Monday, October 18, 2010

William Ide: Bear Flag Revolt; Reenactment

William B. Ide

I always had a hankering for moving West. I was born in Vermont, but soon after becoming an adult I headed west, for the state of Kentucky. From there I moved to Ohio and then to Illinois. I married Susan Haskell and together we had 9 children.
I lived close to Springfield, Illinois, and while living there I helped nominate Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet, for president of the United States. I also worked on writing his presidential platform. However when he was assassinated in June of 1844, I knew it was time for me to leave Illinois. I sold my farm and many possessions, and was able to outfit three wagons for my family. We also had a small herd of cattle to sustain us on the route. We initially traveled to Independence, Missouri, where we joined a company of other settlers headed for Oregon Territory.
It wasn’t until arriving at Fort Hall, that I met the mountain man, Old Caleb Greenwood. He convinced me, and a small group of settlers, to change our destination to California. We formed the Grigsby-Ide party, and headed to Fort Sutter, arriving in the Fall of 1845. Coming up the face of the Sierra was the most difficult part of our trek. Old Greenwood had determined we would have to take every wagon apart, and lift them by pulleys, one at a time. He had traveled the route the previous year and this is what they had done. I surveyed the route, and determined we could still use the oxen, but only on the more level parts of the mountain. We moved oxen to each of the areas with less incline. We used pulleys for the steepest areas, but where able to move our wagons up more quickly with the assistance of the oxen.
I had taken up residence North of Fort Sutter. We were allowed to settle under special arrangements with the Mexican government, and under the jurisdiction of General Vallejo.
During the spring of the following year men came to our door, telling how the Mexican government was going to force new emigrants out of California. The day I heard this, I took up my musket and joined a force of men who where going to intervene in this situation.
We visited the camp of John Fremont, a United States Captain in the area doing survey work with a group of about 50 men. Captain Fremont presented the plan of “Neutral Conquest.” Captain Fremont did not want to be directly involved in any confrontation with the Mexican government, but he was willing to protect those who might be involved in such a plan. He suggested that if some of the leading Californios were taken prisoner, then General Don Castro, the Mexican governor, and his men might be drawn into battle trying to rescue them. This would result in general hostilities between the United States and Mexico. We determined to go to Sonoma, and there capture the Mexican government officials.
Our group of 33 men arrived in Sonoma early morning of June 14, 1846. We went to the home of General Vallejo and demanded his surrender. Three men went into his home to work out the arrangements. General Vallejo took his time, dressing in his finest military uniform. You can imagine the contrast between his dress, and that of our group. Our clothing was well worn, and some of our group were mountain men who wore buckskins. General Vallejo also wanted change in the government of California, and said we did not need to take him prisoner. However it was felt best that he be returned, along with other leaders, to Captain Fremont.
At this time, our lack of official standing became an issue. No one had written orders from Captain Fremont (he did not want to leave any trace which would lead to him) and it was felt best that we disband and seek the protection of Captain Fremont. I had a sense our work was more than “Neutral Conquest” but one of independence, and so addressed the men: “Saddle no horse for me… I will lay my bones here, before I will take upon myself the ignominy of commencing an honorable work, and then flee like cowards, like thieves, when no enemy is in sight. In vain will you say you had honorable motives! Who will believe it? Flee this day, and the longest life cannot wear off your disgrace! Choose ye! Choose ye this day what will ye be! We are robbers, or, or we must be conquerors!”
After this speech the men rallied around me, making me their Commander in Chief. I immediately ordered that we should take the barracks. In a moment all was secured. 18 prisoners, nine brass cannon, 250 stands of arms and tons of copper shot, and other public property of the value of 10 or 12 thousand dollars was seized and held in trust for the public benefit.
We raised a flag in the town plaza proclaiming our independence. The flag was made by William Todd, who accompanied us from Illinois. He is the nephew of the wife of the lawyer Abe Lincoln. The flag had a lone star, similar to Texas which won its freedom from Mexico, and became a part of the United States. The grizzly bear was chosen as an emblem of strength and unyielding resistance. So we were known as the “osos” or “Bear Flaggers.” When General Vallejo saw our flag, he said it looked more like a pig than a bear. Upon the flag we wrote California Republic, declaring our independence from Mexican rule.
Our group numbered only numbered only 24 men as a group of men took the prisoners and themselves to the protection of Captain Fremont at Fort Sutter. And so we prepared for our own “Alamo.” We quickly set the barracks to order. I divided the men into two companies. The 1st rifle company went to cleaning the arms and repairing and loading them. The 1st artillery company set the canon to defend the fort, loading them doubly with grape and canister. We also set to obtain supplies for the manning of the fort.
But what is independence, without a declaration. I took it upon myself to write our declaration. I had some experience from my days in Illinois. So between one and three a.m. on the morning of June 15 I wrote: “TO ALL PERSONS, INHABITANTS OF THE COUNTY OF SONOMA AND COUNTRY AROUND; REQUESTING THEM TO REMAIN AT PEACE; TO PURSUE THEIR RIGHTFUL OCCUPATIONS WITHOUT FEAR OF MOLESTATION.” I wrote that we meant no harm to those who did not take arms against us. I then put forward our case: First to protect our women and children. We had been invited to come to California with the hopes of a republican government, but upon arriving found a military despotism, which threatened us with removal by force, and demanded we leave our property, and thus be despoiled of our means of defense or flight. Next to overthrow a government which had robbed the missions, appropriated their properties, and which had shamefully oppressed and ruined the laboring inhabitants of California with tariffs. And finally to establish and perpetuate a liberal, just and honorable Government, religious and personal liberty; which shall insure the security of life and property; which shall detect and punish crime and injustice; which shall encourage industry, virtue and literature; and which shall foster agriculture, manufacture and mechanism, by guaranteeing freedom of commerce. I proclaimed that we relied on the justice of our cause, the favor of heaven, the good sense of the people of California, and our own bravery and love of Liberty for our hope of success. I further premised that a government to be prosperous “…must originate among its people: its officers should be its servants, and its glory its common reward.”
This proclamation we caused to be translated and sent among the people. We were quickly reinforced by 30-40 locals. Over time our numbers continued to swell with those who wanted freedom. I understand when the men of General Castro, our enemy, read this proclamation, half of them, over 300 men, deserted.
For a time we thought we might have our own “Alamo.” Two of our men, who were conducting reconnaissance were taken prisoner by a group of local citizens and murdered. William Todd was also taken prisoner, but we managed to rescue him. Captain Fremont took revenge upon the local population, executing three Californios, who had nothing to do with the aforementioned murders. Those responsible for the murders actually went free.
One day it was reported that General Castro’s troops were marching upon us. I was in front of the fort, waiting to give the order for the canon to fire. As the troops approached, I recognized the voice of Kit Carson, on of Captain Freemont’s scouts. I quickly gave the order for our forces to stand down. In this manner General Freemont was saved.
Our government effectively was the presiding body over Northern California for almost a month. Our greatest criticism came from Captain Fremont who said I was trying to take California for the Mormons. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Captain Fremont came to Sonoma, we turned the government over to him, and he was assigned by Commodore Stockton to pursue General Castro’s forces south. I received no commission of him, but perceived my duty and continued on as a private. I marched with Fremont’s forces to Monterey, where I was discharged, broke and looking more like a beggar than President of a Republic. I was able to get passage on a boat, and return to my family. There I farmed, but later became involved in the government of Colusa County, serving as judge.


  1. Ide was never called President of the Republic, but Commander or Commanding General. He returned from southern California and became a surveyor for several months in the Sonoma area where he applied to buy land and bring his family. He also should be remembered for writing a short history of the Bear Flag Revolt with John Nash and John Grigsby while still in Sonoma.

  2. Julie Welch: The rugged band of thugs......well, if there was ever an event representing Manifest Destiny....this was it.

  3. Reed Russell Great article on Ide.
    Mormon Leader of the Bear Flag revolt, Mormon Historical Studies