Our dorky California state flag

The bear looked remarkably like a large red pig

That original flag was lost in the San Francisco earthquake.
  • That original flag was lost in the San Francisco earthquake.
  • Image by Rick Geary

Matt: For such a hip state, how did California get such a dorky flag? Why is the bear staring at the star? What is he thinking? What is that red thing at the bottom? How would we go about changing the flag to something better? — Peedee, Vista

Changing the flag would involve years of heavy dealings with the California legislature. Reliable medical studies prove that the average citizen’s life expectancy is shortened by one day for every day spent jousting with Sacramento. A large Surgeon General’s warning should be posted at the city limits. They can’t even elect a speaker; imagine the pouting and tantrums a new flag would inspire. If this were happening in Alabama, we’d laugh about it. But it’s not, so it just makes me grumpy. Instead of a flag change, why don’t we suggest the pols institute a daily break for graham crackers, milk, and 30 minutes with their heads on their desks.

Our state’s flag came from the town of Sonoma about 150 years ago. They do wine better than flags, I guess. Or maybe they did too much wine before they did the flag. Anyway, in the spring of 1846, California was still part of the Republic of Mexico. When the U.S. couldn’t manage to buy the place in 1845, they switched to Plan B and declared war in May of ’46. The closest Mexico came to having a real garrison in California was at the town of Sonoma, and American immigrants in the area were very nervous. On June 14, 23 local civilians (plus soldier Kit Carson) walked into the fort and took over. Mexican commander Vallejo saw a U.S. war victory as inevitable and was not inclined to resist even this small band. That same day, a hastily constructed banner, the so-called Bear Flag, replaced the Mexican flag at Sonoma, and the raiding party declared California an independent republic.

That original flag was lost in the San Francisco earthquake, so written reports and drawings are all we have. It was assembled from donated scraps of fabric — a “brown domestic” for the background and a piece of four-inch-wide red flannel from a woman’s petticoat that had come cross-country by wagon train. The raiding party decided the symbols should be “a bear en passant with one star.” They chose the California grizzly to symbolize a tenacious fighting spirit. The star and the red stripe were borrowed as a link to the U.S. flag. A Sunday painter named William Todd was recruited to apply the star and the bear in the only color available to them at the time, “Venetian red,” on the beige background and to letter “California Republic” underneath. Descriptions of Todd’s work suggest the bear looked remarkably like a large red pig. And Todd himself admits he misspelled “Republic” and had to correct it by writing over the offending letter.

The California Republic lasted less than a month; the U.S. flag was raised over the garrison early in July. In 1911 a designer reworked the original Bear Flag more artistically, perhaps after taking a brief spelling test, and it became our official banner. What’s the bear thinking? That’s easy. “I’m extinct, dammit! I’m extinct!” No wonder he’s snarling.

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