Thomas Oliver Larkin

Thomas Oliver Larkin (1802-1858), American merchant and diplomat, actively promoted the Bear Flag Revolt in California and helped wrest that province from Mexico for the United States.

Thomas Oliver Larkin was born on Sept. 16, 1802, in Charlestown, Mass. Orphaned at the age of 16, he served an apprenticeship as a bookmaker. In 1821, discouraged by the scant commercial opportunities he saw in New England, he moved to Wilmington, N.C. There and in South Carolina during the next 10 years he operated stores and a sawmill.

In 1831, convinced that he would never become wealthy in the Carolinas, Larkin sailed for California to become a clerk to his half brother, John Cooper, a ship captain living in Monterey. He arrived in April 1832 and within a year opened his own store, prospering in the hide and tallow trade. Soon he had his own flour mill and was trading with Mexico and Hawaii, dealing in flour, lumber, potatoes, horses, and furs. He also pioneered land speculation in California.

In 1844 Larkin was appointed American consul at Monterey, a position he held until 1848. He qualified for the consulship because, unlike many other American immigrants, he had never been naturalized a Mexican citizen. Larkin held other governmental positions in California. He was a naval storekeeper (1847-1848) and a Navy agent (1847-1849). These two jobs were routine, but his appointment as a confidential agent (1846-1848) brought him into the conflict for California.

Soon after his arrival in California, Larkin had decided the province should become American; he strongly distrusted British and French intentions there. As confidential agent, he had instructions from President James K. Polk to warn Californians of any attempt to transfer jurisdiction of the province to England or to France and to encourage the Californians in "that love of liberty and independence" so common among Americans. In short, he was to promote a revolution that would eventually bring annexation.

Larkin followed his instructions very well. In April 1846 he began inducing Americans in California to think of independence, and in July they declared the Bear Flag Republic. This revolt soon became part of larger war between the United States and Mexico; it ended with American acquisition of California.

Larkin served his state as a member of the constitutional convention of 1849, then retired from public life to devote himself to business. He died in San Francisco on Oct. 27, 1858, of typhoid fever, having lived to see California admitted to the Union.


Further Reading on Thomas Oliver Larkin

The best source on Larkin's life is The Larkin Papers, edited by George P. Hammond (10 vols., 1951-1964), which contains all the known writings by the American consul at Monterey. Also useful are R. L. Underhill, From Cowhides to Golden Fleece (1939), and J. A. Hawgood, ed., First and Last Consul: Thomas Oliver Larkin (1962; 2d ed. 1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Hague, Harlan, Thomas O. Larkin: a life of patriotism and profit in old California, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.