Gregory Elder, a Redlands resident, is a professor of history and humanities at Moreno Valley College and a Roman Catholic priest. This photo is from about 2017. (Courtesy Photo)

The reader in California has walked by or under it thousands of times, probably without thinking much about it, which is something of a pity. This author refers to the magnificent bear on the flag of our state, who represents both local history and has a long religious significance among many ancient peoples.

The flag of the state of California has a colorful history. In 1846, tensions between the United States and Mexico reached a high point and would soon result in war. California was part of Mexico at the time, but considerable numbers of Americans lived in the state as settlers. Many of them feared that the Mexican government would make a preemptive strike on California.

In June of 1846, settlers William Ide and Ezekiel Merritt gathered a group of about 30 of their friends and declared a revolution. They attacked the undefended Mexican outpost in Sonoma, which surrendered without a shot being fired. They then marched to the home of the only local person who resembled a Mexican authority they could find, a retired general named Mariano Vallejo. Vallejo invited the rebels in for refreshments and after about three hours of serious drinking eventually was declared to be under arrest.

The little troop then went to what is now San Francisco, occupied the unarmed Presidio and raised their flag, declaring California to be an independent state, the California Republic. This became known as the Bear Flag Revolt. The story goes that on their march between Sonoma and San Francisco they encountered a California grizzly bear, whom they regarded as a mascot. With some cloth from a generous lady’s petticoat, ink and linseed oil they crafted the original version of the flag, on which the bear and the words “California Republic” featured prominently.

What the Bear Flag rebels did not know was that a month before their escapade, the United States had already declared war on Mexico on May 13, 1846. U.S. forces under Commodore John D. Sloat had occupied Monterrey and declared it annexed the United States. This made the Bear Flag rebellion unnecessary, and in any event, taking on the U.S. Navy would be considerably more difficult than capturing a retired general over drinks.

On July 9, 1846, the bear flag was pulled down and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. Without a whimper, the independent California Republic vanished.

For the rebels and their heirs, however, the California bear represented strength. They certainly knew that the bear is also a Biblical image of defiance and retribution. In 2 Kings 2:23, when some young men taunt and berate Elisha the prophet, God sends two wild she-bears to attack them and 42 are killed. Three times in scripture, ferocity is compared to a she-bear robbed of her cubs, as in 2 Samuel 17:8, when David tells Jonathan, “You know your father and his men. They are mighty men, and as fierce as a wild bear robbed of her cubs. Moreover, your father is a man of war who will not spend the night with the troops.” In the Book of Proverbs we are warned, “Let a man meet a bear robbed of her cubs, Rather than a fool in his folly.” (Prov. 17:12.)

The rebel settlers may not have known, however, that bear gods were worshipped by the Altaic peoples of ancient Mongolia, Siberia, Japan and Korea, but the same symbol of independence and ferocity transcends Western religion and culture.

Many people do not know the bear on the California flag has a couple of names. The bear on the original flag was named “Cuffy” which was a popular term for bears in the 19th century. The flag that we now recognize was adopted as the official state flag in 1911 and it depicts an actual bear captured by the agents of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1889. Named Monarch, the bear was put on display at one of Hearst’s mansions and later at Golden Gate Park, where he died in 1911. Monarch’s stuffed remains can still be seen at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

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