CHAPTER ONE: CALIFORNIA IN 1830
Three American ships lay at anchor off La Playa, the beach, the old Spanish anchorage in the Bay of San Diego, in the lee of Point Loma, their crews preparing, storing or loading cattle hides from California missions for far-off Boston. On one of them, the bark Louisa, was a ten-year-old boy, William Heath Davis. Obtaining a horse on the beach, he rode around the north shore of the bay to the Presidio, the adobe-walled fortress town on the edge of a mesa which, though cut by sharp canyons, spreads eastward to the foothills of the coastal mountains. The owner and supercargo of the Louisa had rented a house in the Presidio, and staffing it with stewards from his vessel, proceeded to take part in the social life of a little settlement which though far removed from the main stream of civilization was beginning to spill over onto the sandy plateau below the hill.
Years later Davis recalled the deep impression all this had made on him:
It was quite a lively town. At our house, which was a building of six or eight rooms, we entertained many beautiful Spanish women at dinners, and also at dancing parties. The location of the Presidio was chosen from a military point of view, to protect the citizens of this miniature city, from the ferocious and savage Indians of those days. In the town the inhabitants, soldiers and citizens numbered between 400 and 500. Quite a large place. There was a great deal of gaiety and refinement here. The people were elite of this portion of the department of California. In the garrison were some Mexican and not a few native Spanish soldiers.
These were the Californians, or Californios. There were only about 4700 of them in all of the territory known as Upper or Alta California, mostly living close together in small pueblos and presidios, and existing by trading in hides of their own and selling the furs of coastal sea otters to American ships engaged in the China trade. They shared common lands for raising their crops and grazing their cattle. Much of the rest of the coastal regions — twelve million acres of the rich mesas and valleys of California — was still held by Franciscan missionaries in trust for the Indians in accordance with old Spanish law and custom.
The time was 1831. Nine years before, Mexico had won its independence from monarchial Spain and the Californios had reluctantly raised the Mexican flag over the adobe walls and buildings of the Royal Presidio of San Diego. Their spiritual and ancestral ties with the Old World had been very strong. Many of them were first generation descendants of the original Spanish Royal expeditions led by Gaspar de Portolá, Fr. Junipero Serra and Juan Bautista de Anza. Capt. Portolá and Fr. Serra had come up from Lower California in 1769 to establish a chain of Franciscan missions, to settle a territory that had been neglected for centuries. A few years later Capt. Anza led the first colonists up from Sonora, in northern Mexico, to found San Francisco.
But independent Mexico, torn by revolution and continuing political disorder, was able to maintain only a tenuous control over the vast territory of Spanish America which had embraced all of the area of what is now Southwestern United States. The American-Mexican War that brought California into the Union was fifteen years away.
The Presidio of San Diego was the principal garrison for the protection of a district which for many years included the four missions of San Diego, San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano and San Gabriel, which were strung on a 125-mile line a day's march apart from San Diego to Los Angeles, and three smaller missions, or rather asistencias. The San Diego Mission maintained one at Santa Ysabel, in the mountains, while San Luis Rey Mission had two, one in the upper San Luis Rey Valley and the other to the north at Las Flores, near the coast. There were twenty-one missions in all, from San Diego on the border to Sonoma north of San Francisco. By 1830 they already were beginning to decline, though they watched over the lives of more than 15,000 Christianized Indians, and their ranchos and farms were able to furnish enough food and goods to also support the dwindling military garrisons of California.
The Californios looked upon the lands held by the missions and knew that the mission era was coming to a close. All soon would be theirs. They would be kings of their own empires stocked with thousands upon thousands of cattle. The meat would be left to rot and the hides shipped around the Horn to Boston to provide the leather for the population of an expanding United States.
Behind San Diego and the other southern coastal settlements rose the mighty coastal ranges, and behind them were the harsh wastelands of the Colorado Desert. The coastal region was temperate though semi-arid, but the mountains, with some of their peaks rising more than 6000 feet, were blanketed with snow in the winter. Their flowing western slopes were green and inviting; their eastern sides were steep, rocky, dry and hot. Mission ranches were located along the creeks of upland valleys or along the few rivers which sliced through the coastal mesa and except in the rainy season usually disappeared beneath the sands. A season's rainfall could vary from a few inches to more than twenty-five, and generally it fell within a few months during the winter, sometimes almost all at once. Life was simple for the cattle rancheros but stubborn for the cultivators. The canyons and steep hills were to mock the builders of roads and the dreamers of cities.
There are four passes through the mountains into Southern California, two of them easily visible from great distances, and they had been sighted by the earliest exploring missionaries moving up from northern Mexico. In almost three centuries of Spanish rule they had been pierced only a few times. Anza had led the first colonists for California across the Borrego Desert in northeast San Diego County and up Coyote Canyon through San Carlos Pass lying between the San Ysidro and Santa Rosa Mountains.
In the early 1800's the frontier of the United States was being pushed ever Westward. Adventurers and traders were crossing the plains and the deserts and, coming up to the mountains, they eased their way through the passes, to cast envious eyes upon a fertile country that seemed to bask in eternal sunshine.
In 1827, trapper Jedediah Smith and his men left their winter quarters high in Utah, followed river routes southward, crossed the Mojave Desert and went up through the 3800-foot Cajon Pass, usually wind-swept and often snow-covered, to reach San Gabriel Mission, east of the present city of Los Angeles, and then down the Mission Road to the Presidio of San Diego.
Two years later trapper James Ohio Pattie and his party left New Mexico, crossed into Arizona and followed the Gila River to its junction with the Colorado, and went down the Colorado into its delta, crossed the peninsula of Baja California amid great hardships, and finally reached San Diego by way of El Camino Real, the King's Highway, connecting Lower and Upper California.
They were trail blazers. Then came the traders. Far to the east in Missouri, in the territory of the United States, Capt. William Becknell as early as 1821 had loaded pack mules with stocks of goods and headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he found trading with the Mexican colonists so profitable he returned the next winter with loaded wagons. This was the beginning of the Santa Fe Trail. From Santa Fe the trail south led to Chihuahua in north central Mexico. In time, it was extended to the Pacific Coast, by way of Pattie's old trail along the Gila River, then across the Imperial Valley and up through the 3500-foot high San Felipe Pass in San Diego County, and down to the pueblo of San Diego or north over rolling valleys to Los Angeles. Ewing Young led an expedition in 1829 which left New Mexico with forty men. Among them was a young man named Christopher Carson, the Kit Carson of history. They also made their way to the California coastal plain through Cajon Pass.
Active trading with the Mexican settlements on the coast began in 1829-1830 with the opening of the Old Spanish Trail between New Mexico and California. It ran farther north than did the Santa Fe Trail and eventually became known as the Caravan Route. It swung north from Santa Fe, or Taos, crossed Utah by two different routes to Little Salt Lake, and then turned southwest to the Colorado River. The first expedition was led by Antonio Armijo. His party of thirty-one men and a caravan loaded with merchandise left the Colorado at The Needles and also made their way up through Cajon Pass to Mission San Gabriel, where they traded goods to the Californians in exchange for mules and horses. In 1831, Young led another party to California along the old Pattie Trail and with them was one Jonathan Trumbull Warner.
The old Spanish route up from Mexico through Sonora and Arizona had been closed for half a century because of troubles with the warlike Apache and Yuma Indians, and Warner was to write:
There could not be found in either Tucson or Altar -although they were both military posts and towns of considerable population-a man who had ever been over the route from those towns to California by way of the Colorado River, or even to that river, to serve as a guide, or from whom any information concerning the route could be obtained, and the trail from Tucson to the Gila River at the Pima villages was too little used and obscure to be easily followed, and from those villages down the Gila River to the Colorado River and from thence to within less than a hundred miles of San Diego, there was no trail, not even an Indian path.
In all the wanderings of these intrepid men, none of them used the lowest pass of the Southern California mountain barrier, San Gorgonio, which lies between the coastal mountain peaks of San Jacinto and San Gorgonio at the upper end of Coachella Valley. At its desert gateway now lies the playground of Palm Springs. Though its highest elevation is less than 2500 feet, it must be approached through a waterless waste.
By the 1830's a few adventurers and traders again were making their way to California over the old Serra trail from Lower California as well as by the Anza route from Sonora. John Forster, who was born in Liverpool, England, came to Southern California by way of Mexico. An uncle who had amassed a fortune as a merchant captain had asked John's father to "lend me one of your sons." Of the seven sons, John was chosen, and thus he began a life of adventure that led to vast holdings in a new land. He first came to California by sea with a trading expedition from Guaymas, a small port on the mainland on the Gulf of California, with $50,000 worth of goods imported from China, which he sold off at San Diego and at Los Angeles in 1833. He liked what he saw. After returning to Guaymas, he started back, not by sea, but by land, crossing the terrible deserts of Sonora and Southern California as had Anza so many years before.
An even stranger odyssey was that of a Yankee schoolmaster, Hall J. Kelley, who entered Mexico at Veracruz and crossed the continent to the port of San Blas, from where he obtained passage to La Paz, on the gulf side of Baja California. From there he walked the length of El Camino Real to San Diego, in the footsteps of Fr. Junipero Serra. At San Diego, he obtained passage on the hide ship Lagoda for San Pedro, from where he proceeded to Los Angeles and finally to Monterey and on into Oregon. Kelley was one of California's first boosters. His glowing descriptions of the country were published by the United States Congress in 1839, and they did a great deal to heighten interest in Westward expansion.
These explorations and expeditions were the stirring of empire. But for a score of years the sea was the only open route and ships brought the goods that enriched life in a remote and isolated land. The hides, tallow and furs of California were traded for the silks and wares of China, the household goods and tools of New England and the church bells of Lima.
Benjamin Hayes, who arrived at San Diego during the Western migrations after the American conquest of California in the war with Mexico, and an indefatigable gatherer of historical information, put down the memories of the old families who had lived through the days of the primitive simplicity of the Mexican era:
The arrival of a ship was more than a sensation. Its date served the memory to reckon ordinary events thereafter, and cold the heart not to relish the gaiety and enjoyment that flowed by dropping the anchor at La Playa. The vessels spent a considerable time in the harbor. Liberality on one side, unbounded hospitality on the other, contributed to gild and prolong the festival hours. It is a lively picture of a venerable lady . . . "ah what times we used to have." Every week to La Playa, aboard the ships -silks ... rebozos ... music ... dancing ... frolic. There was to be met the prettiest of women, one has said, whom time touches lightly. When I was a girl "twas the reign of prosperity and plenty."
The rich and hot blood of Andalusia coursed through the veins of many of the finest sons of Spain who came to California with the Spanish Army. The ranks of the later military units, unlike the earlier Spanish regulars or the trail-blazing Leatherjackets, were filled out with riff-raff gathered up from the frontiers of northern Mexico or from the scum of fetid ports. Many of them took Indian wives and their children melted into a mixed and rugged generation. The unwanted of Mexico were sent to Upper California to seek new homes and new lives. Mexico neglected its distant territories and the Presidio which had been the symbol of Spanish power swiftly washed away. On a shelf of land just below the hill, and barely above the flood plain of the San Diego River, the Californios began to build the low, rambling, thick-walled homes which have lived in the romantic memory of what is now historic Old Town.
There is nothing in the records to show when the first person moved down from the Presidio but it was sometime in the 1820's and even before that Capt. Francisco Maria Ruiz, a frontier soldier born in Loreto, the capital of the peninsula of Lower California had a garden and small structure on the "bench," as they called it
As his father had been killed by a mountain lion, he had been educated by a Jesuit missionary. He enlisted in the army in 1780 and though a man of strong opinions and violent temper, and at times irregular in conduct, he rose rapidly in the military service and in 1816 he was recommended to the last Spanish governor of California by an officer of the Department of San Blas, with the following words:
This is an old American, one of the few true men met with in America or the world. He may have some faults as all men have, but all are outweighed in the balance against his natural honesty; by the justice that in the midst of his great popularity with his soldiers he deals out so as to make himself respected by all; and by his unbounded love for Fernando VII, our monarch, in whose honor he often assembles his soldiers, ordering them to play, dance, drink, and shout Viva! Spain! Viva Fernando VIP Long Live the Governor! Viva! Viva! Viva-a-a-a!
After the revolution, and the collapse of the Spanish empire, he learned to salute and respect the Mexican flag, and though he never married he laid the foundations for at least three of the houses in which much of California's early history was made. In 1823 he was granted the first private rancho in San Diego County, Los Peñasquitos, over the protests of the mission fathers.
The founder of the most numerous branch of the Carrillo family of California, Joaquin Carrillo, came up from Lower California sometime after 1800, and served as a soldier for more than twenty years. His daughter Josefa eloped to Valparaiso, Chile, in 1829 with a Protestant, though freshly baptized, American sea captain, Henry Delano Fitch, to the dismay of Catholic San Diego. In time the couple took over the large Carrillo home on what is now Calhoun Street and Capt. Fitch became a prosperous merchant. To Richard Henry Dana Jr., the young mariner who came to California on the hide ship Pilgrim and wrote "Two Years Before the Mast," Capt. Fitch was a big, vulgar shopkeeper and trader, but an examination of his business records and correspondence reflects an honest and patient man to whom Californians were a strange and generally untrustworthy lot.
The Carrillo house may have been the first casa built below the Presidio, as there are indications it was standing as early as 1821.
When Sgt. José Maria Pico, the founder of the Pico family of Southern California, who had come up from Sinaloa, Mexico, in 1782, died in 1819 at San Gabriel Mission, at least part of his family of seven sons and three daughters returned to the Presidio of San Diego. By 1823 they had saved enough money to build their own home, the Pico House, facing along what is now Juan Street.
By about 1824 houses had been completed by the Picos and by Juan Rocha. A year later Juan Maria Marr6n had built his first house, this one on the Plaza, as had Rafaela Serrano, while Maria de los Reyes Ybafiez, widow of an old cavalry sergeant, Cristóbal Dominguez, had come into possession of a house started but not finished by Capt. Ruiz. Here Alfred Robinson, author of "Life in California," lived while serving as an agent for Boston hide ships.
An historic town was beginning to take shape. José Antonio Estudillo and Juan Bandini were granted house lots in 1827. Estudillo, born in Monterey, well educated, of excellent character, and with considerable influence throughout all of California, was the son of a soldier of Spain and became a captain in the presidial company of San Diego. He built the Estudillo House and in American fiction it has become identified as Ramona's Marriage Place of the enduring romance written by Helen Hunt Jackson. It was a large and fine home, fronting along the entire south side of the town Plaza and its great hall served as a chapel for the town for several years. It had a tower with a round balcony from which the family and friends could watch the bull or bear fights in the square or where musicians could play for the many fiestas and religious festivals.
The home or casa most mentioned in all the accounts of visitors was that of Juan Bandini, a descendant of a high Italian family, whose father was born in Spain but migrated to Peru and then came to California.
Alfred Robinson wrote of his visit to San Diego in 1829:
On the lawn beneath the hill on which the Presidio is built stood about thirty houses of rude appearance, mostly occupied by retired veterans, not so well constructed in respect either to beauty or stability as the houses at Monterey, with the exception of that belonging to our "administrator," Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion, then in an unfinished state, bade fair, when completed, to surpass any other in the country.
The Bandini home southeast of the town Plaza was the social center of Old San Diego, and Don Juan was as gracious a host as he was a wily instigator of revolutions and the principal author of the plot to destroy the California missions.
While Estudillo's house had twelve rooms, Bandini's perhaps had fourteen, with a kitchen and two storerooms separated from the main house by an arcada, or arcade. Servants' quarters were to be in an adjoining structure which may never have been completed. The Pico house grew to ten or twelve rooms. The large houses had tile roofs and planked floors, and the adobe walls were coated with white plaster.
The tall, haughty and reserved Don Santiago Arguello was born at Monterey in 1791, and also became one of the military comandantes at San Diego. He was the father of twenty-two children. The town home of the Arguellos, who were connected by marriage to most of the leading families of early California, was situated at the intersection of Mason and Jefferson Streets. The houses of Francisco Alvarado and Rosario Aguilar were built about the same time as those of Bandini and Estudillo, sometime before 1830. By 1833 Marrón had built another house near the river.
Juan Maria Osuna, born in California before 1800, was a poor man, a soldier and corporal in the San Diego company. After leaving the service and settling in San Diego, he rose rapidly in politics, becoming an alcalde, though his house evidently was not a large one, as his will read:
I declare having a house in this pueblo, situated near the house of Don Enrique Fitch, deceased, said house is composed of one hall, one room, kitchen, corral and dispensary.
Apolinaria Lorenzana was a foundling named after the Archbishop of Mexico, as was the custom at the asylum where she lived, and about 1800 she and a large group of men, and women and children were sent to California by the Viceroy of Mexico, to be distributed among families "like dogs." She spent her days helping the fading missionaries administer to the Indians who were swiftly dying away of the white man's diseases and of neglect, and was known as La Beata, the pious.
With the growth of a little settlement outside of the mud walls of the Presidio, the residents of San Diego petitioned to end the long military control of San Diego by formation of an official pueblo, or town, and election of an Ayuntamiento, or town council. The petition to Gov. José Figueroa was signed on February 22, 1833, by José Antonio Estudillo, Juan Maria Osuna, Francisco Maria de Alvarado, Manuel Machado, Ysidro Guillón and Jesús Moreno "in the name of all the residents of the port of San Diego."
At the time Santiago Arguello was military comandante, though he was soon to retire, and as he often was at odds with his fellow San Diegans, the petitioners to the governor perhaps had him in mind when they wrote that:
It is sad to know that in all the pueblos of the Republic the Citizens are judged by those whom they themselves elect for this purpose, and that in this port alone one has to submit himself, his fate, fortune and perhaps existence, to the caprice of a military judge, who being able to misuse his power, it is always easy for him to evade any complaint which they might want to make of his conduct ... and there is no other formula than the imperious words of I command it.
The unfortunate citizen, the petition stated has no "other choice than to suffer, and humble himself in his degradation, for they always fear to provoke further the wrath of the one who rules them." The wind of independence which had blown so hot through Mexico was now beginning to sear the distant shores of California.
Gov. Figueroa agreed with the petitioners, and he held that the population of San Diego, 432 persons, was sufficient under Mexican law and therefore, on May 4, 1834, he forwarded his favorable recommendation to the Territorial Diputación, and though San Diego requested the right to elect four regidores, or councilmen, only two were allotted. Organization of the pueblo was formally undertaken on December 21. Juan Maria Osuna was chosen alcalde over Pio Pico. Juan Bautista Alvarado was elected first regidor and Juan Maria Marrón, second regidor, and Capt. Fitch, sindico procurador, or town attorney. A total of thirteen votes were cast by the electors in San Diego's first election.
The boundaries of the new pueblo were vague. Santiago Arguello testified almost two decades later, before a United States Land Commission, in identifying a map drawn by Capt. Fitch, that the pueblo lands extended "north from San Diego to the Soledad, south to the Choyois, a watering place, west to the point of the hill; east to the well of the Mission of San Diego. These points were designated by myself previous to the survey. I have known them since the year 1818."
This described an area roughly embracing the upper part of San Diego Bay and what is now a major portion of the city of San Diego. From Soledad Valley, the common grazing lands, on the north, the line ran southeasterly passing just west of Mission San Diego, to the border of Rancho de la Nación, or the government grazing grounds, now the site of National City, and then southwesterly along a line near Chollas Creek, across the bay and out over the ocean, to include Coronado and North Island, to the tip of Point Loma. The vast holdings of the Mission, almost 3000 square miles, lay to the east of the pueblo boundary.
The alcalde was instructed by the governor that his political power was not to extend beyond the Presidio settlement, as each mission, when the time came for its secularization, or confiscation, was to have its own Ayuntamiento, though his administration of justice was to embrace Mission San Luis Rey, once the largest and most prosperous of all the missions, thirty-eight miles north of San Diego and six miles east of the present town of Oceanside. The alcalde, or village judge, was a position coming down from the Arab-Moorish invasion of Spain. His insignia of office was a cane of light wood with a knob of silver or gold. Below the knob were holes through which was drawn a black silk cord with tassles. According to William Heath Davis, in his book, "Seventy-Five Years in California," the alcalde carried his cane on all occasions, especially when about to perform an official act, such as ordering an arrest, and was always received with great respect and deference. He could intervene in the personal lives of inhabitants, usually upon request, and when he could not be present at official functions he would send his cane.
On January 1, 1835, the authority of the new Ayuntamiento became effective, and its members got down to the business of establishing civil law and order in the little frontier settlement and to provide for the regulation of trade and commerce. In its proceedings of January the Ayuntamiento ruled that the carrying of small arms was to be prohibited, that all cattle were to be kept out of the pueblo under pain of fine, and all vagabonds, drunks, bill posters, and the rest, whether neophytes or "gente de razón," or people of reason, would suffer the full punishment in accordance with constituted law, and those who stole amounts from one real to one dollar were to suffer fifteen days' labor on public works. No hides were to be delivered to vessels without the knowledge of the Judge of the Plains, under pain of loss of the hides, and merchants and others must present their measures and measuring sticks for approval.
Bonifacio López, who had built a large home on the slopes of what is now Stockton Hill and had laid out below Presidio Hill a corral almost a block in area, was designated Judge of the Plains to oversee the rodeos and matanzas, and settle disputes over ownership of cattle allowed to graze over the hills and valleys being broken away from mission control. Bonifacio L&ocaute;pez was popularly known as "The King," and his corral as el corral del rey, or the king's corral.
But a pastoral calm was coming to an end. The unsettled conditions in Mexico were reflected more and more in California, and the Californios were eager to get on with dividing up the territory among themselves, as had been assured as the result of the revolution. Hints of great changes were in the air.
A decree of the Mexican Congress had opened the way for the confiscation of the mission lands at the climax of a long struggle between church and state and between the settlers and the padres. The mission churches were to be secularized, or reduced to parish churches, with the missionaries to be offered posts as priests. The mission buildings were to be converted into Indian pueblos, and the Indians were to receive enough land to assure their support and well-being. But this was not to be.
On September 20, 1834, Mission San Diego, the "mother mission" of the California chain, was transferred from Fr. Fernando Martin to Juan José Rocha, who had been appointed commissioner for that purpose, and the inventory included all church goods and even sacred vessels. The last mission report at the end of 1832 had listed 1445 Indians, 4500 cattle, 13,250 sheep, 150 goats, 200 horses and 80 mules. In April of 1835, Joaquin Ortega was named administrator with a salary of $50 a month to be paid from income from mission property. An inventory signed by Fr. Martin placed the value of the mission church and its buildings at $4777.37; listed its debts at $531, and noted that $18,816.75 was owed by the military for supplies requested or confiscated over the years.
More than seventy years of the missionary domination of California thus came to a close. The old missionary dream that the San Diego Mission would become a self-supporting Indian pueblo died along with the end of the Franciscan era. An Indian pueblo was formed, as promised, in San Dieguito Valley, in November of the same year, with just 113 Indians. When Mission San Luis Rey was conveyed to Capt. Pablo de la Portilla, and after Pio Pico was named administrator, two more little Indian towns, at San Pasqual and Las Flores, were organized. But the great majority of the Indians were turned loose to become as one historian wrote, homeless wanderers upon the face of the earth.
By 1835 the Presidio was all but abandoned except for the comandante Into these changing and tumultuous times came more American and other foreign settlers and traders. They dropped off at coastal ports from ships engaged in the hide and fur trade, some as deserters.
As far as is known Capt. Fitch was the first American to settle permanently in San Diego. His romance and marriage with Josefa Carrillo, which had stirred all of California, ran onto the rocks of trouble. Josefa was a compulsive gambler, and in one card game alone she lost $1000. On December 18, 1835, Capt. Fitch appealed to the alcalde for a separation from his wife. As a divorce of course was not possible in Catholic California, a temporary separation was ordered, but when Josefa acknowledged the gambling, and begged the pardon of the alcalde and her husband, and promised to deport herself well in the future, all was forgiven.
Young William Heath Davis, who wrote the description of life in the old Presidio, returned a number of times as a sailor and supercargo, or agent, and finally walked off a ship and never went back. In 1833 there came Thomas Wrightington, a shoemaker by trade from Fall River, Massachusetts, who left the hide ship Ayacucho; and Joseph Snook, an English mariner who had been along the coast since 1824, and after being naturalized, became master of the Mexican brig Catalina. John C. Stewart, second mate of the hide ship Alert and a shipmate of Richard Henry Dana, saw San Diego in 1833, and went ashore in 1838, to remain for good. Allen B. Light, a Negro, jumped a Boston ship and became an otter hunter.
A half million acres of fertile land lay waiting. A trade that so many of the Spanish Dons had neglected held promise of wealth and influence. And the daughters of the Dons were attractive and available.
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