California’s 12 flags fly at Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara. (원묵 강)

The 12 flags of California

Texas has embraced the slogan “Six flags over Texas” in recognition of the six sovereign countries that once presided over the state, incorporating their emblems into malls, official buildings, and the namesake theme park Six Flags.

If California did the same, it would need a lot more flagpoles. All told, at least 12 flags have flown over the state in the last five centuries.

An undated image of a man holding an early Bear Flag. (Sonoma County Library)

They have included the banners of England, planted in San Francisco in 1579 by Francis Drake; Russia, hoisted by fur traders along the Sonoma Coast in 1812; and Mexico, raised after casting off Spanish colonial rule in 1821.

In one of California’s strangest power dramas, a pirate loyal to Argentina arrived in Monterey, then a Spanish colony, in 1818 after hearing it was poorly defended. His crew of 360 men overpowered the locals and raised the Argentine flag. They stayed less than a week before ransacking their way down the coast and setting sail, never to be seen again.

Then there was the Bear Flag. In 1846, a group of settlers revolted against the Mexican government, proclaiming an independent California Republic. The rebels stood down 25 days later as the U.S. Army, at war with Mexico, swept into California. But the grizzly bear emblazoned on their banner lived on. It inspired California’s official state flag, an ongoing tribute to the state’s rowdy past.

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