The Fight For California

John C. Frémont (right) was a critical player in the Conquest of California, and signed the treaty with Mexico that ceded the state to America.

LIKE PHEIDIPPIDES, THE LEGENDARY MESSENGER RUNNING FROM MARATHON TO ATHENS, Tom Hill sets out from the Salinas Valley toward Monterey to share urgent news from the battlefield. Except Hill is not on foot – he’s astride a horse – and must pass through enemy lines to get there.

The night is dark: It’s Nov. 16, 1846, and all but a sliver of the moon hangs in shadow.

Hill’s mission is to reach John C. Frémont, major of the California Battalion, and apprise him of the battle. The lives of many men, and the momentum of the Mexican-American War, are potentially at stake.

Of all the soldiers in the region fighting for the United States that day, there is likely no one more qualified for the mission. Hill was born in Ohio in 1811 into the Delaware Tribe – his Anglo name may have stemmed from a tribal tradition of naming offspring after murdered friends – and he has spent his adult years roaming the West, first as a fur-trapping mountain man for Kit Carson in the 1830s, and following that, chasing buffalo on the Montana plains with the Nez Perce Tribe.

He is a man who has survived for years in the wild, through violent conflicts and many harsh winters. He is a man who has taken scalps.

When he arrived at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento – then called New Helvetia – in September 1846 with a party of Walla Wallas on a trading mission, he joined up with the American forces in California.

Unlike some of the Walla Wallas who also joined up, Hill, perhaps due to his reputation from working with Kit Carson – who became a legend of the American frontier in his own lifetime – and Hill’s ability to speak English, he was treated equally to the white men at Sutter’s Fort. He was to be paid $25 per month for his service, the same rate as whites (Indians only earned $6 per month).

At some point in Hill’s mission on that November night, reportedly not long after he sets out, a band of three Californios catch his scent, and move to attack. One of them thrusts his lance at Hill, which Hill parries, in part – it went through one of his hands.

With his other hand, Hill grabs his tomahawk and splits his attacker’s skull from crown to jaw. He then picks up his rifle and shoots and kills another attacker. The third Calfornio flees.

As Hill nears Monterey in the dark sometime after midnight, his horse, likely exhausted from a day of hard riding, quits on him. So like Pheidippides, Hill then sets out on foot.

WHILE CALIFORNIA WAS CONSIDERED A POTENTIAL PRIZE by some countries in the 18th and early 19th centuries, it remained but a footnote in global affairs.

Both Spain, and then Mexico – the countries that governed it – struggled to recruit people to “civilize” it. Its initial Western settlers, who came from Mexico starting in the 1770s, and their offspring, formed an agrarian society that has been romanticized historically. But those portrayals elide the often barbaric treatment of Native Americans, then called Indians, under Spanish and then Mexican rule. Many died due to disease, many fled inland, away from the Spanish settlements on the coast, and most who remained became wards of the Catholic church – essentially, enslaved.

Mexico, in an effort to form a republican system of governance, secularized California’s missions in the mid-1830s. The country, at the time, was known as the United Mexican States.

But for some born and raised in California, the allegiance to Mexico was tenuous – they just wanted to carry on, as is. Monterey native Juan Bautista Alvarado, with support from American mountain men, tried to establish California as a sovereign state in 1836, but he soon made peace with Mexico after he was appointed governor, a role he served in from 1837 to 1842.

In the time of Spanish colonization, various Western countries – France, England, America, Russia – embarked on scientific expeditions to California by sea, and in doing so also gathered intelligence about the lay of the land. Later, the American presence picked up as Monterey became a stopping point for trade shipments to and from China, and so too did the Russian presence, as that country’s fur trading industry established a foothold just north of San Francisco Bay – it’s the reason, at least in part, that sea otters almost went extinct.

Yet despite the state’s vast riches of natural resources, California remained sparsely populated until the 1840s. Its non-Indian population never exceeded 7,000, and adult males not more than 1,000. They were largely Californios – the California-born descendants of immigrants from Spanish-ruled Mexico.

But by the early 1840s, American settlers – not just men, but families – started trickling in from the east. The first party was the Bartleson-Bidwell party, which arrived to the eastern base of Mount Diablo, near Brentwood in Contra Costa County, in 1841. A number of wagon trains followed in subsequent years, the most notable being the Donner Party, which by the time Tom Hill was running toward Monterey in November 1846, had made camp at Donner Lake after being locked in by an unseasonably early snowstorm. The horrors that followed became etched in history.

Yet even if American expansion into California seemed inevitable by that point, it arguably did not have to be taken through violent struggle.

But it was.

The Battle of Natividad, which was fought in northeast Salinas amid the fields and oak groves around San Juan Grade, is a largely forgotten conflict, but it marked an important inflection point in California history. After the battle, American control of Northern California was never again in question, and it was a domino that helped turn the tide in Southern California as well.

History is inherently messy, both because human memories are imperfect, and because the lens through which events are experienced, and later interpreted, can vary depending on the narrator, and the era.

This account of the events that transpired is based on a number of sources, both contemporaneous and modern. The Monterey Californian, the state’s first newspaper, launched in August 1846, just months before the battle. On Nov. 21, five days after the battle, the paper provided the first account of what happened.

That report (available online through the Monterey Public Library) is one source used in reconstructing what happened there. Three Years In California, a daily journal by Walter Colton, who became Monterey’s first American alcalde – a role that is both mayor and judge – was invaluable for understanding the zeitgeist at the time (the book spans from July 1846 to October 1849). Oral histories and other records from the Monterey County Historical Society’s archives also provided accounts of the time and the battle.

Other books, from Hubert H. Bancroft’s History of California 1846-1848 to late historian Kevin Starr’s California, also provided perspective, as does a short, but rich, biography of Tom Hill the California Historical Society Quarterly published in 1946.

The account that follows is a distillation of all that source material, and while it may not be entirely accurate – even participants in the battle had conflicting recollections – the essence of it is true.

IN JANUARY 1846, EXPLORER AND U.S. ARMY OFFICER JOHN C. FRÉMONT approached Monterey with a party of around 60 men, who were ostensibly on a mission of scientific exploration. It was Frémont’s third such expedition, and his second that took him into California.

Thomas Larkin, who arrived in Monterey in 1832, and who established himself as a successful businessman, was at the time America’s consul to Mexico, and while Frémont was camped outside of Monterey with his party, the two shared words.

José Castro, the comandante of Mexico’s forces in the north, and who was based in Monterey – where he was born in 1808 – was none too pleased, and ordered Frémont and his men to leave California. In response, Frémont took his men to the top of Gavilán Peak, which overlooks what is now Salinas, where he set up a camp and raised the American flag. (The peak was later renamed after him.)

In March, Frémont and his men decamped and headed north to Oregon. On May 13, 1846, the United States declared war on Mexico. While Frémont would later claim, for the remainder of his life, that he had confidential orders to seize California, news of the war declaration would not reach the state for months.

Frémont and his men, after spending the summer in Southern California to bolster America’s military presence there, returned to Monterey by sea in late October of that year to a city that was by that time under tenuous American control, and Frémont had been given command of America’s California forces. Walter Colton, the first American alcalde in Monterey, wrote contemporaneously in his journal that “they are in a half-starved condition,” and that, “I never met with a more famished crew. The call for meat and bread roused up all the butchers and bakers in Monterey. What an energy there is in downright hunger!”

The day after Frémont’s arrival, Colton writes that Indian scouts reported a number of Californios – who were Mexican citizens – camped in the hills near Monterey. He surmised they had been planning an attack on the city, but perhaps abandoned their plans due to Frémont’s presence.

Monterey was on a war-time footing, and the streets were being patrolled day and night – no one was allowed to leave without a passport.

A day later, on Oct. 30, 1846, Colton writes that two Californios approached one of the men guarding Frémont’s horses, and while engaging him in conversation, seized his rifle, shot him, and fled. (The shot did not prove fatal.)

Horses were in short supply for the American forces in California, and were considered essential to winning the war effort. Californios had taken control of nearly all the horses on the Central Coast, and the call was made to Americans north of Monterey to gather all the horses they could and head toward Monterey to join Frémont for a push south, and repel Mexican forces back into Baja.

Reinforcements – both men and several hundred horses – came from San Jose, Sonoma and Sacramento, and together, formed a motley crew of mountain men, including Kit Carson, runaway sailors, emigrants, and Indigenous Walla Walla and Delaware people, and by mid-November in 1846, had made camp at Mission San Juan Bautista.

News of their arrival could not be kept secret, and for Mexico, it presented an opportunity: If the horses could be seized, Frémont’s hopes for a southward push could be kneecapped.

And so Manuel Castro, who had taken over commanding Mexico’s Northern California forces from his cousin José, set out from San Luis Obispo with about 100 men – some of whom were recruited unwillingly – toward the Salinas Valley, recruiting men and gathering horses along the way.

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He and his men, and their horses, made camp near Soledad as Frémont’s reinforcements poured in from the north.

A battle was imminent.

The Fight For California

Thomas Larkin, who came to Monterey in 1832, was America’s consul to Mexico in 1846, and as tensions ratcheted up locally, he was taken as a hostage.

ON NOV. 15, THOMAS LARKIN SET OUT FROM MONTEREY TOWARD SAN JUAN BAUTISTA en route to Yerba Buena – now called San Francisco – to visit his sick daughter, who was staying there with Larkin’s wife until tensions died down.

On his way, northeast of what is now Salinas, he stopped by the rancho of Joaquin Gomez, who was famous for his hospitality and who, historian Paul Parker writes, had a “delightful daughter Dolores who played the guitar and danced and sang.” Despite the protestations of Larkin’s guide Bill Matthews, Larkin accepted Gomez’s invitation to stay the night, as opposed to moving on to San Juan Bautista, where American forces had set up camp.

At around midnight, a group of about a dozen Californios arrived at Gomez’s ranch, kidnapped Larkin and took him to Castro’s camp.

Also on Nov. 15, American Capt. Charles Burrass arrived in San Juan Bautista from Sacramento with a group of over 30 emigrants, 10 Walla Wallas and two Delawares and about 500 horses. Also arriving that day, from San Jose, was a company led by Bluford Thompson, known to his men as “Hell-raising” Thompson. Edward Kemble, who was part of that company, and would later become a journalist of note, writes that the company “was made up of American rancheros, runaway sailors, Englishmen, Germans and Negroes… commanded by a Southern daredevil at once a desperado and a gentleman.”

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, MONDAY NOV. 16, 1846, Burrass and his men set out for Monterey, driving the horses and a small cannon west through the Gabilan range. Thompson sets out earlier, and leaves most of his men in San Juan Bautista, and travels on a different route toward Monterey, presumably to reach Frémont first and get orders. Near the Gomez rancho, where Larkin was kidnapped the night before, he and the men with him are spotted by some of Castro’s scouts.

Some of Castro’s men give pursuit. Once Thompson and his men withdraw to safety, Thompson orders a few Walla Wallas that are with him to ride toward Burrass and apprise him of the developments. When Thompson makes it back to San Juan Bautista, he tells his men to saddle up.

In his book Frémont: Explorer for a Restless Nation, author and historian Ferol Egan writes, “Yelling and cursing, the buckskin-clad men, the men still dressed in sailors’ uniforms, the emigrants in half-worn-out clothing, and the Walla Wallas with very little on except war paint all hurried to catch their horses.”

In advance of Burrass’ party, meanwhile, is a group of his scouts being led by Joseph Foster. Among them are two Delawares, one of whom is Tom Hill, and several Walla Wallas.

Sometime past 3pm, somewhere near the current intersection of San Juan Grade Road and Crazy Horse Canyon Road in North Salinas, Foster and his men encounter the lead party of Castro’s forces in an oak grove. Foster and his men dismount and dig in, and the shooting begins. With it, the smoke of gunfire rises amid the oaks.

Early in the fight, Foster is struck by a musket ball and killed, and James Hays is wounded in the groin, but not mortally. The scouting party, with less than a dozen men, is vastly outnumbered by Castro’s forces, who number about 130, but the Americans have better weapons and more ammunition. Some of Castro’s men have muskets, though they have little powder to shoot with, and many of them are carrying lances. According to Hays, the Delawares pick apart Castro’s men with their rifles – he would later say they took down at least nine of Castro’s men, not all of them fatally.

Also present is Larkin – who is both a hostage and bargaining chip – and who is asked, then commanded, by Castro’s men to make an offer to American forces holed up in the oak grove: If they head to either San Juan Bautista or Monterey in peace, they can leave with their lives.

It has to be an awkward situation for Larkin – he has long known some of his captors since settling in Monterey in 1832, and has remained on friendly terms with them, despite the simmering conflict. When Larkin makes his entreaties, the American forces refuse.

Burrass, Thompson and other men fighting on behalf of America soon show up to bolster the scouting party’s ranks, while Castro’s men have pulled back to a safe distance, about two miles, as many of them do not have weapons for long-range combat. (The cannon Burrass’ party brought, meanwhile, proves useless, as his men did not bring charges to fire it.)

At that point, Thompson begins haranguing commanding officer Burrass to lead an attack while Castro’s men are nursing their wounds. Burrass initially objects, and says protecting the horses – the capture of which is the primary aim of Castro’s men – is more important than a victory on the battlefield.

But after more than an hour, Burrass eventually relents to the pressure from hell-raising Thompson, and leads a charge on his horse (although it’s actually Frémont’s horse, Sacramento, a gift John Sutter gave to Frémont years prior, that Burrass is intended to deliver). Castro’s men are waiting in the fields, lances upright.

Some of the Indians race ahead of Burrass, impatient with the slow pace of attack, and taunt Castro’s forces.

“This was too much to take for one of the Californios, and he charged the Indians as they were making a turn for another run,” Egan writes. “But they were much too quick for him. Before the man had retreated to his own lines, he had been hit by three or four arrows in his back and sides.”

A yell of “Charge!” was given on the American side, and most of them sent off every shot in their rifles. Then the two forces met in close combat. Burrass, who was charging while reportedly holding up an empty rifle, was quickly shot and killed. Another American, Hiram Ames, had a lance driven through him, and at least one more American lay dead. Jose Eusebio Boronda, who was fighting on Castro’s side, gave an oral history in 1877 in which he recalls – though he admits his memory has by then become fuzzy – having lassoed a man, pulling him from his horse and dragging him across the earth until his death.

Castro’s men, who likely suffered similar if not greater casualties, retreat south toward Soledad. (Exactly how many casualties on either side is not clear, especially among Castro’s men, and in the historical record range from four to 20 or more.)

The Americans do not give pursuit, and instead tend to their dead and wounded ranks.

But before that happens, Mariano Soberanes, fighting for Castro (and who owns some large land grants) reportedly saves one of his wounded comrades and prevents him from being scalped. For that, Soberanes would later pay.

And as Castro’s men retreat, Tom Hill rides out of an oak grove, gives out a yell, and holds up two scalps.

FRÉMONT WASN’T HAPPY UPON HEARING THE NEWS FROM THE BATTLE, as it seemed entirely avoidable. But the ragtag American forces were untrained – at least one, reportedly, was an English sailor who just got off a boat two weeks prior – so the chaos that unfolded, at least in hindsight, doesn’t seem surprising. Especially given that the majority of the Central Coast at that time, like nearly all of California, remained the Wild West.

But the 500 or so horses that Castro and his men were hoping to capture remained in American hands, and proved critical in Frémont’s campaign as he soon pushed south toward Los Angeles.

The Battle of Natividad, the only significant military engagement in Northern California in the Mexican-American War – or any war – was one of the final blows to Mexico’s hold over California, as the Americans had more firepower, and now, considerable horsepower coming down from the north.

Frémont took Santa Barbara without any bloodshed in December. Come January, in Los Angeles, he signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, in which Mexico ceded what is now California to America.

Larkin, meanwhile, had been taken to Los Angeles as a hostage, and finally arrived back in Monterey in February, and lived to tell the tale of the battle.

Hill, in 1854, applied for land grants from the federal government for being a veteran; he received 40 acres in Missouri, and 120 in Kansas.

Soberanes – for saving one of his comrades in battle while fighting for Castro – had American forces looking for revenge. Once Frémont’s men regrouped, members of the American forces burned down his ranch near Jolon as they traveled south, killing much of his livestock. He tried to get $20,000 from the U.S. government in compensation.

He got $423.

Philosopher Josiah Royce, who was born in the Sierra foothills in 1855, published his second book, California: A Study of American Character, in 1886. Royce writes about the Mexican-American War as it played out in California.

“The American wants to persuade not only the world, but himself, that he is doing God service in a peaceable spirit, even when he violently takes what he has determined to get,” Royce wrote. He makes the case that violence was neither necessary nor justified. “The nation at large has indeed come to regard the Mexican War with… shame and contempt.”

Today, the only local evidence of the Battle of Natividad is a roadside plaque at the intersection of San Juan Grade Road and Crazy Horse Canyon Road. Further southwest down San Juan Grade Road, where fighting in the second melee of the Battle of Natividad took place, the former battlefield is now a country club covered in greens, fairways, and a little bit of rough.

(3) comments

Walter Wagner

You might wish to add a link to the Fremont Peak State Park. The brochure gives added information. That land fell into private hands, was acquired by my great uncle Rollin Reeves, a prominent Salinas area doctor in the first half of the 20th century, and was then transferred to the State to make the park.

Walter Wagner

Fascinating. The nearby lagoons which were drained years later when Salinas was founded were sources for food for the native population. Perhaps an article on what they were doing at the time would be interesting too.

John Skardon

I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of history. Extremely well written with plenty of sources identified. I hope that MW and the author will continue to publish these wonderful vignettes of California history- unvarnished please.

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