BEAR FLAG RISING by Dale L. Walker


The Conquest of California, 1846
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An expertly written, well-documented history of the American seizure of California from Mexico. Popular Western history writer Walker (Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West, 1997, etc.) avoids the two chief pitfalls of the region’s historiography: imagining its Anglo-American actors to be heroes one and all and, conversely, imagining every last one of them to be villains. Building his narrative on a series of biographical sketches, Walker sorts out good and bad and shows how a man generous and noble one day could behave very poorly indeed the next. One of his recurring characters is John Augustus Sutter, who built a considerable fortune as a trader through any number of questionable tactics: he paid his Indian workers in coins redeemable only at his stores, and he betrayed his Mexican sponsors by supporting an early revolt against Governor Manual Micheltorena, for which treason he received only a minor rebuke from the Mexican government. Another of Walker’s major actors is the somewhat feckless explorer John Charles FrÇmont, whom history has not remembered kindly but for whom Walker shows an admirable understanding: He was an essential adventurer and man of action, Walker writes, and inaction confused and braked his racing mind and turned it toward ruinous matters, such as politics and ambition. FrÇmont’s exploring party, heavily armed and uniformed, led the buckskin-clad Americans who were then living in California with Mexico’s indulgence to imagine that an invasion was near at hand, and they jumped the gun somewhat by raising a militia against faraway garrisons in San Francisco and Los Angeles; when the US finally declared war on Mexico, the Californios, as they were called, were well prepared to do their part, and wresting the huge area away from its earlier owners was a fairly easy matter—despite, as Walker demonstrates, the troublesome quarrels that broke out among the various American leaders. A fine addition to California history and that of the American West generally.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-312-86685-2
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Forge
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999


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