Raising the Flag

This delightful first-person account appeared in The Golden Era, a San Francisco newspaper, in 1853, under the pseudonym "Filings." The author was later identified as Joseph T. Downey, a yeoman who served on board the U.S.S. Portsmouth when that ship's commander (Captain John Montgomery) raised the American flag in San Francisco (then known as Yerba Buena) on July 9 1846, during the U.S.-Mexico War. According to his own reminiscences, Downey was a mischievous young man and often in trouble with his superiors.

We were landed on what is now Clark's Point, and when all were on shore, formed in sections, and to the soul-inspiring air of Yankee Doodle from our band, consisting of one drum and fife, with an occasional put in from a stray dog or disconsolate jackass on the line of march, trudged proudly up through Montgomery street to Clay, up Clay to the plaza, and formed a solid square, around a flag staff which stood some 50 yards north of where the present one now is [1853], though nearly in the same line. Here we rested on our arms, while the Aids of the Commander-in-Chief disseminated themselves through town, and by entreaties, menaces and promises at last gathered together some 30 or 40 persons of all nations, colors and languages and having penned them in the square formed by the soldier sailors, the Captain [Montgomery] putting on all his peculiar dignity, walked up to the flag staff and gave a majestic nod to his second in command; the First Lieutenant gave a similar nod to one of our Quarter-Masters, who came forward, flag in hand and bent it on the halyards.

This was an eventful moment—something was about to be done that could not be easily undone, and as I gazed upon that crowd of manly faces, I fancied I could read a settled determination to do or die in defense of the act of this day, should it become necessary. Capt. M. had a proclamation all ready prepared, and our First Lieutenant now read it to the assembled crowd, and when he had finished gave the signal, and in a moment, amid a roar of cannon from the ship, and the hurrahs of the ship's company, the vivas of the Californians, the cheers of the Dutchmen, the barking of dogs, braying of jackasses and a general confusion of sounds from every living thing within hearing, that flag floated proudly up, which has never yet been cowered to mortal foe.

When the ceremony was over and the Captain had proclaimed himself Governor of the northern portion of Upper California, he constituted the aforesaid Lieutenant Watson of the Marines, Military Commandante of the town of Yerba Buena, and giving him a garrison of 24 rank and file marines, installed him into the Adobe Custom House, which from thenceforth assumed the name of the barracks, and made him at once from a poor Lieutenant of Marines, the great and noble potentate of the village.

The "Jacks," whose imbibing propensities are so well known to the whole world, were not permitted to stroll about, but were marched at once down to the landing, where, notwithstanding various and sundry wistful looks and longings cast toward the several rummeries, they were embarked, and before noon were again on board ship. [I] was one of those who was detailed for shore duty, and consequently had an opportunity to see the end of the fun.

As soon as the "Jacks" had marched away, a guard was placed at the foot of the flag staff, and the assembled crowd of the free and enlightened citizens of Mexico, at last forced into their brains that they had by some magical proceeding suddenly been metamorphosed into citizens of the U. States, and unanimously voted to go where liquor could be had, and drink a health and long life to that flag. The Indians consequently rushed frantically to one pulperee (a store selling food and liquor), Capt. Leidesdorff and the aristocracy to Bob Ridley's bar-room, and the second class and the Dutch to Tinker's. These houses being on three of the four corners of the square, one in the door of the barracks could see the manoeuvres in each of them.

For the first hour things went quiet enough, but soon the strong water began to work, and such a confusion of sounds could never have been heard since the Babel Tower arrangement, as came from these three corners. First would be heard a drunken viva from an Indian who would come out of Pulperee No. 1, gaze up at the flag and over he would go at full length upon the grass, for reader there was grass on the square then. Then the aristocrats would raise a hip, hip, hip and a cheering, "three times three," then from Tinker's a strange jumble of words, in which hurrah, viva, hip, pah and Got verdam, were only too plainly distinguishable. This Pandemonium lasted for some hours, in fact until sundown, when the Commandante sent a guard to warn the revellers that as the town was now under martial law, they must cease their orgies and retire to their respective homes. But few, however were able to do so, and the greater part of them either slept in Tinker's alley or on the grass in the plaza, and only woke with the morning's first beams, to wonder what was the cause of yesterday's spree.

The above is an extract of an account in Malcolm E. Barker's book, San Francisco Memoirs 1835-1851: Eyewitness accounts of the birth of a city (Londonborn Publications, San Francisco, 1994).

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