CALIFORNIA (KTXL) — The California state flag that we know today was not adopted by the state legislature until 1953, but how did a bear, a red star and the words “California Republic” find themselves on the state flag?
California was born in revolt, much as the United States had done on the opposite coast only 70 years earlier. As more settlers from the United States made their way west, they claimed land in Mexican-controlled California without being granted to do so by Mexican authorities.
In April 1846, Mexican Governor Jose Castro said that any non-naturalized Mexicans that do not purchase land that they lay claim to would be expelled from the country. The settlers saw this as a direct threat and went to United States Army Captain John C. Fremont for advice.
Fremont said he could not intervene, but said the settlers should resist.
So when the settlers learned in June 1846 that General Mariano Vallejo was sending 170 horses to Governor Castro, the settlers decided to intercept the horses.
On June 9, 10 men captured the horses before they made it to Castro in Santa Clara. With the new horses, on June 14, 20 settlers attacked the lightly defended city of Sonoma where General Vallejo was stationed, took him as prisoner and sent him to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.
The Mexican flag was dropped and the Bear Flag – made by William Todd, nephew of First Lady Mary Todd-Lincoln – was raised over the city of Sonoma.
The Bear Flag featured a red star in the top left corner, a bear in the center, the words “California Republic” below that, and a red stripe at the bottom of the flag.
This would gain the settlers the name of “Bears” due to the flag’s design.
The Bear Flag would only fly for a short time as the American flag quickly replaced it when Captain Fremont and his men moved into Sonoma in preparation for a counter-attack by Castro.
The revolt would eventually lead to Mexico’s claims over the territory to be questioned and eventually cause Mexico to lose the Pacific Coast to the United States.
The original Bear Flag was lost in 1906 during the city-wide fire in San Francisco. However, this flag was adopted as the state flag in 1911.
Sources vary on what the red star could mean. Some say it imitates the “lone star” of Texas, while others say it represents sovereignty.
The words “California Republic” represent the revolutionaries’ intentions of creating a self-ruled republic out of the jurisdiction of the Mexican Government.
The bear was iconic of the many California grizzly bears that were once found throughout the coastal range and much of the rest of the state.
One of these now-extinct subspecies of grizzly bear inspired the image that now flies on California’s modern state flag.
In 1889, as California’s grizzly population was being hunted to extinction from its previous population of 10,000, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst ordered that a bear in Ventura County be captured. The 1,100-pound grizzly, known as Monarch, was captured in 1889 and for the next 22 years lived its life in captivity.
As its fellow wild bears went extinct, Monarch was shuffled from place to place, calling such Bay Area locations as Woodward Gardens, Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Zoo home.
When Monarch died in 1911 in Golden Gate Park, he was the last bear to live in Golden Gate Park. Monarch’s pelt was stuffed and was on display at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco until 2012.
In 1953, the image of the bear on California’s state flag was standardized based on an 1855 watercolor painting of Monarch by Charles Nahl, as well as the green plot of grass Monarch is standing on.