July 15, 2018

When California Was the Bear Republic

A 1650 map by French cartographer Nicholas Sanson showing California as an island.
Last month, California voters paved the way for voting on an initiative that would split California into three states. I'm currently writing this at a coffee shop in Santa Cruz, California, where I live. If Proposition 9, the "Three States Initiative," were to be approved by California's voters this November, I would be writing from the southern frontier of the great state of Northern California.

Although this blog is usually devoted to early modern history (roughly from the end of the Middle Ages, around 1450, to the French and Industrial Revolutions, around 1800), this post will be about a topic closer to home: the history of California partition and separatism efforts, and why that history matters.

It turns out that the elected officials of California actually did vote to split it up, back in 1855 and 1859. But these efforts by a sparsely-populated territory of a nation slipping into what would become the Civil War understandably failed to generate political momentum on the federal level. This marked the final stage of a pseudo-rebellion that doesn't get as much attention as that of the Lone Star state. And for good reason: it officially lasted for less than a month. Led from his base in Sonoma by a Mormon farmer and miner named William B. Ide, the California Republic officially declared independence on June 14, 1846,  and ended on July 9th of the same year.

It wasn't much of a revolution. But the independence declaration, which was led by Anglo colonists and coordinated with United States military commanders, had served its purpose: the US invasion of California during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) began in earnest with Commodore John Sloat's occupation of Monterey on July 1st. Within a matter of weeks, the short-lived Republic had begun to segue into the beginnings of a provisional government for the newly-established US territory of California.

The legacy of the republic lives on in one anachronistic respect: the California flag, with its famous bear and star and "California Republic" label. (And no, California was never supposed to be called the Pear Republic, despite what Snopes' unwise flirtation with Onion-style parody articles might've told you).

Detail from California's Proclamation of Independence with the earliest sketch of the Bear flag, June 14, 1846. 
The present-day version is somewhat altered from the early draft above, but maintains the general idea:

State flag of California flying above SF City Hall, via Wikimedia Commons.
Why does this episode matter? It doesn't, really, on the level of political history. It's easy to declare a revolution, but very difficult to maintain one. The independent Republic of California barely lasted three weeks, if indeed it can be even called independent. But I think that there's still something important about the story of the "Bear Republic": it reminds us that nationalism is usually built on illusions, and that national identities are never static.

One of the best books I've read on the origins of national identity, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, embeds this claim in its very title. Louis XIV existed as an historical personage, but his national legend had to be intentionally constructed, more or less out of thin air. So, too, with national identities in general. California is an excellent example: when some of my compatriots complain about Spanish-speakers who "need to speak English" because "this is America," I feel a sense of historical whiplash. After all, over one third of the United States (including California) was once a part of the Spanish empire. I'm writing this from within a stone's throw of a Spanish mission that was founded in 1791. Even leaving aside the fact that the United States has no official language (under the express direction of the Founding Fathers, who were well aware of the symbolic significance of that decision), it is just an historical fact that Spanish-speaking communities long predate English-speaking ones in a vast swathe of the present-day United States.

Map of Las Californias (here marked as "Nueva" and "Vieja") at the beginning of the 19th century, from Antonio García Cubas' Atlas Geográfico, Estadístico e Histórico de la República Mexicana (1857)
We tend to teach "American history" in schools by beginning with a hazy pre-Columbian past, then skipping right to the Thirteen Colonies and the Revolution. In the case of what is now California (as with the rest of the western and southwestern US), this is both flat out incorrect, from the perspective of historical accuracy. It's also just... boring. How much more interesting it is to reflect on the history of California as an entity that has actually passed through several different national governments with its name and regional identity at least somewhat intact: New Spain, Mexico, and now the United States. As you can see in the seventeenth-century "California Island" map that begins this post, the name and general territorial outlines of California are surprisingly old.

And in fact, the Bear Flag Revolt wasn't even the first independence movement of the region. In 1836, a group of inhabitants of what was then known as "Alta California" (to differentiate it from Baja) declared independence from Mexico. They were led by a Californio named Juan Alvarado, who declared himself de facto governor of the new nation and who later served as the official governor of Las Californias from 1837 to 1842. The region was eventually readdmitted to Mexico two years later, but only after having obtained a vague allowance that California remained a "sovereign state." The Alvarado iteration of California proclaimed its flag to be a red star on a white field: here we see the emergence of the first element in what would become the Bear Flag that flies today.

The last surviving "Lone Star of California" flag from the 1836 Alvarado rebellion, now housed at the Gene Autry Western Museum in LA. 
The Bear Republic is also an early episode in a surprisingly persistent trend in California politics: efforts either to secede or to split the state up. After all, the putative Bear Republic didn't actually map on to present-day California's political boundaries at all. In reality, the short-lived independent state of "California" is better thought of as a rebellion launched by Sonoma County, where the conspirators were based.

Less than ten years later, in 1855, the California State Assembly actually managed to successfully pass a proposal to divide the state into three parts: the state of Colorado (all southern counties as far north as Monterey); the State of Shasta (all northern counties north of Sonoma) and California in the middle. However, the bill died in the US Senate. Four years later, another proposal was launched to split California into two parts, again named California (north of the 36th parallel) and Colorado (south). Again, it failed.

My rough map of the 1855 three-state proposal.
In the twentieth century, proposals seemed to shift more into the orbit of a related phenomenon: the long-running, Quixotic efforts to create an independent state joining parts of western Canada and the US Pacific Northwest (the Nation of Cascadia) or to join the more libertarian, rural parts of Northern California and Oregon (the State of Jefferson).

Excerpt from a 1941 pamphlet advocating for the creation of the State of Jefferson, via the Oregon State Historical Society. 
Researching the more recent movements to divide California, I was somewhat surprised by how mainstream they have been. For instance, a 1992 proposal to split California into three states (North, Central and South) actually passed the California State Assembly (it died in the State Senate). More recently, voters in Tehama County approved separating from the State of California by a vote of 57 versus 43 percent, joining Yuba, Siskiyou, and Modoc Counties in a revived "State of Jefferson" bid.

As for the idea itself, although highly unlikely to pass, I don't think it's as crazy as some seem to think. For one thing, it's happened before: West Virginia split from Virginia, the Washington Territory split from the Oregon Territory, etc. And, in case you couldn't already guess my politics from what I wrote above, as a left-leaning voter I think that most proposals to split California would be beneficial in terms of hastening along the demographic wave that some political forecasters expect to stifle GOP hopes in the future: it's difficult for me to imagine any three-way split of the state that wouldn't result in at least two blue or blue-ish states, likely centered on SF and LA.

Various 21st century proposals to divide California, via Wikipedia.
On the other hand, as a former resident of Texas, I'm well aware of the rivalry between these two most powerful states in the union--not to mention the legendary Texan confidence when it comes to their states' pre-eminence in virtually any contest you care to name. Splitting up like a cell undergoing mitosis would presumably trigger that famous competitive instinct. And the thing is, Texans are very well positioned to compete in this game. When the Lone Star state entered the union, via the Joint Resolution for Annexing Texas to the United States, the legal agreement contained a provision that at least in theory allows Texas to divide into four more states, resulting in five total.

Back when I was a PhD student at UT Austin, I TAed for a professor who, when teaching this in his US history survey, joked that Texans were so proud of the distinctive shape of their state that, if this clause were ever triggered, Texans would assemble a team of mapmakers to find a way to split the state into five miniature Texas-shaped pieces! I tried putting together a mockup but gave up - it turns out that it's really hard to split a state into tiny versions of itself, unless we happen to be talking about the square ones. More than likely, a Texas split would look something like the regional map below:

But that's a story for another day. In the meantime, adiós from Alta California. 

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