At dawn on June 14, 1846, thirty-three heavily-armed Americans gathered at the fortified adobe home of General Mariano Vallejo, on the north side of Sonoma's Plaza. These men -- some from the Grigsby-Ide party of settlers, some mountain men and explorers, but all displeased with Mexican rule -- pounded on the adobe door and loudly demanded the General come out and surrender the little fortress to them. Vallejo quickly donned his dress uniform, then opened the door and invited three representatives of the group in for breakfast and wine. The General's military bearing and immaculate uniform must have contrasted starkly with the clothing of his "visitors." Some of the Americans wore buckskins, others wore their work clothes, still others wore only what rags they had picked up or made during their travels. Robert Semple, a member of the group, later noted in his memoirs that the party "was as rough a looking set of men as one could imagine."
Because Vallejo realized that Mexican rule was inadequate to manage an area as large and rich as California, he had been hoping the United States would annex the region. He told the Americans that morning to consider him one of them. The group was wary; they respectfully informed him he was under arrest and sent him to Sutter's Fort for safeguarding. Vallejo would eventually return to Sonoma after the U.S. took control of California. He would go on to serve as a delegate to the California Constitutional Convention, and later as a State Senator.
Having won such a surprising and effortless victory, the Americans, (now twenty-four strong), were at a temporary loss. Some suggested looting the adobe, which was also an arsenal, but William Ide made an impassioned plea for restraint, "Choose ye this day what you will be! We are robbers, or we must be conquerors!"
To legitimize their conquest, the rebels decided to raise a new flag over the plaza. By most accounts, the making of this flag was overseen by William L. Todd, a nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the future president. A Californio woman donated a rectangular piece of very light brown muslin. The wife of John Sears, one of the Grigsby-Ide party, tore a four-inch wide strip from a red petticoat and sewed it to the muslin, making a stripe along the bottom reminiscent of the stripes on the American flag. Todd then drew a star in the upper left corner (some say in solidarity with Texas, then also fighting a war with Mexico) and a crude rendition of a grizzly bear next to it, using for both a brownish mixture of brick dust, linseed oil, and Venetian Red paint. The words CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC were written in black in the middle, to the right of the star.
Why a grizzly bear? Some historians say the choice was made to enrage and intimidate the Californios, who feared the grizzly more than any other predator. Others accounts say the mountain men favored the grizzley because it was the fiercest and most determined fighter in the animal kingdom. Whatever the reasons behind its choosing, the grizzly quickly became the symbol of the new Republic -- also known, then, as the Bear Flag Republic. The grizzly remains the symbol of California to this day.
In his memoirs, the Recuerdos (Recollections), General Vallejo calls the flag's design "strange" and says "the bear looked more like a pig than a bear." No one is sure exactly what the original Bear Flag looked like, as it was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. While there are extensive contemporary descriptions of flags of that period, many differ with each other as to the actual designs.
The Bear Flag was adopted as the official flag of California in 1911. The current design is the result of several makeovers, the last by prominent California historian and artist Donald Kelley in 1953.