From the formation of the California’s state flag to the real life bear that inspired it all.
With a big bold star and green patch of land, the California state flag is the only flag to sport a grizzly bear. However, why a bear? Well, Monarch, the bear the flag design was modeled after, tells a sad but amazing story about California history and how that flag came to be.
The flag’s story begins in 1846 when California was still a territory of Mexico. The possibility of war between the U.S. and Mexico was looming, so a group of American settlers from Northern California decided to take some action of their own. They stood together and captured the city of Sonoma from the Mexican government. From there, the Republic of California was born and was in great need of flag to symbolize the new ownership of the land.
At this time, the grizzly bear roamed freely and abundantly but was also a very dangerous creature. These early settlers chose a bear as a way to scare Mexican authorities and show just how serious they were. Also on this first flag was a crudely drawn red star and line. However, this flag only flew for about a month before the U.S. officially declared war against Mexico and they swapped their bear flag for the stars and stripes.
California officially became a state in 1850. As the human population grew, the grizzly numbers shrank drastically due to habitat destruction from gold miners and hunters. In fact, the beloved bear got extremely close to total extinction.
Thanks to one newspaper tycoon, the state soon found a new appreciation for the symbolic animal. In 1889, William Randolph Hearst sent one of his journalists Allen Kelly into the wild to capture a grizzle bear and bring it back to San Francisco. After months of hunting, Kelly finally returned with his grizzly prize. Hearst put the bear on display to the public in Golden Gate Park and named him Monarch. Coming in at a whopping 1,200 pounds, Monarch gained the title of largest bear ever held in captivity.
Monarch’s famed life came to an end in 1911 but his legend still lives on to this day. His skeleton was taken to the Berkeley Museum of Vertebrate and his pelt was stuffed and again put on display, but this time at the California Academy of Sciences. That same year, California finally adopted an official state flag and used Monarch as a model.
Today, San Francisco is home to the world’s only expert on Monarch, Psychologist Rodney Karr. To Karr, Monarch is more than a bear and he runs a website called Monarch Bear Institute. Karr first learned about the famous bear in the early 1990’s and continued to become more and more intrigued by the mammals life. He is currently working on an eight part documentary on Monarch’s life and the history of California.
After weeks of relentless research, Karr just had to meet Monarch in person. Housed in the basement of the Academy of Sciences, Monarch has seen better days. Originally a very dark colored grizzly, his fur has now faded to a medium brown. His nose has also been worn down, possibly due to years of curious hands. But, the Academy does say they have plans to restore and someday show Monarch to Californians once again. Karr says Monarch still stands as a powerful symbol as a hero and strong connection to the beauty of nature.
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Credit: Southern California Public Radio