How the Grizzly Bear Became the Symbol of California

The California Bear Flag (the official state flag of California) hardly gets any love despite flying over virtually every government building in the state. We see it, and then again we don’t. The story of the flag goes back to our roots, those haughty frontier days when California passed from Spain to Mexico, and then became the 31st state of the United States of America.

We’re going to take the long way around in describing how an extinct grizzly bear named “Monarch” made its way onto a flag for a “republic” that lasted only one month. No shots were fired in taking California away from Mexico, and instead of fighting, the revolutionaries ended up being invited to cocktails with the enemy general. Here’s “the rest of the story.”


No one really knows when the first humans came to the West Coast. Some studies suggest humans have been here 12,000 to 14,000 years. Others claim humans or “pre-humans” (Neanderthals, etc.) may have been here as long as 130,000 years ago. We’re certainly not going to get into that debate, because it doesn’t matter for our purposes.

The name “California” hadn’t even yet been made official in the early 1800s. A batch of Spanish explorers under the command of Hernan Cortes landed on what we now call Baja, California (the one down below the Mexican border) in 1510. There was a Spanish novel very popular at the time titled “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (The Deeds of Esplandián) featuring a fictional island called “California,” overrun with gold and precious stones. Since the explorers mistakenly took the Baja to be an island, they christened it “California” after the island in the novel. 

The name “California” stuck, and over time the name was also applied to lands to the north and east of the Baja peninsula. The California we know was referred to as “Alta, California,” the name formally adopted by Mexico in 1824 after the Mexican War of Independence (from Spain) and included present-day California, Nevada, and Utah, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Arizona. 

When the Spanish and other explorers first breached the interior of historic Alta California (not the community east of Grass Valley) in the early 1800s (the coasts were explored first) they encountered as many as 250,000 Natives who had already been here for a very long time.

Wilderness California must have been incredible to behold. Expeditions described endless herds of deer, elk and antelope. The rivers and lakes were pure and choking with life. Rivers like the McCloud supported some of the largest salmon and steelhead runs on the west coast. Wolves and black bears were also common. 

At the top of the food chain were grizzly bears, as many as 10,000 throughout the state. A vague tribute to California’s once-robust bear population can be found in present-day names like Los Osos, Rio Oso and Mount Oso containing the Spanish word for bear (Oso). The prodigious grizzly bear population created unique problems for California’s first “industry,” cattle ranching, which began forming in the late 1700s.

Grizzly Genocide

Fat, domesticated cattle were easy pickins’ for California’s grizzly bears, so they were hunted relentlessly. “Grizzly roping” even became quite a thing. Captured grizzlies were often pitted in bloody battles to the death against bulls for the entertainment of the raucous gambling crowd. 

Ranchers, vaqueros, prospectors and mountain men became dedicated grizzly hunters, eventually tracking down every California grizzly. Several men are known to have killed literally hundreds.The last California grizzly met its demise in the early 1920s. Nevertheless, the California grizzly became etched in the California psyche as a symbol of strength and unyielding resistance. 

Lagging Mexican Control

Although Alta, California was technically under Mexican control, a growing population of Americans were moving west. Tensions grew between the Americans and the smaller and smaller proportion of Mexicans living there. Support was also growing for the United States to annex what we now know as the southwestern portion of the United States (Alta, California) from Mexico.

American Army officer and noted explorer John C. Fremont arrived at Sutter’s Ferry (Sacramento area) with a small group of soldiers in 1846, supposedly to make a “scientific survey.” Whatever his real reason for being there, Fremont rallied the settlers to prepare for a rebellion against Mexico.

Encouraged by Fremont, on June 14, 1846 William Ide and Ezekiel Merritt led a group of 30 men to capture the largely undefended Mexican outpost at Sonoma, just north of San Francisco without firing a shot. The soldiers then surrounded the house of retired Mexican general Mariano Vallejo (who actually supported American annexation) and declared he was a prisoner of war. 

Civilized to a fault, General Vallejo’s attitude was more or less, a quién le importa (who cares?)

and invited the revolutionaries in for cocktails. The men gladly accepted until Fremont (spoilsport) finally busted up the party. Ide and Merritt declared California an independent republic. 

Taking a cotton sheet and some red paint, a few of the men got to work creating our flag. First there was a crude drawing of a grizzly bear (symbol of strength), a red star (a reference to the earlier Lone Star Republic of Texas) and the words “California Republic.” From that point on the move for California independence from Mexico was known as the “Bear Flag Revolt.”

One Month of Independence

There were a few minor firefights with Mexican forces afterward, but by this time the American presence in California was substantial. Fremont officially took control of the militia again on July 1st occupying San Francisco’s Presidio. 

News didn’t travel quickly in those days, so it wasn’t until six days later that Fremont learned that American Commodore John D. Sloat had taken the capital at Monterey without a shot fired and had raised the Stars and Stripes over the city. He was also unaware that the United States had declared war on Mexico on May 13th, several months before. Since it had always been Fremont’s intention for California to become part of the United States, the “Bear Flaggers” let their month-old “republic” fade into history. All of Alta, California became part of the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the agreement that ended the Mexican-American War in 1848.

The Bear, Not the Butterfly

It turns out early Californians really identified with their grizzly bears. In 1889, businessman, newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst had newspaper reporter Allen Kelley capture one for him in Ventura County, mainly as a publicity stunt. Since one of Hearst’s newspapers was known as the “Monarch of the Dailies,” they named the 1,100-pound bear Monarch. Until the beast’s death 22 years later, Monarch was put on display all around the state including Golden Gate Park and the San Francisco Zoo to the delight of thousands of people. 

Monarch was eventually stuffed and donated to the University of California’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, where he was last displayed 2010-2012.

In 1850 California officially became America’s 31st state, and the flag the “Bear Flaggers” had crafted was destined to outlive the so-called California “Republic.” While there had been numerous attempts at crafting the official flag for California, a 1911 version with a bear modeled after Hearst’s grizzly Monarch made the final cut and was adopted that same year.

The next time you’re near a government building, take the time to really look at our state flag. Monarch the grizzly bear stands proudly as a symbol of strength. The red star symbolizes sovereignty. The red color signifies courage, and the white background stands for purity. Instead of bloodshed and loss of life, California was won from Mexico in a cocktail party. Maybe the rest of the world can learn something from California.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.
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