The Pioneers: Robert Semple

Considering the short time Robert Semple lived in California, he made several contributions to the development of the state. Born in Kentucky, he apprenticed as a printer and somehow learned enough about dentistry to practice. In 1845, aged 39 and widowed, he joined a group of ten adventurous men journeying to California by mule pack train, arriving at Sutter’s Fort toward the end of December. Semple worked briefly for John Sutter; then in June 1846 he joined a band of irate settlers threatened with expulsion from California, who shortly became famous as the Bear Flag Party. Semple was able to exert some sensible influence on hot-heads in the group when they arrested General Mariano Vallejo and his relatives at his home in Sonoma, on June 14, 1846. While Semple’s party escorted the prisoners to Sutter’s Fort for incarceration, others hoisted the Bear Flag at Sonoma, declaring California an independent republic. Back at Sutter’s Fort, Semple and fellow Bear Flaggers joined Captain John Fremont’s California Volunteers, although no one knew yet that Mexico and the United States were officially at war. By the time Commodore John Sloat raised the American flag over Monterey on July 7—trumping the Bear Flag Revolt—Semple was already in Monterey serving in the army. There, he and navy chaplain Walter Colton restored an almost worthless printing press, and on August 15 published the first newspaper in California, The Monterey Californian, a 12 x 10 inch newspaper printed on coarse tobacco paper. The following year Semple moved to the new settlement of Benecia, and remarried. After the gold discovery in 1848, Semple closed his newspaper—because there was no one left in town to read it. However, during the years 1848-1850, he operated a profitable ferry service across the Carquinez Straits. Some joked that because he was so tall (about 6’8”), he could wade across the straits towing the ferry behind him. In September 1849 he was named a delegate to California’s first Constitutional Convention, and elected convention president by his peers. Deciding to become a rancher, he acquired property in present day Colusa County, where he founded the town of Colusa. In 1854 he suffered serious injuries when he fell off his horse, dying days later at age 48.