This bold and distinctive flag is seen today in various guises and locations, from official town hall flagpoles to local businesses, tourist merchandise and the odd tattoo.
Featuring a Californian grizzly bear, named Monarch, a horizontal red stripe and a revolutionary red star, the origins of the flag are based around a revolution against Mexican. California, having been part of Mexico since Mexican independence in 1821, was declared a free and sovereign state by rebels who captured the northern coastal town of Monterey in 1846. Although this mini revolt failed in its attempts to create an independent California, it did result in the creation of this now iconic flag.
The design, attributed to William Todd, the nephew of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln, features the bear as a symbol of “strength and unyielding resistance.”* While the star, as an imitation of the lone star of Texas, a fellow state of Mexico fighting for independence, represents sovereignty. The red colour stands for courage and the white background represents purity.
The republic lasted only for about twenty four days, replaced by the American flag once the knowledge that the United States and Mexico were already at war reached the revolutionaries. Yet its spirit lives on, often politically divisive. But as a piece of design, it’s embraced by many, and has become an iconic representation of much of this great state.
The first official version of the ‘Bear Flag’ was adopted as the official state flag in 1911. During periods of crises, such as the American Civil War, the Bear Flag was flown as a banner of revolt.** The flag has gone through numerous incarnations since the initial hastily created version, using blackberry juice and an old petticoat.*** And in recent times it has become more of a branding tool as well as a recognisable image to be altered for various causes, both political and otherwise.
Today it sums up a spirited state with a rather dramatic history, all of which informs the place we call home. For some of the makers in this first edition, these elements of history inspired their choice to make California the place where they established themselves, and informs the work they create in this most Golden State.
We’ll be bringing you more of their stories in the near future.
* “Flags Over California: A History Guide” California State Military Museum. State of California, Military Department. 2002. Retrieved 22 July 2012.
** George Henry Tinkham, California men and events: time 1769–1890, 2nd, revised ed., Record Publishing Company, 1915. pp.194–195
*** “William Todd and the construction of the bear flag” Sonoma State Historic Park. Retrieved 2007–06–26.