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When California (Briefly) Became Its Own Nation

September 9, 2020 in History

By Stephen Wood

Following the Bear Flag Revolt of 1846, California existed as an independent nation—for 25 days.

At dawn on June 14, 1846, a ragtag group of about 30 gun-toting Americans entered Sonoma, a small town in the Mexican territory of Alta California. Prepared to take the town by force, they instead sat for brandy with Col. Mariano Vallejo of the Mexican army and accepted his surrender. For the next 25 days, California was an independent nation: the California Republic.

Known as the Bear Flag Revolt, a reference to the short-lived republic’s flag, this event was something between an American invasion and a miniature war of independence. Though the fighting was limited and the country it established lasted less than a month, the Bear Flag Revolt led directly to the American acquisition of what is now its most populous state.

Rebellion Begins Brewing in Texas

In the mid-19th century, Mexico still controlled vast swaths of the what is now the Southwest United States. In 1835, a revolt began in the Mexican province of Texas. Although the United States was officially neutral, Americans like Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston led a rebellion against Mexican rule, and hundreds of Americans, including members of the U.S. Army, joined the fight. The result was the Republic of Texas, an independent nation ruled by American settlers, which was then absorbed into the United States in 1846—triggering the Mexican-American War.

According to Dr. Linda Heidenreich, whose book This Land Was Mexican Once examines the Latinx experience of the Bear Flag Revolt and similar insurrections, the annexation of Texas made it clear to the Californios—Mexican residents of the province of Alta California—that their government was too poor, too unstable and too weak to stop American settlers from overrunning California. Some argued in favor of independence. Others considered inviting the United States to take over.

“If you read the reports of these meetings [of Californios], these people saw it coming,” Heidenriech says. “They were scattering for a plan, and it just wasn’t there.”

The U.S. Sets Its Sights on California

American explorer, military officer, and politician John Charles Fremont.

Enter Charles Frémont, a captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. Newly elected President James K. Polk, whose annexation of Texas was about to set off the Mexican-American War, sent Frémont on an expedition to survey the area of the Great Basin and the …read more


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