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What Is the History of California's State Flag?

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  • Written By: Rebecca Harkin
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2016
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California’s state flag has a brown bear, a red star, and a red stripe on a white background. The history and symbolism of California’s state flag is intertwined with the state’s battle to separate from Mexico. It was originally designed in 1846.

Before California became part of the United States, it was owned by Mexico. During this time, relations between the Mexicans, the Mexican government, and the Americans were strained. These tensions increased in 1836 following a revolt against Mexico, during which California declared itself an independent state free from Mexico. A white flag with a prominent red star was established, the idea of which may have been borrowed from the Texas lone star flag. The independent status of California following this revolt did not last.

Tensions continued to rise in California and again came to a boiling point on June 10, 1846, when a band of men took a group of horses from a Mexican lieutenant. The fear was that the horses would be used for military action against the Americans in California. This band of rebels called themselves the Osos, the Spanish word for bear, and this action began what is now known as the Bear Flag revolt.

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The Osos then moved on to Sonoma, California, recruiting men as they traveled. They reached Sonoma on June 14, 1846, and took control of the city without any fighting. The Osos realized that they needed a symbol to proclaim their capture of the city of Sonoma and the fight to make California independent. In the days between June 14 and June 17, 1846, a flag was created with the help of William Todd, the nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife. This flag, the predecessor of California’s state flag, became known as the bear flag, and had a white background, a red star, a bear, a bold stripe at the bottom, and the words, “California Republic”.

A red star was included on the flag to recognize the valiant but failed efforts in 1836 to free California from Mexico. The bear was used to symbolize the Osos who were instrumental in taking Sonoma, and the band at the bottom of the flag is thought to mimic the stripes on the United States of America's national flag. This band may have been included to acknowledge the support the United States provided in California’s efforts to break with Mexico.

California became the 31st state of the United States in 1850. The bear flag became California’s state flag in 1911. In 1953, the design specifications for California’s state flag were clearly established, and the modern flag was adopted. This current flag has a white background, red star, brown bear on a green patch of ground, and a red strip along the bottom.

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