Commodore Robert F. Stockton’s Report on Military and Naval Operations in California, 16 February 1849, Part Four

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The fourth installment of this post moves to the period immediately after the second seizure of Los Angeles by American forces in early 1847 and the documents transmitted by U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton to his superior, Secretary of the Navy George Bancroft and published on 16 February 1849, shortly before President James K. Polk, who oversaw the prosecution of the Mexican-American War, stepped down.

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The capture of Los Angeles took place after a battle fought at “La Mesa” southeast of the pueblo on 9 January 1847, this following an engagement at the Rio Hondo, the old channel of the San Gabriel River the prior day.  On 15 January, from his headquarters in the town, Stockton wrote a short missive to Bancroft as a followup to one from four days earlier and which was featured in yesterday’s third part.

This document began by reporting, “I have the honor to inform you of the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Fremont at this place with four hundred men,” this long after it was expected that “The Pathfinder,” so known for his famed explorations of California and the West earlier in the decade, would be in the area to assist Stockton in its conquest.  Fremont explained to the commodore that a lack of supplies and the threat of an uprising in Monterey detained him in the north.

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Stockton continued by stating “some of the insurgents have made their escape to Sonora [in northern Mexico], and that the rest have surrendered to our arms . . . I am sorry to say that their leader, Jose M. Flores, made his escape, and that the others have been pardoned by a capitulation agreed upon by Lieutenant Colonel Fremont.”

This was among many independent actions by the controversial Frémont, who showed up in the area after Stockton’s taking of Los Angeles, and then negotiated a deal to officially end hostilities with General Andrés Pico, brother of self-exiled Governor Pío Pico and who orchestrated the decisive defeat of U.S. Army forces at the Battle of San Pasqual near San Diego in early December 1846.  As Stockton mildly put it, “others [of the Californio fighters] have been pardoned by a capitulation agreed upon by Lieutenant Colonel Fremont,” who would not have known of William Workman’s negotiation for amnesty with Stockton at Mission San Juan Capistrano on 4 January.

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In fact, the commodore’s letter makes mention of Flores’ letter of the 1st and that he “sent two commissioners, with a flag of truce, to my camp to make a ‘treaty of peace‘ [original italics].”  These men were Workman and Charles Flugge, a resident of Los Angeles.  He then related that

I informed the commissioners that I could not recognize Jose M. Flores, who had broken his parole [after the first taking of Los Angeles in August, after which the Californios revolted because of dictatorial behavior by Archibald Gillespie, who Stockton left in the town to oversee it], as an honorable man, or as one having any rightful authority, or worthy to be treated with, that he was a rebel in arms, and if I caught him, I would have him shot.

Stockton explained that “not being able to negotiate with me,” the locals turned to Fremont “on his way here” and the commodore excused the latter’s decision because of “not knowing what had occurred.”  Given this, he went on ” although I refused to do it myself, still I have thought it best to approve it.”

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With this he concluded, “the territory of California is again tranquil, and the civil government, formed by me, is again in operation in the places where it was interrupted by the insurgents.  Stockton then planned to sail south to the west coast of Mexico to see what he could do to prosecute the war from that point towards Mexico City, leaving Frémont and five hundred men “to preserve the peace of the territory.”

Included in the report was Frémont’s 12 January statement that “in consequence of propositions of peace, or cessation of hostilities, being submitted to me, as commandant of the Californian battalion of United States forces, which has so far been acceded to by me,” a board of commissioners was created that would work with a like body among the Californios set to work on arranging a peace.  This, “requiring a little time to close the negotiations,” meant that a formal process of ending hostilities was to take place the following day “and that the said Californians be permitted to bring in their wounded to the mission of San Fernandez [sic], where also, if they choose, they can remove their camp, to facilitate said negotiations.”

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On the 13th, then, Frémont, styling himself “Military Commandant of California” entered into an agreement with his colleagues Patrick B. Reading, William H. Russell and Louis McLane, Jr., officers of his California Battalion of volunteers, and their Californio counterparts, Pico, Agustín Olvera (later Los Angeles County Judge and namesake of the famed street off the Plaza), and José Antonio Carrillo.

The articles of capitulation, signed at the “Rancho of Cowenga” [Cahuenga, basically across the street from Universal Studios] stipulated that the locals were to surrender to Frémont, including their artillery and “public arms,” distinct from privately-owned weapons, and that “they shall return peaceably to their homes, conforming to the laws and regulations of the United States, and not again take up arms during the war between the United States and Mexico.”  Moreover, they agreed to “assist and aid in placing the country in a state of peace and tranquility.”

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Other articles included a guarantee that the Californios would be protected in life and property; that until a treaty was signed between the U.S. and Mexico no other oath of locals would be required; that any Californio or Mexican citizen could leave the area “without let or hindrance;” that they were to enjoy “equal rights and privileges” as those of American citizens; that Americans, foreigners “and others” were to receive the protections enumerated above relating to Californios; and that the document was “to be no bar” to other future arrangements between both sides.

Added three days later was another article that the paroles of those from the United States and naturalized Mexicans was cancelled “and all prisoners of both parties are hereby released.”  This involved those Americans and Europeans, including John Rowland, who were captured by the Californios at the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in today’s city of Chino Hills and held in what became the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Workman and Ignacio Palomares (of Rancho San Jose in today’s Pomona area) were credited with helping to free these prisoners around this time.

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On 22 January from San Diego, Stockton sent another short missive to Secretary Bancroft, informing him “that the civil government of this territory is in successful operation, that Colonel Frémont is acting as governor” and that the commodore was preparing for the frigate Congress to proceed down the Pacific coast of Mexico.  He added that his aide-de-camp Lieutenant Andrew Gray deserved praise for his work in that capacity and in helping General Stephen Watts Kearny “from his perilous condition after his defeat at San Pasqual.”  Gray was to give more details “of that unfortunate and disastrous affair” to Bancroft.

If the language Stockton used, though formal, seems couched to make Kearny look bad, there were reasons for that, which will form the next part of this post tomorrow!

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