By Reg Page
Special to the Herald
“Timing is everything” is an old expression that can be applied to many things. For the city of Benicia, though, it has particular merit. That point is worth making now because we will soon be at the 170th anniversary of what was likely the seminal event that led to its founding. Had it not occurred the city might not have been established at all (or at least for a long time) and almost certainly not named for the wife of Mariano Vallejo.
I’ll begin by retelling the tale of Robert Semple and his encounter with Vallejo in Sonoma on June 14, 1846. Semple was one of the leaders of what became known as the Bear Flag revolt, which arrived in Sonoma on that Sunday morning in order to capture General Vallejo and the store of armaments and munitions at the fortress. There had been rumors of war between the United States and Mexico for some time and the Mexican governor had ordered anyone who was not already a Mexican citizen to either become one or leave the territory. Anticipating that a war would actually begin a group of emigrants decided to capture the garrison, overcome by force any opposition, imprison Vallejo and take whatever they could of the guns and ammunition that were stored there.
Mariano Vallejo was at the time the most powerful Mexican in Northern California and perhaps the entire state. He was Mexico’s official guardian (commandante) of the northern piece (Rancho Suscol) of the area known as Alta California and had been granted oversight of much of the land throughout our region by the Mexican governor. What the Bear Flaggers did not know was that Vallejo and his brother Salvador were the only military personnel there on that Sunday morning and that the garrison was completely undefended.
On arrival, Semple and three other leaders banged on Vallejo’s door, demanded to see the commandante and informed him that he was under arrest. It was a difficult moment for Vallejo as he was alone with his wife and children. After a lengthy negotiation he agreed to surrender, but not before what began as a peaceful confrontation nearly turned to tragedy. Most of the party had remained outside and eventually became upset by the lack of information about what was happening and the length of time it was taking. They had come expecting action and none was happening. Worse, they were hungry. It then became necessary for Semple and the other leaders to take charge and insist that everyone remain peaceable and not resort to looting or to harming innocents. According to Vallejo’s biographer (Alan Rosenus) Semple even threatened to kill anyone who turned the venture into a “looting expedition”.
Robert Semple was a very large man (especially for his time), standing between 6’7″ tall and 7′ tall. He also had a commanding voice. Though he and the other leaders were vastly outnumbered those must have made a difference because the troublemakers backed down. Subsequently, Vallejo was taken to Sacramento and imprisoned in Sutter’s Fort for two months. He had agreed not to take up arms against the revolt and, in fact, was quite sympathetic to the goals of the emigrants, having recognized for some time that Mexico had neither the resources nor interest in actually defending California.
At some point during his travels Semple made note of the strategic location that Benicia enjoyed overlooking the Carquinez Strait. Having learned piloting skills earlier on the Mississippi River he believed that a ferry service linking the southern and northern shores would have a significant commercial benefit. Vallejo also had recognized the benefits of Benicia’s location and he had an interest in establishing a city that could have a ferry service that would shorten the travel time between the capital at Monterey, the pueblo at San Jose and his outpost in Sonoma (avoiding the more lengthy and arduous trek through the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta). He also wanted a city that could be named for his wife (whose first name was actually Francisca).
Consequently, later that year and undoubtedly due to the respect and trust Semple had earned (even referring to him as a friend and the “good bear”) Vallejo agreed to provide him land for such a city directly across from Martinez. Even though the deed was replaced the following year (1847) that included Thomas Larkin it is hard to escape the conclusion that the role Semple played in Sonoma on that day 170 years ago paved the way for what we all enjoy as a most successful city and community today.
However, it might not have happened! The United States government had early on identified the land overlooking the Strait as being of prime military value. There was also a deep water channel with access to the shoreline that had value to both the Army and Navy. With the end of the war and the surrender of Mexico a year and a half later the military could easily have simply appropriated the entire area, perhaps establishing the Navy base here as well, rather than at Mare Island.
Questions had also been raised about whether Vallejo actually owned the land on which Benicia was situated and whether he could deed it to anyone. Once the war was concluded Vallejo’s right to have any influence on the transfer of the property would probably have been nil and, in fact, a subsequent court ruling deemed the transfer of land from Vallejo to be invalid (it wasn’t until Congress passed a law later on in the 1860’s that titles were secured).
So, one Robert Semple, having made his way to California a few months before the Bear Flag revolt 170 years ago, made a huge difference in how and when our town came to be. His reputation obviously continued to grow in the years that followed, culminating in his being elected president of the Constitutional Convention in Monterey in 1849, and being escorted to his chair as president by none other than Mariano Vallejo and John Sutter. Clearly we are the beneficiaries of good timing.
Reg is a board member and docent at the Benicia Historical Museum at the Camel Barns and was a contributor to the book “Great Expectations, the Story of Benicia, California.”