California Bound: The Grigsby-Ide Party, Part III

William Ide’s grave marker in Monroeville. | Courtesy Thomas Crook

William Brown Ide and his fellow American pioneers who arrived with the 1845 overland migration into Alta California were well aware of the numerous threats issued by the Mexican government that circulated during the winter of 1845-46. The rainy season made travel throughout the region virtually impassible so the Americans had little to fear from the Mexican Army until spring. Despite being significantly outnumbered, thoughts of a fight for independence were percolating among the settlements.

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Read more about the Mexican-American War

That winter, William L. Todd, nephew of lawyer Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, wrote a letter to his father in Illinois stating: “The Mexicans talk every spring and fall here of driving the foreigners out of the country. They must do it this year or they never can do it. There will be revolution before long, and probably this country will be re-annexed (sic) into the United States. If here, I will take a hand in it.”

On June 15, the Americans raised the Bear Flag to express their desire for a sovereign republic within the Mexican province of California and as a first step in absorbing the Pacific territory into the United States.

In May 1846, a messenger arrived from the south to alert Ide and the other emigrants who lived in the countryside around the old Spanish Mission at Sonoma that General Don Castro was leading a regiment north from Monterey to purge the invading Americans who had entered the country illegally without passports or permission. Fearing for their families, Ide, with his son William and some other men, searched out Gen. John C. Frémont and his exploration party who were encamped to the north at the Marysville Buttes. Frémont’s men were experienced and well-armed, but the Pathfinder told Ide that as an American officer he could not attack the Mexicans except in self-defense. The two countries were not at war — yet. Some of the men under Frémont’s command, including guide Kit Carson, requested to be released so they could return to fight with Ide at Sonoma. But Frémont refused as he was expecting to return east to the United States in a couple of weeks.

Despite disappointment in Frémont’s reaction, Ide turned south toward Mission Sonoma, a walled adobe plaza used as a Mexican military post and fortress, recruiting any American men he could find along the way, and stockpiling guns and ammunition. By the time the ragtag squad reached Sonoma on June 14, 1846, it consisted of only about 24 men.

John Bidwell, a future California congressman, brigadier general of the State Militia and presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party, described the revolutionaries: “Some were settlers, some hunters; some were good men, and some about as rough specimens of humanity as it would be possible to find anywhere.”

With Frémont’s blessing, the outnumbered but undaunted Americans captured the Mexican garrison and surrounded the home of its commander, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. After detaining Vallejo, along with his brother and two other Mexican officials, the prisoners were escorted under guard to Sutter’s Fort near the junction of the Sacramento and American rivers. Ironically, Gen. Vallejo backed the American movement for an independent state and became an ardent friend and supporter of the United States when war eventually broke out.

Ide and his men organized themselves into the Bear Flag Party, while retaining possession of the Sonoma barracks along with its guns and ammunition. They styled themselves into an independent government and proclaimed the birth of a new California Republic, electing Ide as governor and Commander-in-Chief.

On June 15, the Americans raised the Bear Flag to express their desire for a sovereign republic within the Mexican province of California and as a first step in absorbing the Pacific territory into the United States. Todd designed the Bear Flag using brown and black paint to illustrate a grizzly bear. It was so crudely rendered that the Mexicans wondered why the Americans had drawn a pig on their flag. The contemporary California state flag is roughly based on this early prototype. John Grigsby, Ide’s former co-captain of an 1845 wagon train, joined the action from his home in nearby Napa Valley and was commissioned captain of the Sonoma garrison.

In honor of this illegal but unstoppable revolt against a corrupt and weak Mexican presence in California, Ide wrote and issued a long-winded proclamation that appealed to the dissatisfied residents in the impoverished province. Ide’s key message was unmistakable: “The Commander-in-Chief at Sonoma [Ide] gives his inviolable pledge to all persons in California not bearing arms, or instigating others to take up arms against him, that they shall not be disturbed in their persons, property, religion, or social relations to each other, by men under my command…. And he hereby invites all good and patriotic citizens in California to assist him to establish and perpetuate a liberal, just and honorable government, which shall secure civil, religious and personal liberty to all.” His rousing call to arms inspired both American settlers and Mexican nationals to overthrow the hated military authority that leaders in Mexico City and Monterey were using to exploit Californians.

Meanwhile, Frémont and his force of 72 men were preparing to leave Sutter’s Fort for the east as previously planned, but instead this California Battalion deployed to Sonoma to support the Bear Flag uprising. At this point Ide was concerned for his family’s safety at their ranch near Red Bluff, but with Frémont’s arrival the revolution needed him more. Frémont quickly took command from Ide and the contingent marched south to Los Angeles, encountering little resistance. U.S. naval war ships had anchored in San Francisco and Monterey bays and raised the American flag there; five months later U.S General Stephen W. Kearny arrived in California with a remnant of his once formidable fighting force astride worn-out mules. In his first battle against Californio Lancers on well-trained horses, Kearny’s forces were soundly beaten and surrounded until U.S. marines and sailors arrived to turn the tide. The Mexican-American War was under way.

The Bear Flag Revolt was the first step in the conflict that led to the forcible appropriation of California from Mexico by the United States. Ide was leader of that insurgency, and thus for a brief time, president of the independent Bear Flag Republic during its 25-day existence. Historians of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints like to point out that the head of state of California’s first Republic was a Mormon. Ide later became prominent in the affairs of Colusa County and held many elected offices, including probate judge, county treasurer, surveyor, clerk, recorder and chairman of the board of county commissioners. He died of smallpox at Monroeville in Colusa County on Dec. 20, 1852, aged 56 years.