California State Bear Flag- Ep 1

Welcome to the very first episode of Eureka! (I’m so excited! Brace yourselves for WAY too many exclamation points!)

I wanted to start us off with a topic that was perfectly, inarguably, quintessentially “California”… and there’s nothing more “California” than our iconic state bear flag!

When I started researching this topic, I honestly figured it would be a 5-minute introductory episode to get me warmed up in the podcasting game. Who knew that the history of the bear flag involved a kidnapping-turned-wine-tasting, a bet with William Randolph Hearst, and a relative of President Lincoln?

As promised, I have a few visuals to go along with the episode! Behold, friends… {cue dream sequence}…

First off, the Todd flag, designed by William L. Todd, cousin of future first lady Mary Todd Lincoln- widely considered to be the very first version of our California state bear flag!

todd flag california state bear flag
Image courtesy of California Museum.

Tell me I’m not crazy. Does W. Todd’s “grizzly bear” not bear striking resemblance (sorry, pun intended) to a Rodent of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride movie? My husband thinks it looks like a capybara. I can’t argue with that.

Since we’re having fun being catty about flags (something I never thought I’d write), how about The Pico Flag?

pico flag california bear flag
Image courtesy of

Apologies for the picture quality, but OMG. I friggin’ love that Pico flag.

I also really love Monarch the grizzly bear, although I wish he could’ve lived out the rest of his majestic bear life in the wild.

monarch grizzly bear california state bear flag
Image courtesy of

Oh, Monarch, you magnificent beast. RIP, Big Fella.

And a bonus gift! Allen Kelley’s book “Bears I Have Met,” where he describes his relationship with Monarch. (The title alone, you guys.)

allen kelley monarch grizzly bear california state bear flag
Image courtesy of

THIS. I want our Christmas card this year to have an “Allen Kelly ‘Bearhunter'” motif.

And finally, now that you’re all hopped up on California state pride, I’ve got a whole bunch of my most favorite bear flag themed goodies pinned on our Pinterest page (@eurekacahistory). Hoodies and coasters and car decals, oh my! Here are a few to whet your proverbial appetite. (I don’t get any kickbacks from these links… I just love the items!)

wine barrel california bear flag wall art

Like this wall art made out of an old wine barrel, from eWoodArtCarvings on etsy.

Or this perfectly adorable grocery tote, from LesFugitives on etsy.

california bear flag tote

The coolest hand-painted welcome mat, from NickelDesignsShop on etsy.

california state bear flag doormat

And Baby Leggings! For a baby shower gift that doesn’t suck, from BabalusByLucy on etsy.

baby leggings california bear flag

That’s it, gang. Join me next time for another chapter of California history (and ooooh, it’s a GOOD one! I’m bursting at the seams to tell!).

Keep learning, and have a sunshiney day!


Transcript of Episode 1: California State Bear Flag

Hello, hello, gang, and thank you so much for joining me on this inaugural Episode #1: California State Bear Flag. Obviously, we’re starting off the Eureka podcast with a little vexillology… aka the study of flags.

More than any other state flag, California’s bear flag is truly a symbol of the state itself.  Full disclosure here: I lived in New York for several years, and there’s absolutely no way that I could point the New York state flag out of a line-up. California’s state flag is ubiquitous. Everybody knows it. It’s come to represent the California lifestyle as a sort of pop culture icon. In shops all over the country, I’ve seen t-shirts, car decals, welcome mats, even cufflinks featuring the artwork of our state flag. Californians love their flag! I figured something this emblematic merited its own episode in our California history podcast. So- as is always the case with history- let’s start at the beginning. The very beginning.

As in 1542, when the flag of the Spanish Empire was planted in California soil (San Diego to be exact) by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, who’d been hoping to discover the mythical Strait of Anian- a water route across North America. Instead, he found California, and our future state had its very first flag.

Most folks know that California has flown the Spanish flag and the flags of the Mexican Empire and Republic starting in 1822, but I was surprised by some of the other flags that have graced our dear state over the years.

In 1579, the English flag was hoisted near Point Reyes in Northern California near a spot that was later to be known as Drake’s Bay. Sir Francis Drake claimed a historically ambiguous portion of the Pacific coastline for Queen Elizabeth I. The English flag supposedly lasted for all of 37 days before the Spanish nixed Sir Drake’s plan.  A couple hundred years later, Imperial Russia set up an outpost on the Northern California Coast. In 1812, the Russian-American Company, which was established as an agricultural base and fur-trading company, flew its flag at Fort Ross in Sonoma County.  We even had an Argentinian flag in 1818 when the Argentine sailor Bouchard attacked the then-Spanish colony of Monterey. Beginning in 1822, California flew the more familiar flags from the Mexican Empire and Republic. What’s now the 31st U.S. state was then designated Alta California and considered part of Mexico.

So let’s set the stage in Alta California in the early 1800’s.  Again, Mexico controlled the area, although they were starting to get a little nervous about their standing.  In the 1840s, the United States was all about Manifest Destiny (you remember that from US History, right?). It’s the widely held belief that US expansion from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific was destined to be. A growing number of American immigrants began an overland westward migration, crossing from Missouri to Alta California on a long and dangerous journey by covered wagon. By 1845, more than 800 Americans had settled in Alta California.

The Mexican government feared that this growing number of American settlers would eventually push for annexation of the area. They had good reason to worry, as many of these American immigrants did believe in Manifest Destiny and wanted California to join the U.S. as a state.  Tensions were high, and there were rumors circulating that the Mexican government might soon begin expunging these American settlers from California.

Somewhere around this time, John C. Fremont, an American soldier and explorer, made his way into Alta California- allegedly on a ‘scientific excursion’- and somehow (in the name of science?) ended up inciting a rather motley crew of settlers to begin forming militias in order to revolt against Mexico. Now whether or not Fremont had orders from the U.S. government to incite this rebellion is unknown, but conditions were right for starting trouble, and all it took was this one spark to get the fire going.

Are you beginning to wonder what happened to vexillology? Patience, friends, we’re getting there!

So early the morning of June 14, 1846, some 33 men marched on the garrison at Sonoma and overtook it. This was the start of what would become known as The Bear Flag revolt. In all fairness, Sonoma was a relatively small pueblo and nearly defenseless, so it was perhaps less dramatic than we might imagine. After taking over the Sonoma Barracks, the Americans then surrounded the home of Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, banged on the front door, and told him to come out and surrender as a prisoner of war.

In a surprise twist, Governor Vallejo actually supported California annexation; he hadn’t been getting much support from the Mexican government, who was tied up in a skirmish with the US over Texas. Supposedly, Vallejo was even paying the local Mexican military out of his own pocket! So Vallejo was more confused by these ruffians who showed up at his door than upset by the idea of being “kidnapped” in the name of secession. He even invited three of the men inside to discuss matters over wine. (And that, friends, is how you do civilized.) Discussions were, by all accounts, going well until a few hours later when one of the leaders of the Bear Flaggers stormed in, arrested Vallejo, and shipped him off to Sutter’s Fort near Sacramento as a prisoner of war. I’m guessing this overzealous guy was probably just jealous that Vallejo hadn’t invited him in for a drink.

The Bear Flaggers took over the Sonoma Barracks as their headquarters and proclaimed California to be a republic separate from Mexico. They then raised their own newly painted flag over Sonoma, which was…drum roll, please… the very first California state bear flag!  One local woman donated a strip of light brown muslin for the flag’s construction and another a strip of red flannel to be sewn across the bottom. A lone star was drawn in the top left corner and directly next to it, a grizzly bear, with the words “California Republic” printed underneath.

The flag raised during the Bear Flag Revolt was called the Todd Flag because design was overseen by one William L. Todd… who, incidentally, was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln, our future first lady!

A gentleman named Peter Storm also assisted in the flag’s design and creation, and this was important because there’s an ongoing debate amongst vexillologists as to whether or not Storm had created a flag in anticipation of the revolt the evening before… which would make HIS the first bear flag. Photos do exist of Peter Storm holding a different bear flag, although some have argued that his flag looks far too polished to have been created spur-of-the-moment, as it was said he did, and instead might have been created after the Revolt took place. In any case, it was a crazy time… people were excited… there were a lot of bear flags flying around… the two flags were likely designed days apart and featured many of the same elements.

One element was the star, a reference to the new Republic’s solidarity with Texas which was also battling for independence from Mexico at around the same time. The flag’s star also referenced the Revolution of 1836, when some members of the Mexican government in Alta California, along with some Americans, had tried to secede from Mexico. The flag flown at the Revolution of 1836 was a white flag with a large red star in the middle, a design echoed in the Todd flag ten years later.

The second major element in the flag is of course, the grizzly bear! Now, to fully appreciate this episode, you need to see the original Todd Flag (and I have that posted up on the Eureka website at Yes, of course you should see the Todd Flag because you’re a historian and it’s important to be thorough- but honestly, what you REALLY want to see is that grizzly bear. Oh, W. Todd. It looks like one of the rodents of unusual size in The Princess Bride. Could once have roamed free through the forests of Alta California? (Ignore that part, kids, that’s snark- NOT history!)  Seeing as how I’m far more of a Judgy McJudgerson than an artist myself, let’s cut William Todd a break and assume that it was really hard to paint on old muslin with vineberry juice and that that is a grizzly and was included as a symbol of strength and resistance against the Mexican government. Legend has it that this group of immigrant rebels had called themselves “osos” (which is Spanish for bears) and the inclusion of a grizzly bear on the new California Republic flag seemed all too appropriate. And by the way, I’m not alone in my critique of Todd’s bear- the Mexican government supposedly confused our now-iconic grizzly bear with a large pig.

But the local militiamen were impressed, and as quoted in The Pioneer, “When it was done the flag was taken to the flag-staff, and hoisted amid the hurrahs of the little party, who swore to defend it with their lives.”  As proud as they were, the California Republic bear flag flew for less than a month before word made it out west that the United States had actually declared war on Mexico a few months earlier. Since the Bear Flaggers’ initial goal was to become part of the U.S., they no longer had a reason to preserve their California Republic government. The bear flag was officially replaced by the U.S. flag when Commodore John Drake Sloat of the US Navy raised the stars and stripes over Monterey to claim Alta California for America.

For the next sixty years, the bear flag kind of spread like wildfire, with everyone coming up with their own design. There are dozens of versions of the bear flag, none of which were particularly popular, but most of which feature the star, bear, and at least one red stripe.  My personal favorite next-gen bear flag is The Pico (so named as a drawing of it was found in the notes of Mexican General Pio Pico). It looks like something your five year old would make and insist on hanging on the fridge! The creature next to the lone star is very clearly either an armadillo or a flying baguette. Trust me- it’s amazing.

In 1911, California State Legislature officially adopted the bear flag as its own, and the state flag was signed into law by Governor Hiram Johnson.  The statute standardized the flag to have green grass under the bear, the white field, and the red stripe and red star, giving it a color scheme that was nicely reminiscent of its Mexican roots.  Even after 1911, though, the guidelines for drawing up the official California state flag were very vague, and there continued to exist a huge amount of variety in the flags produced.

Official graphic guidelines for the Bear Flag weren’t put into place until 1953 when Governor Earl Warren signed a bill standardizing all these details. And if Earl Warren sounds familiar, he should! He’s the same Earl Warren later elected to the Supreme Court.  California Government Code Section 420 states that the bear flag is the state flag of California.

Don Kelley was the artist in charge of determining the graphic guidelines for the bear flag in 1953, setting the exact placement of the lone star, the bear, and the red stripe along the bottom. He determined that the flag had would have a total of five official colors White, Old Glory Red, Irish Green for the grass, Maple Sugar (which is the light brown of the bear), and seal (a dark brown used in the shading and lettering). Sadly, Kelley neglected to specifiy a font for the California Republic lettering, mentioning only that a Condensed Gothic should be used. And if you look carefully at California state flags currently made by different producers, you’ll still see slight variations in this font.

One thing Don Kelley did find non-essential: he immediately decided that an official real bear model had to be used. I’m guessing he was inspired by looking at the flying baguette on the Pico flag.

Don Kelley based his official bear drawing on an actual California grizzly bear named Monarch. Monarch the bear was caught by- of all people- a newspaper reporter named Allen Kelley (no relation to the artist Don) in 1889.

But there’s so much more to the story than just that. And it starts with one of the most influential men of the time, Kelley’s boss (who will surely be featured in his own episode of Eureka!): Mr. William Randolph Hearst. Hearst got into a debate with his reporter over whether or not wild grizzlies still existed in California- Hearst said they didn’t, Kelley said they did, and Hearst said, if they do, then prove it! Go out and catch me a live one! Thinking that if his reporter actually DID manage to bring back a bear, it would be one of the last of its kind… and an awesome gift to the city of San Francisco, where Hearst was managing the San Francisco Examiner.

Allen Kelley the reporter-turned-hunter had a heck of a time trying to catch him a ‘bar’ (maybe because he was a newspaper man), and he spent nine months traipsing through the San Gabriel Mountains trying to lure bears into log catch pens with honey and mutton. Rumor is that Kelley ended up needing to hire a group of Mexican hunters to help him. In any case, he did eventually catch the bear atop Mount Gleason… apparently poor little Monarch had a soft spot for honey and mutton… and who could blame him? The newly captive bear was given his name from one of the daily newspapers that Hearst owned and that he’d nicknamed ‘The Monarch of the Dailies.’

Kelley wrote a whole book called “Bears I Have Met- And Others,” describing his fond relationship with the bear, developed as Monarch was transported from Ventura County up to San Francisco. “In disposition he is independent and militant. He will fight anything from a crowbar to a powder magazine and permit no man to handle him while he can move a muscle. And yet he was not unreasonably quarrelsome, but preserved an attitude of armed neutrality. He would accept peace offerings from my hand, taking care not to include my fingers, but would tolerate no petting…he knew my voice and when I called him by his name, ‘Monarch,’ he would look up at me not unkindly and, if I had nothing for him, lay his head upon his paws again and go to sleep.” I really hope Kelley got a raise after that.

Traveling by sled, wagon, and railroad, Monarch the bear was eventually moved to Woodward’s Gardens, a zoo, museum, and amusement park operating in San Francisco’s Mission District in the late 1800’s. More than 20,000 people attended Opening Day to see Monarch the grizzly on November 10, 1889. Attendance rapidly declined, and when Woodward’s Gardens closed in 1891, Monarch was moved to the San Francisco Zoo, where he died in 1911- which, incidentally, was the same year that the original flag was adopted by the state of California!  After his death, Monarch was stuffed and preserved at the DeYoung Museum of Natural History in San Francisco and later given to the California Academy of Sciences.  When artist Don Kelley needed a bear model for his flag, there was no better pick than Monarch. And if you visit the Academy of the Sciences- and I highly recommend that you do, as it’s an amazing facility- you will be able to see Monarch himself, the actual bear behind the official California state bear flag.

So what happened to the original Bear Flag?  The original bear flag was given to the son of a naval commander, who sailed the flag to the east coast. In 1855, the Todd flag was returned to California and preserved at the Society of California Pioneers Hall, but sadly, on April 18, 1906, the flag was destroyed by a fire following the big San Francisco earthquake.  A replica, based on a photo taken of the original, hangs in the Sonoma Barracks, what was once the headquarters of the Bear Flag Revolt. The barracks are now a California Historical Landmark, and you can see this replica of the first bear flag very close to where it once flew 150 years ago.

As we wrap up our discussion of California’s iconic state flag, I’m going to leave you with a few random tidbits of vexillology trivia. A few facts to flex at your next cocktail party. Or not. They may only be popular if your cocktail parties are with nerdy historians like me.

Number one: California’s is one of only 4 state flags that does not feature the color blue (The other three for bonus points? Alabama, Maryland, and New Mexico).

And Number two: In 2001, members of the North American Vexillological Association (say that ten times fast!) looked at all 72 U.S. state, U.S. territory, and Canadian province flags and ranked them based on standards of symbology and visual appeal. California? We won lucky number 13.

Thank you so much for joining me on this inaugural episode of Eureka: California History. I hope you’ll check out Eureka’s website at I have the transcript of this episode, links to some of the most awesome state flag themed goods existing on the interwebs today, and pictures of the Todd flag, Monarch the bear, and, of course, the incredible Pico flag complete with winged baguette ALL up for your viewing pleasure.

Join me next time for another chapter of California history. I’m Sunshine Sierra. Keep on learning, and have a sunshiney day!