The Flag of California: History, Meaning, and Symbolism

Flag of California

Written by Hannah Ward

Updated: January 10, 2023

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Flags are flown all around the world as symbols of hope, of history, of peace, and any manner of other things. They are known for their bright and vibrant colors and their unique and distinctive designs. There are flags with crosses, crescents, stripes, and even coats of arms on them. However, there are also some flags that have animals on them – including the flag of California. But just what animal does it have on it and what does it mean? Let’s find out!

Characteristics of California

California is the third largest state in the US as well as the most populous. Although Sacramento is the capital city, Los Angeles is the biggest and has the largest population. In fact, around three quarters of the state’s entire population live in the Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco areas.

California is well known for being extremely diverse – with its Pacific Coast, Sierra Nevada mountains, and the Mojave Desert. As California is part of the Ring of Fire it also sees many natural disasters – such as tsunamis, landslides, droughts, floods, and wildfires.

Due to its large size, the climate in California varies widely – with some areas polar, subtropical, or Mediterranean. This in turn adds to the vast diversity of the state which is home to many rare and endemic species – both plants and animals. Some of the largest, oldest, and tallest trees in the world live in California – including stunning giant sequoias.

Los Angeles, California

California is the third largest state in the US with Los Angeles having the greatest population.

Symbolism of the Flag of California

As we mentioned earlier, California is one of several places to have an animal on their flag, and the flag of California is known as the Bear Flag. Interestingly, the basis for this flag actually comes from the two previous Californian flags. The current design was adopted on February 3, 1911 but after slight variations to the bear image through the years, it was standardized into its current form in 1953. The flag is comprised of a white background with a red stripe along the bottom edge. In the center of the flag is a bear above the words “California Republic”, while in the upper left corner is a single red star.

The first thing we’re going to take a look at are the colors. The white background symbolizes purity, while red symbolizes courage. Furthermore, the red star is known as the lone star and is based on the Lone Star Flag which was an early Californian flag. This single star symbolizes that California – like Texas (which is nicknamed the Lone Star State) – became a state without ever being a territory first. California was granted statehood on September 9, 1950 as the 31st state in the US.

The bear represents strength and independence and is depicted as walking across a patch of grass towards the left side of the flag. It is a California grizzly bear which is a subspecies of the grizzly / brown bear. However, the California grizzly became extinct around 1924 when one was seen near Yosemite for the last time. This extinction was the result of years of persecution and hunting. However, a group of scientists are hoping to reintroduce grizzlies back into California as the state still has a habitat that can support them.

Flag of California waving in the wind

The flag of California features an image of a bear at its center symbolizing strength and independence.

Previous Flags of California

There are two previous flags of California and elements of both are used on the current flag.

Lone Star Flag

The earliest flag was called the Lone Star Flag and consisted of a single five-pointed red star on a white background. This flag was first used in 1836. It was based on the very first Lone Star flag which was a red and white Texan flag.

The Californian Lone Star flag was used by Juan Alvarado who led an independence movement to declare Alta California’s independence from Mexico in 1836. He declared himself governor and managed to capture the capital Monterey. However, their quest for complete independence ultimately failed, although it did inspire the Bear Flag Revolt.

The Bear Flag Revolt

Just ten years after the first attempt at independence California managed to achieve it – although it didn’t last for long. The California Republic – also known as the Bear Flag Republic – was an unrecognized breakaway state from Mexico. This breakaway controlled a small area in Sonoma for 25 days between June 14 and July 9, 1846.

The original Bear Flag was the symbol of this breakaway group. The initial design was created by Peter Storm and depicted a bear standing on its hind legs next a star. However, the design was tweaked by William L. Todd and it was designed to be a symbol of great strength and resistance. It was comprised of the red stripe at the bottom, a large star in the upper left corner, and a simple bear image next to it with the word “California Republic” beneath. The men that raised this flag during the bid for independence became known as “the bear flaggers”.

However, despite raising the flag in Sonoma, no official structure of government was ever formed. After just three weeks the US military managed to raise the national Stars and Stripes flag – effectively ending the revolt.

Although the Bear Flag Revolt was short-lived, the legacy of the California Republic remains. Despite the image of the bear changing slightly over the years, the Bear Flag lives on as the symbol of California today. However, it remains unusual that the state flag is actually that of a former independent country.

Ursus arctos californicus, California grizzly bear

The California grizzly bear is a subspecies of the grizzly /

brown bear

that became extinct around 1924.

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About the Author

Hannah is a writer at A-Z animals where her primary focus is on reptiles, marine life, mammals, and geography. Hannah has been writing and researching animals for four years alongside running her family farm. A resident of the UK, Hannah loves riding horses and creating short stories.

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