By Sister Catherine McShane, Ph.D.
Sister Catherine McShane is a professor of history and
chairman of the department at the University of San Diego College for Women.
She was born Omaba, Nebraska, received her B. A. degree from Duchesne College
in that city, and her M.A. from Loyola University in Chicago. She holds the
doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley where she
studied under the direction of the late Herbert E. Bolton.
Sister McShane’s field of research was the work of
congregacion in the frontier missions of New Spain in the early seventeenth
century. Her published articles deal with "Pueblo-Founding in Early
Mexico," and "Hernando de Santaren, Pioneer and Diplomat."
Her most recent interest, since coming to San Diego, has
centered on the Estudillo-Pedrorena family of Old Town.
Sister McShane bolds membership in: The American Historical
Association, The Organization of American Historians, The Catholic Historical
Association, The American Association for State and Local History, The
California Historical Society, The San Diego History Center. The San Diego
José Antonio Estudillo, who built his home at the south end of
the plaza about 1828, was the son of the then captain of the presidio, José
In 1828 José María Estudillo was just ending a military career of
thirty-three years during which he had served his king at Loreto in Baja
California, Monterey and San Diego. He was a man of average ability, for whom
faithful service had won advancement until he had been placed in command first
at Monterey, then at San Diego. He is probably best known for his inland
explorations made in 1819 when he penetrated as far as Soledad and Tulare. He
was also assigned to accompany the Russian Kotzbue to Fort Ross, and in 1823 he
led the troops sent to extricate Romero and guide him safely to the Colorado – a
mission which ended in failure. These excursions seem to have brought him either
blame or little positive results. But they must have made good tales to tell his
sons, José Joaquín and José Antonio, as the lads were growing up at Monterey.
They were young men when the captain was named comandante of San Diego in
These years of service at Monterey and San Diego won
Estudillo friendships not only with the governor under whom he worked, for
example, with Don Luis Antonio Argülello and José Maríá de Echeandía,
but also with the captains of the foreign vessels who were allowed to put in freely at
the California ports. Among these visitors was Auguste Duhaut-Cilly who has left
such an uncomplimentary description of the presidio of San Diego, calling
it "the saddest in California except San Pedro, which is deserted." But within
the dull walls of the fort, Estudillo had his garden and the Frenchman agreed to
carry slips from California to help the beginnings of argiculture in the
Sandwich Islands. Letters from Estudillo to one of the settlers in the Islands,
Don Francisco de Paula Marín, record these gifts. In 1826, Estudillo wrote
Francisco; "I am sending "algedrae, mint, balmgentle, borage and rue which I
have in the very orchard or garden of my home. The rosemary will have to come
from Santa Barbara as there isn’t any yet elsewhere and the olive trees will go to
you, also the slips prepared for transplanting," in 1827 he wrote: " I am
sending you in a box a dozen little peach trees and the mint,.. .the olive trees
Dane will take in another box; in 1828, by Duhaut-Chilly, "a small box of fresh
plants of excellent peaches."
Besides his military duties José María had taken his part in
the political changes of the province of California. He took his oath of
allegiance to the new government and in 1822 formed part of the juntas called
that year to elect the deputy to the new Cortes in Mexico and to consider
such local matters as the status of the rnissions and the establishment of the
provincial legislature and local councils. Though native-born Spaniards were
not in favor in those days, José María won recognition from the governor for his
"activity, intelligence, and services to the republic." He seems to have
retired from active service about a year before his death on April 8, 1830. He
was buried the next day in the presidio chapel.
José María’ s example of service was to be continued by his
two sons. José Joaquín is best known in the San Francisco area where he acquired
land holdings on the east side of San Francisco Bay next to the Peralta grant.
He became the founder of San Leandro.
The second son, José Antonio, was to take an active part in
the early development of the south. He probably came to San Diego for the first
time when his father replaced Captain Ruiz for the year 1820-1821. Was it
then that he met the young daughter of Sergeant Cristobel Dominguez and fell in
love with her? It is easy to imagine this friendship ripening within the presidio
and the plans they made as they looked out over the open space beyond the walls.
Perhaps so. Certain it is that four years later José Antonio, now a lieutenant,
and María Victoria Dominguez were married in the presidio on Monday, March 1,
They lived in the north for a short period of time taut soon
were back in San Diego where they formed part of the small community, sharing
its dangers, its joys and its rare moments of excitement.
Some of the last were furnished by the arrival of the
American fur traders, daring men who had followed the beaver around and over the
Rocky mountains into California, As intruders into the closed area, they were
arrested and sent to face the governor in San Diego. At least two of these men
have left accounts of their stay – none too pleasant – in the presidio jail.
Jedidiah Smith, brought to the presidio from San Gabriel in 1826, was released
at the entreaty of the traders and on his promise to leave Mexican soil. The
next year Sylvester Pattie and his son, James Ohio, had a longer stay. Indeed
Sylvester became seriously ill, possibly from exposure and harsh treatment, and
died in the presidio jail – the first American, probably, to be buried in
In the same year, 1827, José Antonio Estudillo and his
brother-in-law, Juan Bandini, were granted in common a lot, one hundred varas
square, in the newly surveyed plot outside the presidio walls. The
Estudillos were the first to build their home, choosing a site that overlooked
the plaza, and planning what was to become one of the "mansions" of old San
Diego. Its five feet thick adobe walls gave protection in heat and cold. They
were coated with white plaster and the twelve rooms filled with plank floors.
The roof was of old Spanish tiles and the heavy supporting beams were bound
together with leather thongs. Originally the house was surmounted by a small
tower used by the family and guests to view entertainment, in the plaza. This
home, with the Bandini house a block away, was to become the center of the social life of Old Town.
Here for over forty years María Victoria Dominguez de
Estudillo would preside, participating in the life of the Mexican pueblo and the
new American city as she had as a girl in that of the Spanish presidio on the
hill. From all that can be glimpsed of her – and that is tantalizingly little –
a picture emerges of personal charm and gracious hospitality, of the young
matron welcoming her guests: Alfred Robinson, the American trader who was
present at the blessing of the house in 1829; Echeandía, the governor, who moved
to San Diego for its climate and to be near his "love," Josefa Carrillo;
Duhaut-Cilly, the Frenchman on Ms grand tour around the world.
But soon tenure of public office and land holdings evidenced
José Antonio’s growing importance in the community. In 1828-1830 he was named
revenue-collector and treasurer. In 1835-36, alcalde and juez, and
again treasurer in 1840. Office and friendship with the governor probably aided
him in securing land. For these were the years of the secularization of the
missions and the coveting of the sweeping missions lands was rampant among the
pioneers. María Victoria’s father, Juan José Dominguez, was said to have been
the first grantee of royal lands in California, Her father, sergeant (then
lieutenant) Dominguez had in 1822 received the grant of the San Pedro Rancho
which her brother would develop into the Dominguez estate of today.
The Estudillos were not to be far behind. Their first grants
came in 1829: the Janal Rancho, to José Antonio, and the Otay Rancho to his
sister, Magdalena. Both of these grants lay east and southeast of present day
In 1835 the Temecula grant was received by José Antonio. But this was small in comparison
to the huge grants of the last days of Mexican rule.
Two large areas of land came into their hands in 1845. The El
Cajon Rancho, granted to Mariá Antonio Estudillo de Pedrorena, daughter of José
Antonio, comprised present day El Cajon, Bostonia, Santee and Flinn Springs.
The three grants of the San Jacinto area: San Jacinto Viejo to
José Antonio Estudillo, San Jacinto Nueve to Miguel de Pedrorena, his
son-in-law, and Sobrante de San Jacinto to Miguel de Pedrorena and Rosario
Estudillo de Agüirre, daughter of José Antonio, comprised over one hundred
The San Jacinto ranch lands belonged to Mission San Luis Rey
of which mission José Antonio had been appointed administrator and major domo in 1840.
These huge grants would seem to imply that José Antonio used
his position as administrator to advance the fortunes of his family and such may
indeed have been the case. Yet he seems to have been held in respect and trust
by the padres, for even Engelhardt, who surely does not favor the "land-grabbers,"notes
that Father Oliva, when forced to retire to San Juan Capistrano in 1846,
requested José Antonio Estudillo to act as administrator of Mission San Diego
"in order that during the absence of a priest, he might care for what was left
of the Mission."
These princely holdings gave the Estudillo family
two more homes. Of all three, "Casa Loma," at the San Jacinto rancho was their
favorite. The old adobe on the hill had been built as a residence of the
major-domos of the cattle ranch of San Luis Rey. And the Estudillos took full
advantage of it. It would be the scene of many family gatherings
as would the adjacent Las Flores Rancho, an adjunct of the
larger Santa Margarita Rancho. The old San Jacinto adobe is still preserved,
for Francisco Pico incorporated it without change into his new home built in
1885. This part of the rancho has remained in the family but much of the grant
was sold to the San Jacinto Land Company in 1880.
The third home was in El Cajon, the property of the
Pedrorenas. It was here that José Antonio Estudillo retired during the Mexican-American
war. He had declared himself neutral in that struggle and so high was the esteem
in which he was held that both sides respected him. Maríá Victoria, however,
remained in Old Town, giving courage and spirit to the women and children
gathered within the strong walls of her home when the hill was held by "the
Californians." However, she must have been at El Cajon often in the next years
as tales are told of her charity to immigrants coming over the hills
during the mining rush of 1849. Among them she was referred to as "The Lady of
By 1850 peace had returned to California. In the elections of
that year José Antonio was chosen the first county assessor. Plans were also
being made that year to carry out his dream that the city would really grow as a
port when moved down nearer the bay. An attempt was made to carry out the plan
but the venture was premature and it failed. Before that happened death struck
the Estudillo family in swift succession. Miguel Pedrorena died in March, 1850.
His young wife, only twenty-five, died the next year leaving four small children
all under ten. Maríá Victoria Estudillo immediately adopted these grandchildren
as she had, also, welcomed the five Roca children, orphaned in the death of
their mother, her sister. She bore this new responsibility alone for the
following year, 1852, José Antonio died. He was only forty-seven and his loss
was keenly felt by all in the little town where he was respected and admired.
For twenty-one years more María Victoria continued her works of
charity, rearing her new family, caring for the sick, rejoicing with her sons
and daughters as they, too, took their parts in the life of the town. She, who
had watched its beginnings, and suffered in its decline, lived to see its
rebirth under Horton before her death in 1873.
Later generations of the Estudillos have continued the work of the founders
of the family. Some married into other well-known pioneer
families (Agüirre, Marron, Altimirano.) Others joined fortunes with the
newcomers (Pedrorena, Pendleton, Mulholland, Roubidoux). In their homes in Old
Town, Casa Loma, and Los Flores they kept alive the tradition of generous
hospitality and service which had characterized the first generations. It is
fitting that the city they served, now grown into a metropolis, should preserve
the home of this family distinguished in its history and that the old adobe be
properly designated as the "Estudillo House" and not, as it is now erroneously
called "Ramona’s Marriage Place."