All we know for certain is this: Somewhere around Santa Rosa, their lives ended on the last day of spring. The Bear Flag Revolt was not even a week old.
(Regrettably, this article had to be split into two parts because of its length - yet another technical reason why I am migrating this blog to SantaRosaHistory.com. Footnotes for this part are included here but the full set, along with transcribed materials mentioned below, appear in part two.)
The stories about the horrific deaths of Cowie and Fowler dumped gasoline on the bonfire of anxieties among American immigrants in the North Bay. Earlier that June of 1846 rumors spread that the fearsome Mexican Army was on the march, preparing to drive them out of the territory - or maybe slaughter them in their beds. In truth, the Mexican government had trouble remembering anything existed beyond Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and probably had barely enough soldiers north of Los Angeles to fill a modern high school gym. When a small division of Mexican soldiers encountered armed settlers at the "Battle" of Olómpali they quickly retreated, even though they outnumbered the Americans by about four to one. More on the background and immediate American reaction to the deaths can be found in the earlier article, "TWO MARTYRS FOR THE FLAG OF THE BEARS."
From the Californio viewpoint, the small immigrant population just suddenly went nuts, declaring they were taking over and starting a new country. "The running up of this queer flag caused much fear to the families of the Californians established in the neighborhood of Sonoma, Petaluma and San Rafael," General Vallejo wrote in his memoirs, adding the ranchers would not have been so alarmed if it were the United States declaring annexation. But the aristocratic Vallejo and his brother - who represented the rule of law in that part of Alta California - were prisoners of this little breakaway rebel group and the citizens didn't know what they should do. A few "seized their machetes and guns and fled to the woods, determined to await a propitious moment for getting rid of the disturbers of the peace," the General continued. In other words, they formed a patriotic resistance force to hold on until order was restored by the mighty Mexican Army, see above.
Leading the Californio militia here was 22 year-old Juan Padilla who owned Rancho Roblar de la Miseria (think of the Hessel-Roblar Road-Two Rock area). Padilla only had been in the area a few months but had some official Mexican government credentials as being recently the alcalde of Yerba Buena. Estimates of the number of men riding with Padillia ranged from a dozen to upwards of 200, the higher numbers probably the product of fevered imaginations from American alarmists. There was another Californio militia from the Napa area trailing the Americans taking General Vallejo and other prisoners to Frémont's camp on the American River, but one of the few things certain about the Fowler and Cowie story is that they were put to death while in Padilla's custody. The most concise account of what happened was told in Bancroft's history:1
On the 18th or 19th, Fowler and Thomas Cowie were sent by Ide to obtain a keg of powder from Moses Carson at the Fitch rancho on Russian River. Disregarding the advice of Ide and Ford, they are said to have neglected all precautions, and to have followed the main road. Before reaching their destination they were captured by a party of Californians under Juan N. Padilla and Ramon Carrillo... It was near Santa Rosa that the two Americans were captured, under circumstances of which nothing is known. They were killed by their captors, and they are said to have been mutilated in a most horrible manner.
After they had not returned in two days, Bancroft continued, "...Sergeant Gibson [was sent] with four men to Fitch's rancho. Obtaining the powder, but no news, Gibson started back, and near Santa Rosa was attacked by a small party of Mexicans, one of whom was wounded, and another brought captive to Sonoma. It was from him that information was first obtained about the murder."
Almost everything written there by Bancroft came from the 1851 recollections of Henry L. Ford, the second in command at Sonoma and the guy who was really running the show ("Commander" William Ide was lost in the weeds, trying to decide if posterity would remember him as being more like George Washington, Patrick Henry or Thomas Jefferson).
Bancroft thought Ford was a trustworthy source but there were others who remembered things differently - sometimes very differently. There are multiple versions of where they were captured and killed and who was involved. The various accounts fall into two rough categories: American and Californio, each further divided up by when the claims appeared. The first versions are those that mostly were written close to 1846:
FIRST AMERICAN Warning: The descriptions of torture in this section are quite graphic.
The earliest version of the Cowie and Fowler story was published about ten weeks later in The Californian, the first newspaper in the province of Alta California. The author is not named but as the paper was founded shortly before by Bear Flagger Robert Semple he is the likely writer. Here is part of what Bernardino Garcia, known as "Four Fingered Jack" (because he supposedly was missing a thumb) reportedly told his captors at the Sonoma jail:
The party after keeping the prisoners a day or two, tied them to trees, then stoned them, one of them had his jaw broken, a riata (rope) was made fast to the broken bone and the jaw dragged out, they were then cut up, a small piece at a time, and the pieces thrown at them, or crammed in their throats and they were eventually despatched by cutting out their bowels.
An earlier military dispatch, written July 25 by Captain Gillespie from Frémont's forces, told the same basic tale: "The Californios first shot the two Americans, tied them to trees, cut off their privates, scared [sic] their breast on either side, broke their jaws, and disfigured them with knives ...they then threw the bodies into a ditch... "2
And although it didn't appear in print until ten years later, Alexis Godey, another of Frémont's men wrote about the same thing: "...their bodies presented a most shocking spectacle, bearing the marks of horrible mutilation, their throats cut, and their bowels ripped open; other indignities were perpetrated of a nature to disgusting and obscene to relate." He continued by writing Cowie was well-known and popular, so "...the sight that his lifeless remains presented, created in the breasts of many of his old friends a feeling of stern and bitter revenge..."3
Then there was this statement from Bear Flagger William Baldridge, in an unpublished account requested by Bancroft: "It was stated and believed by some that after they surrendered, they were tied to trees and cut to pieces with knives, but if anyone stated positively that they were put to death in that way, I failed to hear it."
Notice Garcia did not confess involvement with the killings, laying full blame on "the party," which the article specified as a "small party of Californians under command of one [sic Juan] Padilla." This was probably wise of him; in mid-July correspondence between Commander Montgomery of the American man-of-war sloop Portsmouth anchored off Sausalito and John Grigsby - the Bear left in charge of the 50-odd men remaining at the Sonoma fort after the others rode off with Frémont as part of the "California Battalion" - it was decided that Garcia and the other prisoner should remain in jail to protect them from being lynched.4
The accounts by Frémont's men seem to confirm the mutilation story until you look at the calendar. By all accounts Fowler and Cowie were killed on June 19th or 20th somewhere near Santa Rosa. But Gillespie and Godey rode in with Frémont on the 25th, so if they actually saw the bodies, the remains would have needed to be close to Sonoma and still unburied, for some awful reason.
Also, this: Frémont and the California Battalion left Sonoma on July 6 and ten days later Grigsby wrote to the naval commander, "We have found the two men who were lost on the Santa Rosa farm, horribly mangled." Thus none of Frémont's crew ever viewed the bodies - and neither did any Bear Flaggers until the victims had been decomposing for nearly a month. Conclusions about what all this implies is discussed at the end of this piece.
Also in question is where Fowler and Cowie were headed. Bancroft stated flatly they were going to "the Fitch rancho on Russian River" without his usual thorough and long-winded footnotes. Baldridge supports that: "A man on Russian River, about one day's travel from Sonoma, sent us word that he had a keg of powder and if we would sent after it he would give it to us."5
But the Californian newspaper - in the same article describing the horrific deaths - claimed they were headed to Bodega, and that destination appears in several early and modern histories. This is probably a confusion because Bear Flagger William Todd and another man were sent on a mission towards the coast around the same time, carrying some note from Frémont (I suspect it was an appeal to Captain Stephen Smith to join the revolt and alert them of any Mexican troop ships appearing on the coast). Todd and his companion were captured by Californios and taken to Olómpali.6
William Ide wrote they went in yet another direction; he claimed Fowler and Cowie were "sent to Doct. Bails, a distance of about 20 miles, to obtain a keg of powder which had been purchased." In many ways this possibility is the most reasonable. Doctor Bale had a substantial rancho where the Bears had rested before their assault on Sonoma, so Ide and the others had knowledge of what stores he had available. His place, however, was on the Napa River above St. Helena.
Thus depending whom you believe, Cowie and Fowler were going north, west, or east.
FIRST CALIFORNIO There were no early printed Californio accounts of the Bear Flag Revolt except for Osio's 1851 history (see sidebar in part 2, "HUNTING THE ELUSIVE BEARS"), and he does not mention Padilla's militia or the Cowie and Fowler incident. But original documents published by Bancroft and others later give a remarkably thorough account of the doings of Padillia's Californio homeland defense force from the capture of Cowie/Fowler around June 19 until the group faded away five days later when it merged with the soldiers at Olómpali.
In one of Bear Flagger Grigsby's reports to Commander Montgomery he lists names or partial names of twelve men who were believed involved with the killings. Most were obscure locals except for José Ramón Carrillo, the 25 year-old son of the famous Santa Rosa family. But writings that appeared later show Carrillo's group was separate from Padilla's - Carrillo captured Cowie/Fowler and turned them over to Padilla, who murdered them.
Later that summer Carrillo was in San Diego where he gave a court deposition about the doings in the north. Bancroft summarized that testimony in a lengthy footnote concerning Cowie and Fowler (see sidebar in part two), writing: "Carrillo took the two men and delivered them to Padilla, who, against his advice and that of others, insisted on having them shot. Four men under a corporal were sent to shoot and bury them." (Carrillo added he had reported what was done to Commandante General José Castro and he approved.)
In his memoirs, General Vallejo also made a distinction between the separate "command(s) of Captains Padilla and Ramón Carrillo." Vallejo's wife, Francisca - a sister of Ramón - said Bear Flag leader Ide strong-armed her into write a letter to both of them. Ide wanted a meeting and their promise not to attack Sonoma, warning Francisca that she and her family, who were under house arrest, would be killed "as soon as the California guerrilla men came in sight over the Sonoma hills." She did as he asked, but also packed her brother a little something extra:7
...I agreed to write the letters that Ide requested of us and, in order to ensure the life of the messenger, we asked him to give us a passport...so that the Indian Gervasio might travel freely with his oxcart loaded with hides. At night we ordered Gervasio to place among the hides a dozen pistols, ten pounds of powder, four flintlocks and six sabers. He left in the direction of Petaluma. On the road he met my brother, Ramón, turned the weapons over to him and then continued on his way to Petaluma.
Ide apparently made the demand a day or two before the Bears discovered Cowie and Fowler were dead. Ramón replied to his sister June 22, writing from "Sierra de Petaluma":
...I tell you not to have any fear that this force which I have reunited is for the purpose of doing any damage to that señor or his force. It is true that we have many armed Indians and people of class, and if we had any intention of doing any damage we would have done it...the only design for which we have united ourselves has been to guard our interests and to lay claim in a legal way to the peace which has been promised us...
Probably needless to say, the meeting did not occur; by the time Francisca must have received his reply, events had moved on and the Bear Flag irregulars were heading for Olómpali. His letter - with its defense-only message - did not mention Cowie and Fowler (Ramón's entire letter, in both Spanish and English translation, can be read here).
The Carrillo and Padilla forces again met up at Olómpali, and in his later court testimony provided one of the few first-hand Californio versions of what happened there: "After joining Padilla I proposed to him to set free his prisoners, and he did so before the fight. Then the foe fell upon us, all being under the command of [Captain Joaquin de la] Torre, who ordered us to mount and fire; but seeing that he could gain no advantage, since most of his men ran away, he ordered the rest to retire. We formed again in the plain, where we were not attacked; and then we retreated to San Rafael, with one man killed and two wounded."
|1 All references to H. H. Bancroft in this article refer to his History of California Vo. 5 1846-1848 published in 1886.|
|2 Officer Gillespie and Other Military Officers from the Pacific Squadron's Dispatches to the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, MS 89, Reel 33. National Archives, San Bruno, California. Cited in Scheiner (see sidebar)|
|3 October 1856, New York Evening Post cited in Walker, Dale; "Bear Flag Rising", 199; pg 132-133|
|4 National Archives Squadron Letters cited in Warner; The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage; 1996, pg. 183. The second prisoner was named as "Blas Angelino" in that correspondence of Grigsby and Montgomery on July 16 and 18. Ford said he took the prisoners with them as he and the irregular volunteers went in search of the Californio militia and ended up at Olómpali. He did not explain why; perhaps he feared they would not be adequately safe in the Sonoma jail or maybe he anticipated he might need them as hostages to trade for the missing Bears.|
|5 The Fitch property was Rancho Sotoyome, which encompassed modern Healdsburg and lands to the east, including all of the Russian River nearby. Henry Fitch, married to the eldest of Doña María Carrillo daughters, was not a player in the Bear Flag story as he and the family lived in San Diego where he was part of the local Mexican government.|
|6 The party of Bears who confronted the soldiers at Olómpali were the rescue party for Todd and the other man. Todd was released unharmed at the start of the battle, but strangely, there is no conclusive answer about what happened to the other guy, who was reported as both killed and rescued. His name was Francis Young but usually mentioned as "English Jack," "the Englishman" or specifically, "the dumb Englishman." He was actually Canadian.|
|7 Vallejo's "Historical and Personal Memoirs" vol 5, cited in Rosenus (see sidebar) pg. 147-148|
The first versions of the Cowie/Fowler story were written close to 1846, as detailed in part one of this article. The later versions were primarily the accounts which popped up between 30-50 years later, and over time new details emerged - or, perhaps, were just made up:
LATER AMERICAN Bancroft's scholarly California history set began appearing in 1884 and was a great reference, but it wasn't cheap or easy reading - eye-crossing footnotes crammed with minutiae sometimes filled entire pages. A well-funded library might include that sort of deep resource but most of our California ancestors learned everything they knew about the Bear Flag Revolt from the county histories which began to appear around the same time. Those books were found in many homes because they were mostly vanity bios of locals who paid the publisher to be commemorated as an absolutely remarkable person. The chapters about state history were filler to lend the books gravitas and the same text was reused across all editions.
The Cowie/Fowler section from the 1880 Sonoma County history (which is the same for the histories of Marin, Alameda, Stanislaus, San Benito, etc. etc.) displays the mishmash of information found in these books. Although sources aren't mentioned, nearly everything there came from three newspaper articles.
The bones of that narrative came from the Henry L. Ford memoir trusted by Bancroft, so that's the good news about the county histories version. Long after Ford had died, a friend of his edited a paraphrased version which appeared in the San Francisco Bulletin (unknown date) and the Santa Cruz Weekly Sentinel on March 11, 1876. Here is that summary of what Ford remembered, a mere five years after the events:
On Thursday, the 18th, Lieutenant Ford sends two men, named Cowie and Fowler, to Fitch's rancho for a keg of rifle powder. Before starting, he cautioned them to avoid traveled roads, as he apprehended the possibility of trouble from native Californians. The men observed this caution for about ten miles, when for some reason they struck into the main road to Santa Rosa. When within about two miles of that place they were surprised by a party of Californians, and were put to death in a shocking manner...on Saturday, the 20th, Lieut. Ford orders Sergeant Gibson to take four men, and by night repair to Fitch's rancho, and learn, if possible, the whereabouts of the missing men, and get the powder. These men went as directed, and obtained the powder, but could learn nothing concerning the missing men. On their return, just at daylight, as they are passing Santa Rosa, they are attacked by three or four Californians; they turn upon their assailants and take two of them prisoner and bring them with them back to Sonoma. From the prisoners they learn the fate of Cowie and Fowler, who were butchered in the most horrible manner.
The county histories also pulled information from an 1874 article which appeared in the Santa Rosa paper. The account published in the Sonoma Democrat, transcribed below, was widely reprinted in other papers at the time. In this short, unsigned article, it was revealed some thought the drawing on the flag "looked more like a hog than a bear," Cowie supposedly sewed the flag, and other little fun flaggy facts. Its significant contribution to the Fowler/Cowie story in the county books was identifying the location of their bodies (more or less) as being on a particular farm off modern-day Chanate Road. The original article additionally claimed they were captured a short distance from Rincon Valley.
Source #3 was lifted from a San Francisco newspaper item concerning "Three-fingered Jack" (he either lost another digit somewhere or maybe everyone was miscounting all along). This time the county histories copied the paper's entire section on the Cowie and Fowler's killings with brazen plagiarism, sometimes changing a word here and there but usually not. The worst of it was that the story they were stealing was a lie.
Although the 1853 newspaper prefaced their version of their murders by stating it was "substantially" the same as what was published "in the local papers of this place, in 1846," this was far more horrific than the original tale told in the Californian which is included in part one. From the Alta California newspaper of July 31, 1853:
...the two young men above named started to go from their homes, near Sonoma, to Bodega. On their way, not far from Petaluma Creek, they encountered a party of native Californians, all armed, by whome they were taken prisoners. They were kept guarded until the next morning, when a council was held to determine their fate. A swarthy New Mexican named Padilla, and a Californian called Three-fingered Jack, were most active in denouncing the prisoners as only deserving death, and their counsel prevailed. The unfortunate young men were stripped, bound to a tree with the lariats of their captors, and for a while the inhuman wretches practiced knife-throwing at their naked limbs, in the manner that savages are said to torture their victims at the stake by experiments with their tomahawks. The men prayed to be shot. The fiends then commenced stoning the victims. One stone broke the jaw of Fowler. A miscreant advanced, thrust the end of his riata through the mouth, cut an incision in the throat, and then made a tie by which the jaw was dragged out! The perpetrator of this horrible cruelty was Jack. Cowie, who had fainted, had the skin stripped from his arms and shoulders.
Both men were now slowly dispatched with knives. Nothing can exceed the sufferings in the slow torture to which they were subjected. Pieces of flesh were cut from their bodies and crammed into their mouths. They were eventually destroyed by cutting out their bowels.
The first local history actually written by someone local was the the booklet-sized 1884 Santa Rosa history by Robert Thompson, publisher of the town's Sonoma Democrat. He offered only two short paragraphs on Cowie/Fowler, but introduced several memes which have endured, primarily that their bodies were found by an Indian named "Chanate," which supposedly meant, "blackbird." If accurate, that man wasn't from anywhere around here.8
Thompson also wrote they were captured near where Richard Fulkerson lived in 1884. The county atlas from a few years earlier shows him owning several disjointed places north and east of Santa Rosa, including a large parcel near Rincon Valley, which may confirm the 1874 story. Fulkerson also owed all the land around (what became) the Rural Cemetery and the road north passed right through the middle of it - thus a possibility they were caught in the vicinity of today's Franklin Avenue.
But the most intriguing nugget was presented like a throwaway - that Juan Padilla's militia had commandeered the Carrillo family rancho. Here is what Thompson wrote in full:
...Cowie and Fowler were captured by Juan Padillo, [sic] who had charge of a band of marauders, and had taken possession of Señora Carrillo's residence, the old adobe on Mrs. F. G. Hahman's farm, near Santa Rosa.
The two unfortunate men were captured near where Mr. Richard Fulkerson now lives. They were then taken up the valley, above the County Farm, where they were shot. Their bodies were mutilated and thrown into a stream, a prey for the wolf and the coyote. A charitable Indian named Chanate--in English, Black Bird--less a savage than the slayers of poor Cowie and Fowler, went up and told Moses Carson of the condition of the bodies, and he came down and buried them beneath a pine tree.
Shift forward several years and it's the 50th anniversary of the Bear Flag Revolt. On June 14, 1896, Thompson gave a lengthy speech in Sonoma, published by Santa Rosa's Sonoma Democrat as "Conquest of California." The Indian was now named "Chanati" (nope, still not a Pomo word) and was no longer alone; now he and Mose Carson, "with the aid of other friendly Indian hands buried the bodies of these poor men beneath the pine trees." In this telling Cowie and Fowler were held captive at the Carrillo adobe overnight, then taken to the place of their execution the next morning because Doña María Carrillo "objected to any violence to the men on her ranch."
...They were taken to the Carrillo adobe house on Santa Rosa creek, now the Hahman farm, and were kept there all night. Mrs. Carrillo, who owned the place, objected to any violence to the men on her ranch.
On the morning of the 19th they were led out by their cruel and heartless captors. They were taken up the little valley on which the county farm is situated beyond the line of Mrs. Carrillo's ranch, a point then and now one of the most unfrequented places near Santa Rosa. It is a lovely spot at the mouth of a little cañon which opens from the Rincon ridge into Pleasant valley.
There were a number of pine trees in this dreamy and lovely little vale. Here poor Cowie and Fowler were dragged. Destitute of human sympathy, reckless of consequences, the cruel captor, Padilla, three-fingered Jack as he was called, bound them with rawhide riatas to two trees. They were hacked with knives, riddled with bullets, and not satisfied with this their dead bodies were mutilated and dishonored in a brutal manner, and were then pitched into a rivulet which ran down into the beautiful vale below. The outraged bodies were discovered a few days after by an Indian named Chanati (Blackbird) who, less a savage than Padilla, told Mose Carson of their condition. Carson came down, and with the aid of other friendly Indian hands buried the bodies of these poor men beneath the pine trees...
As before, there was no mention of where he learned this stuff, which no one had mentioned before.
LATER CALIFORNIO There is no more important resource about Alta California than the five volumes of memoirs General Vallejo presented to Bancroft in 1875. They were even translated into English. But the University of California has never published any of it, which (in my humble opinion) is a disgrace to the school. But at least sections related to the Bear Flag Revolt are available online and are worth reading in full.
There are several surprises in Vallejo's section on the Cowie/Fowler incident and it has to be remembered he did not know about any of this firsthand, as he was locked up with his brother and others at Sutter's Fort.
According to the General, the men were captured much farther away from Santa Rosa, on the Yulupa Rancho (think somewhere around SSU or a little east). They were tied to trees while riders were dispatched to contact the Californio ranch owners supporting the defensores asking them to meet that evening to decide what to do with the prisoners. Vallejo said nothing about them being moved to the Carrillo adobe or elsewhere and as mentioned above, he was very clear Juan Padilla and Ramón Carrillo were commanders of separate militias.
As the assembled group was discussing the issue that night, "Three-fingered Jack" Garcia interrupted the meeting to announce he had just killed Cowie and Fowler. "I thought you here were going to decide to free the prisoners and, as that is not for the good of my country, I got ahead of you and took the lives of the Americans who were tied to the trees," he said, according to Vallejo.
Yet another variant of Fowler/Cowie story was passed down through the Carrillo family:9
When Thomas Cowie and George Fowler (members of the Bear Flag Revolt) came from Sonoma to Mark West Creek to get ammunition stored there and stopped at Rancho Cabeza de Santa Rosa, they accepted hospitality and, in return, committed all kinds of atrocities. They included the raping and killing of Ramón’s wife before vigilantes (defensores) could arrive to help the Carrillo family.
The Señora didn’t want trouble on her property and begged everyone to leave. The vigilantes took Cowie and Fowler up the hill to the north of the rancho (the location of the Sonoma County Hospital). These murderers were killed but first were given some rough treatment in revenge for the crime they had committed at the adobe.
Rape and murder are accusations not to be thrown around lightly and if such an awful thing happened, the burden of proof begins with explaining why absolutely no one ever wrote about it. Ramón’s letter from the Petaluma hills, written only two or three days after his wife was supposedly murdered, does not mention her and displays no emotions towards the Americans - it is a cool, dispassionate message written as a diplomat seeking a peaceful armistice.
Likewise, it's inconceivable Vallejo wouldn't mention the killing of a family member (she would have been the wife of his brother-in-law). In his memoir he complained at length about the uncivilized behavior of the Bears and told the story of Damaso Rodriguez, an 80 year-old retired soldier who died after being badly beaten up at Olómpali, a "...venerable old man who had fallen as a victim of the thirst for blood that was the prime mover of the guerrilla men."10
Nor is there any real evidence he was married. All the Carrillo family book stated was, "...Ramón married a beautiful girl named Rosita but no records have been found of the marriage. They must have been married in Sonora, Mexico because Ramón went to Mexico about that time. It is recorded that they went to a dance together. As they danced so beautifully together, everyone applauded." Ramón did marry (or remarry) about eight months later.
The Rosita rape/murder story is so threadbare there's nothing more to discuss about it - except for the fact it is still being discussed. Gaye LeBaron has written it up for at least forty years (it was a section of her 1988 Valentine's Day column entitled, "The Avenging Lover") and it has become de rigueur to raise it as a possibility whenever Cowie and Fowler's deaths are mentioned. I object to this strongly; it turns their killings into a simplistic tale of Carrillo and his fellow Californios seeking revenge. And to preview the wrapup below, I believe this is an historic injustice to Ramón Carrillo, who appears to be just about the only major player in the Bear Flag Revolt cast of characters who comes out smelling like roses.
Ramón died in 1864, shot in the back while riding his horse on the road near Cucamonga. A couple of weeks later a letter from his brother Julio appeared in the Santa Rosa paper, denying the "infamous falsehoods" which were being spread about Ramón (more on this letter below). In the following weeks other letters appeared testifying to his good character. "He was not a desperado," wrote a man from Sacramento. "He possessed too high a sense of honor and self-respect to have ever been connected with outlaws." True or no, newspapers statewide had reported he was a notorious bandito.
In the months before his death it was reported the "Ramon Carrillo gang" was being hunted by the Los Angeles Vigilance Committee for supposedly killing a deputy in Santa Barbara. Some authors have suggested Carrillo was shot by a "vigilante" seeking to avenge Fowler/Cowie, but it's clear from the contemporary papers that people were wondering whether he was murdered by someone part of the LA Committee, infamous for lynch mobs which mainly killed Latinos.
"Jose Ramon Carrillo, who has acquired much notoriety of late, has signified his desire to come in and surrender himself to the law, provided he can have a legal examination and trial, without falling into the hands of the Vigilance Committee," reported the Alta California on Christmas Eve, 1863. Two months later the paper said it was believed "...he was skulking in the mountains with some twenty or more adherents, and that the military in this district had orders to shoot him on sight. Rumor now says that he will join a company of volunteers for the U. S. service, and that he has always been a good, true and loyal citizen." Shortly thereafter, two members of his "gang" were nabbed and promised to squeal on their hideout.
Whether or not he was actually a highwayman is not a debate to have here - but before judging anyone who lived in Southern California during that era, read a new book, "Eternity Street: Violence and Justice in Frontier Los Angeles." Imagine the most violent Quentin Tarantino movie and multiply the senseless brutality by ten.
Why Ramón chose to leave Northern California and his family is unknown, but after he and his men retreated with the Mexican soldiers after the battle at Olómpali, Carrillo continued moving south. He appeared in San Diego during August where he gave his testimony, then taking a part in the 11th-hour battles in Chino and San Pasqual shortly before the Mexican-American War came to an end in California. In February, 1847 he married Maria Vicenta Sepulveda Yorba, a widow with a large ranch and four children - together they would have another eight. The ranch near Mount Palomar ran large herds of livestock and horses, was an important stagecoach stop and included a trading post. He was a U. S. postmaster for a time and in the early part of the Civil War, was a scout for the Union when there were fears that the Rebels were about to invade Arizona from across the Mexican border. Quite a bit of detail about this side of his life is documented on a webpage from the San Diego History Center.
It sounds like a thoroughly mundane life, but José Ramón Carrillo was far from being a mundane man; he famously killed bears armed only with a knife and proved to be an excellent commander in the war with the Americans. It's his fearlessness combined with lawless, turbulent conditions in Southern California which gives the "Carrillo gang" stories any credibility, and helps explain why his story came to be completely entangled with the myth of Joaquín Murieta.
Murieta was an actual robber who had a small gang that stole gold and horses in the Gold Country between 1852-1853 and killed at least 20 people, mostly Chinese immigrants. Said to be among those riding with him was a man named Carrillo plus...wait for it...our old friend, Four/Three Fingered Jack. The public was so frightened of these men that the state legislature created the "California State Rangers" to track them down. In July, 1853 the Rangers had a shootout with a group of Mexicans in the Central Valley and claimed they killed Murieta, sawing off the guy's head and Jack's hand as proof.
The next year a small book appeared: The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit written by a man named John Rollin Ridge. This was entirely a work of fiction, gleaned from hearsay and newspaper articles over the years. The plot had Murieta being nearly whipped to death, his wife Rosita raped and his brother hung on false accusations, all within the first dozen pages. The rest of the book described how he hunted down and killed the Americans responsible. Here Jack was Murieta's savage henchman and the Cowie/Fowler story was rehashed to show how heartless he was (now he also was credited for cutting out their tongues and "punching out their eyes with a knife"). "Carillo" was named as part of the gang, and twice the book had Murieta stopping by the rancho of "José Ramune Carrejo."
That book received little notice (only a single copy is known to still survive) but shift forward five years to 1859, when a version was serialized in the popular Police Gazette along with topnotch illustrations. Almost entirely plagiarized, among the small changes was the detail Murieta's wife was raped AND killed in front of him.
Suddenly the Murieta story became a sensation. It was translated into Spanish with the setting moved, as appropriate, to different countries. Over the following decades plays were written and dime novel publishers churned out knockoff stories about "the Mexican Robin Hood." You don't have to squint very hard to see the "Zorro" character emerging here.
The tale evolved over time and lent itself to both blood 'n' thunder action stories and lost love romances - the most prominent of the latter being a book-length poem published in 1882, "Rosita: A California Tale." Here Rosita was not the spouse of Murieta, but one of his followers named Ramón.
Finally, it's worth noting a 1910 best-seller, "Celebrated Criminal Cases of America" flatly claimed "Murieta's true name was Carrillo" without offering any proof. This new spin has trickled down to today; do a Google search on "Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo" to find hundreds of places - including Wikipedia - which state matter-of-factly that the terrorist outlaw was indeed a Carrillo.11
How to make sense of all this? The problem with the Cowie/Fowler story is that there is too much information. They were headed to Healdsburg/Bodega/St. Helena; they were killed by torturers/firing squad/Garcia alone.
All that's certain is the story we tell today has an undeserved certainty. In the earliest accounts about half the time it was stated they were headed towards Bodega; after the 1874 Sonoma Democrat article appeared, it was settled fact they were going north to the Fitch Rancho. The same anonymous article established they died at a very particular spot, and that's where we're looking for them today (without much luck). Ten years after that a local history introduced the character of Chanate, and now the story always includes the friendly Indian. Similarly, the sufferings they endured became more awful. The original 1846 account was gruesome but only a few lines long; by the time it was retold in 1853 it was much longer because more horrific details were added, and that was the version used in all those county histories. The story kept building up like layers of sediment in slow moving waters.
Digging out provable truth after 170 years seems as unlikely as the odds we'll be digging up the bodies in the foreseeable future, but a good place to start might be looking closely at the mutilation story.
As discussed above, it's doubtful any of the Bear Flaggers actually saw the bodies of Fowler and Cowie until almost a month had passed. Yet in that gap there were four descriptions of the mutilations (counting the version printed in The Californian, where the latest news cutoff was the Battle of Olómpali). That Baldridge hadn't heard the story suggests it was only being spread by a faction of the Bear Flaggers, who passed it on as gospel truth to newcomers, including Frémont's men. So where did they learn about the horrible things done to the two young men? The only source could be prisoner Bernardino Garcia - or more likely, what someone heard a comrade say about what Garcia said. Thus a key part of the story rests on the honesty and truthfulness of "Four Fingered Jack." Swill that distasteful thought around for a moment.
Add to that: Even when their whereabouts were discovered, the bodies had been buried by Chanate and the other helpful Indians, according to the popular Thompson version. Did the Bear Flaggers take time out from the war to dig them up and do a field autopsy?
Next to consider is the means of death. Slow torture goes along with mutilation so again, raise your hand if you think old four-fingers was telling the whole truth and nothing but. Vallejo's version, with Jack sneakily killing them while the rancheros debated what to do, certainly sounds reasonable although that would place their graves somewhere near the SSU campus. But I'd put my money on Ramón Carrillo's account - that he turned them over to Padilla who had them shot and buried.
I've come to believe Ramón Carrillo is the only player in the Bear Flag drama with an unassailable character. Once it's understood his militia was on patrol separate from Padilla's group, more of the whole story makes sense. He argued with Padilla over keeping them prisoners but lost. Later, Comandante Castro told Carrillo he backed Padilla's execution of them. When testifying to these events he easily could have simply told the judge they were killed and left it at that; instead, he made a point of registering his dissent.
When other prisoners fell into his hands, it seems Carrillo did not turn them over to Padilla. Bear Flaggers William Todd and "the Englishman" were captured on a mission shortly after Cowie/Fowler but were not harmed. Carrillo wrote to his sister they were then being "detained in our camp" and when the two militias reconnected at Olómpali, Carrillo testified, "After joining Padilla I proposed to him to set free his prisoners, and he did so before the fight." (Todd ran to safety under the line of fire but the other guy apparently was too frightened to budge, hence his new nickname: "The dumb Englishman.")
Another alternative reading worth a ponder: Carrillo might have dropped Fowler and Cowie off with Padilla and did not learn what happened to them until a few days later, when the two militias again met up at Olómpali. Ramón's letter to his sister from the Petaluma hills did not mention their fate, instead noting "...we have never thought of doing the least damage with our arms, as we have not done up to the present..." implying he believed no blood had been spilled. And after Ramón's death his brother Julio wrote an impassioned letter to the Sonoma Democrat (transcribed below) which seems to support that idea, insisting Ramón "...was not even aware that these men had been taken prisoners until after they had been killed." That's not completely true since he apparently captured them, but it didn't mean he stuck around for their deaths.
Julio's 1864 letter about his brother continued with this observation: "The act was disapproved of by all the native Californians at the time, excepting those implicated in the killing, and caused a difference which was never entirely healed." That simple statement was the single most profound thing anyone had yet written concerning the events of the summer of 1846.
When the Bear Flag Revolt began William Ide penned a manifesto declaring they were establishing a multicultural utopian California Republic. Ramón wrote to his sister that his aim was only to protect the rancheros and hold Ide to his promises. Then someone on the Californio side killed Fowler and Cowie. Then someone on the American side killed the Haro teenagers and their elderly uncle. Lofty principles were forgotten and it became a neighborhood gang war, each side hunting the hunters on other side. And like in a gang war, both sides wanted to absolve what they did by claiming the other guys drew first blood.
Those unhealed wounds and regrets lingered for decades. Vallejo's 1875 account of the Bear Flag Revolt is filled with resentment against the Americans; he had been a good friend to the settlers both personally and professionally yet they treated him abusively, ransacked his house and threatened to kill his family. Neighbors who stood on different sides still had to live next to each other after the dust settled and it became American territory, but it wasn't sometimes easy. Antonio Coronel - a prominent Mexican who crossed paths with Ramón Carrillo in Southern California - was up here in 1849 and went out for a drink with a friend to a Sonoma saloon. As summarized from his memoirs:12
One day he and compadre Juan Padilla were waiting for the wet January weather to clear, when a former Bear Flagger began to bully Padilla for having served as Bernardo Garcia's henchman in the wartime atrocity against Cowie and Fowler. Padilla insisted that the charge was a lie, and the American replied with an assault. After a severe beating, Padilla lay in an upstairs room, hovering near death for several weeks, while below his accuser continued to threaten his life. Only Coronel's good reputation and the intercession of friendly Americans restrained the former Bear Flagger.
Towards the end of the 19th century the Americans had come to memorialize all things about the Bear Flag Revolt, particularly the story of how the flag was designed and the martyrdom of Cowie and Fowler. Conflicting views were not welcome; during the 50th Bear Flag anniversary, Robert Thompson ranted at length about Bancroft being a "biased historiographer" and "self-constituted historian" who was "unfair to the pioneers" by not being properly deferential to Frémont and the other Americans - even suggesting he would regret his words if some of the more kick-ass original Bears were still around to teach him a thing or three.
Forgotten was that many Americans at the time had mixed feelings about ousting the Mexican government, with Bear Flagger Baldridge plainly saying it was an injustice. Forgotten was that the American settlers were not in real danger or acting in self-defense. And forgotten was that no matter how noble their original ideals, the Bear Flag Revolt was part of a war of aggression - and as Americans we like to think we denounce countries who do things like that.
1 All references to H. H. Bancroft in this article refer to his History of California Vo. 5 1846-1848 published in 1886.
2 Officer Gillespie and Other Military Officers from the Pacific Squadron's Dispatches to the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft, MS 89, Reel 33. National Archives, San Bruno, California. Cited in Scheiner (see sidebar)
3 October 1856, New York Evening Post cited in Walker, Dale; "Bear Flag Rising", 199; pg 132-133
4 National Archives Squadron Letters cited in Warner; The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and Their Heritage; 1996, pg. 183. The second prisoner was named as "Blas Angelino" in that correspondence of Grigsby and Montgomery on July 16 and 18. Ford said he took the prisoners with them as he and the irregular volunteers went in search of the Californio militia and ended up at Olómpali. He did not explain why; perhaps he feared they would not be adequately safe in the Sonoma jail or maybe he anticipated he might need them as hostages to trade for the missing Bears.
5 The Fitch property was Rancho Sotoyome, which encompassed modern Healdsburg and lands to the east, including all of the Russian River nearby. Henry Fitch, married to the eldest of Doña María Carrillo daughters, was not a player in the Bear Flag story as he and the family lived in San Diego where he was part of the local Mexican government.
6 The party of Bears who confronted the soldiers at Olómpali were the rescue party for Todd and the other man. Todd was released unharmed at the start of the battle, but strangely, there is no conclusive answer about what happened to the other guy, who was reported as both killed and rescued. His name was Francis Young but usually mentioned as "English Jack," "the Englishman" or specifically, "the dumb Englishman." He was actually Canadian.
7 Vallejo's "Historical and Personal Memoirs" vol 5, cited in Rosenus (see sidebar) pg. 147-148
8In regional Pomo vocabularies around this area, the word for "blackbird" varies slightly but always begins with a "ts-" sound (crow was consistently "Kaai"). In Southern Pomo, for example, the present location of Windsor was called "Tsco-le-cawi" which meant, "blackbird water." The closest I can find to "Chanate" in any historic word list is "Chel-hay," which was a name for a valley oak sometimes used in the Healdsburg Pomo dialect.
9 "History and Memories: the Carrillo family in Sonoma County" by Alma McDaniel Carrillo and Eleanora Carrillo de Haney; 1983
10 Damaso Rodriguez - a career soldier and who was 64 years old, not 80 - was an invalid and had been on the payroll as part of Vallejo's small retinue in Sonoma for about nine years. While Bears may have indeed beaten him up in front of his family, Osio does not mention this incident in his history of the battle at Olómpali. Nor did Rodriguez apparently die from cause, as several days later he filed a claim worth $1,243 with the U.S. for cattle and other property stolen by Frémont's men. (The U.S. did honor some Bear Flag-period claims like this when a receipt was provided - see Bancroft p. 462.)
11 The introduction to the University of Oklahoma edition of Ridge's original book has more details on the twists and turns of the Murieta story. The author suggests the notion that Murieta was really a Carrillo came from a 1909 Overland Monthly article supposedly written using "authentic sources." There it's stated both Joaquin Carillo [sp] was Murieta's real name, then a few pages later that Carillo "was also an alias of their chief."
12 Pitt, Leonard; The Decline of the Californios, 1970; pg 50
The story of the Bear Flag Revolt may be captivating, but the confusion surrounding the Cowie and Fowler episode shows how little is really known for certain.
SIDEBAR: HUNTING THE ELUSIVE BEARS
The main problem is few primary sources are available. At the time there were no newspapers published in California - it would be three months before the pro-American "Californian" broadsheet appeared and offered the first detailed accounts of what had happened (the full Cowie-Fowler report can be read in issue five). Another obstacle is that for thirty-some years the Revolt was treated as an odd little footnote to the Mexican-American War. Letters from the aging Bears sometimes appeared in papers and the Revolt was sometimes given a page or two in profiles of John Frémont or memoirs about the Gold Rush, but it wasn't until historians Bancroft and Josiah Royce paid attention and it was glamorized in the flood of county histories that it gained traction as an important event in its own right. That's a long time for details to fade and myths to develop; imagine what we might believe today about the JFK assassination, for example, had little been written about it before the year 2000.
The chapter of General Vallejo's memoir on the Bear Flag Revolt is available online and is worth reading in full, even though he was a prisoner during most of this time and learned details second hand. Bancroft considered William Baldridge's "'Days of '46" as "by far the most valuable and complete" account of the Revolt and it's given due emphasis here. For anyone interested in researching further, Bancroft offered a lengthy discussion of Bear Flag sources as well as scooping up every scrap of information he came across about Cowie and Fowler. A single-page PDF of that summary is available for download through the Comstock House digital library. An 1890 magazine article, "The 'Bears' and the Historians" was helpful in sorting out the evolution of the myths surrounding the Revolt.
The best overall book on the events is Alan Rosenus' "General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans" written in 1995. Antonio María Osio's 1851 "The History of Alta California" is now available in English translation and along with Vallejo's chapter, offers the Californio viewpoint (Cowie and Fowler are not mentioned). Also very useful is a thesis written by Patricia Campos Scheiner, "Californio Resistance to the U.S. Invasion of 1846."
A list of works best avoided would be long, but near the top would be the books written by and about the "Commander" of the California Republic, William B. Ide: "Who Conquered California?" and "Scraps of California History." Both were published around 1880 by his brother and based on their conversations before his death in 1852 and a long, descriptive letter he supposedly wrote quite soon after the events. But as described in the previous article, Ide was an alarmist who promoted fear to justify his actions. And historian H. H. Bancroft found those books are "...everywhere colored by a violent prejudice, sometimes amounting to a mania, against Frémont, whom Ide honestly believed to have robbed him of his fame as a conqueror and founder of a republic."
A TRUE HISTORY OF THE BEAR FLAG
The circumstances connected with the transfer from Mexico to the United States of sovereign power over the territory of California is of absorbing interest. As time goes on this interest will increase, and the historian of the future will search wearily through the dusty records of the past for facts which at this time may be obtained from active participants in those stirring scenes. We have the following statement from a former citizen of this county of the facts connected with the raising of the Bear Flag, why it was made and of what material. These facts can be established by persons now alive. They are of peculiar interest to the citizens of Sonoma county. The neighboring town of Sonoma was the scene of the event, many of the participants were afterwards our neighbors and friends, some of them still reside among us. On the morning of June 14th, 1846, about daylight thirty-three armed men, who had organized in Napa Valley the previous day, arrived in the town of Sonoma, the headquarters of the Mexican military commandant, Gen. M. G. Vallejo. This small band had selected from their number Capt. Merritt, of Sacramento Valley, to lead them. They entered the town, meeting no resistance; went first to Gen. Vallejo's quarters, arrested him, his brother Salvador, and Victor Prudon, Alcalde of the town. They sent them as prisoners under guard to Sutter's Fort. The rest of the revolutionary party remained in possession of the town. Among them were three young men, Alexander Todd, Benjamin Duell and Thomas Cowey. A few days after the capture in a casual conversation between these young men, the matter of a flag came up. They had no authority to raise the American flag and they determined to make one. Their general idea was to imitate, without following too closely, their national ensign. Mrs. W. B. Elliott had been brought to the town of Sonoma by her husband from his ranch on Mark West creek for safety. The old Elliott cabin may be seen to this day on Mark West creek about a mile above the Springs. From Mrs. Elliott[,] Ben Duell got a piece of new red flannel, some white domestic, needles and thread. A piece of blue drilling was obtained elsewhere. From this material, without consultation with any one else, thes-e three young men made the Bear Flag. Cowie had been a saddler. Duell had also served a short time at the same trade. To form the flag Duell and Cowie sewed together alternate' strips of red, white, and blue. Todd drew in the upper corner a star and painted on the lower a rude picture of a grizzly bear, which was not standing as has been sometimes represented, but was drawn with head down. The bear was afterwards adopted as the design of the great seal of the State of California. On the original flag it was so rudely executed that two of those who saw it raised have told us that it looked more like a hog than a bear. Be that as it may, its meaning was plain—that the revolutionary party would, if necessary, fight their way through at all hazards. In the language of our informant, it meant that there was no back out; they intended to fight it out. There were no1 halyards on the flag-staff which stood in front of the barracks. It was again reared, and the flag which was soon to be replaced by that of the Republic for the first time floated on the breeze.
The Americans were short of powder. It was known that Mose Carson, a brother of Kit and Lindsey, who at the time was Superintendent of the Fitch ranch, had at that place half a keg of powder. Just after the flag was raised, Thomas Cowey and a man named Fowler volunteered to go to Russian River and secure this powder. They came up the valley and attempted to cross the Rincon Valley to avoid Santa Rosa. Within a short distance of this place they were surprised by the Mexicans and both were killed. Their mutilated remains were afterwards found and they were buried where they fell, upon the farm now owned by John Underhill, two miles north of Santa Rosa. No stone marks the graves of these pioneers, one of whom took so conspicuous a part in the event which gave to the Union the great State of California. Alexander Todd still lives in the State and will confirm this statement in every particular.
- Sonoma Democrat, August 8, 1874
The Murder of Ramon Corrillo.
EDITOR OF SONOMA COUNTY DEMOCRAT:
I desire through your paper to brand, as it deserves, a foul aspertion [sic] upon the name of my brother, Ramon Corrillo, who was recently murdered in a most cowardly manner near Los Angeles.
But I wish more particularly to call attention to an old charge, which I presume owes its revival to the same source, to wit: That my brother, Ramon Carrillo, was connected with the murder of two Americans, who had been taken prisoners by a company commanded by Juan Padilla in 1846.
I presume this charge first originated from the fact that my brother had been active in raising the company which was commanded by Padillo, and from the further fact that the murder occurred near the Santa Rosa farm, then occupied by my mother's family.
Notwithstanding these appearances, I have proof which is incontestable, that my brother was not connected with this affair, and was not even aware that these men had been taken prisoners until after they had been killed. The act was disapproved of by all the native Californians at the time, excepting those implicated in the killing, and caused a difference which was never entirely healed.
There are, as I believe, many Americans now living in this vicinity, who were here at the time, and who know the facts I have mentioned. I am ready to furnish proof of what I have said to any who may desire it.
- Sonoma Democrat, June 4, 1864
Three things about the Bear Flag Revolt you probably remember from school: It started in Sonoma; people thought the bear on the hand-painted flag looked more like a pig; a couple of Bear Flag rebels named Cowey and Fowler were killed. How, why, and where their deaths occurred remains a mystery and the details are still highly controversial, even over 170 years later.
Cowie and Fowler became instant martyrs to the independence cause, in great part because it was said they were horribly tortured to death while being held prisoner. Generations of history buffs have sought to find where they are buried, both to honor them and to determine if there's any truth to that story. The latest quest for their graves has been led by researchers Bill Northcroft and Ray Owen and involved archaeologists and anthropologists from SSU. The Press Democrat has offered several articles on the search.
This article explores only the impact their deaths had on the Bear Flag Revolt. The following article looks at what was written about the incident at the time and how their tragedy developed into the stuff of myth. If you would like more background on the whole Bear Flag story, a very good summary can be read at history.com and Wikipedia provides tons of detail. The virtual museum at bearflagmuseum.org is also a good resource. But an important detail commonly overlooked is that there wasn't much unanimity on either side prior to these events:
THE CALIFORNIOS There were roughly 8,000 Mexican-Californians in the territory of Alta California during 1846. (Writers at the time interchangeably called Hispanic Mexican citizens "native Californians" or simply, "natives," which has caused confusion in recent years among authors who presume it's a reference to Native Americans - a term coined during the 1960s). Personally generous and hospitable to the American outsiders, their government in the 1840s regularly called for all immigrants to be expelled. Some, including members of Santa Rosa's Carrillo family, were fiercely loyal to the provincial government. Others, including General Mariano Vallejo, remained neutral or aided and abetted the rebels, believing California would fare better under American control after decades of neglect from Mexico - and Spain before it.
THE AMERICANS Those writing about the 1846 events called all 2,000 non-Hispanic immigrants in Alta California the "Americans," although about one out of four was English, Swiss, Prussian or another nationality. Some became Mexican citizens by marriage or service in order to own land; others had ill-defined notions of "Manifest Destiny" - that this place rightly belonged to the U.S. and Americans should be entitled to do what they like. Nor did all support taking up arms against Mexico; Bear Flagger William Baldridge believed "making war upon the Californians was an act of great injustice" and "a large, if not a majority of Americans then in California" feared it was too much of a risk they would end up "killed or driven out of the country in a short time."
In the first week of June, 1846, Northern California was rife with rumors that Commandante General José Castro had an army marching towards the North Bay and was destroying immigrant homesteads along the way. It wasn't remotely true but to many it was completely believable; in March Castro had issued his most bombastic proclamation yet, calling John C. Frémont and his men a "band of robbers" and appealing to Californios to take up arms. "...I invite yourselves under my immediate orders at headquarters, where we will prepare to lance the boil which (should it not be done) would destroy our liberties and independence..."
The American's fears seemed confirmed when it was discovered General Vallejo was sending Castro 170 government horses (which the settlers
hijacked intercepted). Seeking leadership from Frémont, the famous U.S. Army Captain told them he couldn't let himself or his forces get mixed up in anything, but it would be a swell idea for the civilians to take some prominent Mexican nationals hostage in order to provoke Castro into an act of war against the United States. Then all non-Californios could immediately evacuate California as war raged. Simple, really.
Amazingly, some twenty men went along with this (non) plan. Several believed Frémont wasn't serious about staying out of the action and would soon gallop to their support; others, including William Ide, felt war was coming to the area regardless and it would be better to strike first, but didn't trust Frémont as he had walked away from a similar confrontation earlier.
Off they went from Frémont's camp north of Sacramento headed towards Sonoma, the only military outpost in the region. Since they would be outmanned and outgunned by the Mexican garrison ready to fight with cannons, they needed the advantage of surprise. They stayed off the main roads and used animal trails to cross the ridges, traveling through the last night. Along the way the picked up another dozen volunteer revolutionaries.
When they rode into Sonoma Plaza at daybreak on June 14 they found it empty. Not even a guard on duty. The only military presence was General Vallejo and his brother, Salvador. Even the tiny compliment (which was apparently only eight soldiers) was absent, having left to help drive that herd of 170 horses to Santa Clara - and when the horses were
stolen intercepted, all the soldiers continued to their destination in Santa Clara.
The rest of the backstory you likely have read many times. As the Cowie-Fowler story begins, General Vallejo has been taken prisoner and Bear Flag "captain general" William Ide has proclaimed California an independent republic. Every day more volunteers are arriving at Sonoma, The Commander of the American sloop-of-war then in the Bay Area has said the U.S. will remain neutral and not supply the Bears with arms or gunpowder. Word of the uprising has just reached the provincial capitol of Monterey but it will be a week before a small division of soldiers will reach the North Bay. Meanwhile, a group of around a dozen local Californios has formed and is roving the countryside, waiting for the regular army troops to arrive so they can together attack the American insurrectionists. Over the Sonoma Plaza flies a newly-made flag with the name, "CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC" and the profile of a bear that looks more like a pig. It is later said that it was stitched together by a young saddler named Thomas Cowie.
Even if the garrison had been fully manned, the Mexican soldiers couldn't have put up much of a fight. William Baldridge, considered the most reliable of the Bear Flag memoir writers, stated the cannons were in such disrepair they couldn't be moved very far. The armory was stocked with obsolete English fintlock muskets, too long and heavy to be useful to the Bear Flaggers, and "they had but little ammunition, and that all the powder they had was of a poor quality, being very coarse and dirty." It was the need for better gunpowder that sent Cowie and Fowler away on their ill-fated mission.
(RIGHT: Fanciful illustration of Sonoma Plaza. Overland Monthly Magazine, 1896)
Thomas Cowie was from St. Louis and came West in 1843 with the Chiles party, which also included Baldridge. Cowie spent a few months as a member of Frémont's troupe and later went to work for another Bear Flagger, Thomas Knight (think Knights Valley).
Fowler remains a complete unknown. Baldridge and others didn't know his first name; sometime later it began to be written he was called George. There was a prominent Napa Valley family named Fowler and the Bear Flaggers rested near their ranch before advancing on Sonoma, but if he was even part of that clan he was a distant cousin. While a St. Louis area newspaper later noted the death of former resident Cowie, no hometown papers can be found lamenting Fowler.
It was probably on June 18 when Cowie and Fowler volunteered to fetch the gunpowder and after a couple days passed, a party of five men was sent out. They returned with the powder and a Californio prisoner, who had a gruesome story to tell about what happened to the pair. (Again: This article is just about reaction to the killings; the stories about how they died are covered in the next piece.)
The prisoner apparently also identified a Californio named Padilla as the leader of the guerilla band, at the same time as "we had just learned that that sixty armed Californians were scouring the country west of Sonoma," according to Baldridge. As another Bear Flagger, sent on an errand to Bodega had not returned, it was presumed this group had captured or killed him as well. A company of about twenty eager volunteers went out in a mission of rescue - or revenge, if the opportunity allowed. They reached Padilla's adobe (near Stony Point) and burned it, then proceeded south where they bumped into the guerillas, who had joined up with that small division of soldiers sent from Monterey. Such was the "Battle" of Olómpali.
The day after that, June 25, Frémont and his boys finally rode into Sonoma, courageously ready to join the fray on day 11.
Frémont led 134 men - about half of them recruited from the ranks of the Bear Flaggers - towards San Rafael, expecting to combat the Mexican forces (which the Bears had soundly bested at Olómpali with only about a tenth as many men). They didn't find the troops, but the next morning a small boat was spotted crossing the Bay. Captured were 19 year-old twin brothers Francisco and Ramon de Haro along with their elderly uncle, José de los Reyes Berreyesa. They were killed.
What happened became a matter of great dispute. When Frémont was running for president as the candidate for the newly-formed Republican party in 1856, the pro-Democrat Los Angeles Star newspaper published a letter from Jasper O'Farrell claiming he was there and Frémont's scout, Kit Carson, wanted to take them prisoners - but "Frémont waved his hand and said, 'I have got no room for prisoners.'" Other accounts seem intended to absolve Frémont of direct responsibility: Carson shot them because he was ornery and drunk, the captives were gunned down while trying to escape, and in Frémont's 1886 memoir, he claimed his Indian scouts killed them because everyone was so distraught by the murders of Cowie and Fowler.
At some point the story developed that killing them was proper and necessary because they were murderous assassins. Yes, they were carrying orders to Captain De la Torre, the commander of the small Mexican division - the message concerned details about reinforcements - but now they were said to be an advance force on a mission intent on wiping out the Americans. In an 1870 memoir by the skipper of a ship recruited by Frémont, it was claimed "...they were armed, and had written orders from Castro to De la Torre to 'kill every foreigner they found, man, woman, and child.' These three men were shot on the spot: one of them was a notorious villain."
This wasn't the only alarming rumor about the Mexicans planning genocide. In his account of the Bear Flag Revolt, leader William Ide lied about a proclamation from General Castro ordering loyalists to "fall on and kill the Bears of Sonoma, and then return and kill the whelps afterwards." These stories were in circulation at the time and for years later, although historian H. H. Bancroft did his best to knock down the messager-assassin story in his 1886 California history, calling it an "absurd fabrication." But the "whelps" slander lived on; it can be found quoted in later biographies, 20th century magazine and newspaper articles, and even appears in a novel published last year (2015).
Coupled with the tale of Cowie and Fowler's gruesome deaths, these rumors became the rallying cry for Americans to band together against the Californios. The peaceable majority of Americans now were hearing fearful warnings concerning imminent threats - marauding banditos roaming the countryside and bloodthirsty soldados sneaking across the Bay and did you hear about what terrible things they did to those two young men. It's difficult to imagine a more potent mix of propaganda to justify going to war against your actual neighbors.
The history of the short-lived California Republic was mostly locked in stone by the 1880s as the last of the American memoirs appeared. Cowie and Fowler are always in there somewhere - which is remarkable, if you think about it; can you name another war with such patron martyrs?
What we retell today about those events isn't much different from what they were writing back then, which is to say it is almost entirely just the American side of the story as viewed 30+ years later. Primary source documents are few, and the obstacles to exploring anything about the Californio viewpoint is daunting; for starters, Gen. Vallejo wrote a five-volume set of memoirs in 1875 which were translated into English - but never published. (UPDATE: Vallejo's chapter on the Bear Flag Revolt is available online and is worth reading in full. More will be discussed about this document in the next article.)
Historian Bancroft was famously neutral, allowing readers to sort through evidence and come to their own conclusions. But he recoiled at Frémont's execution-style murder of the old man and teenagers and the notion it was somehow defensible because of what happened to Fowler and Cowie. His contrast of the two incidents, "A MURDER BY FREMONT," is a must-read, if only for this small passage which casts the Bear Flag Revolt in a different light:
|The killing of Berreyesa and the Haros was a brutal murder, like the killing of Cowie and Fowler, for which it was intended as a retaliation... The Californians, or probably one desperado of their number, had killed two members of a band of outlaws who had imprisoned their countrymen, had raised an unknown flag, had announced their purpose of overthrowing the government, and had caused great terror among the people - the two men at the time of their capture being actively engaged in their unlawful service. In revenge for this act, the Bears deliberately killed the first Californians that came within their reach, or at least the first after their own strength became irresistible.|
Someday, I really want to teach a history course with the name, "How to Read a Newspaper." I'm not joking; it's a skill mostly lost today, accustomed as we are to skimming headlines and zooming in on favorite topics. But before the internet, before TV and before radio, newspapers were a prime source of entertainment, often read entirely over the course of hours.
Anyone who wants to get a flavor of the era will discover the best bits were those little items stuffed in the cracks - usually filler at the bottom of a column on the inside pages, barely newsworthy and often without even a headline. Sometimes they were attempts at humor writing; sometimes they are unintentionally funny because we can't imagine something like that happening today. Sometimes they reveal only a glimpse of some larger and very screwy story; sometimes they are complete vignettes. But almost always, they reveal some insight into the lives we lived back then.
Over the years I've written up dozens of these morsels from 1904-1912. Among my favorites was the story of the man who admired the suit worn by a guy he passed on the street, unaware he was looking at his own clothes just stolen by the burglar. Then there was the time carpenter and attorney got into it on Fourth street over the ownership of a handsaw, one beating the other in the head with his hammer as his foe tried to saw him up. But my all-time favorite concerns young Fred J. Wiseman getting revenge for a speeding ticket by later forcing the selfsame cop to arrest himself for spitting on the sidewalk, at night, and during a downpour. Most of the other stories like these can be found in the archives labeled with the "odd" tag.
Here are my picks for the best odd stories in the Santa Rosa newspapers for 1913:
|About three miles west of Santa Rosa one dark Saturday night, a Mr. A. Mills and John Ferdinand ran into each other - not so unusual, except they were both were on bicycles. Mr. Ferdinand's bike was something of a wreck but while Mr. Mills was shaken up by the collision his bicycle was undamaged. So Mr. Ferdinand promptly grabbed it and pedaled away. By the time Mills walked back to town and reached the sheriff's office, he was understandably fuming about the "hold-up." Amazingly, this story has a happy end: The next day Ferdinand was arrested and immediately brought before Judge Atchinson, who fined him twenty bucks. A. Mills even got his bike back, the wheels of justice grinding with rare and satisfying speed. (Santa Rosa Republican, May 5, 1913)|
|Attorney Frank H. Gould and other members of his San Francisco club caught an excursion train to Cloverdale to watch an airshow. As the primitive, kite-like planes flew (1913, remember), Gould and two others noticed a cow in a pasture was paying attention to the overhead action. So mesmerized were they by watching the cow they missed the departure of their train home. "It was the funniest thing I ever saw," the easily-amused lawyer told the Press Democrat after the trio hitched an auto ride as far as Santa Rosa. "She just raised her head and turned here and there so as not to miss any of the airship...that cow - well, it was well worth seeing." (Press Democrat, February 23, 1913)|
|A man walks into a bar with a new pair of shoes for sale. The reporter did not express surprise at that by itself, so maybe shoes were regularly hustled in Santa Rosa saloons in 1913, but anyway, George White sold the pair for the remarkably low price of $2.50 and bought drinks for the crowd. Then, of course, he tried to steal the shoes back. Around that time a man from Windsor entered the same bar and said the shoes belonged to him. George White was arrested, and hopefully the court had an easier time figuring this out than me. (Santa Rosa Republican, November 21, 1913)|
|Santa Rosa city councilman Spooncer heard the fire alarm and exercised a privilege of his elected office to jump aboard the fire engine as it left for the blaze. Unfortunately he did not get far, flying off the running board as the truck turned the corner at Fourth and B streets. "He sailed straight out through the air," the PD reported. "[A]nd being rotund, as aforementioned, started to roll. He finally landed with a gurgle, a grunt and a gasp, against the base of the new fountain and it looked for a moment as if someone else would have to donate a new fountain." (Press Democrat, April 19, 1913)|
|Tired of his sleep being interrupted by the yowling of his neighbor's cat, Frank Powers shot it. When Charles Gardiner found his pet had been killed, he confronted Powers and went to the police. Powers was arrested and charged with discharging a gun within Santa Rosa city limits, and while he was at the station Powers swore a complaint against Gardiner for cussing him out. As explained here before, using "profane and vulgar language" in that era was considered more serious than animal cruelty or even incidents of child abuse. Both Powers and Gardiner were fined five dollars. (Press Democrat, April 10, 1913)|
|Mr. C. R. Duncan was arrested for drunkenness in Sebastopol. Before his court hearing he asked permission to wash up and was told to use the barbershop next door. Some time dragged by and Duncan had not returned, but a woman entered the office to complain that a man had given her a fictitious check. "She said that the man's name was C. R. Duncan," the paper reported, "and then the officers fainted." The item ended, "officers all over the county are now out looking for the champion long distance washer of the world." (Santa Rosa Republican, September 23, 1913)|
|The Republican wryly observed workmen in Petaluma cleaning out an old building came across a bottle with a note inside. It read: "At Sea, July 4, 1904. The good ship 'booze' was wrecked on the rocks of Point Pedro yesterday. All hands will be lost if we are not found. (Signed)..." The writing was very clear although it "rapidly faded after being exposed to the toxic atmosphere of Petaluma," the Santa Rosa reporter claimed. The owner of the printing business formerly there was contacted to explain what he and his buddies were doing that night at the print shop. His "recollection of the titanic disaster is somewhat hazy", but he clearly remembered that Fourth of July "the fog was so dense it could have been sliced up with a sharp knife and fed to the chickens, a coagulated water diet." (Santa Rosa Republican, May 9, 1913)|