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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Did rebels or heroes invade Vallejo’s home?

Jerry Bowen

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Alcohol had a role in negotiations of his capitulation

In an article I wrote in January 2000, I told the overall story of the Bear Flag Rebellion.

At the beginning of the story I wrote: “Monuments have been built to them and writers have both praised and denounced their actions. They have been variously described as rebels, heroes, traitors and patriots. Some historians and writers might be said to be biased depending on your point of view, and so it is even today. As always, there is more than one side to any story.”

There have been many different versions of the events that unfolded at Sonoma during the Bear Flag Rebellion. Recently, I came across a pretty detailed description of what the rebels did during the invasion of Vallejo’s ranch that was well-documented in the 1938 edition of the California Historical Society Quarterly by George Tays.

With the details provided by Tays, the readers can make up their own minds as to whether they were “rebels, heroes, traitors or patriots,” or maybe a little of each and whether they believe this account could be more than creative writing.

During the April 2, 1846, Junta (A Latin legislative assembly or council) in Monterey, Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo put in writing that he favored the American takeover of California. Part of the statement included, “My opinion is made up that we must persevere in throwing off the galling yoke of Mexico. ... We have indeed taken the first step by electing our own governor but another remains to be taken, and that is annexation to the United States.”

It is no wonder that Mariano Vallejo was completely unprepared for an invasion of his home by a group of Americans two months later.

At dawn on June 14, 1846, a rag-tag group of 33 sinister-looking men rode into Mariano Vallejo’s hometown of Sonoma. For a long time, Vallejo had maintained a squad of soldiers at the Sonoma garrison at his own expense, but because the Mexican government didn’t reimburse him, Vallejo had released the soldiers from their duties in October 1845.

The intruders, who were under the impression that they were acting under orders, or at least on the advice of Captain Fremont, rode into Sonoma without fear of challenge and surrounded Vallejo’s home.

Aroused from a deep sleep by a loud banging on his front door, Vallejo jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. Outside his door were a rough, sinister, ugly-looking group of men garbed in dirty, greasy, buckskin shirts.

Always the official person, he donned his uniform, descended to the ground floor, and opened the door. Immediately the room was filled with the mob of armed men. Raising his voice above the hubbub, Vallejo asked for quiet.

“Gentlemen! What is it that you would have of me, and who is the leader among you?” he demanded.

“We’re all leaders here!” was the response, so Vallejo asked, “Who is the person among you with whom I shall deal?”

When trapper Ezekiel Merritt stepped forward, Vallejo turned to him and asked with a touch of sarcasm: “Mr. Merritt, to what happy circumstances shall I attribute the visit of so many exalted personages?”

Merritt was reported to have replied, “I and the rest of these gentlemen in my company have resolved not to continue to live any longer under the Mexican Government, whose representatives, Castro and Pico, do not respect the rights of Americans who live in this Department. Castro from time to time has issued proclamations treating us all as highwaymen, and so to put an end to so many insults; we have resolved to declare California independent. Towards you and your family we have no other feeling than regard, but we find ourselves under the necessity of taking you and your family prisoners.”

Vallejo’s family members, Salvador Vallejo, Jos de la Rosa, Jacob P. Leese, and Victor Prudon, walked in to find out what was happening and were immediately arrested.

At about the same time, a Canadian member of the mob, Oliver Beaulieu, grabbed a barrel of brandy and distributed it to the rest of Merritt’s mob. Fueled with liquor courage, the mob began to shout, “Let us loot!” To his credit, Dr. Robert Semple, another man of the invading force, stepped to the door and proclaimed, “I shall shoot the first man who through robbery casts a blot upon this expedition, to whose origin I have contributed in carrying forward a political end. As long as there is any life left in me, I shall not permit it to become a looting expedition.”

A few others including John Grigsby and Andrew Kelsey backed up Semple’s threat, and some semblance of order was restored for the time being.

Ever the gentleman that the Spanish were so well-known for, Vallejo then remarked that there wasn’t any necessity to be unfriendly because he also believed in what they were attempting to accomplish.

Vallejo sent a servant for glasses and bottles of his best brandy and wine and invited the leaders to sit down and discuss the situation. With a little stimulant in their bellies, both invaders and prisoners soon relaxed. With Leese and Knight acting as interpreters, it was soon apparent that they had no official leader and though the Americans regarded themselves as a revolutionary party, they had no plan and didn’t know what they intended to achieve beyond the seizure of government property, arms, and officers. They acknowledged they had no official leader, and most of them merely wanted to obtain arms, animals and hostages and to deprive the “enemy” of his resources.

Gen. Vallejo suggested they draw up articles of capitulation as the drinks continued to flow.

As they discussed the articles, the crowd outside became more inebriated and impatient with the delays inside and decided to elect a new leader. After voting was complete, John Grigsby was elected, and he then was required to go into the house and, “hurry them up.”

Surprised by the friendly atmosphere inside, Grigsby was taken somewhat aback. He informed Merritt that he was the new leader, and somewhat against his will, was invited to sit with the rest and have a drink. One drink led to the next, and before long Grigsby also forgot the object of his mission.

After another hour of “negotiations,” the outside crowd again became impatient and sent in William Ide to find out what was happening and to report back.

As Tay describes it in his account, “What a sight greeted his eyes as he entered! He found that Merritt and his party had fallen willing victims to Vallejo’s hospitality. On one side of the table sat Salvador Vallejo and Prudon, sober as judges. There also sat Gen. Vallejo, who never drank. And there sat Merritt, his head resting upon is arms as he bowed over the table. There sat Knight, the ferryman of the Sacramento, interpreter for the expedition, with head bowed. Beside him sat the newly made captain, John Grigsby, who was now too full for utterance, across the table were William Fallon and Sam Kelsey, both showing the results of conviviality.

“In another part of the room sat Leese and Dr. Semple still at work on the articles of capitulation. Tall, gigantic Dr. Semple, 6 feet, 8 inches, in his stocking feet, who sat with his long limbs curled and knotted about the legs of his chair, dentist, printer, usually confident and intelligent, was scarcely able to push his pen along the paper he was signing.”

The articles of Capitulation, written in both Spanish and English read as follows:

“Be it known by these presents, that, having been surprised by a numerous armed force which took me prisoner, as well as the chiefs and officers belonging to the garrison of this post, of which the said force took possession, having found it absolutely defenceless, myself as well as the undersigned officers pledge our word of honor that, being under the guaranties of prisoners of war, we will not take up arms for or against the said armed force, from which we have received the present suggestion, and a signed writ which guarantees our lives, families, and properties, and those of all the residents of this jurisdiction, so long as we make no opposition.

“(Signed) M.G. Vallejo; Victor Prudon; Salvador Vallejo”

Several copies of this were made by Salvador Vallejo and Victor Prudon. The English part, of which several copies were made by Semple, read as follows:

“We the undersigned, having resolved to establish a government upon republican principles, in connection with others of our fellow-citizens, and having taken up arms to support it, we have taken three Mexican officers, Gen. M.G. Vallejo, Lieut-col. Victor Prudon, and Capt. Salvador Vallejo, having formed and published to the world no regular plan of government, feel it our duty to say that it is not our intention to take or injure any person who is not found in opposition to the cause, nor will we take or destroy the property of private individuals further than is necessary for our immediate support.

“(Signed) Ezekiel Merritt; William Fallon; Samuel Kelsey.”

In my next column we will see what the rest of the rebels thought of the Articles and what happened to Vallejo afterward.