The Age of Gold

The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands Read Free Book Online

Book: The Age of Gold by H.W. Brands Read Free Book Online
Authors: H.W. Brands
visit to the province. Amid the bellicose clamor of Manifest Destiny, his presence, with that of his wilderness-toughened band of cavalrymen, made John Sutter and other Mexican officials nervous. The commandant of California, José Castro, ordered Frémont to leave the province. He obliged, but slowly and with a studied insolence intended to elicit a violent response. He came close to getting it when Castro issued a proclamation calling on Californians to take arms against the “band of robbers commanded by a captain of the United States army, J. C. Frémont.” Frémont claimed injury and vowed, “If we are unjustly attacked we will fight to extremity and refuse quarter, trusting to our country to avenge our death….If we are hemmed in and assaulted here, we will die, every man of us, under the flag of our country.” But the tense moment passed, and Frémont reluctantly headed north toward Oregon. On the way he heard rumors that Castro was encouraging local Indians to attack American settlers; still hoping to start something, Frémont launched a raid on an Indian village. Scores of Indians—as many as 175 by one count—were killed.
    Yet the tinder refused to light, and Frémont continued north to the vicinity of Oregon’s Klamath Lake, where he waited impatiently for an excuse to return. In May 1846 a secret messenger arrived from Washington. Precisely what this messenger said has been lost to history, for he destroyed his orders before crossing Mexican territory. But whatever he said prompted Frémont to move south at once.
    Back in California, he resumed his campaign against the Indians. He led a mounted sweep of several Indian villages on the west bank of the Sacramento River; an indeterminable number of Indians were killed and hundreds were rendered homeless.
    But
still
the war wouldn’t start. By now Frémont was beginning to wonder if it ever would—and, if it didn’t, whether he would be held accountable for the Indian war he had been waging, unauthorized, on Mexican soil.
    Frémont’s predicament only deepened when some of the American settlers raised the flag of rebellion against the Mexican government. These rebels modeled their “Bear Flag revolt” on the American Revolution, and just as the patriots of 1776 had appealed to France for help, so the patriots of 1846 appealed to the French-descended Frémont. Frémont obliged, and in fact took effective control of the rebellion. He seized Sutter’s Fort— thereby confirming Sutter’s long-standing suspicions of his malign intentions—and arrested nearby officials of the Mexican government.
    These actions elevated his liability to a new level. Thus far his aggressions had been directed against Indians, who though living under Mexican jurisdiction lived somewhat outside Mexican law. But now Frémont was taking on the Mexican government itself. If war didn’t break out, he would be at the center of a major international incident.
    Frémont raised the stakes still further by ordering the killing of some Californians. Shortly after the start of the Bear Flag rebellion, Frémont’s soldiers spied a small boat of Californians crossing San Pablo Bay. Frémont sent Kit Carson, the famous scout and Indian fighter who was Frémont’s frequent partner in exploration, and some other men to intercept the boat. According to an eyewitness, Carson asked Frémont, “Captain, shall I take those men prisoner?” According to this same witness, Frémont answered, with a wave of the hand, “I have no room for prisoners.” Carson and theothers rode to where the boat had landed and shot three of the Californians dead. (A fourth escaped.) Frémont defended his action as punishment for the murder of two Americans, apparently by some Californians. But there was no evidence that the three men killed on Frémont’s order had any connection to the murder of the Americans, and the incident created the distinct probability that Frémont would be charged with murder if no war

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