The Strange History of California’s Bear Flag, Which First Flew in the Bay Area

California has an amazing flag. Plenty of states have boring flags with complicated, dull state seals or solid colors.

Not California. Our state flag consists of a giant, man-eating grizzly bear under a blood-red star, with the somewhat incongruous words “California Republic” emblazoned underneath.

The flag originated out of a strange historical event. And it first flew right here in the Bay Area.

Today’s Bear Flag

A Brief Republic

The land that is California today was originally under control of the country of Mexico. Mexican missions and barracks still dot the state.

In 1846, though, a group of Napa Valley farmers grew fed up with the Mexican government. They decided to seize control and form their own republic.

In June of 1846, they did just that. Marching to the home of the Mexican governor Vallejo, they demanded control of California. In a largely bloodless revolt, they took it.

To commemorate the event, the revolutionaries designed a flag for their new California Republic. It depicted a California grizzly bear under a red star, which is symbolic of an earlier, failed attempt at Californian independence.

Legend has it that the red star was added to the original flag by painting it on at the last minute using blackberry juice.

The original flag had a much plumper, less scary bear than the one we fly today. Here’s its designer, Peter Storm, with an early version.

Public domain

Here’s what it looked like even earlier, when it was first created.

Public domain

Raising the Flag

After taking control of the Napa and Sonoma areas, the founders of the California Republic first flew their flag above what is today the Plaza Park in downtown Sonoma, California.

A memorial and statue still stands on the spot today, commemorating the historical moment when the original Bear Flag was flown.

You can enjoy this historical marker and then head to a Sonoma winery to experience a more modern aspect of California culture!

Bear Flag marker in Sonoma, California
Bear Flag marker in Sonoma, California

Joining America

The California Republic lasted about one month, before the members of the Bear Flag Revolt decided to absorb their tiny republic into the United States of America.

California this became an American state, and the Bear Flag was replaced with the Stars and Stripes. 

The Bear Flag was still kept as California’s state flag, though, and continues to serve as a reminder of the state’s pioneer spirit.

The original Bear Flag that flew over Sonoma was lost in the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. But the design lives on in a million bumper stickers and T-shirts all over the state.

Californians are clearly proud of our origins—and fascinated by the state’s brief moment as an independent country.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.


  1. It would be clearer to point out that Spain founded the missions and presidios as part of its colonization. When Mexico became independent, it held those areas. Sonoma was the only mission founded under Mexico.
    I’ve not seen the Bear Flaggers described as mainly Napa based before, more a mix of men from Sonoma, which is where Vallejo was taken prisoner. John Fremont is credited with encouraging the rebels. Anyhow, curious where the Napa suggestion originated. Thanks, graham

  2. Interesting. As a Native Californian I have never heard of Sonoma being part of the Bay Area. Rather, I was taught it was in the Wine Country north of the Bay Area. However, looking at a map, both Sonoma & Napa counties do touch San Pablo Bay, which along with the Grizzly, Suisun, and San Francisco Bays make up the four bay area. However, it is very tenuous to connect the Bear Flag Revolt as occurring in the Bay Area. BTW, since I was born in Sacramento in 1949, I could be considered a “Modern Forty-Niner”!

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