Over the centuries many flags have flown over California soil: the flags of nations, explorers, military units, trading companies…even a pirate.
The first flag to flutter in California’s breezes was planted in 1542—to claim California for Spain—by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, leader of the first Spanish expedition to explore the Pacific Coast of the North American Continent by sea. However, there is some dissent over exactly where he placed it, and exactly which flag it was. Some say Cabrillo claimed California for Spain by planting the Spanish Royal Standard on the shore of San Diego Bay on September 28; others say he raised the Spanish Empire Flag (the royal standard of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V), near Mugu Lagoon in Ventura County on October 10. The Spanish Royal Standard consisted of four quarters diagonally placed, two of stylized gold castles on a crimson background to represent Castile, and two rampant red lions on a white background to represent León. The Spanish Empire Flag was a white field displaying the shields of Castile and León with a crown at its top, surrounded by the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece.
The second flag in California was the Flag of England; an austere, right-angled red cross of St. George against a white background. The explorer / privateer Sir Francis Drake planted it on June 17, 1579, at a site later named Drake’s Bay, to claim the land he called New Albion for his queen Elizabeth I. The Flag of England flew for 37 days, the length of Drake’s stay on land to repair his ship before sailing onward in his circumnavigation of the globe.
Two hundred and twenty-seven years after Cabrillo’s expedition—during which time no other European except Sir Francis Drake set foot on California soil— Gaspar de Portola and Father Junipero Serra brought the Cross of Burgundy flag when they arrived in 1769 to explore the region, begin building a chain of mission outposts, and establish the Presidio of Monterey. The Cross of Burgundy was the naval ensign and land military flag of New Spain; a white background crisscrossed with two thick, saw-toothed red lines in an X-shape.
California’s fourth flag, which replaced the Cross of Burgundy, had more import. This was the Spanish National Ensign, the newly created Spanish National Flag. Raised over the Monterey Presidio in 1785, it was predominantly yellow with bands of red across the top and bottom. The arms of Castile and León, enclosed by the Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece and topped by the Crown of Spain, were placed slightly to the left of center on the yellow field. It continued to fly until the end of Spanish rule in 1822.
In 1812, an unwelcome intruder appeared when the Russians established Fort Ross far north of Monterey, claimed the northern California coast for the Czar, and settled in to hunt sea otter and grow foodstuffs for their main outpost in Alaska. They had three flags: the Personal Standard of the Czar on their ships, a double-headed eagle clutching scrolls in its beaks and claws on a yellow field; the Russian American Trading Company standard, with wide blue and red bands across the bottom and the traditional eagle centered on its upper white field; and the Flag of Russia, a white flag with the light blue, X-shaped Cross of St. Andrew. Both the Russian American Company flag and the Flag of Russia were hoisted above their compound, and flew until the Russians sold Fort Ross and departed California in 1841.
Yet another interloper appeared on the scene in November 1818, when the privateer (some say pirate) Hippolyte de Bouchard, commanding two warships of the Argentine Revolutionary Navy, sailed into Monterey Bay flying the flag of Buenos Aries. Hoping to encourage the Californians to rebel against their Spanish mother country to support the then-ongoing Mexican War for Independence, he demanded the immediate surrender of the Spanish city. Meeting with immediate resistance, however, Bouchard sacked, looted, and burned the town. The Flag of Argentina, which flew over California for six days, consisted of three equal-width bars, the outer two in blue and a center bar in white, with a stylized golden sun on the white band.
Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, gaining ownership of the province of California and the vast lands that were to become the American southwest. On April 11, 1822, a provisional Mexican Empire Flag was raised at the Presidio of Monterey, a vertical tricolor of green, white, and red, displaying a crowned eagle on the center white panel. Two years later, after the overthrow of Mexican Emperor Augustin Iturbide, this was replaced with the official Mexican Republic Flag, of similar design except that the eagle in the center panel perched on a bed of cactus. However, Mexican troops garrisoning the various presidios did not raise the national colors every morning, instead—on occasion—hoisting the Mexican Civil Flag, an unembellished flag of the same vertical tricolors. Except for a few months in late 1836-early-1837 when a flag featuring a lone red star on a white background was raised in recognition of Governor Juan Alvarado’s efforts to establish California “as a free and sovereign state,” the Mexican Republic Flag flew over California until the American conquest.
Meanwhile, yet another flag flew briefly over California, starting in June 1846. That month a ragtag group of disgruntled American settlers took it upon themselves to overthrow the local Mexican regime and declare California an independent republic—completely unaware that the United States had declared war on Mexico on May 13, and had already dispatched warships to the Pacific Coast. On June 14, the Americans “captured” the tiny hamlet of Sonoma and raised a banner known forevermore as the Bear Flag. It had a red star, a crude drawing of a bear, and the words “California Republic” on a white background, with a strip of red at the bottom. There are many conflicting stories about its construction. The white part came from a sheet, or from some lady’s petticoat. The red strip was a piece of some man’s red flannel Long Johns, or—alternatively—a piece of another woman’s red flannel petticoat. The star, bear, and lettering were painted with berry juice, or with India ink, or with paint someone found in a Sonoma attic. The Bear Flag Revolt was trumped three weeks later when the Stars and Stripes was raised in Monterey and elsewhere, by the U.S. Navy.
Other flags of lesser importance have also flown at various times in specific California localities, but ever since Commodore Sloat hoisted a 28-star American Flag over the Monterey Custom House on July 7, 1846, updated versions of it have been the sole national ensign on California’s flagpoles. California was admitted to the Union in 1850, but like other U.S. states at the time, didn’t have a state flag. However, for years variations of the famous Bear Flag were informally used by the California Society of Pioneers and the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, at Admission Day parades and other events.
On February 2, 1911, Governor Hiram Johnson signed legislation making a modern adaptation of the Bear Flag the official California state flag. But since the bill contained only a description with no image, over time manufacturers produced several different representations of the grizzly bear, although each design was “official” so long as it conformed to the written description. In 1955, the bear’s image was finally standardized, using a watercolor created in 1850 by the prominent gold rush-era artist Charles Nahl.