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Sutter's Republic (U.S.)

Last modified: 2006-01-21 by rick wyatt
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Sutter's Republic

Sutter's republic existed mostly in his own mind. Mexico was infirmly in the saddle but in the saddle nevertheless.

At the time all this was going on the population in California was overwhelmingly Mexican and Native American. The Native Americans probably were unaware of any overlordship and certainly didn't acknowledge any loyalty to any nation. The Russian influence in Northern California was confined to one location, Ft. Ross, a commercial establishment. Spain's and Mexico's administration reached little farther north than San Francisco along the coast. Russia's influence along the coast was confined to trading with Native American's for furs and such with the base at Fort Ross a tiny place that was more agricultural/commercial than anything else. The UK and the U.S. jointly occupied Oregon and what is now British Columbia but civil administration was very weak, nonexistent really, and confined to the settled area around Ft. Vancouver (near present day Portland, Oregon) and south into the Willamette Valley.

On the whole between 1790s and 1840s, the Northwest coast between Alaska and San Francisco was generally unadministered, peopled mostly by Native Americans, claimed by Russia, UK, USA, and Mexico/Spain. Inland, away from the coast, there was no government, no people in residence except Native Americans and a very few traders employed by fur companies.

Yes. The flag of Spain, Russia, UK, USA, and Mexico flew but the influence was weak.

Phil Abbey, 12 October 1998

The red star on a white field was the proposed first flag for the 1836 bid for Independence of California from Mexico. This small revolt included many Mexican nationals (headed by Juan Bautista Alvarado) as well as Americans and British (lead by Isaac Graham), in an effort to free California from a disinterested Mexican government, already too corrupted and decimated by internal factions and miscellaneous wars to govern most of the area.

On June 14th 1846 a William Todd, nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, volunteered to make the first Bear Flag. Using unbleached muslin, a donated red petticoat, and his own rough hewn talents, Todd quickly sewed a red star on the upper left-hand corner and a red stripe along the bottom. He hand-printed "California Republic" and he drew a crude grizzly bear just above it.

This "Bear Flag Revolt" made Californios unhappy. To be a separate country was folly as they wanted to belong to the United States. On July 9th 1846, before the British or the French could take over California the Bear Flag was down and Old Glory was in place. The war with Mexico would seal the fate of Alta California forever. California became a state in 1850. It wasn't until 1861 however, when the Bear Flag made another appearance by secessionist hoping to break California out of the Union. In 1911, the Bear Flag was officially adopted as the California State flag.

Floyd D.P. Øydegaard, 1 November 1998

Possible Flag Design

[Sutter's Republic flag] image by Dave Martucci, 1 December 1999

John A. Sutter was a Swiss emigrant who took Mexican citizenship. He was granted a large tract of land in the Mexican Department of Alta California. He was also a "justice of the peace", and as such he represented the Mexican government.

It is a matter of historical record that he had a dream of an independent state that would be established in Alta California, however, the arrival of "Los Osos" the Spanish Californian slang term for Americans who came overland. "Los Osos" was the term prior to the later word "gringo".

Whether he planned to call his sovereign state Noeva Helvecia roughly translated New Switzerland, is subject to debate. What we do know however is that is what he did name the fort he established on the American River.

As to what flag he flew the best evidence is that he flew the Mexican Merchant Flag of the 1840's, that is the Mexican Tri-color without the arms. Sutter was a petty official of the Mexican government who answered to officials in the Marina Merchante Department in Mexico. Remember that this was considered a port. Also keep in mind that is was not the custom at remote Spanish and Mexican outposts to make colors every day. So the interest we have in this subject may be giving it more importance than it had at the time.

Some historians have speculated that he also flew the flag of Switzerland,(who knows maybe he also flew Bern, and that's where the "Bear" nickname came from!). Supposedly travelers were welcomed by his display of flags. This was the recollection of Captain Phelps who visited in July of 1840.

In order to bolster his position in Alta California he purchased the Russian Fort on the coast, his ultimate goal was revealed in a letter to Jacob Leese,the U.S. Counsel in Yerbe Buena (San Francisco), "The people [Mexican officials] don't know me yet, but soon they will find out what I am able to do...The first step they do against me is that I will make a declaration of Independence and proclaim California a Republic independent of Mexico."

The only drawing of this flag flying over Sutter's Fort can be found in the children's coloring book by Knill,Harry,The Story of California & her flags to color, Vol.2, Bellerophon Books, Santa Barbara, 1996. p.19.

In this (w/b) drawing Knill clearly indicates that this is a reconstruction and not an actual flag and gives no colors. He cites as his source for the reconstruction, Reminiscences of Old Times by "Bear Flag" J. William Russell, Napa County Reporter, June 2,1861 as reprinted in the Historical Society Southern California Quarterly March 1951."...When I got to the fort the 'lone star' flag was flying. The colors was made up of the old Mexican flag."

The drawing is given the date July 10, 1846 supposedly depicting events that occurred after the Bear Flag Revolt of 14 June, 1846.

The alteration of the Mexican flag at Sutters' Fort most certainly occurred after the events in Sonoma, when the Bear Flaggers returned to Sutters Fort with their prisoners and news of what had happened. The California State Park Historian at Sutters Fort has all of the records and they indicate that the independent California Republic flag hoisted at Sutter's Fort was in fact the Mexican Merchant Flag with a single red star painted on the center stripe.

This is the most likely flag that flew on Sutter's Fort during California brief period of independence.

Whatever flag was flying on Sutter's Fort was hauled down 11 July, 1846 and replaced by a U.S.Navy 27 star ensign to which had been added a 28th star as the ships at Yerbe Buena had run out of 28 star flags to distribute.

To my knowledge none of these flags survived to the present day.

James J. Ferrigan III, 11 June 1999

Erroneous Flag Design

[Erroneous Sutter's flag] image by Rick Wyatt, 30 October 1998

This flag has no provenance earlier than the children's coloring book The Story of California & her flags to color published in 1996 by Bellerophon Books of Santa Barbara, California. We are doing a general disservice to the public if we don't expose this myth.
James J. Ferrigan III, 2 April 2001