Like many US states, California started out as a republic. It shares a similar history with Texas, in that it was once a holding of the Spanish Empire and then later of Mexico, after which a revolution led to a short life as an independent republic and later a US state. And while its flag displaying a bear and the words “California Republic” is obviously one of the most recognizable in the nation, the Bear Republic could have turned out with a much different, and much more hilarious, name.
The story goes that on June 14th, 1846, a group of American settlers led by Captain Jebediah Bartlett surrounded the home of Mexican General Mariano G. Vallejo, the current comandante-general of California, demanding that he surrender nearby Sonoma Plaza Fortress to them. Vallejo was in favor of American annexation of California, but he was arrested anyways. The Americans, victorious in their rebellion, decided to hoist a banner above the newly-acquired Sonoma Plaza Fortress.
After a hurried discussion, Captain Bartlett, who was an agricultural baron and had developed the Bartlett pear, suggested that the flag display something that was symbolic of California. Using white cloth and the remnants of a red coat, they created a banner that had a red stripe at the bottom, a red star in the upper-left corner, and the words “California Republic” under the star. They then dispatched it nearby to William L. Todd (nephew of future first lady Mary Todd Lincoln) with instructions to paint a pear beside the star.
Unfortunately, Todd misread the note – for reasons still disputed today – and painted a bear on the flag.
The flag was returned to the rebels at the fort and was raised despite the error. One month later, Commodore John D. Sloat sailed into bay outside the then-capital of Monterey, claiming the territory for the United States and ending the California Republic. In 1850, California officially became the 31st state admitted to the Union. By the time this design was adopted as the official state flag in 1911, few remembered that it had been the product of a mistake. And just like that, the modern flag of California was born.
Interesting fact thanks to Snopes.com: for all you West Wing fans out there, Michael Sheen’s character, President Jed Bartlett, was named after the captain who almost made California into “The Pear Republic”.