gold rush settlers

William Brown Ide: First Mormon Head of State

Submitted by Roger Robin Ekins

Building upon earlier research by Ronald L. “Smokey” Bassett, David Freeman, Rick Behrens and a host of other historians, including Dennis Holland, we have finally found the conclusive evidence that William Brown Ide and his family–who arrived at Sutter’s Fort on Oct. 25, 1845–were the first group of Mormons to come to California, well ahead of Sam Brannon and the Ship Brooklyn (July 31, 1846)  or the members of the Mormon Battalion (Jan 29, 1847).[i]

While Ide later became prominent in the governance of what was then called Colusi County (now made up of parts of Tehama, Colusa and Shasta Counties), his real claim to fame was his role as the eventual leader of the Bear Flag Revolt. “On June 14, 1846, a motley group of two dozen American immigrants, acting on rumors that they were about to be expelled from Alta California, rode from the Napa Valley to the Mexican garrison in Sonoma. There encountering no resistance, they captured Lt. Gen. Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. What happened next is clouded by contradictory accounts, but according to the teetotaler William B. Ide, he was made the leader of the rebel band after the nominal leaders succumbed to the Mexican general’s brandy while negotiating the terms of surrender. However it happened, the Mexican flag was lowered, a new flag with a crude bear, a star and a single stripe was raised, and Ide was proclaimed by the men as the Commander in Chief of the new Republic of California.

Although as yet unaware that Congress had officially declared war on Mexico one month earlier, Ide authored a proclamation of independence and assumed the role of president of the new republic, which lasted less than a month before the bear flag over Sonoma was replaced with the Stars and Stripes.”[ii]

Ide ended up deferring to the authority of John C. Fremont, serving as a mere private in his army, and returning to his rancho near today’s Red Bluff at the conclusion of the war with Mexico. There he and his family quite successfully mined gold, raised cattle, both fed and fought the Indians, and built a ferry near today’s Ide Adobe State Historic Park. Until his death by smallpox in 1852 Ide plied his trade as surveyor and assumed a number of county positions, some simultaneously. These included probate and county judge, presiding judge of the Court of Sessions, County Recorder, County Clerk, County Treasurer, Deputy County Surveyor and Deputy Sheriff. His presumed burial place is in the Monroeville Pioneer Cemetery, south of Hamilton City and West of Chico.

Students of Mormon history will also be interested in knowing that prior to coming to California, Ide–who had been baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in July of 1837–participated in the convention that nominated Joseph Smith for the presidency of the United States, was called to serve a mission campaigning for Smith on April 6, 1844 (though this mission was not yet undertaken when Joseph and Hyrum Smith were assassinated) and was also, apparently, set apart as the President of the Springfield, Ohio Branch of the church by Lorenzo Dow Young (brother of Brigham Young) in late June or early July of that year.

Faced with doubt about the future of the church in the face of so much opposition and amid rumors that the Mormons would soon head west, Ide and his family–likely with a few other members of the church–formed a company of pioneers and began their trek toward Oregon on April 1, 1845. On the trail they met an agent of John Sutter, Caleb Greenwood, who convinced them that California would be a better destination. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Although William Brown Ide and his wife, Susan, had died before Brigham Young called the California Saints back to Utah in 1856, in preparation for a possible war with the United States Army, at least one of his children did heed that call. James Monroe Ide and his family then settled in St. George and other towns of southern Utah while other children of Ide remained in California.

Although usually only remembered as part of a small footnote to California history, William Brown Ide was a great man, worthy of remembrance. In fact–though he occupied the position for less than a month–it can be argued that he should be remembered as history’s first Mormon head of state.

[i] For a detailed discussion of the evidence both against and for Ide being a Mormon see the author’s monograph, “William Brown Ide: Mormon President of the Republic of California,” in Mormon Historical Studies, I6:2 (Fall 2015), 1-33.

[ii] Ibid., 1-2.