Book Review: Bear Flag Rising (Dale L. Walker) : WW

Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California, 1846, by Dale L. Walker, Forge Books, New York,1999, $24.95.

The conquest of California, the epitome of the young United States of America’s idea of manifestdestiny, is a rich history filled with some of the most remarkable figures in the American West: JohnCharles Frémont, Robert Field Stockton, Stephen Watts Kearny, Archibald Gillespie and Kit Carson.With a cast like that, not to mention action-filled battles, intrigue and a controversial court-martial,it seems almost impossible to write a bad book on the subject.

And Bear Flag Rising, Dale L. Walker’s interpretation of “a virulent force from our nationalbeginnings” that “swept like a rush of air into a vacuum from the Continental Divide to the Pacific,”isn’t a bad book. Although serious scholars might frown upon Walker’s lack of footnotes or originalsources, this book isn’t aimed at academia. It’s more of a casual read. Taking an admittedly Americanperspective (along with a pro-Frémont bias), Walker examines the history of California from its daysbefore white explorers to the days of Mexican rule and finally to the battles after the United Statesdeclared war on Mexico. He ends his narrative with the court-martial of the famed explorer Frémont,”one of history’s enduring enigmas, a thorough-going man of action, easy to admire but difficult tolike.”

Walker’s talent as a writer is easily recognized, and he has shown his worth as a historian before inThe Boys of ’98: Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders (see “Reviews” in the June 1998 WildWest). In Bear Flag Rising, Walker attempts to illustrate the California conquest through the eyes ofFrémont, Stockton and Kearny. The book breaks no new ground, and its bibliography is mostlylimited to previously published histories, but Walker knows where to look. He relies heavily on theworks of Hubert Howe Bancroft and Bernard DeVoto, and even cites the court-martial proceedings ofFrémont. While not the best book on the subject, the 320-page work is an easy-to-read account that iscertainly a good place for the history buff or casual reader to start.

Johnny D. Boggs

One Response

  1. John Dinwiddie

    “This book is not aimed at academia. It’s more of a casual read.

    Oh loride. By all means, reader slum it and rue the absence of a sea of foonotes.
    You might also enjoy the works of Tuchman and Manchester. They did not aim
    at academia either.

    I’m annoyed by the faint praise of this review. The art of wedding research to story
    telling is a specialized one that has nothing to do with the often dessicated
    products of academia. Few dissertations are best sellers for good reason.

    This book is underrated. It in my opinion a first rate work of literature that accurately
    tells one hell of a tale. I returned to Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp for the sheer joy
    of reading Manchester. Now I have returned to this book. I live near Glen Ellen and am
    a volunteer docent at Jack London State Historical Park. I know the region, the literature
    tthat describes it. Nothing that I know of beats this one.


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