*Taken from the New York Times. Written by Adam Goodheart.
Three thousand miles distant from the palmetto secession flags of Charleston and the “Don’t Tread on Me” banners of Savannah, another ensign of disunion flew – briefly – over American soil. This one appeared on an ordinary Wednesday above the town of Stockton, Calif., in the gold-mining district east of San Francisco.
Historical accounts are strangely silent about who raised it. But at some point during that day – Jan. 16, 1861 – citizens looked up to see it waving from the masthead of a surveying schooner moored in the Mormon Slough, a small body of water in the heart of the town. According to the next morning’s edition of the Stockton Argus, the silk banner depicted a “huge grizzly bear” standing amid a “wild mountain scene.” In one corner was a single white star on a blue background – similar to many of the secession flags back east. And across the top were the words “PACIFIC REPUBLIC.”
This was not the first time that such a flag had been raised in the Golden State. Indeed, the original Bear Flag had appeared in 1846, when Anglo-American settlers in the then-Mexican state of California declared their independence, just prior to occupation by American forces. Four years later, the territory was admitted to the Union as a free state – despite the efforts of Southern leaders like Jefferson Davis, who argued in the Senate that slavery was part of California’s natural destiny: “It was to work the gold mines on this continent that the Spaniards first brought Africans to the country. The European races now engaged in working the mines of California sink under the burning heat and sudden changes of climate, to which the African race are altogether better adapted.”
Slavery’s supporters on the Pacific Coast had never wholly conceded defeat. More than a few Southern gold prospectors took advantage of murky federal and state law and brought slaves with them – including to the area around Stockton. And California’s political leadership on the eve of the Civil War was still dominated by Southern sympathizers – voters called them the Chivalry faction, or the Chivs. No Northern state had more draconian laws restricting the lives and rights of its black inhabitants.
Little more than a year earlier, the enmity between Northern and Southern factions had erupted in an awful act of violence. In September 1859, one of the state’s senators, David Broderick (who had come to California from New York) was slain in a pistol duel by state Supreme Court Justice David Terry (a Kentucky-born Texan). Broderick’s dying words were reputed to have been, “They killed me because I was opposed to the extension of slavery and the corruption of justice.”
Yet even among Californians with little fondness for the South, it often seemed that only the most tenuous threads bound their state to the Union. California lay as far from the old Eastern states as could be; the quickest route from one American coast to the other was via a perilous sea voyage of four thousand nautical miles aboard a cramped steamer, with an overland trek across the Isthmus of Panama midway. The transcontinental telegraph line was still a year from completion; news from the East took two weeks to arrive via Pony Express.
Many of the Gold Rush settlers were rootless adventurers who felt no particular loyalty to any piece of land except those on which they’d staked their mining claims up in the hills. Thousands upon thousands of foreigners had been drawn to the region, too: Europeans, East Asians and Latin Americans, many of whom had simply come to scoop up Yankee dollars before heading home, and whose allegiances were still with Prussia, or China, or Chile. Two other significant populations – the Mormons and the Mexicans – had every reason to hate the United States, a nation that had quite recently defeated them on the battlefield.
“We don’t care a straw whether you dissolve the Union or not,” a gold miner from Maine named Frank Buck wrote in 1860 to his sister back home. “We just wish that the Republicans and Democrats in the Capital would get into a fight and kill each other all off like the Kilkenny cats. Perhaps that would settle the hash.”
In short, California felt like a place wholly new. Why, then – a great many Californians reasoned – should it not be its own nation? Let the old states fight their old battles; this distant shore would turn its face away, toward its own destiny. In early 1861 – with the word “pacific” taking on a newly ironic double meaning – the moment for a Pacific Republic seemed to have arrived.
On the same day the Bear Flag appeared above Stockton, Jan. 16, a letter from one of California’s congressmen in Washington was published in the San Francisco Bulletin. “Our Union is gone without a doubt,” declared Rep. Charles L. Scott, a Virginia-born Democrat. If Lincoln attempted to subdue the South by force, he continued, the president would no doubt demand that Californians contribute men and money to the war – leading to probable civil war on the Pacific coast, too: “Sir, let such taxation be once attempted, and the beautiful valleys, hills, and gulches of California will flow with blood.”
Rather than accede, the congressman argued, Californians should secede – taking the opportunity to seize for themselves “our vast agricultural and mineral resources, and our geographical position with China, Japan, and the East Indies, and the trade generally with the East, which is now in its infancy.” Scott closed with this stirring peroration: “Let us set up for ourselves, and in a half century we will indeed have a grand, glorious, and mighty Republic, founded upon the sad experience of the past, but which will endure until time is no more.”
Whether Scott’s mighty new republic would come to pass remained to be seen. But the flag in Stockton, at least, did not endure for long. Local Unionists managed to cut its halyards, then sent a small boy shimmying up the schooner’s mast to pull down the offending emblem.
And the next day, another flag mysteriously appeared above the town, this one hanging over Stockton’s main intersection, the corner of Main Street and El Dorado. It, too, showed a bear against a backdrop of California mountains. But this time, an enormous eagle was hovering above, with talons outstretched – and the terrified bruin was scampering toward a nearby patch of chaparral.