Gaye LeBaron: Finding long-buried Bear Flaggers bones may only be beginning of long tale

Let’s talk about where the bones are buried. It’s a common phrase, usually used to question political motives. But not today.

Today, it is a real question about the location of the bones of two men killed 169 years ago while on an errand for the Bear Army.

Chances are you already know the back story. The search got considerable coverage last winter when the first search dogs - properly known as forensic canines - went tracking for the burial sites.

If all this sounds unlikely to you after so many years, you were not alone. Lots of us are curious about the ongoing search. Where the bones are buried. And what happens next.

Background: In June of 1846, that ragtag group of Americans who “captured” the pueblo of Sonoma, with a vague notion of setting up a new nation, dispatched Thomas Cowie and a young man named Fowler (maybe George, maybe William, no one seems sure) to “Fitch’s Ranch” (read “Healdsburg” on today’s map) to pick up gunpowder.

Along the way (read “Santa Rosa”), they were captured and killed by a band of “defensores,” young “Californios” led by Juan Padilla, the owner of the Roblar de la Miseria Rancho (read “Penngrove”), who were bent on stopping what they perceived as an American land grab.

The search has involved oft-told tales, 150-year-old newspaper clippings, wooden markers at wild-guess locations and now, a truly scientific effort to find the graves.

The searchers, led by Rural Cemetery volunteers Bill Northcroft and Ray Owen with the support of the Sonoma County Historical Society, have learned a lot since December, when the first group of forensic dogs came sniffing around a site that is still being kept secret to keep the curious out of people’s backyards.

Since then, another band of dogs, on a less-damp day, pinpointed the same location. They sit down. That’s what forensic dogs do. After sniffing in wide circles around a site, they hone in on a single spot and then, when they are pretty sure, they sit down. No digging. They know better than that. For dogs that find remains of prehistoric man and/or ?10,000-year-old Native American bones, the Bear Flaggers are short-timers.

So now, with the findings of two sets of dogs, the location of the graves of Cowie and Fowler has been become an issue for the scientists. And the bureaucrats. And everything gets more complicated.

First, academia. Anthropologists from Sonoma State University have prepared a set of maps using data from a GPR search. GPR is ground-penetrating radar, a method that uses radar pulses to detect subsurface objects.

From the GPR mapping, Dr. Alexis Boutin, an associate professor in the department, has confirmed that there are “shallow anomalies … worthy of further investigation.”

So, they have a pretty good idea where to dig but not how deep. And, of course, they don’t know for certain what (or who) is down there.

This mystery won’t be solved in the hour allotted Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot by the BBC. And the excavation of any human remains is not nearly so simple as mystery writers make it sound.

Boutin is very clear on what comes next.

“Before we break any ground,” she said in an email to Jeremy Nichols, president of the county historical society, “a comprehensive research plan must be created.

“This will involve several steps, including:

“Applying for, and obtaining, approval from SSU’s Institutional Research Board to undertake research involving human subjects.

“Determining which permits and notifications are necessary to excavate human remains from private land (e.g., how to meet the terms of CA Health and Safety Code 7050.5).

“Identifying a secure temporary repository where any human remains recovered can be stored and analyzed.

“Making plans (at least preliminarily) for the final disposition of any human remains recovered, and ensuring that their memorialization is sufficiently inclusive of all stakeholder groups.”

It’s clear that this is going to take a while. And there are some sticky wickets in there, like “final disposition” and “memorialization.”

While Santa Rosa’s historic Rural Cemetery supporters have offered gravesites with proper plaques, some historical society members feel that the bones should be returned to Sonoma, where it all began. And some are holding out for a burial site in the Plaza, where the monument to the Bear Flaggers stands on the northeast corner, across the street from where General Vallejo gallantly offered his sword - and his brandy - to his captors.

Were they heroes? Were the “defensores,” defending Mexican land, villains? Nothing about history is simple. Stay tuned.


AND THEN THERE’S Frank Doyle, as in Doyle Scholarships, Doyle Park and, most pertinent to this discussion, Doyle Drive.

We are hearing that name bruited about on radio and television this week. Unless you have been living under a rock, you are probably aware that Doyle Drive, the San Francisco-side approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, was scheduled to close Thursday at 10 p.m. and not open again until 5 a.m. on the first of June.

But the closure has been postponed. TBA - to be announced - as they say when nobody knows the answer.

(Footnote: Whenever the closure happens - and it WILL happen - the bridge won’t close, only the southern approach. We northerners will still be able to get to Highway 1 or 19th Avenue and work our way downtown.)

I consider all the talk of the closure very good news indeed because Caltrans and all the joint powers that have been reconstructing the south approach - known officially as Presidio Parkway - are still calling the street itself “Doyle Drive.”

I was fearful when the project began that the homage to Doyle, a 20th-century Sonoma County hero, was going to be lost in the grand plans.

Five years ago, I was assured by Caltrans spokeswoman Molly Graham that bridge and highway officialdom were all “loyal to Doyle,” as she put it. But I am a doubter by trade.

Just in case, I retold the tales in 2010 - of the Santa Rosa banker’s part in the bridge saga; how he organized and chaired the first meeting of the Bridging the Golden Gate Association in 1923; how he stayed with the cause for the next 14 years, coming to be known as the “Father of the Golden Gate,” until his car was the first to make an official drive across the completed bridge and he joined the mayor of San Francisco (Angelo Rossi, since you ask) at the ceremony that officially opened it to real traffic.

It’s not that I didn’t think Graham was sincere. She assured me that when the rickety old structure that somehow survived earthquakes and anniversary crowds and ever-heavier trucks and buses was replaced by something much safer and much prettier, it would still be Doyle Drive.

I admit that I was skeptical. And I have kept an ear tuned, waiting to pounce, waiting to say:

“Aha! I knew it. They are calling it the Parkway or the Presidio Parkway. They aren’t saying Doyle anymore.”

But that didn’t happen. And they are saying “Doyle” all day, every day, as they plan and announce and postpone the closure.

So I am eating public crow here. The transportation gods have smiled on Sonoma County history.

Our man Frank Doyle, the man who talked Santa Rosa merchants into giving up a little frontage for wider streets after the 1906 quake; who started and ran the Chamber of Commerce at a time when the city desperately needed one; and who willed his majority interest in his father’s Exchange Bank to a trust that has supported more than 120,000 Santa Rosa Junior College students over the past 60 years will still have his name on the bridge he worked so hard to see built.

I talked to Molly Graham again this week. She said she understood my skepticism. But, she said, it isn’t just Sonoma County that understands Doyle’s importance. Through this long, expensive project (I guess a billion-plus is still considered expensive), Caltrans officials and its public-private partnerships have stayed “loyal to Doyle.”

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