The grizzly bear on California’s state flag can trace its origins to a revolt that unfolded in 1846 during the early days of the Mexican-American War. California was still owned by Mexico at the time, but it had experienced an influx of American settlers, few of whom had bothered to obtain legal land grants from the authorities. As rumors swirled about a coming conflict between the United States and Mexico, many pioneers grew worried that they would be expelled from the territory or attacked by Mexican forces. The situation only heated up in the spring of 1846, when the famed explorer and U.S. military officer Captain John C. Fremont arrived in California at the head of a 60-man geographical survey. Fremont was supposed to be on a mission to locate the source of the Arkansas River, but he wasted little time in encouraging the local American settlers to carry out an uprising. With Fremont’s tacit approval, a small band of farmers, hunters and mountain men from the Sacramento Valley resolved to strike a preemptive blow against the Mexicans.
On June 10, a handful of settlers led by a frontiersman named Ezekiel “Stuttering Zeke” Merritt seized a herd of 170 horses owned by the Mexican government. Four days later, another band of around 30 men captured the town of Sonoma and arrested its commandant, a respected Mexican General named Mariano Vallejo. Under the leadership of Merritt and another settler named William Ide, they declared independence from Mexico and announced the creation of a new “California Republic.” To make it official, they fashioned a crude flag with a picture of a grizzly bear and a lone red star and hoisted it over Sonoma. The rebel pioneers soon became known as the “Bear Flaggers.”
Following the capture of Sonoma, Captain Fremont finally took an active role in the uprising and assumed command of the settlers. The Bear Flaggers proceeded to occupy San Francisco on July 2, but their revolt would prove short-lived. News arrived that the Mexican-American War had officially been declared a month earlier, and on July 7, U.S. Navy forces under Commodore John D. Sloat invaded California and captured Monterey. The Bear Flaggers—most of whom favored American annexation—promptly abandoned their rebellion and cast their lot with the United States. After flying for just a few short weeks, the flag of the California Republic was lowered and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. California would go on to enter the union in 1850 after being ceded to the U.S. in the treaty ending Mexican-American War. In 1911, it adopted a version of the Bear Flaggers’ grizzly bear standard as its official state flag.