The Historical Archives of Baja California Sur: Their Antecedents and Recent Creation

January 1, 1972

The Journal of San Diego History
SAN DIEGO HISTORICAL SOCIETY QUARTERLY
Winter 1972, Volume 18, Number 1
James E Moss, Editor

By MIGUEL LEON-PORTILLA
National University of Mexico

Images from the Article

Documentary sources for the history of Baja California are abundant beyond expectation, and historians who have been concerned with them will readily agree with this statement. As a case in point, during the last decade a number of scholars have prepared several documentary editions related to the history of the Peninsula. A few examples of these can be mentioned: Father Ernest J. Burrus, S.J., among other things, has published several volumes of transcripts relative to the early years of the Jesuit missions, dealing particularly with the activities of Fathers Eusebio Francisco Kino, Francisco Maria Piccolo, and Wenceslaus Linck.1 Dr. W. Michael Mathes has edited four volumes of documents pertaining to travels, explorations and commercial demarcations along the coasts of the Californias during the 16th and 17th centuries;2 and his research, mainly in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville, has led him to prepare four additional volumes soon to be published. In the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas of the National University of Mexico, a new series, “Testimonios Sudcalifornianos,” has been initiated, with three documents relative to the establishment of the Jesuit mission in La Paz.3 And finally, another example is offered by the “Baja California Travels Series,” which contains, at present, twenty-three volumes and is under the general editorship of Edwin Carpenter and Glen Dawson in Los Angeles.4

It is common knowledge that there are many archives, repositories and libraries that preserve this wealth of documents, and a large number of historians have actually consulted some of them during the last century or so. Ulises Urbano Lassepas, Hubert H. Bancroft, Manuel Orozco y Berra, Herbert E. Bolton, Henry R. Wagner, Zephyrin Engelhardt, Constantino Bayle, Peter Masten Dunne, Gerardo Decorme, Jorge Flores, Alvaro del Portillo, Peveril Meigs, S. F. Cook, Ellen C. Barret, Pablo L. Martinez, Roberto Ramos, Peter Gerhard, and Homer Aschmann, as well as Burrus and Mathes, merit special mention in this respect, and others, too, should be included if we were to list all those concerned with this matter. In fact, so rich are Baja California sources in the various repositories of Mexico, Spain, the United States, France, the Vatican, Italy and other countries that it could often be said that for many years there were, outside of the Peninsula, more files of papers relative to its history than there were human beings in all its geographical extension.

At the same time, it was almost unknown that materials also existed in Baja California which would eventually permit the organization of historical archives there. It was clear that the Governments of the modern State and of the Federal Territory, as well as the Municipalities in the north and the Delegations in the south, had their own files. But it could be supposed?and it is so in most cases?that these documents referred mainly to public administration and other events during recent decades, while concerning the old missions we knew that, with only two exceptions, none of the ancient records survived in the Peninsula. It is, therefore, of the greatest interest to report the creation of what has been officially designated as the Archivo Historico de Baja California Sur, the inauguration of which took place in the building of La Casa de la Cultura in La Paz, on May 9, 1969, by Lic. Hugo Cervantes del Rio, then Governor of the Territory.

Let me now briefly recall for you the circumstances that made possible the creation of the Historical Archives. Following that something will be said about the documents preserved there and about the origins and vicissitudes of these materials, which are so basic for the history of the Peninsula.

In a trip I made to La Paz toward the end of 1968, at the invitation of the Government of the Territory, I inquired about the archives extant in that city. Thanks to the assistance provided by the Director of Social Action in the Territory, Professor Armando Trasvina Taylor, I was able to visit the place where numerous bundles of old documents were kept. These papers were originally housed in the old archives of the Territorial Government, and in the former Municipality of La Paz. When the new Federal Palace was built, these documents had been taken to an annex of the Public Jail. A superficial examination, made with the help of some employees of the Department of Social Action, permitted me to see that here were important documents relating to the Peninsula’s history during the 19th century, and, to a lesser extent, during the last years of the 18th century.

As Director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas of the National University of Mexico, I expressed to the Governor of the Territory, Lic. Cervantes del Rio, the importance of organizing and classifying these materials, and of depositing them in a more appropriate place. I am happy to say that his reaction to this proposal was most favorable. Two members of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, Professors Guadalupe Perez San Vicente and Beatriz Arteaga, then traveled to La Paz to collaborate in the project. As a result of their work, and of the work of the personnel of the Department of Social Action, the bundles of documents were finally deposited on the first floor of La Casa de la Cultura and a preliminary organization of the archives also began to take place. Documents were distributed in sections or branches such as Justice, Economics and Government, with a series of subdivisions such as Municipality, Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Fishing and so forth. A scheme of cataloging was also established as a basis for the subsidiary indexes: Geographical, Chronological, Onomastical and Thematic.

The personnel who took charge of the Historical Archives of Baja California Sur were joined in their work by alumni of the Escuela Normal, who were then trained in the methods and techniques of archival organization. From the inauguration of this archive on May 9, 1969, until the present day, its personnel, together with its director, Miss Virginia Acuna, have continued their endeavors to accomplish a complete classification and to prepare indices of the documents.

Before offering a sample of the importance of the documentation, I will refer to its origins and to the vicissitudes it suffered during the 19th century, which will serve as a brief account of the history of the Historical Archives. Up to 1830, no concentration of documents existed in La Paz, nor was there any depository which might be compared to archives. The reasons behind this situation offer an easy explanation. It is well known that the region and port of La Paz were visited and explored many times during the 16th and 17th centuries; however, during all this time, no permanent foundation was established there. It was not until 1720, thanks to the Jesuits Jaime Bravo and Juan de Ugarte, that the mission of Nuestra Senora del Pilar da La Paz was founded; but the mission was to be short lived and due to the great Indian uprising was abandoned in 1734. Following the end of the rebellion, the mission was re-established, but only for a few years. La Paz was abandoned again in 1748 and the few Indians who lived there were taken to the mission of Todos Santos on the Pacific coast. There remained only a few buildings, used as storehouses, for the port continued to be the outlet for the products of the mines of Santa Ana and of nearby San Antonio.

In 1811, La Paz received as permanent residents the soldier Juan Jose Espinosa together with his family. Espinosa had received orders to supervise the arrival of ships in the port. But the closest antecedent of the modern city of La Paz is to be found in the following year, when, about 1823, a larger number of persons began to settle there and petitioned the authorities of the Territory to grant them lands for homes and small orchards.6

A misfortune which occurred in 1829 in the town of Loreto, then the capital of the entire Peninsula, signaled the beginning of considerable changes in La Paz. A strong flood from the arroyo near Loreto left the town in ruins and it was therefore decided to transfer the seat of government to the port of La Paz. At that time, the officials carried with them whatever documents had survived in the Loreto archives and these documents constituted the original nucleus of the first archives in La Paz. To these were added the few papers of the La Paz township. The latter had been functioning for some years, though still subject to the Municipality of San Antonio.7

It must not be imagined, however, that the documents brought from Loreto were especially abundant, for the Loreto archives had suffered losses since earlier times. The papers which the Jesuits must have kept there had dwindled since the time of their expulsion early in 1768 and many were removed by the visitador don Jose de Galvez. It might also be supposed that the Franciscans and Dominicans who successively took charge of the missions made use, with different aims, of some of the Loreto documents. Lastly, it is known that in 1822 the place was sacked by the forces who arrived on board the Araucano, a ship which bore the Chilean flag; on this last occasion the losses suffered by the archives increased considerably. In any case, some important documents were taken to La Paz when the capital was established there in 1830 and it is worth mentioning here that in what are today the new Historical Archives are preserved letters, signed in Todos Santos and in San Jose del Cabo, which precisely refer to the attack by the Araucano and by another Chilean ship, the Independencia.

The papers brought from Loreto, together with those of the Municipality of La Paz, began to be organized and classified for the first time during the administration of Lic. Luis del Castillo Negrete, governor of the Terrritory from 1837 to 1842.8 In time these documents?some dating from the 18th century and others from the first years of independent Mexico?were augmented by others dealing with public administration and sundry subjects. But new misfortunes were to befall the new-born archives. In 1847, during the American invasion, the town of La Paz fell into the hands of the United States forces and a battle of some importance was waged there. It was then, as stated two years later by Colonel Rafael Espinosa, governor of the Territory, “. . . that the archives of the local government were delivered to me, incomplete and disorganized due to the disturbances suffered by the Territory during the American invasion . ..”9

Nevertheless, though Governor Espinosa took interest in setting in order anew the archives of the government, these were soon on the verge of being lost, this time both totally and definitively. For in 1853, while Espinosa was still governor, William Walker suddenly took the port of La Paz. This adventurer, who proclaimed himself President of the Republic of Baja California, showed some interest in the archives of the region. Perhaps his attention was first drawn to them when he saw some of his men manufacturing cartridges with the leaves of the old folios; in any case, he ordered all the documents to be immediately taken aboard his ship, the Caroline. This is supported by several eyewitnesses, including one of the filibusters, who, referring to the happenings of the day, notes that “here we remained until Sunday the 6th, when the President determined to move the seat of Government to San Lucas. In accordance we reembarked, taking with us Ex-Governor Espinosa and the public documents.”10

The events which occurred after this are worthy of an adventure story. Before leaving the port, Walker also took captive Juan Rebolledo, who was just arriving to take over from Espinosa as governor. Thus with the two governors and the public documents aboard, Walker set sail for cape San Lucas, from where he continued on in a northerly direction as far as Ensenada. In February, 1854, he decided to establish the capital of his “Republic” on the site of the former mission of San Vicente. There he was forced into conflict with groups of armed Mexicans. Meanwhile, the two governors, who, together with the archives, had remained prisoners on the Caroline, managed to prevail upon the ship’s captain who, to the surprise of Walker, sailed away with his vessel. Soon afterward, Espinosa and Rebolledo landed in La Paz, and with them reappeared the sadly battered archives.

Apparently little attention was given to these papers for a long period of time. Urbano Ulises Lassepas, commissioned by the Mexican government to study problems of colonization in Baja California in 1858, visited the Peninsula and was able to report:

The archives have been treated with a culpable indifference by the authorities in charge of their preservation. The very disorder they are in betrays the incompetence of the administrators. The government archives were partially organized at first under the administration of Lic. Luis del Castillo Negrete. And the same was attempted later under Colonel Rafael Espinosa. But two events, the first predictable?the war with the United States of North America?and the second, unforeseen?the appearance of Walker in 1853 ?erased all traces of those preliminary labors . . .

The archives contain all the correspondence of the viceroys, governors, audiencias and heads of missions from 1768 to 1830, when the capital of the Peninsula was transferred to La Paz. There lies the history of the administration in fragments; in pieces . . .

The most noteworthy events in the history of the Peninsula lie in those fugitive and yellowing sheets. A scrupulous, intelligent examination of them would reveal most valuable materials . . .11

Unfortunately, with one exception, no one bothered to undertake “a scrupulous, intelligent examination” of the papers. The exception was don Adrian Valades who, towards the end of the 19th century, prepared various historical notes based upon documents from the archives of La Paz. Yet, while practically no one cared about these ancient papers, in at least one case documents none the less were removed during the last century. As proof, the following case can be cited: Various official communications of Captain Manuel Pineda, written at the time of the United States invasion, were later acquired by Hubert Howe Bancroft and today they are preserved in the library in Berkeley which bears this historian’s name.

Many years passed before anyone took interest in reorganizing and using, for historical purposes, the documents remaining at La Paz. To General Amado Aguirre, governor of the Territory between 1927 and 1929, is due the credit for having realized anew the importance of what was then known as the Archivo del Gobierno del Distrito Sur. By his resolution a great number of documents were compiled and published, in La Paz, in 1928, under the title Contribucion para la historia de Baja California.12

As already stated, the documents of the archives of the Government of the Territory and of the Municipality of La Paz were deposited several years ago in an annex of the public jail when the new Federal palace was built. Fortunately, all of these papers were transferred to La Casa de la Cultura, where, on May 9, 1969, the Archivo Historico de Baja California Sur was inaugurated. It is worth repeating that this documentation is not only of interest for the study of the past of the Territory but also for the history of the State of Baja California. For both portions of the Peninsula at one time constituted a single entity, with their capital in La Paz, and it was not until 1888 that the separate Northern and Southern Districts were created.

It is not possible to attempt here a description of those historical materials now in the process of classification; however, one document will be reproduced here that demonstrates the importance of the collection. Dealing with the adhesion of Baja California to the Mexican Federal Republic in 1824, this document, written on two leaves, was signed in what was still known as the “Presidio of Loreto, Capital of the Province,” on August 16, 1824. At the head, in a different hand from that of the text:

Document transcript in English
[English translation of document]
Document transcript in Spanish
[Spanish transcription of document]

With the transcription of this significant text and the reprinting of the Act in the original Spanish [above right], I conclude these notes on the background and recent creation of the Historical Archives in La Paz.

FOOTNOTES—?Historical Archives of Baja California Sur

1. Ernest J. Burrus, ed., Kino Reports to Headquarters (Roma: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1954); Kino escriba a la Duquesa (Madrid: Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1958).
Ernest J. Burrus, ed., Francisco Ma. Piccolo, Informe del estado de la nueva Cristiandad de California, 1702, y Otros documentos, Coleccion Chimalistac (Madrid; Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1962).
Wenceslaus Linck’s Diary of his 1766 Expedition to Northern Baja California, Translated into English, Edited and Annotated by F. J. Burrus, S.D., Baja California Travels Series: 5 (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1966).
Wenceslaus Linck’s Reports and Letters, 1762-1778, Translated into English, Edited and Annotated by E. J. Burros, S.J., Baja California Travels Series: 9 (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1967).

2. W. Michael Mathes, ed., Californiana I, Documentos para la historia de la demarcation comercial de California, 1582-1632, 2 vols., Coleccion Chimalistac (Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1965).
W. Michael Mathes, ed., Californiana II, Documentos para la historia de la explotacion comercial de California, 1611-1679, 2 vols., Coleccion Chimalistac (Madrid: Ediciones Jose Porrua Turanzas, 1970-1971).

3. Miguel Leon-Portilla, ed., Testimonios Sudcalifornianos, Nueva entrada y establecimiento en el Puerto de La Paz (Account of Jaime Bravo, Letter of Juan de Ugarte, and Journal of Clemente Guillen), (Mexico: Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas, Universidad Nacional, 1970).

4. Edwin Carpenter and Glen Dawson, General eds., Baja California Travels Series, 23 vols. already published, with texts translated into English, introductions, and footnotes by different researchers (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 19651971).

5. In the mission at the present parish of Santa Rosalia de Mulege are preserved the first part of a mission book; a burial register from San Borja (1762-1768); a baptismal register from San Ignacio (1743-1836); fragments of the baptismal register of La Purisima (1757-1803); and of the burial register of the same mission (1757-1808).
In the parish church of La Paz, in the small archive adjoining, are a marriage register from S. Ignacio (1748-1840); a baptismal register from S. Borja (1762-1827); and a burial register from Santa Gertrudis (1752-1816).
More information about these and other mission books is provided by Peter Gerhard, “Misiones de Baja California,” Historia Mexicana, El Colegio de Mexico, Vol. III, April-June, 1954, 600-605.

6. These data are from the notes “La fundacion de la cuidad de La Paz,” written in 1893 by an old resident of the place, Adrian Valades. This has been published under the title of Temas historicos de la Baja California (Mexico: Editorial Jus, 1963), pp. 116-124.

7. The aforementioned Adrian Valades states that toward the end of the last century he found in the archives of the Municipality of La Paz, some documents older than the date of the establishment of the capital of Baja California there in 1830. Ibid., p. 154.

8. This information is provided by Ulises Urbano Lassepas who, some time later, became personally interested in the documentation. See: Lassepas, Historia de la colonization de la Baja California, Primer Memorial (Mexico: Ed. Vicente Garcia Torres, 1859), p. 116.

9. Rafael Espinosa, “Sobre las disposiciones que instituyeron la Diputacion Territorial, 1849,” in Contribution para la historia de la Baja California (La Paz, 1928), p. 61.

10. Arthur Woodward, ed., The Republic of Lower California, 1853-1854, in the Words of Its State Papers, Eyewitnesses, and Contemporary Reporters (Los Angeles: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1966), p. 25.

11. Lassepas, Historia de la Colonization de la Baja, California, pp. 116-117.

12. In this collection 83 documents are included, all of them of first rate importance for the history of the Peninsula.


One of Mexico’s leading anthropologists, Miguel Leon-Portilla‘s studies of Nahuatl culture have won him international acclaim. Three of his books have been translated into English. Best known are The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston, 1962), and Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind (Norman, 1963). Dr. Leon-Portilla is presently Director of the Instituto de Investigaciones Historicas at the National University of Mexico.