San Diego: Where California Began


Californians heard of the successful revolution in Mexico when the battles were long past. The news meant little, for the influence of the national government seemed unimportant in their lives. On April 20,1822, the Mexican flag was raised over the presidio and San Diegans swore their allegiance to it. Luis Argüello was appointed the first Mexican governor.

In 1825 the presidio became, at least informally, the capital of both Upper and Lower California, much to the disgust of the residents of the usual capital, Monterey. The change was due to a preference for San Diego on the part of the new governor, Jose Maria Echeandia. A tall, dignified Spaniard who suffered from rheumatism, he was fond of San Diego’s equable climate. He also was fond, it is said, of a beautiful San Diego girl named Josefa Carrillo. Although the fondness was all on his side, he did not wish to leave a town which was graced by the presence of the lovely Josefa.

During the 1820s what is now called Old Town came into existence. The Christianization of the natives and the lessening of fear of attacks by foreign enemies, together with the disappearance of royal control over the presidio, encouraged people with orchards and gardens outside the walls to build houses convenient to their plots of land. Captain Francisco Maria Ruiz, the commander of the presidio, was the first to build at the bottom of the hill. By 1829 San Diego was described as being a collection of thirty rude houses, mostly occupied by retired soldiers and their extensive families. The presidio, with its dwindling garrison, began to decay.

The town in general, however, was prospering at that time. Annual port revenues rose to $34,000, six times those of San Francisco, as a result of the development of the hide trade. There were few people in California and no intensive agriculture, but the hills abounded with the descendants of the cattle the Franciscan missionaries had brought when they came to establish the mission chain. The animals’ hides came to be called “California banknotes” and were the one thing of real value for export that the economy produced. The hide trade opened in 1822 with the arrival on the bay’s placid waters of the ship Sachem, of Boston.

Traffic in Hides

When Yankee entrepreneurs learned of the abundance of cheap hides in California, they dispatched ships by the dozen. From Californians of good families and backgrounds requests for grants of land poured into the state capital – wherever it happened to be at the time – for the governor’s action. The various governors granted range land by the square league, with the cattle on it, virtually for the asking. The herds were improvidently slaughtered for their hides and tallow; little of even the best meat was butchered out of the carcass. Buzzards and coyotes grew fat and multitudinous.

San Diego became the depot for the trade. Ships of many flags gathered hides along the coast and brought them to San Diego to be cured. Hide houses, barnlike in size and appearance, were erected along the beach inside Ballast Point. Each bore the name of the ship for which it served as a base.

An international settlement grew up, of crewmen who cleaned the fresh hides and cured them in brine. Richard Henry Dana’s immortal description of this community, facetiously called “Hide Park,” in his book Two Years Before the Mast, makes a fascinating picture.

To trade for the hides the Boston ships brought guns, powder, hardware, toilet articles, woolens, cotton goods, boots, shoes and other items from the Atlantic states. China was the source of silk sashes, shawls and rebozos. Perfumes and liquors came from France. All were displayed below decks aboard the ships, in sales rooms created by the fixing in place of temporary bulkheads.

The day that a ship’s snowy canvas began to lift above the horizon beyond Point Loma was a day of anticipation for the womenfolk of San Diego’s “California bank-note-wealthy” ranch owners. It was a great social event to be taken out by the ship’s boats, along with all the other ladies in town, to look over stocks that one had never seen before.

The ladies were extravagant spenders. They wanted only the best, and a great deal of that. They were no less lavish with their time, covering with embroidery everything they bought, from clothes to curtains and bedclothes.

People lived chiefly upon beef, corn, and beans, often in combinations such as tamales and chili con carne. They entertained themselves with celebrations of religious fiestas, with rodeos to demonstrate their prowess as vaqueros, with bull fights (in which anyone could participate), with bull and bear fights, and with revolutionary activities. The people took part as principals in all these diversions.

Yankee Jitters

Yankee visitors from the sea were accepted into citizenship, church, and family by Mexican Californians, but fear of expansion to the coast by the United States remained constantly with the officials, who lived in apprehension of overland invasion. It was felt that Americans could be kept in hand so long as they came by sea as merchants, in controllable numbers. However, any overland communication might fill the vacant land of California with acquisitive foreigners.

The first American to come across the deserts into California arrived in San Diego January 1, 1827, to start the year wrong for the governor. He was the famous trapper and trail blazer Jedediah Smith, known as “The Bible Toter” because he never went anywhere without a copy of the good book. This man had discovered the trails which became the highways of the westward movement, the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, and lesser routes all through the great West.

Governor Echeandia had him thrown in jail. Only the intercession of the Americans belonging to the ships on the bay effected his release; he was sent on his way after he had promised never to return to California. But now the way was broken across the wastes and the tide was bound to follow it.

In 1828 Sylvester Pattie of Kentucky came into town from the east via Lower California, with eight trappers. Among them was his son James Ohio Pattie. The entire party was jailed in a bastion of the presidio wall, and the elder Pattie died while in prison. James spent his days plotting revenge against the Governor, whom he held responsible. Echeandia made attempts to show kindness to the angry young man, but found his overtures rebuffed. James gained his freedom in return for agreeing to vaccinate all the people, white and red, in California, with a small phial of vaccine he had brought with him on his journeys. It appears that the governor, far from having believed that so little vaccine could do so great a work, simply wanted to be gracefully rid of the young fire eater.

Los Insurrectos

Echeandia’s partiality to San Diego, together with the general destitution of the too-often unpaid soldiers, promoted revolution in the north in 1829. The presidio of San Diego then bustled with activity. The blacksmith tolled long hours repairing guns, sharpening swords, and manufacturing the favorite weapon of Californians, the makeshift lance. The governor marched away with the men of San Diego, who bore the tools of war the smith had forged. At Santa Barbara and Monterey they contacted the northerners and found that the insurrection faded away in the face of authority. This uprising, called the Solis Insurrection after its leader Joaquin Solis, was the first of a series of rebellions that lasted until the Mexican flag was hauled down in the plazas and the Stars and Stripes replaced it.

In 1830 Manuel Victoria was sent from Mexico to be the new governor, and moved the capital to Monterey. He proved to be an autocrat, banishing people from their California homes for real or fanciful reasons. Some of the exiles, including the powerful landowners Abel Stearns and Jose Carrillo, got only as far as San Diego on their involuntary journeys to the border. While here they discussed the situation with Juan Bandini and Pio Pico. Conversation ripened into conspiracy. The participants walked up the hill to the presidio, and as no attack was anticipated, captured the post easily and took control of the town. They then persuaded Echeandia to join them and lead the revolt, and off they went northward, taking Los Angeles on the way, and meeting Victoria at Cahuenga Pass (now on the 101 freeway between Hollywood and North Hollywood). The forces joined battle, more or less, and two men were killed. Echeandia’s men ran away and Victoria retired to San Gabriel Mission, where he resigned his position, leaving the post of governor to Echeandia, who soon had revolutions of his own to deal with.

Confusion reigned until 1833, when Jose Figueroa, a brevet brigadier general and former governor of Sinaloa and Sonora, arrived from Mexico with a federal appointment as governor. An administrator made extremely able by experience and temperament, he is remembered as the best Mexican governor of California. However, his many merits are somewhat offset by his being the executive who implemented government orders to secularize church property. He granted mission lands to private individuals, thereby stripping thousands of natives of the protection of the Church at a time when they were not equipped by aptitude or training to compete with white men on the latters’ terms. Santiago Arguello (a brother of the ex-governor) received the ranges of the San Diego Mission from a later governor, as Figueroa’s policy was carried out by his successors.

A Town Is Born

In 1834 San Diego became a pueblo — or town — officially, instead of a military post, and civil rule had its beginnings. Juan Maria Osuna was elected first alcalde, or mayor, although his functions included some judicial ones not usually associated with that office. By 1838, however, the population of San Diego had decreased so much that the settlement was deprived of the dignity of the title pueblo and simply made a department of the pueblo of Los Angeles. By 1840 only 140 persons called San Diego home. The presidio was crumbling away. There is a story that the garrison finally was reduced to one man and then disbanded, if the act could be called that, for lack of funds. At last the tiles and furnishings of the old fort were sold by an officer to defray the back pay that the government owed him. This left the adobe walls unprotected; the rain soon reduced them to the hillocks of mud which are all that are left of the first settlement on the Pacific Coast of the United States, and the one-time capital of Upper and Lower California. In 1840 the contents of Fort Guijarros were sold to Juan Machado for $40. San Diego ceased to be a military town.

The decline had been steady, although far from peaceful. In 1836 Juan B. Alvarado had attained the governorship of California through a revolution that he led to achieve that end. He favored centering governmental activities in Monterey. Southern Californians protested in vain. At last Juan Bandini and Santiago Arguello organized a revolution and seized Los Angeles, in order to overthrow the power of Governor Alvarado in the South. Native troubles in San Diego required the attention of the revolutionaries, so they left Los Angeles to return to San Diego and deal with the problems arising at home.

Bandini’s Army

Once San Diego’s natives were pacified, Bandini enlisted the white men of the town into what he called the Army of the Supreme Government. About one hundred strong it marched north to attack Alvarado’s authority. At San Luis Rey the force was overtaken by a Mexican commissioner, who had been sent to California by the federal government to put a new national constitution into effect here. The revolutionary army happily took the oath of allegiance to the new government, and continued northward with the commissioner to help effect the changes required by the Republic of Mexico and thereby overthrow the state government. At Los Angeles the citizens staged a fiesta to welcome the arrivals and the change, and everyone took the new oath of allegiance.

Governor Alvarado raised an army and led it south to suppress the insurrection. At Santa Barbara he encountered the federal commissioner, who was on his way north. Alvarado volunteered to take the oath, too, and was confirmed by the commissioner as governor. The Army of the Supreme Government, cheated out of a good revolution, disconsolately turned its face toward San Diego once more.

In October 1837 Carlos Antonio Carrillo of San Diego claimed to have received an appointment from Mexico as governor. He was accepted by Southern California but Alvarado refused to relinquish control in the North. Carrillo strengthened his hold on San Diego by declaring Monterey and San Francisco closed as ports of entry, and by establishing a custom house here. Alvarado sent an army south to relieve Santa Barbara which, because of its loyalty to him, was being besieged by Carrillo forces. Alvarado also instructed his men to take Los Angeles and hold it. After a few skirmishes the northerners accomplished their missions.

Carrillo retreated to San Diego to raise a new army with the help of Juan Bandini and others. With about a hundred men supported by three cannon, Carrillo moved northward toward Los Angeles. At Las Flores, just north of the site of Oceanside, he met Alvarado. After an indecisive battle that amounted to very little in the way of violence, the two governors of California met in a conference in which Alvarado outmaneuvered Carrillo and kept not only the office of governor but also Carrillo’s three cannon.

Five Hundred Jailbirds

In 1842 Alvarado was finally replaced by a new governor who could enforce his claims. This man was Manuel Micheltorena, who was sent from Mexico to strengthen the nation’s hold on its turbulent northwestern province in the face of growing American population and interest in the area. Yankees were crossing the mountains to settle around Sutter’s Fort and Sonoma. The Mexican government feared another revolution like that in Texas, and was concerned about what to do with an increasingly expensive accumulation of prisoners in Mexican jails. Therefore the new governor was given the support of five hundred convicts who accepted a pardon proffered to those who would enlist in the army. A miserable lot, these troops were called “Micheltorena’s cholos” by native Californios.

Alfred Robinson described the unhappy soldiers in his book Life in California before the Conquest in these words: “Not one individual among them possessed a jacket or pantaloons, but naked and like the savages, they concealed their nudity with dirty, miserable blankets.”

Quiet San Diego was changed by their coming. Robinson wrote: “Day after day the place resounded with the noise of the trumpet and the drums; and a level spot, on the river’s margin, was the scene of military maneuvers. At night the gardens and vineyards were plundered, and neighboring farms suffered greatly, from the frequency of the soldiers’ visits.” Women could not leave washed clothes unwatched to dry, nor suppers boiling in the kitchen, but some miscreant would steal them. Nothing was safe that had value.

Micheltorena favored Monterey as the capital of the province, despite the fact that the south insisted that Los Angeles should be the seat of government. His departure with his soldiers, for Monterey, did not arouse universal displeasure in San Diego.

Pio Pico and Juan Alvarado raised the banner of rebellion in 1844, and San Diegans flocked to their colors. Los Angeles became the point of concentration and center of activities. The men of the revolution joined battle with Micheltorena’s soldiers at Cahuenga Pass, as the governor approached Los Angeles to put down the uprising. After two horses and one mule were killed in an artillery duel which took no human lives, Micheltorena capitulated, and agreed to leave California and take hischolos with him. Pico assumed power and made Los Angeles his capital. Californian dependence on Mexico ended then to all intents and purposes.

“Operation Premature”

The flow of American frontiersmen had been continuing into Northern California. Under the mistaken belief that war with Mexico had been declared, the United States Navy had attacked and seized Monterey — then the capital — during Micheltorena’s time. The Pacific squadron of frigates was obviously ready to repeat the conquest when the inevitable war over disputed boundaries did break out in reality.

Sure that war would result in American acquisition of his province, Governor Pico, wishing to provide for friends, relatives, and other longtime residents of California, granted away thousands of square miles of land during the last year before hostilities commenced. Among the grants was the largest of all the ranchos in San Diego County, Santa Margarita (now Camp Pendleton), comprising 133,400 acres. He presented it to himself and his brother Andres.

In 1846 American troops under Major John C. Fremont, who had been sent out to California to survey and warned not to fight, assisted Americans from Sonoma to Fort Sutter in the establishment of the temporarily independent Bear Flag Republic. The Navy took Monterey, as expected, and the long-threatened war came to California.

On July 29 the United States Sloop-of-War Cyane, commanded by Captain Samuel Dupont, stood into the port of San Diego bringing John Fremont and the battalion of California volunteers from the Bear Flag country. With them was Kit Carson, the scout.

Captain Dupont sent Lieutenant Stephen C. Rowan, U.S.N., ashore with a boatload of sailors and marines to raise the flag in the Plaza. There was no opposition.