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Cut From a Porous Cloth

Lingering tale about when Old Glory first flew over California is run up the flagpole, but few historians and scholars salute it.

July 03, 1998|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If history books are to be believed, the first Stars and Stripes was flown over California in 1842, when a U.S. naval commander sailed into Monterey and declared the region under American occupation, mistakenly believing his country had gone to war with Mexico.

A chagrined Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, head of the American Pacific squadron, ordered the U.S. flag lowered a day later, Oct. 21, 1842, after realizing his error.

But was Jones' flag really the first Stars and Stripes to fly over the Golden State?

Or was Old Glory first hoisted over Newport Beach 40 years earlier, when California was still a crown colony of Spain? Lingering legend has it that a band of New England settlers bound for Oregon first raised a 13-star American flag after landing on the coast sometime in the late 1790s or the first decade of the 1800s.

At least that's the story an Orange County man named Bert Stambaugh claimed to have been told by the county's sole-surviving first American pioneer settler. Stambaugh said he met the woman of French-American origin in Santa Ana in 1899, and he even produced the 13-star flag as "proof" of her story.

The tale, with slight variations, has been around for decades--accepted in whole or in part by some, dismissed by others as one more legend in a state whose very name originated in myth--that of Califia, the queen of an island in a 16th century Spanish novel.

But history buff Robert K. Yount, who first read about the flag story in a magazine 60 years ago--and has kept his copy ever since--has revived the controversy.

"What happened to the flag?" the 74-year-old Huntington Beach man has been asking local historians. And could Stambaugh's story be true?

Orange County historians have gone back to their archives, and in the search for answers have triggered efforts to locate the 13-star flag that Stambaugh claimed the old woman gave him in 1899.

The quest has led to university libraries and historical museums, to 60-year-old letters and to the diary of a now-deceased former agent of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in Tangier, Morocco, who had more aliases than a motel register.

Historian Kevin Starr, the state librarian of California and a professor of history at the University of Southern California, has his doubts.

"Forget it; it's all myth," Starr said. "Why are there no records of that [settlers'] group? There is no documentary evidence. It's just folklore; it's charming folklore, but it's folklore."

No, Starr said, the first American woman to settle in California was Rachel Larkins, wife of Thomas Oliver Larkins, the first American consul general to California, who arrived in Monterey in 1832.

But Orange County historian Jim Sleeper insists the truth is not so clear-cut.

"The story's got more holes than a salt shaker," Sleeper acknowledged. "But there's always something to these, even in myth. It isn't created out of whole cloth."

A brief version of Stambaugh's story first appeared in print in a 1925 Orange County newspaper article about an Armistice Day parade in Anaheim in which members of the United Spanish War Veterans carried Stambaugh's 13-star flag.

But the most detailed account appeared in a 1938 edition of the Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine, accompanied by a photograph of the 13-star relic.

In need of freshwater as they headed to Oregon, so goes the tale, the band of New Englanders anchored off what is now Balboa Peninsula. The crew and passengers--many of them families--spent their first night on the beach. The next morning, the French-American woman and her husband raised a 13-star American flag over their tent.

After wintering in a protected location at the base of the bluffs near the entrance to the upper bay, the group sailed on to Oregon, where the men hunted and trapped. A year later, the ship returned to Newport. Because the French-American woman was pregnant with their first child, she and her husband and two other men stayed behind when the others went back to Oregon. As the old woman recalled in Stambaugh's story, "When fall came, we climbed the bluffs each day and looked for our ship to return--but it never came."

The woman gave birth to a son, who died at 21. Shortly thereafter the two men left on a "foreign" ship that sailed into Newport Bay. The woman's husband later died while fishing. Now alone, she traveled up the river to Olive (an area near the current city of Orange) to live with the pioneering Yorba land grant family that had befriended her. "To pass as one of them," the Yorbas advised her to keep her American flag hidden.

So goes the story.

*

Curiously missing from the 1938 account, which was told in the voice of the French-American woman, is her name, the name of the ship and the exact date of the voyage--all of which makes the story tough to confirm.

But historians have spotted a number of what Sleeper calls the "clinkers" in the tale.

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