The Gavilan Peak Incident - 1845
In the early 1840s much of America was caught up in the belief that Manifest Destiny called for a nation that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In 1843 James K. Polk was elected President on a platform that called for the immediate annexation of Texas even though it was known that war with Mexico would almost certainly follow. In June 1845, Captain John Charles Fremont was assigned to lead an armed exploratory party in search of a pass across the Rocky Mountains. Although his written orders did not call for it, he continued on to traverse the Great Basin, and cross the Sierra Mountains into California. He reached Sutter's Fort in December of 1845.
John August Sutter was a naturalized Mexican citizen and an official of the Mexican Government. In January 1845 he issued Fremont a passport and facilitated his travel to Monterey to meet with Mexican officials to explain his presence in California. Fremont met with Commandante General Jose Castro, Monterey Alcalde Manuel Diaz, former Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado, and U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin. He explained that he was on a scientific mission of exploration and requested permission to remain in the uninhabited Valley of the San Joaquin River for the rest of the winter. Castro and Larkin understood that in the spring Fremont would follow the Sacramento River north to Oregon and thence return to the United States. In later years Fremont was to claim that he had Castro's permission to explore south to the Colorado River.
Whatever was understood by each of the parties, Castro did not respond in writing to Fremont's request and that action was taken to be a tacit agreement. In February 1845 Fremont rejoined the main part of his party and established camp at the abandoned Rancho Laguna Seca, owned by a Boston ship captain named William Fisher. While at Laguna Seca Fremont angered Jose Dolores Pacheco, Alcalde of nearby San Jose, when he refused to meet with him to settle a disagreement about the ownership of one of the American party's horses. In a separate incident one of his men insulted the daughter of a prominent Californio. Local officials increasingly saw Fremont as being an arrogant intruder devoid of respect for their culture.
After resting his men and animals at Laguna Seca, Fremont, contrary to his agreement with Castro, led his party west to the vicinity of Santa Cruz, then south to the vicinity of Salinas where he made camp early in March 1845 at the Alisal Rancho of William Hartnell, a prominent English merchant in Monterey. Within California rumors were circulating widely among foreigners and Mexicans alike that the armed Fremont party was part of an official American effort to take control of the territory. War between Mexico and the United States looked to be increasingly likely and Fremont's travels through inhabited areas south and west of the area that he and General Castro had discussed angered and alarmed the Mexican authorities. Castro received orders to eject Fremont from California.
On March 5, 1845, Castro sent a Mexican cavalry officer to Rancho Alisal with written orders for Fremont to leave California immediately. Castro also sent Consul Larkin a copy of his order and asked that the American official assist in ensuring Fremont's immediate removal from California. Larkin sent Fremont a translation of Castro's order to be certain that he understood what was being demanded. On March 5, Fremont moved his camp to Gavilan (Hawk) Peak. On March 6, Castro began assembling a military force at San Juan Bautista at the foot of the Gavilan Mountains. On March 7 Fremont informed nearby ranchers of the situation and warned them not to take sides. Castro interpreted the warning to residents of California as a further provocation on Fremont's part.
On March 8, Castro issued a proclamation which identified Fremont's group as a band of robbers and asked for volunteers to protect California. Larkin meanwhile warned Fremont that headstrong elements in California might well precipitate hostilities and that would make trouble for local American citizens. Larkin also wrote to the U.S. Consul in Mazatlan asking that he notify the commander of any American warship that might be in port of the situation that was developing. All of this correspondence between Fremont and the American Consul was also provided by Larkin to Castro in response to his concern as to the role that the consul was playing. Larkin explained to the Mexican authorities that Fremont would not take orders from a consul but that he was ready to be of whatever assistance possible to find a peaceful solution to the developing situation.
For three days Fremont looked down on San Juan Bautista and Castro's growing force. For that same ength of time the Mexican leaders looked up at an American flag that Fremont's men had raised atop Gavilan Peak. On the evening of March 9 the flag pole fell down. Fremont decided to treat this as an omen and, that night left the mountain top and eventually worked his way slowly north through the Sacramento Valley to Oregon. Castro declared to the Mexican Minister of War that he had won the day, but made no effort to follow the Americans. Fremont wrote to his wife that the Mexican officials had ordered him out of Mexico without any justification and that he had been greatly insulted in the process. Larkin wrote to the Secretary of State that the Mexican authorities had not intended to attack Fremont on Gavilan Peak, but instead were posturing for the benefit of Mexico City.