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María Amparo Ruiz Burton
The General's Lady
By Kathleen Crawford
Copley Books Award, San Diego History Center
1984 Institute of History
Beautiful, articulate, well-educated, and charming, María Amparo Ruiz Burton was heiress to vast tracts of land in Mexico and the United States. As granddaughter of Don José Manuel Ruiz, commandant of the presidio in Baja California, and wife of Henry Stanton Burton, a Civil War general and national hero, her life spanned, and in many ways reflected, the turbulent period of transition in California from Mexican rule to statehood under the United States flag. María was a woman of remarkable talent, drive and foresight, qualities which served her well in these years of tension and turmoil.1 The pastoral lifestyle of the great ranchos was giving way under the ever increasing demands of the incoming Americans, eager for land, power and money. Legislation was passed which often favored unscrupulous newcomers. This had far-reaching effects as Hispanic families bowed to the various pressures facing them and their lands passed into American hands. María's life became a microcosm of what was happening on a larger scale throughout all of California.2
As residents of Baja California for many years. María's family became closely intertwined with the major events and problems of the era. Even the date and location of María's birth have been thrown into doubt by the events in Baja California. A large flood in 1829 swept through the town of Loreto, forcing the government to move the capital to La Paz. La Paz never had many records due to Indian uprisings and subsequent abandonment of the mission in 1734 and again in 1748. The few records left after the flood in Loreto now joined the sparse mission records stored in La Paz. However, many of the numerous revolutions and political changes caused a large part of the baptismal records to be lost over the next several years. The takeover of La Paz in 1848 by American troops seriously damaged the remaining records.3
María's birthplace can only be substantiated as either La Paz or Loreto due to the dearth of accurate records.4 Her birth date, however, can be determined from United States government records. A widow's pension granted to her in 1870 lists her age as thirty-seven years.5
As granddaughter of Don José Manuel Ruiz, María would one day inherit the vast Rancho Ensenada de Todos Santos. The land she inherited from her grandfather, as well as the land she would inherit as a widow, brought little joy and much grief. "The title to eleven square leagues or 48,884 acres was conferred upon Lieutenant José Manuel Ruiz of the Spanish Army, July 10, 1804 for gallant services."6 The "gallant services" he had provided for the Colonial Government of Spain took the form of a prestigious command. Ruiz had been sent to the frontier to assist in the founding of the missions in Lower California. Having entered the army at age fourteen and remaining in active service until he was seventy-five, José Manuel Ruiz seemed ideal to lead the expedition. Heading a large force of men, Ruiz left Loreto in 1780 and landed on the Sonora side of the Colorado River under a hail of Indian arrows. Subduing the Indians was apparently not too difficult for the experienced soldiers, and several missions were soon founded. For this and his length of active service, which extended well over fifty years, a record not equalled to this day, Ruiz was awarded the large grant of land. In 1822 Don José would serve his country again as governor of Baja California until 1825. He was not the only Ruiz to serve Spain well.7 His brother, Francisco María , commanded the presidio of San Diego during this time. For his services, Francisco received the Los Penasquitos land grant in 1823 from Governor Luis Arguello.8
As a young woman of fifteen, María witnessed the surrender of La Paz in 1848 to American troops. This event would alter the course of her life forever, for during the incident, María met her future husband, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stanton Burton. He shared the command of the First Regiment of New York Volunteers with Colonel Jonathan D. Stevenson. Burton was sent to Lower California to take control of La Paz while Stevenson directed operations in Monterey. It was a war of mutual harrassment and little progress until the United States flag ship Ohio, under the command of Admiral William B. Shubrick, and the war frigate Dale, arrived to break the stalemate. A proclamation in the name of the United States government ordered the people of La Paz to disperse or be punished and offered protection for their lives and property. The Baja Californios responded well to the edict and, in fact, a number of balls and receptions were held to entertain the American soldiers. Possibly at one of these balls, María met her dashing, West Point educated husband-to-be. Whenever they met, it was not long before Burton was captivated by the vivacious, dark-haired beauty. He personally arranged for transportation to Monterey on the war transport Lexington for María , her mother and brother. This privilege was extended to all the people who wished to leave Baja California but one suspects there was a greater interest in María's safety than in the others. Burton followed on the Ohio, arriving in Monterey on October 4, 1848.9
María's charms did not go unnoticed in the capital. Having been raised as befitted the daughter of a prominent Spanish family, she had enjoyed the privileges of a private professora from Spain. With her accomplished beauty and winning smile, she managed to capture the heart of Monterey as well. She supposedly inspired a popular ballad called "The Maid of Monterey" which celebrated the brief encounter in La Paz.10
The Maid of Monterey
The moon shone but dimly
Beyond the battle plain
A gentle breeze fanned softly
O'er the features of the slain
The guns had hushed their thunder
The guns in silence lay
Then came the senorita
The Maid of Monterey.
She cast a look of anguish
On the dying and the dead
And made her lap a pillow
For those who mourned and bled
Now here's to that bright beauty
Who drives death's pangs away
The meek-eyed senorita
The Maid of Monterey.
Although she loved her country
And prayed that it might live
Yet for the foreign soldier
She had a tear to give
And when the dying soldier
In her bright gleam did pray
He blessed this senorita
The Maid of Monterey.
She gave the thirsty water
And dressed each bleeding wound
A fervent prayer she uttered
For those whom death had doomed
And where the bugle sounded
Just at the dawn of day
They blessed this senorita
The Maid of Monterey.11
The young soldier and his lovely senorita soon found their romance fraught with problems. The greatest barrier to marriage was religious. Burton was a national hero, and even though only twenty-eight, a veteran of several campaigns, including the Florida War in 1840-42.12 But he was also a Protestant and too much of a national figure to publicly change his religion. María , as the daughter of a well known Spanish Catholic family, could hardly be expected to change hers. Their forthcoming marriage met with great opposition and much discussion in the higher levels of the Catholic Church. The Bishop of Upper and Lower California was adamantly opposed to their marriage and refused official sanction. A rejected suitor stirred the controversy to even greater heights as he tried to prevent the wedding from taking place.13 Even Governor Richard B. Mason took a hand, ordering on August 23, 1847, "all the authorities of California are not to authorize any marriage when either of the parties is a Catholic."14 The young couple overcame all obstacles placed in their path and were married on July 7, 1849 by a Protestant minister, Reverend Samuel H. Willey, at the home of General E.R.S. Canby. General Canby subsequently was forced to explain to his superiors his part in the proceedings. Canby had been sent on duty away from Monterey during June, July, and August. Without his knowledge, the marriage was performed at the invitation of his wife, "who, with nearly all of the Protestants then residing at Monterey, was present at the ceremony."15
Life was exciting in Monterey for the newlyweds. The first Constitutional Convention was held on September 1, 1849. The signing of the Constitution was a great event and Burton, as a highly respected member of the Army, was chosen for a special honor. "As the ceremony began, the loud booming of cannon sounded through the hall as Captain Burton fired a salute of thirty-one guns for the fort - the last for California."16
Burton was sent to take charge of the Army post at Mission San Diego de Alcala in 1852 and the Burtons returned to San Diego. He began many important projects, including the building of the breakwater in San Diego Bay. He also proposed the site for Fort Rosecrans and was a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego and Gila Railroads.17 This railroad was to meet the proposed South Atlantic and Pacific Railroad in Yuma. The mission was upgraded for the comfort of the soldiers. María and Henry entertained there often, even starting a little theater group in 1855. One of their productions was reviewed by the San Diego Herald and termed a "great show." According to Burton, though, "the hard part was to get the men to dress like women."18 Known for their lavish hospitality, the young couple brought new vitality to life in San Diego.
While stationed in San Diego, Burton homesteaded a large piece of property known as Rancho Jamul in 1854.19 The original owner, Pio Pico, had been given a provisional grant of one league of land on April 10, 1833 by Governor Manuel Victoria. The land was abandoned from 1837-45, when Pico returned as governor. When Pico tried to reclaim it, his suit was rejected due to insufficient evidence. Pico claimed his papers had burned in an Indian attack on the Rancho many years before. However, as governor, Pico soon remedied the situation. He simply granted himself two leagues instead of the original one. In 1851, Pico had a surprise. While looking over records of land transactions, he discovered that his brother-in-law, John Forster, had claimed to be acting as his agent in his absence. Forster had sold Rancho Jamul to Bonifacio Lopez and others for $2000. The land was abandoned by Lopez when the title was found to be cloudy and the land reverted to Public Domain. The confusion over the title was to have disastrous effects for María after Burton's death.20
On March 3, 1854, Henry Burton homesteaded Rancho Jamul, a total of 562,622 acres.21 The Burtons settled there with their small daughter, Nellie, along with María's mother and brother. They built an adobe on the slopes and proceeded to enjoy their ranch. Their son, Henry Halleck, named for Burton's associate in the takeover of La Paz, was born on the ranch.22 They ran cattle on the land, as well as utilizing the land for other purposes and burned the limestone on the property to make lime. This lime would later be the basis for the formation of the Jamul Portland Cement Manufacturing Company in 1869 by María , her son Henry, and financial backers. This cement was used in the sidewalks on Fourth and Broadway in downtown San Diego. Shipping and transportation problems forced the closure of the company in 1891.23
In 1859, Colonel Burton was ordered east, taking the family with him. María's mother and brother were left behind to maintain the property, an important consideration in this era of squatters and unscrupulous land deals. The night before they left, a large ball was held at the Franklin House in Old Town. The people of San Diego would miss the gracious and congenial Burtons, and wanted to express their thanks for the care Colonel Burton had shown his troops and the interest of the Burtons in the progress and improvement of San Diego.24 On August 2, 1859, the Burtons left for Fort Monroe, Virginia on a steamer via the Isthmus of Panama.25
Life in the East would be just as busy and varied as it had been in California. The Burtons soon returned to the Pacific Coast for two years when Colonel Burton was placed in command of Alcatraz Island. He was considered by General Winfield Scott to be "one of the most trustworthy officers of the army."26 Nonetheless, Henry and María still traveled quite frequently, having a wide circle of friends. On one of their trips to Washington, they attended the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln in March, 1861. María described the event in one of her frequent letters to General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo of California, a lifelong friend and confidant. In a letter, she made an intriguing comment regarding the inauguration of 1861.
"Well, the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln has passed without problem and he has given his first public reception without having been assassinated as was expected." [She goes on to describe the mood of the country shortly before the start of the Civil War. ] "The state of the country continues in agitation and the danger of war is ever present." March 8, 1860 (sic).27
She urged Vallejo to come to Washington as she wanted "to have the pleasure of presenting him to Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln. She and I are very good friends and I know if I present you, you will be very well received. Hurry soon."28 While in Washington, María attended glittering balls, large receptions and numerous social activities. Always a social asset, the charming and beautiful young wife of an important colonel delighted Washington society. As popular on the east coast as they were on the west, the Burtons had a full and exciting social life.29
In one of María's many letters to Vallejo, dateline Norwich, Vermont, she says, "I went to many of the receptions of the President, Miss Lane, some of the wives of the Senators and members of the Cabinet. I also went to the capital to hear a discussion by Mrs. Davis, Mrs. Douglas, Mrs. Sumner and Mrs. Hammond."30 While the Civil War raged on, the Burtons were transferred from post to post, wherever Colonel Burton was most needed. Her letters to Don Mariano during this period were written from Staten Island, Washington and Vermont. Their correspondence had begun long before in the 1850s while María was still a bride, continuing until Vallejo's death in 1890. He was obviously a close family friend, for in these letters she describes to him her reactions to the current events in California and nationwide, as well as frequently asking for his help or advice on different matters.31María was always an active, socially prominent woman, with a keen mind and definite opinions on a variety of subjects. She was well informed on the ideas and events of the day for good reason - the majority of them directly affected her life. Washington no doubt provided her with frequent social occasions as well as the opportunity to make many influential friends. Later in life these contacts would stand her in good stead as she fought numerous legal battles to retain her land.32
María's happy life took a downhill turn in 1865. On March 13, 1865, Henry was made a Brevet General "for Gallant and Meritorious Services" during the capture of Petersburg, Virginia.33 While erecting the works around Petersburg, he contracted malarial fever and became seriously ill. Recurrent attacks would plague him for the next five years. It became necessary at times for him to be relieved of duty. On March 9, 1869, J.T. Ensor, A.A. Surgeon, U.S.A., made a report to Burton's good friend, General E.R.S. Canby, in which he stated that Burton, "was threatened with apoplexy."34 On April 4, 1869, Burton died of apoplexy in Newport, Rhode Island, no doubt brought on by the malaria attacks.35
After his burial at West Point, María returned to her home at Rancho Jamul to rebuild her life.36 She soon discovered she had land problems that proved to be insoluble. Her claim to Rancho Jamul was questionable and her claim to the Rancho Ensenada de Todos Santos was in jeopardy. These two circumstances would embroil her in endless litigation that would cease only with her death.37
No stranger to legal entanglements and prepared to fight for what she felt she was entitled to, María immediately contacted E.W. Morse, a lawyer in San Diego. At the time of his death, Burton had been in the process of switching his power of attorney to Morse. Even this simple legal matter became a problem for María. Possibly due to the irregularity of the mail service from east to west, María was forced to write several letters to Morse before the transfer could be completed. Through Morse, María hired attorneys to help her settle her claim.38
María was determined not to lose her lands without a fight. For the next twenty-three years of her life she fought numerous legal battles, with more losses than wins. She hired the best attorneys possible and pulled strings in high places to help her claims. Her major fight was over Rancho Jamul which she had claimed as the widow of General Burton, homesteader of the land. This was a very important legal point. Burton died intestate, thereby creating an enormous problem for María. She had also mortgaged the land after the General's death and there was question as to whether she had a legal right to mortgage an estate. The mortgage was foreclosed upon the ranch and sold by "public outcry" to Wallace Leach and John C. Capron, who were suing for part of the estate.39 Possibly they wanted to acquire the land because "the homestead encompassed a potential railroad right-of-way between San Diego and the East."40
Despite all the furor, María continued making a variety of plans for the rancho. She ran cattle, as well as growing wheat and barley on the slopes. Castor beans were also raised, bringing sixty dollars an acre in 1874. The cattle were fed with the leaves and the beans were sold to a paint company. Even the hillsides covered with wildflowers were rented for beehives.41
With her remarkable foresight, María recognized the part water would play in the future growth of San Diego. She contacted Professor George Davidson of Berkeley to determine the feasibility of a water project on the Rancho. She hoped to supply the city of San Diego with water. Davidson determined that the rainfall equalled the water supply of the city of San Francisco. He calculated that "there will be eleven million gallons daily. Even if it is a dry year and only seven and a half inches fall, it will still give five million gallons a day." The rancho was irrigated by damming the ravines but her larger plan never came to pass.42
Always very active and resourceful, María undertook a trip to Washington to see if she could strengthen her claim. While there she lobbied a special act through Congress to help her cause.43
An interesting incident occurred during this period. On January 10, 1870, writing from New York, María requested the help of Pio Pico in securing her title to Rancho Jamul. She wanted the confusion cleared up regarding the status of the rancho "immediately".44 In a court document later used to help substantiate her claim, she swore that on June 1, 1870, Pio Pico conveyed the land to her for a consideration of $1000.45 On August 22, 1870 a claim was presented in Pico's name for a United States Patent. In it he confirmed the claim of Burton's heirs by a duly recorded deed and disclaimed all interest in the land.46 Obviously there was some behind-the-scenes maneuvering involved. On October 26, 1876, a land patent was issued to María , her daughter Nellie, and son Henry for 8,926.22 acres. Their success was short-lived as numerous claims were filed against the estate and the litigation continued for years to come.47
María's claim to land in Baja California was not settled either. She received clear title to the land in 1871 but was not able to enjoy her victory for long.48 In 1883 the Mexican Law of Colonization allowed foreign development and this created major problems for María. The International Company of Mexico, a land developing firm started by George H. Sisson and Luis Huller, claimed eighteen million acres in the Partido Norte and encroached on the Rancho Ensenada and three hundred contiguous acres.49 This confrontation would drain her resources and take her to the highest courts of Mexico City. The land in Baja California was valuable primarily for the port of Ensenada. Its proximity to the mines in San Rafael gave it added value. Always a shrewd businesswoman, María owned warehouses in the city of Ensenada.50
Even the San Diego Union felt compelled to voice its opinion on the Ensenada issue. María's claims were investigated by the "top lawyers" of Mexico City at the request of the Union and were found to be wanting.51 The furor continued to grow. María put a notice in the Union through her agent, T.R. De Esparza, warning prospective purchasers of land from the International Company that the title was not clear.52 She was finally given most of the land she claimed in 1889. When things were somewhat settled and it appeared María had won, the next blow came. María's mother, Isabel Ruiz Maytorena, sued her, claiming she had been defrauded out of her land. Speaking no English, she signed a paper she believed gave power of attorney to María. Later she found she had signed a paper transferring her claim to the land grant over to María. This further added to the complexities of the case.53
María turned her plight into a novel called The Squatter and the Don. Written in a rented house at 1421 Fourth Street, in San Diego on which she never paid a dime of rent, it dealt with the numerous problems facing the ranchos and the possibility of a railroad terminating in San Diego. Writing under the pen name of C. Loyal in 1885, María voiced strong opinions on the railroad, as she did on most other subjects.54 Her interest in railroads went back to the days when Henry had been on the Board of Directors. She wrote: "By right, San Diego is the terminal point of a transcontinental railway and San Diego ought to be the shipping point for all that immense country, comprising Arizona, Southern California and Northern Mexico."55 She was a skillful writer, equally adept in Spanish or English.
María put her writing skills to other uses as well. When another lawyer, A.B. Hotchkiss, withdrew abruptly from her case, she wrote the entire brief herself. It was articulate, concise and forceful. In it she described two separate incidents of violence intended to drive her off Rancho Jamul. Her tenants were frightened and left the ranch under threat of death. The furniture was taken from the adobe and dumped on the outskirts of the property.56
There were some bright spots in these years of turmoil and stress. María's daughter, Nellie, married Miguel de Pedrorena, member of a leading San Diego family. The wedding was held on Christmas Day, 1875, at the Hor-ton House in San Diego. It was a grand affair and a happy event as the young couple was very popular in the community. María's son, Henry, married Minnie Wilbur at Rancho Jamul and settled there with his bride to help his mother run the ranch.57
The suits and countersuits continued to plague María's life until the time of her death. Her claim to Rancho Ensenada had been reversed by the Supreme Court of Mexico. Rancho Jamul had been divided as a result of the various claims filed against it and the incursions of over one hundred sixty squatters. María received only a small portion of the original claim.58 She travelled continually on business connected with the various lawsuits still pending and was in Chicago at the time of her death. María died of gastric fever on August 12, 1895 and her body was returned for burial to San Diego. Father Antonio Ubach conducted the impressive services and she was laid to rest in Calvary Catholic Cemetery.59
María's death closed a colorful chapter of California's history. Her problems were not unique, as the newspaper accounts of the day will attest. Land problems were a major source of tension for both the American and Hispanic populations. The transition from cattle ranches to agriculture was pushed by a severe drought in the 1860s and the Fence Laws of 1864. Land was lost because of lack of documents proving ownership. Many times the Californios had to sell their land in order to pay their legal costs. María's life exemplified these changes and provides a fascinating glimpse of this era of transition.60
1. María Amparo Ruiz Burton, San Diego History Center Research Archives.
2. Andrew F. Rolle, California, A History (Illinois: AHM Publishing Company, 1978).
3. Miguel Leon-Portilla, "The Historical Archives of Baja California Sur," Journal of San Diego History, XVIII (Winter 1972), pp. 10-14.
4. Hubert Howe Bancroft states that her birthplace was in Loreto but there is conflicting evidence that it was in La Paz.
5. Winifred Davidson, Letter to Eugene Divan Buchanan, March 26, 1939.
6. Henry Stanton Burton, Illustrated History of Southern California (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1890), p. 406.
8. Iris H.W. Engstrand, San Diego: California's Cornerstone (Tulsa: Continental Press, 1982), p. 25.
9. "Henry Stanton Burton," Illustrated History of Southern California (Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1890), p. 407.
10. Winifred Davidson 1931 Notes, San Diego History Center Research Archives.
12. "Burton," Illustrated History, p. 406.
13. Hubert Howe Bancroft, California Pastoral, Vol. XXXIV (San Francisco: The History Company, 1888), p. 330.
15. María Amparo Ruiz Burton, Notes, San Diego History Center Research Archives, p. 2.
16. Neal Harlow, California Conquered, War and Peace on the Pacific 1846-50 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 348.
17. "Burton," Illustrated History, p. 407.
18. San Diego Herald, April 17, 1855.
19. Ibid., March 3, 1854.
20. Irene Phillips, Women of Distinction (National City: South Bay Press), p. 14.
21. San Diego Herald, March 3, 1854.
22. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. The Mexican War in Baja California, The Memorandum of Captain Henry W. Halleck, Concerning His Expedition in Lower California 1846-48 (Los Angeles: Dawson's Book Shop, 1977).
23. David C. Burkenroad, "Jamul Cement: Speculation in the San Diego Hinterland," Journal of San Diego History, XXV (Fall, 1979), p. 273-282.
24. Winifred Davidson 1931 Notes, María Amparo Ruiz Burton, San Diego Historical Research Archives.
25. Phillips, Women of Distinction, p. 19.
26. "Burton," Illustrated History, p. 407.
27. María Amparo Ruiz Burton, Collection of eighty-one letters to General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, 1858-1890, The Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino. The letters were translated from Spanish by the author and Iris H.W. Engstrand.
28. María Burton, Letter to M.G. Vallejo, March 8, 1860, The Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino. Translated by author.
30. María Burton, Letter to M.G. Vallejo, June 23, 1860, The Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino. Translated by author.
33. "Burton," Illustrated History, p. 407.
34. María Amparo Ruiz Burton, Notes, San Diego History Center Research Archives.
38. María Burton, Letter to E.W. Morse, July 16, 1869.
39. San Diego Union, February 15, 1887.
40. Burkenroad, "Jamul Cement", p. 273-282
41. Phillips, Women of Distinction, p. 19.
42. San Diego Union, December 16, 1874.
43. San Diego Union, December 18, 1960, p. 35.
44. María Burton, Letter to Pio Pico, July 10, 1870, The Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino.
45. Supreme Court of California, Points and Responses for Application of María Amparo Ruiz Burton for a Homestead, 1883, p. 2.
46. Phillips, Women of Distinction, p. 14.
47. Ibid., p. 20.
48. Ibid., p. 19
49 María Eugenia Bonifaz de Novelo, "Ensenada, Its Background, Founding and Early Development," The Journal of San Diego History, Vol. XXX, (Winter, 1984), p. 18.
50. San Diego Union, December 7, 1871.
51. Ibid., February 26, 1888.
52. San Diego Daily Bee, October 26, 1887.
53. San Diego Union, September 1, 1892.
54. Ibid, March 12, 1935.
55. Tribune-Sun, August 11, 1949.
56. Supreme Court of California, Points and Responses for Application of María Amparo Ruiz Burton for a Homestead, 1883, p. 8.
57. San Diego Union, December 18, 1960, p. 35.
58. Ibid., January 4, 1891.
59. Ibid., August 14, 1895.
60. Rolle, California, A History.
THE PHOTOGRAPHS are from the San Diego History Center's Title Insurance and Trust Collection.