Juan Bandini (1800-1859)

juanbandiniAny sketch of this interesting figure in the early life of San Diego must necessarily fail to do him entire justice. For nearly forty years he was an honored citizen of California, saw it pass from Spanish into Mexican hands and lived to take a prominent part in wresting it from the control of the Californians and making it an American State. Through all the intervening days of struggle, he took all important part, and narrowly missed the highest political honors of his time. Estimates of his character and services vary somewhat and have been influenced by the financial misfortunes which pursued him. But it seems clear that his long residence and eminent public services in San Diego entitled him to be considered the first Spanish citizen of his day.

The name of Bandini is not originally Spanish, but Italian, the family originating in Italy and there being a family of Bandinis of princely rank now in existence in Italy.

He was the son of Jose Bandini, who was a native of Andalusia. He was born at Lima in 1800, and received his education there. His father came to California as master of a Spanish trading vessel in 1819 and 1821, and it is possible Juan was with him. The father took an active part in the Mexican revolution and was made a captain. Soon after peace came, the father and son came to San Diego and built a house. His public services began in 1827-8 as a member of the assembly, and from 1828 to ’31 he was sub-comisario of revenues. His house at San Diego, which is still standing in a good state of preservation, was erected in 1829. In 1830 he was chosen substitute congressman. In 1831 he took a leading part in the revolt against Governor Victoria, as related elsewhere. In 1832, he was appointed comisario principal ad interim, but Victoria refused to recognize his authority outside San Diego, and he soon resigned. In 1833 he went to Mexico as congressman and returned the following year as Vice-President of the Hijar colonization company and inspector of customs for California. His elaborate entertainment of Hijar has been alluded to. The colonization scheme was a failure, however. The California officials also refused to recognize his authority over the customs and brought a counter charge of smuggling which they succeeded in substantiating, technically, at least.

These failures of his hopes were a severe blow to Bandini, from which he never fully recovered. In 1836-7-8 he was the leading spirit in the opposition to Governor Alvarado and on one occasion, at least, had the satisfaction of a great public reception when the whole population of San Diego turned out to meet him on his return from the capture of Los Angeles, in 1837. His return at this time was due to Indian troubles. He was the owner of the Tecate rancho on the Mexican border, which was pillaged by the hostiles and the family reduced to want. But peace having been made, Alvarado made him administrator of the San Gabriel Mission, and he was also granted the Jurupa, Rincon, and Cajon de Muscapiabe ranchos, besides land at San Juan Capistrano. He held other offices, but continued to oppose Alvarado and was present with troops at the battle of Las Flores, in 1838. On Christmas night, 1838, while the Pastorela was being performed at his house, all the prominent citizens of San Diego being present, the house was surrounded by General Castro, acting under Alvarado’s orders, and the two Picos and Juan Ortega taken prisoners. Bandini was absent at this time, and thus escaped arrest.

In 1845-6 he was Governor Pico’s secretary and supported his administration. After the Mexican War began, however, he adhered to the American cause and rendered valuable services. He furnished supplies for the troops, and did everything in his power to aid them

In 1847 he was a member of the legislative council, and in 1848, alcalde. On April 1, 1850, he appears as an elector at San Diego, and was elected treasurer, but declined to serve. In this year he was keeping a store at San Diego, and also erected a large building for a hotel, the Gila House, which is said to have cost $25,000. Soon after this he removed to a rancho which had been granted him in Mexico and resumed his Mexican citizenship. Here he took some part in politics, and was a supporter of Milendres, and had to quit the country with his belongings, in 1855. He died at Los Angeles, whither he had gone for treatment, in November, 1859.

His first wife was Dolores, daughter of Captain Jose M. Estudillo, and their children were: Arcadia, who married Abel Stearns and afterward Colonel Robert L. Baker. She lives at Santa Monica and Los Angeles. Ysidora, who was born September 23, 1829, was married to Cave J. Couts, died May 24, 1897, and is buried at San Diego. Josefa, who was married to Pedro C. Carillo, who was alcalde and a member of California’s first legislature in 1847. Jose Maria, who married Teresa, daughter of Santiago Arguello; and Juanito. His second wife was Refugia, daughter of Santiago Arguello (a sister of his son Jose Maria’s wife). They had: Juan de la Cruz, Alfredo, Arturo, and two daughters, one of whom, Dolores, was married to Charles R. Johnson, and the other, Victoria, (Chata), to Dr. James B. Winston and lives in Los Angeles. Bandini’s daughters were famous for their beauty. All his family are in comfortable circumstances, and several are wealthy. They live principally in Southern California, have married well, and are much respected citizens.

Perhaps the story of Bandini’s personal appearance and characteristics can best be told by a few extracts from writers who knew him. Dana, whose opinion of Californians was intelligent, if not always sympathetic, saw him on a voyage from Monterey to Santa Barbara in January, 1836, and writes thus:

“Among our passengers was a young man who was the best representation of a decayed gentleman I had ever seen. He was of the aristocracy of the country, his family being of pure Spanish blood, and once of great importance in Mexico. His father had been governor of the province [this is an error] and having amassed a large property settled at San Diego. His son was sent to Mexico where he received the best education, and went into the first society of the capital. Misfortune, extravagance, and the want of funds soon ate the estate up and Don Juan Bandini returned from Mexico accomplished, poor, and proud, and without any office or occupation, to lead the life of most young men of the better families-dissolute and extravagant when the means were at hand. He had a slight and elegant figure, moved gracefully, danced and waltzed beautifully, spoke the best of Castilian, with a pleasant and refined voice and accent, and had throughout the bearing of a man of high birth and figure.”

Upon the arrival at Santa Barbara, Bandini danced at the wedding of Alfred Robinson and Señorita de la Guerra y Noriega, concerning which Dana says: “A great deal has been said about our friend Don Juan Bandini; and when he did appear, which was toward the close of the evening, he certainly gave us the most graceful dancing that I had ever seen. He was dressed in white pantaloons, neatly made, a short jacket of dark silk gaily figured, white stockings and thin morocco slippers upon his very small feet.”

Lieutenant Derby was well acquainted with the name and fame of Don Juan, and in his first letter from San Diego, in 1853, he pauses in his fooling long enough to write: “San Diego is the residence of Don Juan Bandini, whose mansion fronts on one side of the plaza. He is well known to the early settlers of California as a gentleman of distinguished politeness and hospitality. His wife and daughters are among the most beautiful and accomplished ladies of our State.”

Davis bears testimony to Bandini’s worth. “He was,” he says, “a man of decided ability and fine character.”

Bancroft admits that he was one of the most prominent men of his time in California, of fair abilities and education, a charming public speaker, a fluent writer, and personally much beloved. He thinks, however, that in the larger fields of statesmanship he fell somewhat short-an estimate which is one of the penalties paid by those who, whatever their ability or deserts, fail of the largest success.

There is also contemporary testimony to the fact that Don Juan possessed a gift of sardonic humor and was somewhat given to sarcasm.

[from Smythe, William Ellsworth. History of San Diego, 1542-1908. San Diego: History Co., 1907. (pages 164-167)]

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