California Love: Jacob Dodson, John Grider and Other Black Members of the Bear Flag Party

A very long time ago, people from all over the world including Africa, Asia and Europe left their homes to sail across the Earth’s oceans and see what all existed beyond. They reached lands of which they’d had no prior knowledge and met people who were strangers. The explorers discovered that the strangers possessed (or had access to) really good, pretty and precious things that the explorers wanted. While some of the explorers made nice with the strangers and traded, other explorers harmed the strangers and took whatever they coveted. The unfortunate thing about history is that there seems to be more examples of people doing the latter instead of the former. But that is human history, and certainly Californian history.

Pictured above are artistic renderings of Jacob Dodson and the Bear Flag Rebellion.

After a series of Spanish conquistadors claimed damn near all that was west of Florida as what they called “New Spain,” they really didn’t do much with it. It took them decades upon decades to completely explore and map it. In the meantime, Spain sent Franciscan missionaries to settle what came to be known as Baja (Southern) California which was present-day Mexico and Alta (Northern) California which was just about everything between the present-day Mexican and Canadian borders. Russians were in present-day Washington and Oregon as well but this is Black History Month, so let me point out that there was a large population of Afro-Mexicans all throughout the region because Spain brought enslaved Africans to the West.

In California, Franciscan missionaries set about converting the Indigenous population (Native Americans) to Catholicism and then making them build the missions and tend to the land. The tribes often didn’t appreciate what was happening. FUN FACT: The missionaries popularized the use of fire resistant red clay roofs because Native Americans often set fire to the roofs in protests and during attempts to overthrow. There were a lot of rebellions and killings in this vein. That was on top of Mexico winning independence from Spain and then moving through the north to either expel, kill, or convert Spanish loyalists while claiming all of California for the newly liberated nation of Mexico. There was a lot of conflict. It was a hot mess.

Even as all of that went on, the United States of America was expanding farther west and talking all of that “Manifest Destiny” business and what not. Enter John Charles Fremont, an explorer, military official and politician who set out on multiple surveying expeditions throughout the Midwest and West during the 1840s. Georgia-born and anti-slavery, Fremont was known as the “Great Pathfinder” which is hilarious to me most notably because an 18-year-old free Black man named Jacob Dodson actually led Fremont’s behind through the wilderness on his various excursions. You can read all about Dodson and Fremont’s party nearly starving to death in the Sierra Mountains when Dodson saved them here.

Dodson and several other Black men including John Grider, Joe McAfee, Charles G. Gains, Billy Gatson, and “Ben,” a bodyguard to U.S. Army Lieutenant Archibald Gillespie participated in the Bear Flag Rebellion. The Bear Flag Revolt was an attempt by Fremont’s party to exploit Mexico’s inner conflicts and seize California for themselves as an independent Republic–separate from the United States as well. It was a haphazard shot at creating a free state with no slavery and true equality for everyone, but it was short lived because the U.S. Army began occupying California as well .

It should be noted that a big part of the rebellion includes my hometown of Vallejo. The Bear Flag party actually went to Vallejo to seize General Mariana Guadalupe Vallejo and take him hostage. General Vallejo was really chill about everything because he sensed that the U.S. was going to take California anyway and he was looking to get in where he could fit in. So he invited the American rebels in for drinks and ish. They still took him captive, and ransacked his crib but they didn’t kill him or anyone else.

Anyway, John Grider ended up settling in Vallejo permanently where he made a living as a very talented horse trainer and veterinarian. He died at Fairfield County hospital in 1915.

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