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article number 720
article date 05-31-2018
copyright 2018 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
San Francisco - Work Projects Administration History: Part 1, From Monastic Missions to the Yankee Invasion
by Work Projects Administration

From the 1940 Work Projects Administration book, San Francisco, The Bay and its Cities, with 1970’s updates.

This article is randomly decorated with pictures from the many sections of the [same] book.

* * *


The Bay region, despite a half century of misrule that combined paternalism with neglect, had attained economic independence when on Jan. 4, 1823, the Mexican Republic issued a colonization decree for Alta California. The decade that would elapse before the secularization of the missions was to witness the heyday of Hispano-Mexican colonization on the Pacific Coast.

Mission San Jose in 1825 owned 62,000 head of cattle, as many sheep, and other livestock.

In 1828 Mission Santa Clara had, besides other livestock, 14,500 head of cattle and 15,500 sheep.

Mission Dolores’ economic importance was, however, eclipsed by the cove of Yerba Buena to which the Bay area missions and ranchos brought their produce in oxcarts for trade with foreign ships. Besides their great herds, which furnished the hides and tallow sought by European and American traders, the missions owned vast fields planted in wheat and maize and other crops primarily for domestic consumption.

Cloth, a coarse kind of serge, was woven from wool and the aguardiente (brandy) distilled from the vineyards of Mission San Jose was the delight of foreign visitors.

The missions, designed originally to form the nuclei of pueblos and intended to relinquish control of their Indian convert-citizens to the civil authority, had become so wealthy by 1830 that they were reluctant to fulfill a destiny which would deprive them of their power.

This system of monastic feudalism was likewise perpetuated by the vast ranchos, ranging from one-half to more than sixteen square leagues (a league being equal to about 4,438 acres), granted by Spanish governors to soldiers of the Portola and Fages expeditions.

During the years of Mexican rule grants were also made to Americans and other foreigners who showed a disposition to settle the country in a neighborly manner.

Rancho San Antonio, the 48,000-acre domain within whose former boundaries now stand the cities of Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Oakland, Piedmont, and San Leandro, and Las Pulgas (the fleas).

The 35,240-acre rancho granted in 1824 on which stand almost as many Peninsula towns, were typical of these feudal estates.

Here, in their adobe ranch houses, the lordly dons entertained friends and relatives with lavish hospitality. They were grateful for the luxuries brought to Yerba Buena Cove by foreign traders whose followers would one day dispossess them.

When the missions were secularized about 1834, the great landowners came into possession of most of the mission lands—and of their Indian charges as well. The plan had been that the mission communities should be organized as towns, enough land set aside for the support of the clergy, and the surplus divided among the Indians.

But to the administrators appointed by the government, rather than to the Indians, went the greater part of the flocks and herds and grain fields.

Relieved from the discipline of the monks, the freed neophytes were the easy prey of gamblers and thieves. Without any direction, spiritual or economic, they became scattered on the great ranches whose owners under Mexican grants were getting control of the best of the lands in the coast valleys.

All the while, tuberculosis and smallpox and a declining birth rate were steadily reducing their numbers. The state of affairs at the Mission Dolores was typical. The pueblo did not develop into a prosperous town.

The Mission of San Francisco, Mission Dolores. (From and old print.)

Padre Rafael de Jesus Moreno pointed out that the commissioner was acting for his own advantage rather than for the good of the Indians.

Likewise there were charges and countercharges at Santa Clara, San Jose and the other missions around the Bay. All of them fell into neglect and decay. There were only 50 Indians at San Francisco when the French explorer and scientist, Dufiot de Mofras, was there in 1841.

International rivalries meanwhile were shaping the future of Alta California and the Bay area. Fort Ross, less than 100 miles north of the Bay, was developing into something more formidable than an outpost of Russian hunters of seal and sea otter who chased their prey from the Farallon Islands right into San Francisco Bay.

Representatives of Britain’s Hudson’s Bay Trading Company, who came to make surveys of the Bay region and to twit the comandante of Yerba Buena’s presidio on the sad state of his defenses, had a knowing political gleam in their eyes.

Least suspect of all were the Americans. Unlike some other for foreigners settling in the Bay region, they assumed no official character which could be construed as representing aggressive designs on the part of the United States.

The majority of Yankee immigrants, in fact, adopted unhesitatingly the religion and customs of the Mexicans; they renounced their American citizenship and married into leading Mexican families.

Not for some years after the first trappers had begun to cross the Sierra were the Yankees regarded by Mexican authorities with suspicion such as the Russian incursion into the Bay area had received since 1812.

Secure behind their stockades and twelve brass cannons at Fort Ross, the Russians ignored repeated orders to leave the country. As early as 1817 Governor Pablo Vicente de Sola had reported to his superiors in Mexico City that he could not drive them out with the forces at his command, whose weapons were effective only against Indians armed with bows and arrows.

Now that Mexico was an independent nation she no longer had protection from the Spanish navy, and no supply ships had arrived at Yerba Buena since 1811. Captain William Shaler, describing San Francisco Bay in 1805, found the entrance defended only “by a battery on which are mounted brass 8-pounders, which afford only the show of defense; and the place could make no resistance against the smallest military force . . .“ The Castillo de San Joaquin, here described, was not improved by subsequent decades of neglect.

Whether or not the provincial authorities recognized the fact, from 1823 onward the American government had entered into the long-range struggle of world powers for control of Alta California.

Concern over Russian inroads into the Bay region prompted Andrew Jackson’s administration to undertake negotiations with the Mexican government for acquisition of Alta California. What “Old Hickory” had his eye on was that portion of Mexican territory north of the 37th parallel, including San Francisco Bay, which had been described to him as “a most desirable place of resort for our numerous whaling vessels . . . in the Pacific, far superior to any to which they now have access.”

The $3,500,000 which Jackson offered Mexico’s President Santa Anna was, however, refused; and the American government’s subsequent attempts to bring the Mexicans to terms met with no better success.

American citizens meanwhile were, far from idle. From frontier settlements in Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, trappers and fur traders in coonskin caps and greasy buckskin had been threading their way across the plains and mountains of the West.

First of these restless Yankees to reach Alta California by an overland route was Jedediah Smith. In the fall of 1826 this “Pathfinder of the Sierras” had opened the way for American settlement of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.

That his presence in the Bay region was unwelcome is apparent from the fact that, on his arrival at Mission San Jose, Padre Narciso Duran locked him in an outhouse; and upon his release Governor Jose Maria de Echeandia gave him two months to get his fur traders out of the country.

The feudal rancheros had no great interest in encouraging trade and industry, but under Governor Jose Figueroa’s liberal regime San Francisco Bay was declared a port of entry and, in 1835, the pueblo of Yerba Buena was laid out on the cove.

Treasure Island as seen from Yerba Buena Island.

Appointment of a harbor-master and lifting of restrictions on trade with foreign shipping opened for the Bay area a decade of friendly relations between Mexicans and Yankee settlers which might eventually have resulted in peaceful annexation of California by the United States.

The appointment of Thomas O. Larkin as United States Consul to Alta California in 1843 was made, apparently, to encourage the Californios to sever their ties with Mexico and seek protection under the American flag.

The loss of Texas to Sam Houston’s rebellious settlers in 1836 left the regime in Mexico City in too perilous a state to cope with the political intrigue among its representatives in Alta California; and some of these began to depend upon certain foreign elements in the province to maintain their despotic rule against rival officials and a citizenry from which arose the rumblings of revolt.

Their most powerful aide in the vicinity of the Bay area was Johann Augustus Sutter, Swiss immigrant and adventurer extraordinary, who had established a settlement in the Sacramento Valley. At Sutter’s Fort were welcomed the American immigrant trains whose oxcarts came straggling down through passes in the high Sierra after 1841.

In 1841, when the Russians decided to withdraw from Fort Ross, Sutter had acquired all their territory around Bodega Bay. In return for assisting General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, comandante of Sonoma, to disperse the roving brigands which General Manuel Micheltorena brought with him from Mexico when he came to displace Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado at Monterey in 1842, the redoubtable Sutter was left unmolested to play off one rival official against another.

Even when this “Lord of the Marches” threatened to “proclaim California a Republic independent of Mexico” if he were not given leave to do as he pleased, Vallejo dared not break off friendly relations with him. He wrote unhappily at the time, when American immigration was filling the Bay area with Yankee settlers, that “the only certainty is that Californians will die,” and again, “I dare not assure myself that California will be saved.”

He drew what consolation he could from the fact that Sutter had prevented further encroachment of the British Hudson’s Bay Company and kept his political rival, Juan Bautista Alvarado, at a safe distance; but he saw the Americans taking over the country.

When the first overland party from Missouri arrived at the ranch of Dr. John Marsh near Mount Diablo in November 1841, they were permitted to settle unmolested. Governor Micheltorena had orders to put a stop to all immigration; but his disreputable army had made him unpopular and he was dependent on American support to put down the conspiracies of rival officials who openly defied his authority.

Furthermore, the crafty Alvarado had left the treasury of the province empty; and the secularization of the missions in 1834 had already destroyed the source of funds by which presidio garrisons had been maintained.

To aggravate this precarious situation even more, the American and British consuls in Monterey were keeping their respective governments informed of the events leading to a crisis in which intervention of some sort would decide the future of the territory.

Such was the state of affairs in California and the Bay region when, in December 1845, Captain John Charles Frémont entered the province. As United States topographical engineer in command of two previous expeditions sent to survey California’s natural resources, Frémont was received on January 27, 1846 in Monterey without serious misgivings by Mexican authorities, who gave him permission to obtain supplies pending his promised departure into Oregon.

Captain John Charles Frémont.

Little more than a month later, however, Frémont’s followers joined him near San Jose, marched across the Santa Clara Valley and through the Santa Cruz Mountains, and camped near Monterey.

Promptly ordered to leave the country, Frémont made a show of resistance, swearing that “if we are hemmed in and assaulted we will die, every man of us under the flag of our country.”

Being neither hemmed in nor assaulted, Frémont’s party withdrew up the Sacramento Valley to Sutter’s Fort and proceeded north toward Oregon. His martial depredations caused Larkin to petition Consul John Parrott at Mazatlan to send a warship to Monterey.

Whether acting on secret orders received from the United States State Department or on his own initiative, Frémont suddenly retraced his steps and set up headquarters at Marysville Buttes in the Sierra foothills. From here a party of about a dozen Yankee hunters and trappers—in command of Ezekiel Merritt, a settler from Rancho Barranca Colorado (Red Bluff)—was ordered by Frémont to seize 170 horses being taken from Sonoma to Santa Clara by a party of Castro’s men.

The captured animals having been delivered to Frémont’s new camp on the Bear River, Merritt’s party of 20 marauders crossed the hills into Napa Valley.

At daybreak on June 14, General Mariano G. Vallejo in his house at Sonoma was roused without warning by this little band of men and called upon to surrender.

Somewhat puzzled, but courteous as always, Vallejo invited them in. On being informed that they were acting under Frémont’s orders, he proceeded to wine and dine his callers to the point of stupor while terms of surrender were being discussed.

At length the captors were able to agree on a declaration to which three of them put their names—Ezekial Merritt, Robert Semple, and William Fallon. They presented it to Vallejo: “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 as prisoners: Gen. M. G. Vallejo, Lieut. Col. Victor Prudon and Capt. Salvador Vallejo.”

But dissension then broke the ranks of the insurrectionists, frightened by the magnitude of their exploit. William B. Ide, a Yankee settler with the gift of oratory, saved the day. Cried he: “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! . . . We are robbers, or we must be conquerors!

Taking possession of the pueblo without opposition, the rebels impatiently hauled down the Mexican flag. It occurred to them that a new flag was needed to replace it. On a piece of homespun to which was attached a strip of red flannel they painted a red star and the crude figure of a grizzly bear. “My countrymen,” orated Lieutenant Henry L. Ford as the new standard was hoisted up the flagpole, “we have taken upon ourselves a damned big contract.”

But the insurgents’ chosen leader, William B. Ide, who promptly dubbed himself “Commander-in-chief” and later “President of the California Republic,” was undaunted.

Ide invited “all peaceable and good citizens of California . . . to repair to my camp at Sonoma, without delay, to assist us in establishing and perpetuating a Republican government, which shall secure to all civil and religious liberty, which shall detect and punish crime; which shall encourage industry, virtue and literature; which shall leave unshackled, by fetters of commerce, agriculture and mechanism.”

Though Frémont would admit no direct responsibility for the “Bear Flag” rebellion, he ordered the arrest of Jacob Leese, Vallejo’s brother-in-law, because he was a “bad man”; and according to Leese’s account, he also threatened to hang Sutter for demanding that consideration be shown a man of Vallejo’s pro-American sympathies.

Raising the Bear flag.

It was generally assumed, by both Yankee settlers and Californios in the Bay region, that Frémont was in command of a movement to seize the territory.

General Castro, learning of the affair at Sonoma, sent a force of 50 or 60 men under Joaquin de la Torre to attack the “Bears.” Marching northward from San Rafael, De la Torre’s contingent was joined by Juan Padilla’s roving bandits.

On the morning of June 24, 1846, the Californios were attacked at the Olompali Rancho near Petaluma by 17 or 18men under Lieutenant Henry L. Ford. After a charge in which one of De Ia Torre’s men was killed and several wounded by Ford’s riflemen, the Californios retired and the Americans returned to Sonoma.

Until this first battle of the war, Frémont had taken no open part in the events which his presence doubtless had precipitated. Now, however, as he says in his ’Memoirs,’ “I have decided that it was for me to govern events rather than to be governed by them. I represent the Army and the Flag of the United States.”

Furthermore he realized that “at last the time had come when England must not get a foothold; that we must be first. I was to act, discreetly but positively.”

And act he did, though neither he nor his Mexican opponents were as yet aware that their respective countries were already at war below the Rio Grande.

Arriving at Sononia on June 25, Frémont assumed command of the Bears and with a combined force of 130 men marched to meet De Ia Torre’s detachment at San Rafael.

Here occurred an incident which ever since has blemished Frémont’s reputation. This was the murder of three innocent Californios—the twin sons of Yerba Buena’s first alcalde, Francisco de Haro, and old Don Jose Berryesa, father of the alcalde of Sonoma who was then among Frémont’s prisoners at Sutter’s Fort.

On being informed by Kit Carson that these three were about to land from a boat at Point San Pedro, Frémont is reported to have said: “I have no room for prisoners.” Kit Carson, G. P. Swift, and one of Frémont’s trappers shot down the three unarmed men.

Outnumbered and badly armed, De Ia Torre’s forces fled across the Bay to join Jose Castro’s at Santa Clara. Following Frémont’s raid on the old Castillo de San Joaquin, Dr. Robert Semple, participant in the Bear Flag affair at Sonoma, led ten men on a foray into Yerba Buena which captured Robert Ridley, ex-factor of the local Hudson’s Bay Company post.

After thus putting down all military resistance of the Californios in the Bay region Frémont returned to Sonoma to declare the independence of California and place the country under martial law for the duration of the conflict.

While continuing “in pursuit of Castro” in the valley of the Sacramento (actually Castro already had begun his retreat southward from Santa Clara), Frémont received news that the United States naval commander on the Pacific Coast, Commodore John D. Sloat, had raised the American flag a Monterey and had ordered the U.S. ’Portsmouth’ to do likewise at Yerba Buena.

Thenceforth the Bay region heard only distant rumblings as the Yankee invasion progressed southward with mild skirmishes in the Salinas Valley, to end at last in a decisive victory for the Americans at the San Gabriel stream (Montebello), January 8-9, 1847.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848, gave California to the United States. The Bay region’s Bear Flag war was only an incident the hasty transfer of a vast territory from one nation to another.

But it marked the beginning of a new era, and the end of an old one.

And Jose Castro himself, Comandante-General of the forces of the north in the struggle of the Californios against the Yankee invaders, foresaw in some degree what that new era would be like when he told an assembly at Monterey: "These Americans are so contriving that some day they will build ladders to touch the sky, and once in the heavens they will change the whole face of the universe and even the color of the stars."

Mission San Francisco De Assis (Mission Dolores).
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