports of Monterey and San Francisco, whilst the people elsewhere are suffering from lawless violence; but will immediately march against these boasting and abusive chiefs, who have not only violated every principle of national hospitality and good faith towards Captain Fremont and his surveying party, (but who, unless driven out, will, with the aid of the hostile Indians, keep this beautiful country in a constant state of revolution and bloodshed,) as well as against all others who may be found in arms aiding and abetting General Castro.

“The present general of the forces of California is an ursurper—has been guilty of great offences—has impoverished and drained the country of almost its last dollar, and has deserted his post now when most needed. He has deluded and deceived the inhabitants of California, and they wish his expulsion from the country. He came into power by rebellion and force, and by force he must be expelled. Mexico appears to have been compelled, from time to time, to abandon California to the mercies of any wicked man who could muster one hundred men in arms. The distances from the Capital are so great, that she cannot, even in times of great distress, send timely aid to the inhabitants: and the lawless depredations upon their persons and property go invariably unpunished. She cannot or will not punish or control the chieftains who, one after the other, have defied her power and kept California in a constant state of reyolt and misery.

The inhabitants are tired and disgusted with this constant succession of military usurpers and this insecurity of life and property. They invoke my protection. Therefore upon them I will not make war. I require, however, all officers, civil and military, and all other persons to remain quiet at their respective homes and stations, and to obey the orders they may receive from me or by my authority, and if they do no injury or violence to my authority, none will be done to them.”

In twenty-four hours after assuming the command, Commodore Stockton organized a battalion of mounted riflemen, which had previously been raised by Capt. Fremont, and Lieut. Gillespie of the marine corps, and which consisted of about one hundred and sixty men. These officers and their men volunteered to serve under Stockton so long as he should require their services in California. Fremont was appointed major, and Gillespie captain of the battalion. On the evening of the 23d, it was embarked on the sloop-of-war Cyane and despatched to San Diego, with orders to co-operate with the commodore in his proposed movement on Ciudad de los Angeles. On the 1st of August, Stockton sailed in the Congress, and on the way to San Pedro, landed at Santa Barbara, of which he took possession, and leaving a small detachment for its defence, proceeded to his destination, where he arrived on the 6th of August.. Here he immediately learned, that the enemy, headed by Generals Castro and Andreas Pico were strongly posted near Los Angeles with a force estimated at fifteen hundred strong. He was also informed that Major Fremont had safely landed at San Diego, but found great difficulty in obtaining the needful supply of horses. In the absence of Fremont’s battalion, Stockton was destitute of cavalry. Yet impressed with the importance of celerity of movement, he determined not to delay on that account striking a decisive blow as soon as possible. His whole disposable force of sailors and marines was immediately disembarked, a camp formed, and efforts made to discipline for shore service his aquatic troops, to which novel duty they submitted with cheerfulness and alacrity. The anchorage at San Pedro is insecure and unprotected, and it was apparent to all that when they left the coast there was no certainty of finding their ships on their return. Rough weather would compel them to put to sea, or seek a better harbor. Victory or death must, therefore, be the result of their enterprise. But confident in the resources and gallantry of their leader, the hopelessness of retreat only inspired the men with the prophetic certainty of success. Six small guns, obtained from merchant vessels, constituted their artillery. These were rudely mounted and dragged by hand. The sailors were, of course, ignorant of the drill of soldiers, and it was impracticable to subject them to the army discipline. Each man was simply instructed to observe the movements of his right hand comrade, and always to keep to his left. With this single order they soon became expert in forming in line, square or column as required. Though in forming they would appear in inextricable confusion, yet in a few moments all was in order, and every man in his proper place.

A few days after landing, a flag of truce was discovered approaching at a distance over the hills, borne by commissioners from Castro. Acting upon his preconceived views of the enemy’s ignorance of his strength, Stockton at once determined to impress Castro’s messengers with most exaggerated ideas of the number of his forces and their formidable equipment. His little army was accordingly ordered to march directly on the line of vision of the approaching commissioners, at intervals of twenty or thirty paces apart, to a position where they were sheltered from observation. Thus seen at a distance, their numbers, judging from the time occupied in defiling, would appear very considerable. The commissioners, coming more as spies than negotiators, as was subsequently ascertained, were completely deceived. On their arrival, they were led up by order of the commodore, to the mouth of a tremendous mortar, which, excepting its huge aperture, was entirely enveloped in skins. Such an engine of war Stockton knew had never before met their gaze, and could not fail to inspire apprehensions of its unknown and terrific qualities. Thus posted he received the emissaries in a stern and repulsive manner, and in an imperious tone demanded the object of their visit. This they delivered with so much confusion as to disclose the serious impressions they felt. They were bearers of a letter from Castro, proposing a truce, upon condition that all active operations should cease, and each party hold its own possessions until a general pacification. The commodore had fully considered the whole matter, and believed that action, not negotiation, was his true policy—that no terms would be kept by the enemy longer than fear dictated—and that if time were allowed him to ascertain the comparative strength of the opposing forces, the worst consequences might be anticipated. He therefore contemptuously rejected the proposition of Castro as insolent and insulting; and dismissed the commissioners with instructions to assure their master, that, unless he immediately broke up his command and disbanded his troops, he would be most severely punished, and that no other terms than an unconditional submission, should shield him from the just vengeance of an incensed foe. The messengers hastened to place the mountains between them and the commodore, and no doubt returned to Castro with an appalling account of the numbers, strength and sanguinary spirit of the great invading army, preparing for his utter destruction. The subsequent conduct of Castro and his superior forces, shows well the sagacity and wisdom with which Stockton had operated on his imagination and fears.

Two days afterwards other messengers arrived from Castro, bringing a bombastic letter, rejecting the terms of Stockton, and concluding with the declaration,—”I will not withhold any sacrifice to oppose your intentions: and if through misfortune the flag of the United States waves in California, it will not be by my acquiescence, nor by that of the last of my compatriots!“ These commissioners were treated much the same as were their predecessors—impressed with the formidable character of the American force, and intimidated with the ferocity and implacable purpose of conquest which seemed to animate the invaders.

Having now cornpleted his arrangements, Stockton resolved on pushing forward with expedition before the paucity of his troops could be ascertained, and striking a blow while the apprehensions he had excited were still fresh and undiminished. He dispatched a courier to Fremont with orders to join him on the Plains of the Mesa, and on the 11th of August commenced his march to meet Castro. The most constant vigilance was now necessary to prevent surprise. The enemy’s skirmishers were almost daily in sight, and it was impossible to estimate their numbers. The only provisions with which the commodore was supplied were those afforded by the cattle, which were driven along in hollow squares. The artillery was dragged over hill and plain, and through rugged valleys, slowly and painfully, yet with the utmost alacrity. A cheerful and courageous spirit animated the little host, inspired by a leader in whom they felt the most unbounded confidence. The distance between San Pedro and Los Angeles was thirty miles, and was traversed in a single day by Stockton and his little army. But before they could come up, Castro, advised by his spies of their march, despite his previous gasconade and boastful threats, and no doubt mindful of the terrible engine of destruction seen by his commissioners, broke up his camp, disbanded his forces, and fled with all possible expedition to Sonora. Between seven hundred and a thousand mounted troops strongly posted, with seven pieces of artillery, dissolved and disappeared before the daring demonstration of the American commander, at the head of only about three hundred seamen and marines, as poorly equipped, and as motley and as curious a specimen of military organization as ever before took the field, to meet in an unknown country any civilized foe. Colton, in his “Three years in California,” says: “Gen. Castro had taken up his position just outside the pueblo, on an elevation which commands the town and adjacent country. He was well supplied with field pieces, and had a force of seven hundred men. Com. Stockton landed at San Pedro with three hundred seamen and marines from the Congress, and marched against him. His route, which extended some thirty miles, lay through several narrow passes, which Gen. Castro might easily have defended against a much superior force. But the general kept in his entrenched camp; and informed the commodore by a courier, ‘that if he marched upon the town he would find it the grave of his men.’ ‘Then,’ said the commodore, ‘tell the general to have the bells ready to toll in the morning at eight o’clock, as I shall be there at that time.’ He was there; but Castro in the mean time had broken up his camp, mounted with an armed band and fled.”

Stockton, who was subsequently joined by Fremont, took possession of Los Angeles on the 13th of August. A number of Mexicans of high rank surrendered themselves prisoners of war, among whom were Don José Maria Flores and Don Andreas Pico, who were permitted to go at large on their parole of honor not to bear arms against the United States; a clemency which they abused afterwards by violating their parole. Commodore Stockton now by proclamation declared California a Territory of the United States; and as all resistance had ceased, proceeded to organize a civil and military government, appointing various civil functionaries and establishing provisional rules of administration, himself retaining for the present the positions of commander-in-chief and governor. The people were invited to assemble on the 15th September to choose officers under the existing form of government. A tariff of duties on imports was prescribed, and the inhabitants were encouraged to resume their usual occupations. Thus, in less than one month from the time when Stockton commenced his operations, California was conquered, in the face of a superior hostile army; that army vanquished and dispersed, and the government of the conquerors quietly imposed on the country. In establishing a local government for California, Com. Stockton displayed the discretion, abilities, discrimination, and judgment of the skilful statesman, as conspicuously as he had exhibited on the field the prudence, enterprise, and valor of the soldier.

This march of Stockton upon the capital of California, though it was accomplished without a battle, or the loss of a single man, was nevertheless performed under circumstances of great difficulty as well as danger. A less enterprising officer would have contented himself with protecting those places on the coast already occupied; and a less penetrating and comprehensive mind would not have appreciated the importance of suppressing all demonstrations of hostility in every part of this extensive territory. The moral effect of Stockton’s march on Ciudad de los Angeles upon the minds of the Californians was equivalent to a triumphant victory, and the effusion of streams of blood. It broke down the spirit of resistance, destroyed all confidence in the courage or capacity of the Californian generals, and inspired the inhabitants with terror of an enemy who moved with such celerity and boldness, while his humane conduct reconciled the people to the change of government. The conception of such an expedition, into the heart of an enemy’s unknown country, with a force composed principally of sailors, unaccustomed to the fatigues and obstacles of a long march; to encounter an opposing army of vastly superior numbers, upon their own soil, in defence of their own country, well armed, the best horsemen, and mounted on the finest horses in the world, required the most intrepid courage, indomitable energy, fertility of resource, and self-reliance, such as we find only combined in minds of the highest order, and characters cast in a heroic mould. Yet despite all the difficulties with which he had to contend, in the modest language of his despatch to the government, in less than one month from the time he assumed command, he had “chased the Mexican army more than three hundred miles along the coast, pursued them into the interior of their own country,—routed and dispersed them, and secured the territory to the United States,—ended the war, restored peace and harmony among the people, and put a civil government into successful operation.”

While these events were occurring, official intelligence was received by Stockton of war between Mexico and the United States. On hearing which, he left fifty men to garrison Los Angeles, and a still smaller force at Santa Barbara and San Diego, and proceeded north to look after the condition of affairs in that quarter. At Monterey he was informed that Sutter’s settlement was threatened by one thousand Walla-Walla Indians. He at once sailed for San Francisco with the intention of making a demonstration against this new enemy. But on his arrival there, he found that the reports of Indian aggressions were unfounded; and after an interview with some of the Indian chiefs he ascertained their friendly disposition, and confirmed their amicable opinions by such assurance as secured their subsequent neutrality.

Everywhere on his progress through the country, the commodore was greeted with an enthusiastic welcome, and hailed as the conqueror and deliverer of the territory. At San Francisco, the entire population of that place and the adjacent country gave him a formal reception—men, women and children marching in procession to low-water mark to meet him—and addressing him in terms of the most exalted praise and ardent devotion. His triumphant advent was celebrated with a banquet and ball, and the wildest demonstrations of joy and satisfaction. The industrious, sober, and peacefully disposed part of the inhabitants were glad to be relieved from the domination of the cruel and plundering chiefs and governors, who alternately ravaged the country, contended with each other, and oppressed the people. They soon perceived the advantages of security to life and property, which they never had enjoyed until the flag of the United States was floating on their soil.

The disposition of the inhabitants of the northern part of California in favor of the new government was particularly manifested at this time, on the occasion of a rumor that a large force was being collected in Sonora for the purpose of re-conquering the country. They exhibited the utmost repugnance to any such event, offering the commodore all needed assistance in their power to contribute, and displaying their fears with the earnestness of perfect sincerity. Having called on Stockton to express their apprehensions, he assured them, in a characteristic harangue, of his protection, and confirmed their confidence in his determination to preserve his conquest : “You tell me,” he said, “that a thousand Sonorians are on their way to encounter my men. Be not alarmed. Ten thousand Sonorians could not excite our fears or arrest our progress. The sons of liberty are on their way, and God alone can stay their march.” They returned with this assurance, satisfied that under such a leader no reverse could happen which would endanger their present security. In this state of flattering tranquillity and general acquiescence with the new order of things, prevailing over the greater part of California, but more particularly at the north, Stockton was justified in believing, so far as appearances went, that the conquest of California was complete. The civil government was in successful operation, and seemed fully adequate to the exigencies of the country.

Such being the condition and aspect of affairs, the active mind and patriotic impulses of Stockton induced him to seek another field of useful service. He conceived the vast, magnificent and bold design of recruiting a force of volunteers in California from among the American population then about settling in the territory, sailing with them to Acapulco, and then striking across the continent to unite with the forces of General Taylor, then, as he supposed, approaching the City of Mexico.

The following is a copy of one of his confidential despatches revealing his purpose: —


U. S. Frigate Congress, Bay of Monterey,
September 19th, 1846.

“DEAR SIR:—I have sent Major Fremont to the North to see how many men he could recruit with a view to embark them for Mazatlan or Acapulco, where, if possible, I intend to land and fight our way as far on to the City of Mexico as I can.

“With this object in view, your orders of this date in relation to having the squadron in such places as may enable me to get them together as soon as possible, are given.

“You will on your arrival on the coast get all the information you can in reference to this matter.

“I would that we might shake hands with General Taylor at the gates of Mexico.

“Your obedient servant,
“R. F. STOCKTON, Commodore. &c.
To CAPT. WM. MERVINE, U. S. Frigate Savannah

Certainly a more daring, brilliant, and master-stroke of military sagacity, has seldom ever been conceived. It reminds us of the famous exploits of the most renowned heroes of ancient and modern times. Instructions were given Col. Fremont, who had previously been appointed military commandant of California, to raise the necessary force to execute this bold design. But while he was engaged in the performance of these orders, intelligence from the south arrived which compelled the abandonment of the proposed expedition, and concentrated all the attention of Stockton upon the theatre of his recent success.

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

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