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The Hawks Peak Affair, March 1846
Hawks Peak--Gavilan Peak--Gabilan Peak--Pico de Gavilan
Act One in the Conquest of California

Facts more terrible than thunder! Lightning, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions!
Hear! Hear! Great news! War! Capt. Frémont of the United States Topographical Corps with sixty or more mounted riflemen has fortified himself on the heights between San Juan and Don Joaquin Gomez' rancho...
Capt. Charles M. Weber (San Jose) to John Marsh (near Mt. Diablo)

Locating the events of 1846 from eyewitness accounts.

Christopher "Kit" Carson: When we were about thirty miles from Monterey, Frémont received a very impertinent order from General Castro, commanding him to leave the country immediately, and saying that if he did not do so, he would be driven out. We packed up at dark and moved back about ten miles to a little mountain where we found a good place and made a camp. General Castro followed us with several hundred men and established his headquarters near us. He would fire his big guns frequently to scare us, thinking by such demonstrations he could make us leave. Kit Carson's autobiography

José de los Santos German recorded that Capitán Francisco Rico fired on an aliso [alder] at a distance of 1000 yardas, and when it was struck, it gave them so mucho placer that they spent the night en una borrachera general.

"Castro's anxiety to assail such a position, guarded by American Riflemen, was more apparent than real. And, on the other hand, the captain of the topological party desired only to bid a temporary defiance, and was not anxious to begin an aggressive war." Josiah Royce

Since 1906, the raising of the American flag by Captain John C. Frémont on March 4, 1846 has been celebrated on Fremont Peak in the Gabilan Range, about six miles southeast of San Juan Bautista. Lieutenant John C. Frémont, Jr. (USN) was present at the 1908 celebration. In 1925 an 80' flagpole and bronze commemorative plaque were installed on the summit. In 1934 the State of California acquired land including the peak as Fremont Peak State Park.
An E. Clampus Vitus John C. Frémont Day attendance pin at right.

In 1959, at the request of Aubrey Neasham of the Division of Beaches and Parks, historian Fred B. Rogers examined the evidence of the affair of 1846, an event that would turn out to be the Act 1 in the Polk administration's plan to acquire California. Rogers' report determined that Fremont Peak was not the scene of events.

Below is a new look, with evidence not found by Fred Rogers.

Topography rendered from USGS San Juan Bautista 7.5 min. quadrangle DEM file

The approximate ROUTE of the 3rd expedition to the peak in the Gabilan Range near San Juan Bautista. The exit was down a ridge above Steinbeck Canyon. Frémont's three camps are represented by
Notice that the actual site of Frémont's hastily built log fort (flag) is not on Fremont Peak, nor is it even within the bounds of Fremont Peak State Park--rather unfortunate.

Frémont: "Early in the morning I moved camp a few miles to the foot of the ridge which separates the Salinas [river] from the San Joaquin, at the house of Don [José] Joaquin Gomez. A stream here issues from the mountain which is called the Gavilan Peak. The road from Monterey passes by this place, entering the neighboring San Juan valley by way of a short pass called Gomez pass." Memoirs of My Life

Notes on the Gomez adobe location:

Frémont determined a line of latitude on March 4, 1846 of 36° 46' 07" crosses what he called "Gomez Run [creek], at edge of Salinas plain." (Geographical Memoir, 1848).

This 1848 U. S. Senate edition is the only publication of Frémont's Geographical Memoir to include the 16 page Appendix which includes Tables of Latitude and Longitude.

From the chronology of the expedition movements, we can say that Frémont's determination of latitude was made by sextant, or circle of reflection, at meridian transit--a noon shot. The observed altitude of the sun at noon, on that date, at that latitude, would have been just within the range of the sextant using the artificial horizon, which doubles the observed altitudes. Frémont's latitudes are ordinarily within a very few seconds of arc. But his longitudes by pocket chronometer are not reliably close enough for this sort of work--in this case about 6 minutes of arc. However, a known watercourse that intersects the line of latitude, here, "Gomez run," provides the second line of position.

This line of latitude is within a few yards of the site described by historian Fred Rogers in 1951, previous to the Parks and Beaches investigation.

"The best available evidence indicates that Gomez' two-story adobe was located on the east slope of a small, bald hill immediately north of the junction of two creeks now named Gabilan and Mud.......today, the ground shows only dim outlines of the house and corral sites." Bear Flag Lieutenant: Life of Henry L. Ford, 1951

Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman (1846): "It was almost dark when we reached the house of Señor Gomez. His house is a two story adobe, and had a fence in front. It was situated well up among the foothills of the Gavillano, and could not be seen until within a few yards." Memoirs.

Communication: Darrell Boyle, CEO Gabilan Cattle Company and Matt C. Bischoff, Historian III, California State Parks, Monterey District. Excerpted from the report of the site examination made by historian Fred B. Rogers for the Dept. of Parks and Recreation in 1959:

"In 1959 the Division of Parks and Beaches of the State of California commissioned historian Fred B. Rogers to conduct a study to determine as closely as possible the location of Fremont's camp during the period March 6 through the night of March 9-10. The following are key findings from this study. As a preliminary, it is necessary to locate accurately the site of the house of Jose Joaquin Gomez, on the rancho granted to him in 1835, named by him "Los Vergeles," meaning flower and fruit garden. The two-story adobe of Gomez was a noted stopping place for early travelers: American Consul Thomas C. Larkin, Sir James Douglas, Dr. William Maxwell Wood, and Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman, among others. It and an adjacent corral were located on the east slope of a small, bald knoll and were about 800 feet north of the junction of Gabilan and Mud creeks. Three of the American dead were buried on the knoll above the Gomez place, after the battle of Natividad, which occurred November 16, 1846. Presently (1959) only faint traces of the house and corral exist. The Gomez house was along a cart path or trail from Salinas and Monterey, which passed along Mud Creek and over the Gabilan Range to San Juan Bautista. Soon after leaving Gomez, the trail probably approximated the later Old Stage Road"

Frémont continues: "From the Gomez rancho there is a wood-road leading up to the top of the ridge; following this in the morning I moved up the mountain and encamped on a small wooded flat at the summit of the Sierra. This was a convenient position. It afforded wood, water, and grass; and commanded a view of the surrounding country, including the valley of San Juan and the Salinas plain. In case of exigency it opened a retreat to the San Joaquin.'

The 5th and 6th were no-doubt spent in reconnoitering the area for the best defensible position in case Castro did follow up his threat. With Frémont were some of the most experienced hunters and frontiersmen of the day: Kit Carson, Alex Godey, Dick Owens, Joseph R. Walker, Basil Lajeunesse, and Frémont's Delaware Indian hunters.

Frémont: "Arriving at the summit, I proceeded immediately to build a rough but strong fort of solid logs, for which we found good trees abundant on the ridge. While this was being built a tall sapling was prepared, and on it, when all was ready, the American flag (30 stars) was raised amidst the cheers of the men."

Frémont: "Meantime, communication was opened with a rancho in the valley and a steer was brought up to me by two California vaqueros.
From the fort by aid of the glass we could see below at the Mission of San Juan, Castro's troops gathering" Memoirs of My Life

William F. Swasey: "[Julius] Martin had told me that Gomez had been secretly supplying Frémont with beef."

Note: The large and very fine adobe built in 1840-41 by Don José Castro still stands today on the south side of the plaza at San Juan, diagonally opposite the mission church.

In 1848, after Castro had fled to Mexico, his Monterey adobe was still occupied by Señora Castro. Frémont rented part of the house for Jessie Frémont while he was away for many months mining at his Las Mariposas estate. Frémont noted that Señora Castro showed every kindness to Jessie, "her motherly feelings were stronger than the natural resentment for lost position and fortune."

Frémont: "I took a position on the Sierra, called Hawk's Peak, entrenched it, raised the flag of the United States, and awaited the approach of the assailants. At a distance of four miles we could see them, from the Sierra, assembling men and hauling out cannon." Proceedings of the court martial

Note: The area of Yates Peak is about 4 crow miles from San Juan: today's Fremont Peak is about 6 miles. As a cartographer, Frémont was very good at estimating distances. His tables of "distances traveled," as compiled in his Reports, daily and cumulative, are found to be correct within a very small percentage of actual.

go See a view of San Juan from Yates Peak sent by area landowner Darrell Boyle.

Theodore Talbot: "We took a position in Natividad Mt. and Castro marched out 200 men to St. Johns [San Juan] a fortified place, taking no steps against us though within 4 miles we left on the third day for Sutter's Fort." Journals

Frémont: "I am encamped on the top of the Sierra (ie., range) at the head-waters of a stream which strikes the road to Monterey at the house of Don Joaquin Gomez." Letter March 9, 1846 to U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin at Monterey.

Capt. William Dane Phelps, a merchant trader out of Boston: "The American party consisted of 12 men including twelve Delaware Indians*, each man armed with a Long Rifle, 2 Rifle[d] Pistols, Tomahawk & Knife. Few as they were, they were men picked from a thousand, and I had no fears for myself for their safety. But as Castro had cannons and such an overwhelming force they might hem them in to cut off their supplies some thought, while others offered to bet the Mexicans would not get within reach of their rifles. Thus it stood on the 9th of March in Monterey."journal *Delaware chief Sagundai at right.

Frémont: "During the three days we remained on one of these mountains, at an elevation of 2200 feet above the sea, and in sight of Monterey."
Geographical Memoir

Note: Probably an estimate from a barometric observation. But I cannot check it, as there was no barometric register published. The elevation (by survey) of Yates Peak is 2146'; a near fit, but Fremont Peak, two miles further east, is much higher at 3124'.

Frémont: "Descending the southeastern side of the ridge we halted for the night on a stream about three miles from the camp of General Castro, a few miles from our fort."

Note: The San Benito River, lying three miles east of San Juan fits.

Frémont: "On the morning of the 11th, after I had left my camp on the hill, Mr. John Gilroy, an Englishman resident in California, came to my camp with a message from General Castro, offering to make an arrangement with me. Mr. Gilroy found our fires still burning. I was afterwards informed that the proposition was that I should unite my force with his and jointly march against [Governor] Don Pio Pico [in Los Angeles]."
Memoirs of My Life

Note: For all his bombast, Castro must have been impressed.
This was typical of California opera buffo politics. It had been only four years since Pico had himself overthrown Micheltoreno--actually, a rather lengthy term of stability for Mexican California. In the 25 years of Mexican rule, California went through no less than 17 governors. ¡Dios y libertad!

In 1835 José Castro was made interim governor of California, and the following year he and Juan B. Alverado made San Juan their headquarters in the revolt that resulted in the exile of Governor Guitérrez and in the election of Alverado in his place.

Three months after the Gabilan affair, on June 8, 1846, as Military Commandant, Castro declared martial law and set out on a march south against Governor Pio Pico. On the 16th Pico started north to engage Castro. But on the 15th, Castro learned that the Bear Flag Party had taken Sonoma, so he and Pico united to oppose a revolution not of their own making.

Los Angeles: "It is said that [General] Castro is on his way here with a force to displace the Gov[ernor]. I was asked [by Governor Pico] to send up a few kegs of powder for his use. Asking if he wanted it to shoot the Yankees with it he replied with much energy--no it is to defend myself from my countrymen." Capt. William Dane Phelps.

Cf. Peru, July 19, 1835. "At the time of our visit there were four chiefs in arms contending for supremacy in the government: if one succeeded in becoming for a time very powerful, the others coalesced against him; but no sooner were they victorious than they were again hostile toward each other." Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Frémont: "I was on my way to a pass opening into the San Joaquin Valley at the head of a western branch of the Salinas River (see ~ next)." Conquest of California

Thomas F. Martin, expedition member: "It was 2 hours before sundown when we received the Consul's [Larkin] despatch [sic], and after dark we moved down & camped within 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile from the Mission, hoping we might get a chance at them. The next morning we left, and went to Sutter's Fort via Pacheco Pass (see * next)."
With Frémont

* Martin's identification of "Pacheco Pass" is apparently Frémont's name for today's Panoche Pass (see map).

~ Pacheco Pass is at the head of no river. Frémont is referring to the San Benito River, though it is not a branch of the Salinas, but of the Pajaro River.

Fred Rogers found the 1848 Frémont/Preuss map to be "inconclusive"--because the route is not shown.
But a route has been added on a later printing of the same 1848 map included in House Executive Document No.17, 1850. Shown here (highlighted), it is clearly up the San Benito River, but labeled "Pacheco's Pass." There is no route shown on the map over today's Pacheco Pass

Rogers cites two Mexican accounts by José German and Raphael Pinto that also suggest the route was through Panoche Pass. I have those accounts but am having a difficult time translating from the manuscript. Anyone want to assist? See links in bibliography below.

Thomas O. Larkin, U.S. Consulate, Monterey to the Hon. James Buchanan, Secretary of State, Washington: "Captain Freemont [sic] left his camp a few hours after he received the undersigned's letter of the 9th of March (not from fright of General Castro), as he had been preparing the previous week to travel." California Clains.

William F. Swasey: "Castro and his staff were sitting on the veranda [Gomez house-see map] drinking wine and smoking cigarettes. As soon as the coast was clear, I, with some difficulty made him understand that I wanted to go to Frémont. He called to a vaquero to whom he spoke in Spanish, and directed me to follow him. The Vaquero led me around the base of a hill, and pointing to a trail leading up the mountain, then left me. I rode up the trail, which was not very difficult, and finally reached Frémont's camp. The breastworks of logs were still standing, the camp-fires were smouldering, and the debris of the camp was scattered around on the ground, but Frémont was not there. He had probably left some hours before."
The Early Days and Men of California.

Thomas O. Larkin, U. S. Consulate, Monterey "[John Gilroy] found in the camp tent-poles (cut on the spot), some old clothes, and two old and useless pack saddlewhich the Californians have magnified into the munitions of war."

Note: Swasey was sent by Charles Weber in San Jose to carry an offer of support to Frémont. Finding that Frémont had left, Swasey continued on to Monterey and entered employment with U.S. Consul Thomas O. Larkin as his secretary.

Constructing a chronology of Frémont's March 1846 Gabilan movements from first-hand accounts.
Hard dated events are in bold print.


Camped at E. P. Hartnell's Rancho Alisal near Salinas, Frémont was visited by Lt. Chavez with Gen. Castro's orders to quit the department.


Moves expedition to near the house of Don José Joaquin Gomez at the foot of the Gabilan Range. Determination of coordinates at meridian transit (noon) on "March 4... Gomez run, at edge of Salinas plain."


Still encamped near the Gomez house on Gabilan Creek: reconnoitering to determine the best position to resist a threatened attack, with grass and water and a route of egress, and then preparing a fort.
It would take Castro some days to assemble troops and artillery and move them to San Juan.
The Delawares and other scouts would have been patrolling roads and watching for Castro's approach.


Probably on information from look-outs, in the morning Frémont moved up to the fort on ridge overlooking San Juan.
A steer is brought up from a local ranch by two vaqueros.
They watch Castro's movements through a telescope.


Castro's troops are observed approaching in the afternoon. An ambush is set to receive them "in a thicket" part way down, but the troops turn and return to San Juan.
On this day, General Zachary Taylor's troops crossed the Nueces River into Mexico making a war with Mexico inevitable.


Frémont received (and replied to) U.S. Consul Larkin's dispatch on the 9th.
Descending from the fort toward the northeast after sundown
(Martin and Larkin), they camped for the night on the San Benito River near about 3 miles from San Juan.


In the morning they followed up the San Benito River to cross into the San Joaquin Valley via Panoche Pass.


William Swasey and John Gilroy visit the deserted fort and find the fires still smoldering.
Frémont entered San Joaquin Valley in the afternoon, "where we found almost a summer temperature and the country clothed in the
floral beauty of spring."

go More about the Hawks Peak incident and about Joseph Walker's opinion of the affair.

View Larger Map

You can navigate on this embedded Google® map by dragging, zoom in/out, or change from satellite to roadmap, terrain, and Google Earth imagery. Double-click a feature to center/zoom it.
The map pins are the sites of the Gomez adobe and Yates Peak: click on them for the labels. San Juan is four miles directly north.

What's in the name: Pico de Gavilan (or Gabilan), Hawks Peak?

My Holt's Spanish/English Dictionary gives:
Span>Eng: gavilán (orn.) sparrow hawk. Also the quillon (cross guard) of a Spanish sword.
Eng>Span:-sparrow hawk (orn.) gavilán, cernícalo.
Span>Eng: cernícalo (orn.) sparrow hawk, kestrel.

The Euro-Asian (Spanish) sparrow hawk (gavilán) is Accipiter nisus. The European Kestrel is Falco tinnunculus. Both are similar in size and habit to our California native sparrow hawk Falco sparverius (previously Cerchneis sparveria), or American Kestrel. Kestrel (cf. Span. cernícalo) refers to its ability to hover in hunting.

One can imagine the first Spanish visitors (probably Moraga in 1805) observing these small hawk-like birds soaring or hovering as they searched for prey. They might have applied the common name sparrow hawk, (gavilán) to the local bird with similar appearance and habits to those of the Old World. Though of different genus--Accipiter vs. Falco--they fill the same ecological niche. Well, Falco now, but one needs go back no further than 1917 to find our sparrow hawk listed under the genus Cerchneis--C. sparveria. (authorities: Wheelock, 1910; Hoffmann, 1927; Peterson, 1941; Am. Audobon Soc., 1977.)

According to Erwin Gudde's California Place Names, the name for the mountain range goes back to at least 1828: Un gran cerro [high hill] llamado [called] del Gavilan.

B...or V?
Gabilán/gavilán represents a consonant shift, as in bacquero/vacquero--v is modern, but the pronunciation change is subtle. An indication of the 1840s CA pronunciation is given in the phonetic rendering and definition of vaquero by Captain William Dane Phelps: "baquiro; a boy who takes care of the horses." Cervantes always signed his name with a b, yet allowed it to always be printed on the title pages of his books with a v. F can often be substituted for b or v without materially altering the sound. The shift crosses languages: as Thoreau's botanical analogy, "even as f and v are a pressed and dried b."

Another example of the name of an Old World bird being applied to a place name in California is the Isla de Alcatraz (the Rock) in San Francisco Bay. Alcatraz in Spanish means gannet (genus Sulidae), but applied in early California to the pelican (genus Pelecanidae), which, though unrelated, is a sea bird of similar size, coloring, and habit, including plunge-diving from heights when fishing.
Cf. Capt. John Hawkins' 1564 mention of "a small Island called Alcatrares" (Portuguese for gannet) in the Caribbean.

A parting shot, June 1846.

Frémont: "On the 12th I received [at Sonoma] an express from Commodore Sloat, transmitting to me his proclamation, and with the request to proceed with the force under my orders to Monterey. Shortly after the receipt of the message, I set out upon the march to Monterey, going by way of the San Joaquin Valley and crossing the mountains to San Juan. General Castro had made a brief halt, and with the force that he has collected was withdrawing to Los Angeles; realizing that the war had begun in earnest, and that he was unable to contend with the land and naval forces suddenly combined in the north. I took possession of San Juan, putting only a few men in charge. On the 19th we continued our road through Gomez Pass towards Monterey, giving on the way a marching salute to the Gabilan Peak, where in March, four months before, we had hoisted our flag." California Claims

Commodore John Drake Sloat: "Castro buried two field-pieces, with their shot, at Saint John's [San Juan Bautista] yesterday, and is flying before Frémont." Dispatch from Commodore John Drake Sloat, Flagship USS Savannah at Monterey to Captain John B. Montgomery, USS Portsmoth at San Francisco.

"The first act of the play has been announced before the rehearsal had been gone through, with General Castro foolishly believing that he had frightened Capt Frémont, and struck foreigners with dread." Capt. William Dane Phelps, a merchant trader out of Boston.

go Frémont enters Monterey "There lay the pieces on the great chessboard before me..."

go Frémont's famous ride--800 miles in 6 1/2 days!

go Joseph R. Walker was also with the expedition.


Busch, Britin Cooper, Frémont's Private Navy: The 1846 Journal of Captain Willian Dane Phelps, Arthur H. Clark Co., Glendale, 1987.

California Claims, in the Senate of the United States, 30th Congress, Senate, Rep. Com., No. 75, February 23, 1848.

California and New Mexico: Message from The President of the United States, HO. of REPS, Ex. Doc. No.17, 31st Congress, 1st Session, 1850.

Camp, Charles L., James Clyman Frontiersman, Champoeg Press, Portland, 1960.

Carson, Cristopher, Kit Carson's Autobiography, ed. Milo Quaife, The Lakeside Press, Chicago, 1935.

Castillo, Nicanor de Jusus Garnica, Requerdos Historicos de California (MS): Salinas, 1877.

Cutts, James M., The Conquest of California and New Mexico, Cary & Hart, Philadelphia, 1847, (facsimile reprint Horn & Wallace, 1965).

Frémont, John Charles, Memoirs of My Life, Belford, Clark & Company, Chicago, 1887.

Frémont, John Charles, Geographical Memoir Upon Upper California, Senate. 30th Congress, Misc. No.148, Wendell and Van Benthuysen, Washington, 1848.
This first appearance Senate edition is the only publication of the Geographical Memoir to include the 16 page Appendix which includes Tables of Latitude and Longitude.

Frémont, John Charles, The Conquest of California, The Century Magazine, April, 1891.

Gudde, Erwin G., California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1974.

German, José de los Santos: Sucesos en California: Tres Pinos (MS), 1878.

Kelsey, Rayner Wickersham, The United States Consulate in California, University of California, 1910.

Martin, Thomas F, With Frémont to California and the Southwest 1845-1849, ed. Ferol Egan, Lewis Osborn, Ashland, 1975.

Phelps, William Dane, Journal, published as Frémont's Private Navy, The 1846 Journal of Captain William Dane Phelps, Arthur H. Clark, Glendale, 1987.

Pinto, Raphael, Apuntaciones para la historia de California: Hollister (MS), 1868.

Rogers, Fred B., Bear Flag Lieutenant, The Life Story of Henry L. Ford, California Historical Society, 1951.

Rogers, Fred Blackburn, William Brown Ide; Bear Flagger, John Howell, San Francisco, 1964.

Rogers, Fred B., Frémont's Gabilan Camp, 1846, the report of an examination made for the Division of Parks and Beaches, State of California, 1959. A photocopy of the original report supplied by Matt C. Bischoff, Historian III, California State Parks, Monterey District.

Royce, Josiah, California: A Study in American Character, Houghton Mifflin & Co., Cambridge, 1886.

Senate of the United States, The Proceedings of the Court Martial in the Trial of Lieutenant Colonel Frémont, 1848, and General Order No. 7.

Sherman, William Tecumseh, Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman, Appleton & Co., 1875.

Spence, Mary Lee and Jackson, Donald, The Expeditions of John Charles Frémont, Vol. 2 Suppliment, University of Illinoise Press, 1973.

Swasey, W. F., The Early Days of California, Pacific Press Publishing Company. Oakland, 1891.

Talbot, Theodore (expedition member), a letter to his mother dated July 24, 1846 cited by Fred Rogers in the collections of the Library of Congress.

Warner, Barbara R., The Men of the California Bear Flag Revolt and their Heritage, Arthur H. Clark, 1996.


Bob Graham