Modern history

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Chapter 18

YOUR DUTY, MR. CARSON

The windswept grass on the jumbled hills had crisped to a fine summer gold when Kit Carson guided his mule down through the gambrel oak thickets and into the tiny village of Sonoma, California. He rode with Fremont at the head of a ragtag column of 160 volunteers, most of them American settlers from the Sacramento Valley. They were, according to one observer, “very much sunburnt and the most un-uniform and grotesque set of men ever seen.”

Cows mashed their cud in the surrounding pastures while the town dogs yipped at the strangers. Sonoma’s dirt streets thronged with rabbles of American men drunk on liquor—and drunk on a newfound power. They shouted out “Liberty!” in slurred cries that frightened the local townsfolk, who did not know there was a war on and did not want one.

It was June 25, 1846, and Carson tried to make sense of this chaotic scene. A week and a half earlier, on June 14, a well-armed posse of American hotheads, citing outrages mostly imagined, had risen up against the Mexican authorities and seized this adobe village not far from the shallows of northern San Francisco Bay. Calling themselves Osos—Bears—these self-styled revolutionaries took Sonoma’s leading citizens as prisoners, cleaned out the modest-sized armory, stole all the horses they could find, and then declared the birth of an independent nation-state: the Bear Flag Republic.

The Osos carried out this spontaneous revolt with a giddy sense of melodrama—as though it were the Boston Tea Party of the West. They called their movement “high and holy,” and one of the revolt leaders, a Dr. Semple, said that “the world has not hitherto manifested so high a degree of civilization.” But in truth the episode was little more than opera buffa, fueled by impulses that could not be called high-minded. The Osos were little more than a mob, without organization or clear aims. One of Fremont’s own men thought that most of the rebels were “moved by nothing but the chance of plunder without the slightest principle of honor.”

Using Sonoma as a base, the Bears planned to sweep southward and take over Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and the rest of California. But for now they were content to consolidate their initial victory while savoring their new symbol of solidarity: Over the town plaza a new flag flapped in the breeze, a slightly deformed banner fashioned from scraps of ladies’ undergarments, with a grizzly bear (or “something they called a bear,” as one early historian of the revolt put it) rising on its haunches, the crude image dribbled in berry juice. (Today’s state flag of California draws its design from this improbable standard.)

John Fremont’s role in this uprising was tangential but nonetheless crucial. His presence in California was the catalyst that made it possible. Ever since he had led his exploring party out of the Oregon wilds and back to the Sacramento River, he had been carefully gauging the unrest among the American expatriots. Constantly entertaining visitors at his camp, Fremont had strongly encouraged the Americans to revolt; at the same time, he stressed that he could not officially intervene in the conflict until the settlers provoked the California authorities into committing a clear act of war. Nor would he permit any of his own men to detach from the expedition.

Still, there was a certain cognitive dissonance to Fremont’s moves and positions: The settlers couldn’t figure him out. He feared the consequences of his own involvement while also fearing the consequences should accelerating events leave him behind. And so for more than a month he vacillated, brooded, schemed in his tent, sending mixed signals as he waited for the right moment to insert himself into the drama.

Now that moment had arrived. Fremont learned that Gen. Jose Castro in Monterey, as a direct (and understandable) response to the Bear Flag Revolt, had issued an ultimatum demanding that all American foreigners “leave the country or be driven out by force.” Not only that, Castro had sent a certain Capt. Joaquin de la Torre north to drive the Bear Flaggers from Sonoma. Here was the provocation Fremont felt he needed: As a U.S. Army officer, he was not authorized to attack the Californians, but he could certainly defend American citizens from Californian attack. So Fremont quickly gathered up an army consisting of his exploring expedition plus some one hundred other volunteers and hastened to Sonoma to rebuff de la Torre’s offensive.

Fremont’s “army” was a strange multinational force of buckskin rogues and filibusterers. One noncombatant observer described them as “Americans, French, English, Swiss, Poles, Russians, Chileans, Germans, Greeks, Austrians, Pawnees. If the Mexicans can whip this crowd they can beat all the world, for Castro will whip all nations, languages and tongues!”

By the time Fremont and Carson rode into Sonoma that fine June day, the Osos had already successfully repulsed Captain de la Torre, and the situation seemed calm. But Fremont was now at last committed to the Bear Flag cause—and impatient to marry it with the larger American cause. Without his help, the army of settlers would face “inevitable disaster,” he feared, in the teeth of the more numerous forces the Mexican Californians would soon muster. His own expedition party represented “the Army and the Flag of the United States,” a fact that Fremont thought “gave to my movements the national character which must of necessity be respected by Mexico.”

Quickly Fremont seemed to undergo a personality transformation. He chucked all pretense of being an explorer and now took to signing his dispatches “Commander of United States Forces in California.” He wore a felt hat and more flamboyant garb, surrounded himself with Delaware Indians as bodyguards, and tied natty green ribbons around his horse’s tail and neck. He reorganized the various combatants into a unit he called the California Battalion. Employing a bit of chronological legerdemain, he had the Bear Flaggers effectively forward-date the official “start” of the revolt to coincide with the moment he joined it, thus arranging for his leadership to “begin at the beginning,” as he later put it. Declaring himself “Oso 1,” Fremont began to issue imperious, even ruthless, demands. He told one of his subordinates to “iron and confine any person who shall disobey your orders—shoot any person who shall endanger the safety.” When a former ally, a Swiss-born trader and ranch-owner named Johann Sutter, questioned his new authority, Fremont snapped back: “If you don’t like what I’m doing, then you can go and join the Mexicans!”

Joaquin de la Torre and his small army of one hundred men had retreated only a few miles from Sonoma. When Fremont learned this, he and his California Battalion gave chase, pursuing the captain to the mission of San Rafael near the shores of San Francisco Bay. But the Californian managed to escape by a clever ruse. He wrote a false note disclosing a plan to outflank Fremont and reattack Sonoma. He sent the dispatch by a courier he deliberately arranged for the Americans to intercept—thus buying him time so that he could sneak with his army across San Francisco Bay in a schooner, vanishing in the fog.

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Then Fremont learned of a tragedy that had befallen a pair of Bear Flag insurrectionists. A few days earlier an American named Fowler and another named Cowie secretly ventured north from Sonoma to secure gunpowder at a small coastal outpost called Bodega. But a band of Mexican guerrillas captured and brutally lynched the two Americans. The two men were tied to trees and slashed with knives, their limbs pulled apart with lariats.

It was an outrageous crime, and the worst bloodshed in what had thus far been a placid and uneventful revolt. But now the Bear Flaggers cried out for retribution, as did Fremont and Carson.

On Sunday, June 28, Fremont spotted a small boat crossing the bay and ordered Carson to intercept it. The boat landed near San Quentin and three men stepped ashore. They were two twenty-year-old twins, Ramon and Francisco de Haro, and their elderly uncle, Jose de los Berreyesa. They were prominent citizens—the two young men were the sons of the mayor of Sonoma.

What happened next is subject to some debate, and different accounts stress different points. But Carson apparently arrested the three men and demanded that they hand over any dispatches they might be carrying. They appeared nervous and uncooperative, but insisted they harbored no messages. Though it was obvious these three men were not soldiers, Carson was suspicious. He called to Fremont and asked him what he wanted to do with them. “Captain, should I take these men prisoner?” he yelled from a distance.

Fremont waved his hand dismissively. “No,” he replied, “I have no use for prisoners.” Then he added, cryptically, “Do your duty.”

Carson was not sure what his commander meant by that. He lingered for a moment, then had a “brief consultation” with some of the other men who had accompanied him to the boat landing. They gradually realized that Fremont intended for these three captives to pay for the deaths of Fowler and Cowie. Fremont would not carry out the deed himself—and later disavowed having any part in it—but he insisted that his loyal scout follow through. He yelled, “Mr. Carson, your duty.”

That was good enough for Carson. Without another apparent thought, he turned and gunned down the de Haro twins and their uncle in cold blood. (Some accounts say that several men fired along with Carson.)

Fremont seemed satisfied by the execution and the retribution it afforded. “It is well,” he proclaimed after he heard the rifle reports. According to one eyewitness, Carson then searched the bodies and, as he’d suspected, found dispatches on one of them.

Neither Carson nor Fremont mentioned anything about this little atrocity in his memoirs. It remains one of the more unfathomable episodes of Carson’s life. One cannot easily attribute his actions to the sort of ignorant racism that animated so many jingoistic soldiers who would fight in the Mexican War: Carson was married to a Hispanic, was a Catholic, spoke Spanish, and had for two decades enjoyed wide circles of Mexican friends. People who otherwise loved Carson had trouble accepting his role in this incident. Years later one of his close friends, W. M. Boggs, would condemn it as “a cold hearted crime.”

But in this murder, as in the attack on the Klamath village, a certain troubling pattern had shown itself, one that would recur in Carson’s later campaigns. It was a kind of dark symbiosis between authority and action: Fremont needed Carson to carry out his dirty work, and Carson needed Fremont, apparently, to tell him what to do. Modern psychiatry might call these two men codependents. Together they were far more lethal than when apart. Unwilling to disappoint a superior, Carson seemed incapable of resisting an order he personally disagreed with. When given a command, he was the good soldier; in such situations, his trigger-finger did not communicate with his conscience.

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Two weeks later Fremont’s California Battalion made its way to the provincial capital of Monterey. Warships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Squadron had already sailed into the magnificent harbor and, in a bloodless takeover, claimed the town for the United States. Now weighing anchor in the bay were two American transport ships, three frigates, and three sloops—each of which was fixed with forty-four guns. The Stars and Stripes flew uncontested over Monterey’s scallop of shoreline.

The new commodore of the Pacific Squadron was Robert Field Stockton, the pompous seaman aboard whose ship Sen. Tom Benton was almost killed by errant cannon fire. A wealthy businessman from New Jersey who had enrolled in Princeton at the precocious age of thirteen, Stockton was a good-looking officer of fifty-one years, with cool, calculating eyes, a determined face, a nest of curly hair, and frizzled scimitars for sideburns. He had sailed much of the world, from the Mediterranean to the horn of South America, and while stationed in West Africa had helped negotiate a treaty that led to the creation of the state of Liberia. When home, he nursed eclectic ventures—canals, real estate, naval architecture, politics (he would later become a U.S. senator from New Jersey, his tendency for long-winded speechmaking earning him the nickname “Gassey Bob”). Ever since he arrived in Monterey and assumed command of the Pacific Squadron, Commodore Stockton held an exaggeratedly high opinion of his status in California. “My word is at present the law of the land,” he wrote President Polk. “My person is more than regal.”

If it is possible, the commodore nursed even greater ambitions for personal glory than did Fremont: Upon learning from a Mexican newspaper account that the U.S.-Mexican War was officially on, Stockton became impatient to mop up operations in California as soon as feasible so he could stage an amphibious invasion of Acapulco and then march all the way to Mexico City—a project he apparently concocted on his own without authorization from Washington. Restless, ready to bend rules, and forever solicitous of his own immortality, Stockton was a man cut from Fremontian cloth. It was little surprise, then, that the two men should instantly like each other and would become allies.

Stockton proposed to join forces with Fremont’s men and quickly conquer Los Angeles and the rest of California. The commodore dashed off an obnoxious declaration of war against Gen. Jose Castro, a document as inflamed as it was untruthful. Stockton claimed that he was receiving “daily reports from the interior of scenes of rapine, blood, and murder.” (A lie, of course—Cowie and Fowler were the only known deaths, and, thanks to Carson, they had been more than avenged.) General Castro, Stockton went on, “has violated every principle of international law and national hospitality, by pursuing…with wicked intent Capt. Fremont who came here to refresh his men after a perilous journey across the mountains, on a scientific survey.” For these “repeated hostilities and outrages,” Stockton concluded, “military possession was ordered to be taken of Monterey and San Francisco until redress could be obtained from the government of Mexico.”

Stockton soon reorganized Fremont’s army as the “Naval Battalion of Mounted Riflemen.” Improvising as he went, the commodore designated Fremont a major, Gillespie a captain, and Carson a lieutenant. Although at first most of the expeditioners seemed happy to become regularized, they began to chafe at the restrictions and protocols laid down by Stockton. Fremont writes in his Memoirs, “Living an uncontrolled life, ranging prairies and mountains subject to no will but their own, it was a great sacrifice for these border chiefs to lay aside their habits of independence.”

By late July the commodore told Fremont to prepare for his first assignment—to sail for San Diego, from which he was then to fan out and conquer Los Angeles and the rest of Southern California. There was some urgency to the assignment, Stockton felt, for the commodore was acutely worried about British meddling. The evidence was not far at hand: Anchored alongside the American ships in Monterey Bay was a single British man-of-war, the Collingwood, a formidable vessel armed with eighty guns.

For Stockton and Fremont, the presence of this British flagship was proof enough that the English had planned to take over California and that American Anglophobia had been justified all along. Fremont said he and his men “looked upon the Collingwood with the feeling of a racer” who had crossed the finish line a hair ahead of his opponent. In truth, though the British were keenly interested in California, the Collingwood had sailed into Monterey primarily to gather intelligence and to ensure that English mercantile interests were not being encroached upon. The Collingwood’s commander, Adm. Sir George Seymour, exchanged pleasantries with officers of the U.S. Pacific Squadron and gave no signs of aggression.

The British sailors were intrigued by Fremont’s motley army of mountain men. The English seemed to marvel at the trappers as though they were some fabled elite—like French Legionnaires, perhaps, or samurai warriors. One officer aboard the Collingwood thought Carson and his comrades were “a curious set…who had passed years in the wilds, living upon their own resources.” Dressed in “long, loose coats of deerskin,” many of them were “blacker than the Indians.” The Englishman continued, “One or two enjoy a high reputation in the prairies. Kit Carson is as well known there as the Duke of Wellington is in Europe.”

The two groups swapped stories and played games. Carson set up coins at a distance of 150 paces and tested his marksmanship against some of the English sailors—for bets. Early Carson biographer Edwin Sabin notes that his “long, true barrel and remarkable eyesight kept the Britishers poor in pocket.”

On July 25, Fremont’s battalion boarded the Cyane, a navy sloop, and set sail for San Diego. It was an amusing notion to think of Fremont’s men as “sailors.” Many of them had never seen an ocean before, let alone sailed on one.

Carson, certainly, was a confirmed landlubber. He had been looking forward to the voyage, but soon found that maritime life did not agree with him. As the Cyane heaved in the Pacific swells, with the headlands of Big Sur shimmering off to port, he grew seasick. For him, the four-day sail to San Diego was pure hell. He told a friend he would never again board an oceangoing vessel, “not as long as mules have backs.” Carson said, “I swore it would be the last time I would leave sight of land,” adding: “I’d rather ride on a grizzly than on this boat.”

But he wasn’t the only one—the decks of the Cyane positively writhed with vomiting, sallow-faced mountain men. A navy chaplain, the Reverend Walter Colton, found it hilarious that these “wild savages” under whose “heavy tramp the ground seemed to tremble” should be so helpless at sea. Wrote Colton: “They are laying about the deck in a spirit of resignation that would satisfy the non-resistant principles of a Quaker. Two or three resolute old women might tumble the whole lot of them into the sea.”

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Fremont’s men arrived in San Diego harbor on July 29 and were met with no resistance whatsoever. A brace of Marines marched ashore and raised the American flag over the town. For a week Fremont was entertained by the leading citizens of San Diego while Carson went out to scour the surrounding countryside for horses that would be needed for the attack on the pueblo of Los Angeles. As they waited for Commodore Stockton to sail south from Monterey, Fremont luxuriated in the Southern California summer. “The days were bright and hot,” “the sky pure and entirely cloudless, and the nights cool and beautifully serene.”

Commodore Stockton tacked out of Monterey Bay on August 1 with 360 sailors aboard the Congress. (That same week, Kearny’s army was arriving at Bent’s Fort.) Stockton dropped anchor off Santa Barbara only long enough to claim the town and raise the Stars and Stripes. By the time he arrived in the waters off Los Angeles, General Castro had already composed a formal letter to Gov. Pio Pico stating that he did not think it was possible to defend the pueblo. General Castro wrote, “After having made on my part every sacrifice that has been in my power to prepare for the defense of the Department and to oppose the invasion that by land and sea has been made by the United States forces, today I find myself in the painful necessity of informing Your Excellency that it is impossible for me to do one or the other.”

On August 13, Fremont and Stockton consolidated their forces and marched into Los Angeles without contest. “Our entry,” boasted Fremont, “had more the effect of a parade of home guards than of any enemy taking possession of a conquered town.” The Americans learned to their delight that Castro had disbanded his army and escaped to the San Bernardino Mountains and then south to Sonora. Governor Pico, meanwhile, had left for Baja California. The Americans were somewhat disappointed that they had no one to fight, and that all the Mexican soldiers had, as Carson put it, “departed to any part of the country where they thought they would not meet with Americans.”

Four days later Stockton declared California to be United States soil and named himself both commander in chief and governor. It seemed that the conquest was complete, although, unbeknownst to him, a resistance movement was already quietly building. The commodore sat down and wrote a self-congratulatory letter to President Polk in which he trumpeted that he had “chased the Mexican army more than three hundred miles along the coast, pursued them thirty miles in the interior of their own country, routed and dispersed them and secured the Territory to the United States, ended the war, restored peace and harmony among the people, and put a civil government into successful operation.”

Stockton planned to leave California as soon as possible to pursue his planned invasion of the west coast of Mexico proper. Upon his departure, he would name Fremont the new governor of California.

Both Stockton and Fremont were anxious to get the glorious news of the conquest to Washington—and to place their version of events in the hands of President Polk himself. Fremont suggested that they write dispatches and send them overland, placing them in the able hands of none other than Kit Carson.

Carson would “insure the safety and speedy delivery of these important papers,” Fremont reasoned, and the plum assignment would be “a reward for his brave and valuable service on many occasions.” The journey would route him through New Mexico, allowing him to see his wife Josefa. “It would be a service of high trust and honor and of great danger also,” Fremont said, but Carson would enjoy “going off at the head of his own party with carte blanche for expenses and the prospect of novel pleasure and honor at the end.”

Carson accepted the assignment, of course, and pledged to make the journey in sixty days. As usual, the feat would be accomplished on the backs of mules. Cussed though they assuredly were, mules, not horses, were “winning” the West. The sterile cross between a horse mare and a jackass, mules were stronger, sturdier, surer-footed, and less liable to spook. They could carry greater loads longer on less feed—and on feed of a poorer quality. Although they were usually slower and seemed to be designed by committee, they could better withstand temperature extremes and other vagaries of weather.

People like Carson, who had been among them all his life, were superstitious about their mules. Some people insisted mules could detect water five miles away. They could tell if a hailstorm was approaching. They could smell blood. They were even clairvoyant: The literature of the mountain men is rife with stories of mules who saved their owners by sensing the coming attack of hostile Indians—and by clearly communicating their apprehension through one anxious tic or another. Later accounts celebrating Kit Carson’s great rides almost invariably place him on a fleet and noble “steed,” but that was a bit of equestrian chauvinism; every time Carson aimed for the other side of the continent, he was on a mule.

On the morning of September 5, Stockton and Fremont stuffed his saddlebags with all manner of correspondence. Then Carson, the scout-turned-transcontinental-courier, mounted his mule and headed east toward the sunrise with fifteen men, including six Delaware Indians.

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