The historic account of John Frémont’s actions that led to the US taking California by force in 1846 include events that have been conveniently wiped from history. The most outrageous of these is Frémont’s murder of three unarmed and highly popular Northern Californians on June 28th, 1846 that would play a prominent role in his failed bid to become the first Republican president of the United States in 1856.
This is a recounting of John Frémont’s part in the expansionist agenda of one of the most controversial presidents in US history – James Polk. Polk won the 1844 election by just 39,000 votes, the closest election in history, that started his campaign to annex Texas. He and white southern ministers led the cry to take the west with their infamous “Manifest Destiny”. Polk’s agenda was opposed by most northerners, from the Whigs to Abraham Lincoln as a tactic to expand slavery, at the expense to the First Nation lands that had been left alone until then across the rest of the continent. Henry David Thoreau would withdraw public support of the United States with his prominent act of civil disobedience at Walden Pond following Polk’s Thornton Affair that led to the Mexican – American War. There is no clearer moment in US history that reflects the violent agenda of white racism long hidden in romanticized in formal American history. And in the case of John Frémont, the conquest of California by a scoundrel, who was likely setup direct orders from Polk to incite the Rebellion and head off Mexico’s negotiations to sell California to Britain.
Immediately upon his arrival in San Francisco in January 1846, he and the assistant U.S. Consul William Leidsdorf would travel to the Rancho owned by Don José de los Reyes Berreyesa in the hills above Santa Cruz where he met a Mexican officer named Andres Castillero to look at what would soon become the largest mercury mine in the western hemisphere. Frémont would attempt to buy Castillero’s newly established mining claim on Berreyesa’s land, but was turned down.
Six months later on June 28th, John Frémont ordered Kit Carson to kill the elderly Don José de los Reyes Berreyesa as he approached the catholic Mission in San Rafael, along with his two nephews, the 19 year old twin sons of the first mayor (Alcalde) of San Francisco Don Francisco de Haro. The three unarmed Californios had come north to find out the status of Berreyesa’s son, the Alcalde of Sonoma, who had been arrested as part of the Bear Flag Rebellion.
News of the murders of these prominent men quickly spread south, turning the rebellion red hot. Berreyesa had a number of sons, all of them prominent land holders in Northern California, making them one of the largest landowners in the state. Don José was the son of Nicolas Berreyesa One of just over 20 civilians who had come to San Francisco with the De Anza Expedition in 1776. His 4,438 acre San Vicente Ranchero was directly on top of what would later be known as the New Alamaden Mercury mine that produced more wealth than any single gold mine in California history. The mine’s mercury eventually lead to the massive contamination of the entire San Francisco Estuary as it was used to separate gold from the rock it was embedded in.
The legal battle over the New Almaden mercury mine continued for nearly 15 years due to its strategic role in extracting gold and silver. In 1861, the Confederate Army failed to take the mine. The international legal fight pitted the Scottish miner, Baron Forbes who purchased it from Castillano in 1845 against a property owner next to the now deceased Berreyesa and a group of California and US speculators that included Abraham Lincoln. The three way battle for control over the mine went before the US Supreme Court in 1860. John Frémont testified about his role including the attempt to buy the mine in January 1846 when he first visited the mine. His second attempt to purchase the property took place after the Bear Flag Rebellion through US Counsel Thomas Larkin. Larkin was involved in his own plan to control the mine and declined Frémont’s purchase attempt. Frémont settled for the 44,000 acre Mariposa Ranchero that had been owned by a former governor (see Frémont bio for more on Mariposa).
Note: Letters between Washington D.C. and Larkin disclosed the fact that the U.S. was aware of major mining resources in California. Several historians speculate that the original gold discover at Sutter’s Mill was known prior to the Bear Flag Rebellion. With the announcement of its existence delayed until after the U.S. had finalized the Guadalupe Hildalgo treaty that ceded the state to the U.S. in 1848.
Frémont’s first act of looking at the mercury mine with the U.S. Consul upon arrival points to this agenda like no other! His actions from that point forward, from riding through Monterrey, the capital with a canon, to planting a U.S. flag on a peak overlooking the city could be construed in no other way. Once he realized that he was outnumbered he ran, leaving for Oregon. But after receiving a secret message from a courier, turned around and came back to instigate the rebellion, very likely having been told that U.S. naval forces were on their way to take control.
In 1840 the United State’s Industrial Revolution was anchored by the Northeast’s textile mills that relied upon water wheels and Southern cotton. The primary mode of transportation was by horse or boat. The country was just beginning the monumental task of railroad construction that would “civilize” the untamed west. Communication via telegraphy was still four years from commercial use. People used candles or whale oil lanterns to see at night. The age of coal for heating or steel production was still a decade away.
The average adult was lucky if (s)he had a single year of school. There were 17 million U.S. citizens with the largest city New York City having a population of 312,000. Most people lived on small farms. The north had 75% of the country’s population. The South’s population was just over 4.5 million people which included 2.5 million African-American slaves.
Women couldn’t vote, and were considered the property of their husbands. Some of the first women’s rights campaigns were just getting started. The country had a massive problem with alcoholism that affected most of the adult male population partly due to the lack of clean water. The first attempt at organizing workers called the Working Men’s Party was underway.
The one of the biggest political issues slavery, the other being the removal of Indian (First Nation) people east of the Mississippi. The southern plantation system of wealthy slave owners was under attack by northerners. The US Senate was the battleground with the South using a senatorial strategy (filibuster) to deadlock any change. As part of the original agreement when the country was founded, there would be the same number of slave vs. free states. California was admitted as a free state, but one of its two senators was required to be pro-slave to maintain the 50-50 senate voting deadlock.
In 1840 there were 13 slave and 13 free states in the union.
The Jacksonian era was still in its ascendancy with its agenda of Spoils, Slavery and the Indian Removal Act of 1830. The act was focused on southern tribal communities including the ethno-genocidal Trail of Tears. The destruction of tribal cultures in the northeast had commenced earlier and was mostly over. Estimates range from 1 to 18 million first nation people lived in the U.S. prior to European arrival with 80% of them being wiped out due to infectious disease or warfare. It is estimated that 1/5 of the planets total population (100 million Americans of non-European ancestry) were killed during the 16th century by Europe’s invasion.
With his promise of annexing Texas James Polk and Southern Democrats won control of the White house in the November 1844 presidential election, the closest race in history. Polk and his fellow Democrats promoted the idea of Manifest Destiny. This was the belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was destined to take control of all North America. Many members of the opposition party (Whigs) were opposed to the Democrat’s racist agenda of expanding the country to the west. Former president John Quincy Adams stated that Polk’s war on Mexico was about the South’s push to expand slavery. Ulysses S. Grant had opposed the war calling it an unjust attack on a weaker country.
In an act that has been equated with the Gulf of Tonkin, Polk would orchestrate the Thornton affair on April 25th, 1846 where 68 army men were setup for capture by Mexico which led to the declaration of war. It would lead Henry David Thoreau to stop paying federal taxes and write his famous Civil disobedience speech on slavery and the war.
One of the leading architects of the Democratic Party’s Manifest Destiny campaign was slave owner Senator Thomas Benton of Missouri. It was Senator Benton that gave Colonel John C. Frémont the job of finding a route to California in 1842. A minor motive? Benton’s daughter had eloped with Frémont. During his last expedition, there is evidence that President Polk included the job of orchestrating the Bear Flag Rebellion that took place just over a month after the Thornton affair. Polk’s orders to Frémont have never been revealed by the U.S. government to this day, however Frémont’s actions speak volumes.
Alta California was part of the Republic of Mexico in 1846. The west coast was one of the most remote areas in the world at the time. It would take 6 months by ship to send a one way message From New York to the town of Yerba Buena (San Francisco), that had an 1842 population of 240. John Frémont took 8 months by horse in 1844 to reach California during his first of two expeditions (he was looking for the mythical San Buenaventura River but didn’t find it). Americans theorized that the non-existent Buenaventura river was the Northwest Passage to California. The British had been looking for the Northwest passage since the 16th century which would have reduced the time it took to reach the west coast of North America.
John Fremont Bio
John Frémont is considered an American hero because of his role in bringing California under U.S. control in 1846. The city of Frémont CA. and a number of others are named in his honor (it was originally named after a Spanish Governor). A Redwood tree near Santa Cruz California has been named after him, marking the location of a camp where he stayed in early 1846.
On January 16th, 1847, Frémont was appointed the military governor of California by Commodore Stockton. Some historians say that he appointed himself. He held the position for just 50 days until General Kearney removed from power. Kearney arrested and charged him with mutiny and insubordination in January 1848. He was taken to Washington D.C. where he was convicted by a military court that Benton tried to place himself as the presiding judge. President Polk immediately commuted the conviction.
While acting as governor, he tried to buy the San Vicente Rancho (1) from the former US Consul Thomas Larkin for $3,280 in an attempt to gain control of the largest mercury mine in the western hemisphere (New Almaden). Instead, Larkin sent him the deed from his friend (former Governor) Juan Alvarado’s 44,000 acre Las Mariposas (Spanish for butterfly) Rancho located where present day Mariposa County is. Larkin had already bought into the mercury mine!
Frémont obtained a 300 by 200 Vara (1 Vara = 33″) plot of land along 16th Street near Mission Dolores in San Francisco as well as buying the Island of Alcatraz for $5,000. He attempted to purchase a massive land grant in Southern California but failed.
His ties to the prominent San Francisco gold rush era bank of Palmer, Cook and Company are of historic interest. The bank was notorious for their role in taking properties from many of the Spanish Don’s in Northern California. Frémont selected them to finance his gold mining operations at Mariposas. He sold Alcatraz to the bank just prior to the federal government seizing it to make a fort. The bank sued but was never reimbursed.
The Las Mariposas Rancho was the home of the Miwok people that were fighting to protect it from whites. Their active territorial defense was the reason that Alvarado as well as Frémont were unable to take control of the land until federal troops were sent in. Frémont renamed it to Mariposas Estate. During the military’s roundup of the Miwok and other tribes on Mariposas they discovered the entry to Yosemite Valley. Yosemite was the home of the Ahwahnechee people were nearly obliterated by European diseases.
On March 19th, 1851 Frémont’s Mariposas Estate was the first location where federal troops rounded up tribes, forcing them at gun point to sign a treaty that promised peace if they gave up their lands and moved onto reservations. This was one of eighteen treaties forced upon tribes across California that were never ratified by the US Congress, leaving them with no lands. California’s US representatives blocked the ratification and then classified the treaties as top secret for over fifty years. All their lands were taken, with nearly 100,000 tribal people killed across the state between 1845 and 1855, that included state and federal bounties that paid between fifty cents to five dollars a scalp. By 1890, 90% of all first nation people in California were gone in what is one of the worst cases of genocide in history.
The Spanish crown and Franciscans who ran the California Missions from 1769 had promised the tribal people that all of the state’s lands would remain theirs. The Franciscans were harsh taskmasters as nearly 1/2 of However, Mexico would gain its freedom from Spain in 1821. In 1833, the republican government of Mexico secularized the Missions that had been built by tribal labor over the previous 60 years.
Over fourteen million acres of lands would come into the hands of the Californios (Spanish Don’s) of whom most were military men. At the same time over 100,000 of the state’s tribal people would die between 1830 and 1845 due to a new wave of epidemics and warfare that happened just after the secularization act took place. Almost all neophytes living at the 21 Missions were driven back into central California never to hear that they were being offered small plots of land. Only a handful ever got any. By the mid 1840’s there were only a dozen known Ohlone people left on the Peninsula all of them being servants.
But then California was visited by Frémont and Manifest Destiny.
The 1851 Land Act had strict requirements about what constituted a legal land grant. As was the case of many of the 800 land grants given out between 1833 and 1846, Governor Alvarado had failed to meet any of the requirements for his Las Mariposas Rancho including the agreement that he would never attempt to sell the property. The Rancho had “floating boundaries” which Frémont changed after the discovery of gold. He would move the boundaries of the land to cover some of the most important gold areas in the state. Frémont claimed to have discovered a mile long vein on his Rancho that would be called the Mother Lode. He would bring Mexican workers onto the estate to work the mines. After the gold rush was in full swing he would get into physical and legal battles with 49’ers over control of Mariposas that would have dramatic impacts on mineral rights for California.
Besides being elected as California’s first US Senator in 1850, he would also be the first Republican ever to run for president in 1856.
In his testimony Frémont stated that on January 20th 1846, he and the US vice Consul William Leidsdorf would travel to Rancho San Vicente near Santa Cruz to meet with Andres Castillero on the land owned by José de los Reyes Berreyesa. Castillero was a Mexican military engineer that filed an 1845 mining claim on what would later be known as the New Almaden quicksilver (mercury) mine. Californios had been led led to the mine by Ohlone people who had been extracting Cinnabar ore to use as red paint. The Ohlone used the Cinnabar at murals in Santa Clara and Mission Dolores. Castillero recognized the Ohlone’s paint to be mercury, the primary ingredient needed to extract silver and gold from hard rock ore. New Almaden would turn out to be the 6th largest mercury mine in the world. During its 70 year life, it produced more wealth than any other California mine.
San Vicente was a square League (4,300 acres) Rancho given to Seargent José de los Reyes Berreyesa in 1842 by Californio governor Juan Alvarado. José was the son of Nicolas Berreyesa One of just over 20 civilians who had come to San Francisco with the De Anza Expedition in 1776. Nicolas (1761-1850) had married Maria Peralta, starting one of the most influential families of landed Californios in the bay area. The Berreyesa family was in possession of over 120,000 acres of Northern California land grants.
Frémont testified that he offered to buy the mine In January but was refused. Under Mexican law mineral rights were retained by the government. Castillero’s mining claim angered Berreyesa as the Mexican was refusing to allow him to be part of the planned business of running the mine on his property. A huge legal dispute over New Almaden would end up in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1860 due to differences between Mexican and US mineral claims that were not dealt with when the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed.
After numerous confrontations in early 1846 near Alta California’s capital of Monterrey, Frémont left for Sutter’s Fort. On June 14th, 1846 Frémont and American squatters started the 22 day long Bear Flag rebellion. Frémont’s rebels captured General Mariano Vallejo and José de los Santos Berreyesa at the Sonoma Presideo. Vallejo was the officer in charge of Northern California’s military operations, while José Berreyesa was the Alcalde of Sonoma. The Americans also captured two (some reports say 3) of Berreyesas’ brothers. Alcalde (Mayor) José de los Santos Berreyesa was the son of José de los Reyes Berreyesa, the owner of San Vicente near Santa Cruz.
The day after the Californio’s capture and imprisonment at Sutter’s Fort, Frémont would leave for San Rafael. Alcalde Berreyesa’s 61 year old father José de los Reyes Berreyesa heard of their capture and grew concerned. Two days after Frémont arrived in San Rafael, José de los Reyes Berryesa along with his teenage de Haro nephews, the twin sons of the former mayor of San Francisco, came by boat across San Francisco Bay with the intention of continuing north to Sonoma to find out what had happened to Jose’s sons.
Soon after their arrival at San Rafael Mission, John Frémont ordered Kit Carson to kill the three unarmed Californios.
Less than a year later, Frémont tried to buy Berreyesa’s ranch near Santa Cruz. He would give US Consul Thomas Larkin $3,000 to make the purchase, but Larkin would give him the title for the Mariposas Rancho instead, while becoming an investor in New Almaden. It has been Larkin’s assistant who had Frémont look at the mine upon his arrival in January 1846.
As the war started Andres Castillero would sell the New Alamaden mine to Alexander Forbes, a wealthy Scotsman that had mining operations in Mexico. Forbes would play a major roll in the battle over the mine that ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court. Even Abraham Lincoln was known to be an investor in the mine. During the Civil War Southern troops were sent get control of the mine but were stopped. Lincoln would order its takeover in 1863 during the war.
The 1860 Supreme Court case over the mine was held in San Francisco. Frémont was already in financial ruin over his failed management of Mariposas Estate. He attempted to sell the entire estate to the Rothschilds but they refused. His claims of being the richest man in the world in 1851 was a fantasy. His creditors, Palmer, Cook & Company would foreclose on Mariposasa. He would die in New York city penniless in 1890.
On September, 22nd 1856, The Los Angeles Star would publish a statement by José de los Santos Berreyesa of the murder of his father and the de Haro twins. It was accompanied by an eye witness statement from the influential San Francisco surveyor Jasper O’Farrell calling Frémont “a murderer and a coward.” The Star’s account of the Berreyesa murder came from a 16 page pamphlet written by Charles Pickett that circulated across California by Democrats during the fall election campaign. Many Republican Californians would vouch for Frémont’s character but the murders would play a major role in his loss of the 1856 presidential race. He came in 3rd place in his new home state of California.
Although Frémont was convicted by the army for mutiny and insubordination because of his acts in 1846, he never stood trial for the cold blooded killing of the three unarmed civilians. Nor has there ever been a presentation prior to this that discloses the fact that Frémont had a motive for murdering the 61 year old José de los Reyes Berreyesa, the takeover of San Vicente Rancho that had one of the largest mercury mines in the world within its confines.
Nor has there been any attempt to link the invasion of California to New Almaden mine that then became the source for the mercury pollution that to this very day has contaminated the entire Sacramento River – San Francisco Bay watershed.
Both Carson and Frémont were known to have killed many tribal people during their surveys in the west. When President Lincoln removed General Frémont from his command of Missouri during the Civil War Frémont, in revenge, would accept the nomination for the presidency in 1864 from a newly formed party called the radical democrats. The party would collapse and he would withdraw his candidacy.
Frémont (his original name was Fremon and was more than likely illegitimate) became a superstar for his role in the conquest of Alta California. It is quite clear that Frémont went from a superstar to a has been within a decade due to his failed gold claim. His role in the murder of Indian people, the de Haro twins, the elder Berreyesa or his court-martial for mutiny were white-washed from history. He would die penniless in New York City.
Even the pro-slave agenda of the Manifest Agenda has been white-washed with its real intention being the conquest of indian lands.
His documented behavior in Alta California from January through June of 1846 was nothing less than an unprovoked act of war against Mexico and the territory. There is no way that Frémont could have known about Polk’s declaration of war against Mexico in May unless he was under orders to initiate war. In the tightly knit Northern Alta community, the murder of the prominent Berreyesa and his two teenage nephews would be nothing less than the act that kicked the war off. Imagine the unprovoked murder by a foreigner of the mayor of Chicago or New York City, as well as the death of one of its wealthiest citizens as part of an invasion! Just a minor lapse in American history books.
The invasion of California was started in the north for a reason. At Sonoma where General Vallejo was stationed, there were only 6 regular duty troops in place. The entire region from Santa Clara to Sonoma had a population of less than 500 Californios out of 15,000 people, mostly located far to the south.
In what would be one of the most nefarious acts following the invasion, the village of Yerba Buena would usurp the name of the local Partido of San Francisco (A Partido is the equivalent of a county or province) taking it for its own. Yerba Buena was made up of slave holding Americans or other nationalities. The first American appointed as mayor was Captain Bartlett who would unilaterally change the name to San Francisco, stealing the name from the Mission San Francisco de Assis, which then got called Mission Dolores as an intentional theft of its true identity. By usurping the name, the newly named town would then use Mexican land law to lay claim to 4 leagues (8 square miles) of lands that actually should have belonged to the original Partido.
When California became a state, the citizens of Mission San Francisco petitioned the state legislature in a bid not to become part of Yerba Buena(SF), but was ignored. The last priest (Santillan) at Mission San Francisco filed a land claim prior to the US war for 1 league of the original property but it was tossed out by the US Federal court system even though it was finally confirmed as legitimate by a federal Land Commission investigation.
Yet, in an act of overt two faced legal behavior, John Frémont was granted control of the controversial floating estate (Mariposas was moved by Frémont to include valuable gold lands) ten times the size of the Santillan land grant that failed to meet a single of the 1851 legal requirements that were used to eventually kill the Santillan grant. One of the Land Commissioners that pushed in favor of him getting the land was his brother-in law.
Frémont’s initial land claim would be turned down by the US appointed land Commission. He would turn to the courts to reverse that claim. Furthermore, he would then turn to the courts to stop the independent mining claims on his estate, setting up a major legal precedent over mineral rights. Then five years later, the mineral claim by the Berreyesa family over the New Almaden mercury mine would be completely ignored by the government.
In a period of just fifteen years one of the world’s most important land grabs would take place. Around 500 mostly Spanish military men would steal 14 million acres of the coastal Catholic Missions that had been promised to the original Californians who’d lived on the land for thousands of years. In turn these rural cattle ranchers would in turn lose nearly all of these lands to the citizens of the United States.
There is even evidence that John Sutter actually discovered gold in 1845 rather than 1848, informing President Polk in a letter at that time that helped motivate the plan to invade Alta California. As early as 1845 letters from the US Consul to Alta California (Thomas Larkin) mentioned the mercury mine as well as other valuable resources in letter to his superiors.
In addition the historian Hubert Bancroft wrote that that the British were negotiating with Mexico to buy Alta California at the time of the US invasion.
The claim here is that Frémont attempted to purchase the San Vicente Rancho. As of yet there has been no historic document found that states the name of the property he attempted to buy from Larkin in 1847, other than saying a certain ranch near Santa Cruz or San Jose. There is no doubt that Frémont understood the importance of the Mercury mine he visited in January 1846 as did Larkin. Its why Larkin attempted to get the land himself. But mining business and operations had already begun earlier so Larkin could only get a partial interest in the operation.
There was never a formal investigation into the murder of Berreyesa or the de Haro twins, unless it was done during Frémont’s military trial and then suppressed. Several accounts point to the fact that Frémont had already been caught lying about the murders. Frémont referred to the three killings in a single sentence to his military superiors as part of the Bear Flag revolt, but never mentioned this during his court martial, where he claimed he’d never shed any blood prior to or during the rebellion.
It is important to understand the context of this investigation. With hundreds of documents and well over a hundred hours of work involved, the intent of just smearing Frémont wasn’t the original intention of this work. John Frémont was one of the most popular characters of the Gold Rush era, coming a half million votes short of becoming the President of the country. He was literally worshiped, his every move getting newspaper coverage at one point. His opening of the west gave him the nickname of the “Pathfinder”. As stated, his attempt to gain control over the Mariposas Rancho after failing to get San Vicente should have failed because it didn’t meet a single one of the 1851 law’s legal requirements to be a legitimate Mexican Land Grant, yet the state and feds still okayed the grant simply because of his popularity.
The fact that even before the grant was finally granted, he’d already lost the property to creditors says it all. Not until his grudge run against Lincoln in 1864 did he start to be seen for what he was.
From the Spanish to Anglo conquest of California its original people were driven nearly into extinction. A full history of how the First Californians were treated has never been done or aired in this state that might help reverse some of the wrongs that are too many to mention here.
There are several major controversies within the historical record that need to be cleaned up. One of these is that some California historians have introduced the claim that José Santos Berreyesa was not the Alcalde of Sonoma in 1846 at the time of the Bear Flag Rebellion. Instead, they claim that the American Jacob Leese was the Alcalde at the time. Leese’s wife is the source of their claim. They go so far as to claim that Leese would be imprisoned rather than Berreyesa. However, in public court records around the Berreyesa land grant dispute, it is stated that Berreyesa had been elected Alcalde in March 1846.
This piece about John Frémont’s murder of Berreyesa and the De Haro twins is not an attempt to rewrite history by liberals, but has a solid historic footing. It is based on two sources, the first being the March 1928 “San Francisco “2~0″ Police Journal” (Part II). The piece was written by Albert Wheelen, a prominent San Francisco Lawyer laying out the details of the murder in San Rafael. Additional investigations suggest that there may be a military investigation of the murders done by captain John Montgomery of the USS Portsmouth soon after it took control of San Francisco.
But then there is the story of the battle over Mercury, known as Quick Silver and its role in the events of 1846. From the massive federal legal battle “The United States vs. Andres Castillero” to numerous books like “Mercury and the Making of California: Mining, Landscape, and Race, 1840–1890 By Andrew Scott Johnston that helped to unravel the battle over the New Almaden mercury mine led by Thomas Larkin, who had been given the job of monitoring US interests in California. He was also a businessman that had the inside line on Almaden over Fremont. Johnston also documents the imperial role that Mercury has played in the creation of empires their their thirst for power via the extraction of gold and silver.