'DID YOU KNOW that on the California state flag, the bear is a mistake?" asked Josie.

Josie is my 12-year-old granddaughter, and she likes to toss me offbeat items she's learned.

"Why?" I said.

"Because it wasn't supposed to be a bear in the center of that flag."

"What was it supposed to be?"

"A pear," said Josie.

I figured this was just some form of urban myth she'd picked up somewhere, but I decided to do a little research on it ...

And, by golly, Josie is right.

ON JUNE 14, 1846, a band of rebels seeking statehood for California confronted the Mexican Commandante General of California, Gen. Mariano Vallejo, and demanded that he surrender the Sonoma fortress to them.

Vallejo actually was sympathetic to the rebels' cause, but that didn't do him much good. They arrested him anyway, carted him off to prison and took over the fortress.

The group decided to raise a flag of their own over Sonoma Plaza and began discussing what design should go on it.

The leader of the rebels happened to be an amateur horticulturist, and he argued that, when and if California achieved statehood, its fame within the union would rest on the potential excellence of its agriculture. He felt the new state flag should reflect that fact.

That rebel leader was Capt. Jebediah Bartlett. Name ring a bell? Yes, the man who developed the Bartlett pear.


The group agreed an agricultural symbol would be an appropriate central theme of the flag, and when it came down to picking one, Bartlett — not surprisingly — suggested a pear.

THE OTHERS agreed, wrote out design directions — red star in the upper left corner, red stripe on the bottom, and a pear in the center — and sent them off to an artist named William L. Todd.

Nobody is sure why — smudged ink? somebody's bad handwriting? — but what we do know is that Todd misread "pear" as "bear" and drew a walking brown bear in the center of the flag.

Since it was the only flag they had, when they got it back they raised it over Sonoma Plaza, intending to rectify the error later. But California was soon ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War, and somehow they never got around to it.

California adopted the Walking Bear banner as the official state flag in 1911, opting for brute over fruit.

WILLIAM TODD'S design error conjures up all sorts of ticklish circumstances.

For example, if he hadn't goofed, in this year's Big Game, Stanford would be playing the Golden Pears.

And no matter how hard I try, I still have a tough time picturing a California state flag with a big piece of fruit in the center.

Most curious of all, though, is how I have managed to live until now as a native Californian without ever hearing that story before.