What is the California Republic?

Mary McMahon

The California Republic was a short lived and never legally recognized republic that existed in what is now known as California in 1846, during the Mexican-American War. A group of rebellious Californians jumped the gun and declared sovereignty in California while United States troops were already on the move in California with the intent of annexing the then-Mexican territory. The primary legacy of this colorful incident in California history is the California state flag, which is based on the flag raised during the rebellion.

The California Republic declared its independence from Mexico in 1846.
The California Republic declared its independence from Mexico in 1846.

Alta California, as it was known during its time as a Mexican territory, was a restless place in 1846. A number of rumors about the fate of the territory circulated and some of these rumors were quietly encouraged by agents of the US government, like renegade cartographer John Charles Fremont. Fremont actually attempted to take control of territory in California before fleeing in early 1846, and on 14 June, 1846, a group of white settlers decided to break free from Mexico and declare independence.

The California Republic existed in what is now known as the state of California during the Mexican-American War.
The California Republic existed in what is now known as the state of California during the Mexican-American War.

They stormed the residence of Mexican General Mariano Vallejo, who surrendered without a single shot being fired, and hastily raised a flag over the town square in Sonoma, California. The flag depicted a bear and a single star modeled after the Lone Star of Texas, with the words “California Republic” emblazoned underneath. According to John Bidwell, an observer at the scene, several people remarked that the bear on the new flag looked suspiciously like a pig.

Less than a month later, on 9 July, the Bear Flag was lowered and the United States flag was raised, putting an end to the California Republic and marking the beginning of California's formal annexation by the United States. The historic flag made its way through a number of hands and is believed to have perished in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, although photographs of the flag exist to show us what it once looked like.

The modern California flag includes the bear and star motif along with the words “California Republic,” despite the fact that California is a US state, not an independent republic. California was not the only former Mexican territory to briefly declare independence before annexation, but its republic may have been the most short-lived. A historic marker can be seen in Sonoma where the California Republic was first declared and the city has periodic events to celebrate this period in California's history.

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