In 1826 a brig flying the Mexican flag sailed into San Diego Bay. For the brig’s master, Captain Henry D. Fitch, it may have been his first glimpse of a few adobe buildings scattered haphazardly on the flat land between the presidio on the hill and the shore. In truth the village of San Diego probably looked no different than any of the other former Spanish colonial settlements on the Pacific Coast in which he had stopped, but this inconspicuous village was to become the center of Fitch’s attention and later the place where he would permanently reside.
On one of his visits to San Diego in 1826 to trade his goods for bullock hides and tallow, Fitch met Josefa Carrillo, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Joaquín Carrillo, and thus began a lengthy courtship and eventual marriage. Their marriage scandalized the Californians not because Fitch was a Yankee and a Protestant, but because they eloped.
Their elopement and the events which followed their return to California have captured the imagination of the romanticizers of the pastoral period in California.1 Unfortunately, some of these writers have embellished and romanticized the story to the point of distortion. Nevertheless, the incident, when factually portrayed, remains as colorful as the dramatized versions and is an interesting bit of California history.
Henry D. Fitch was born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, on May 7, 1798 or 1799.2 His father, Beriah Fitch, was a sailing master on various whaling and commercial ships out of Nantucket and New Bedford. His mother was Sarah (Sally) Delano. The ancestors of both parents had come to America in the seventeenth century and each had a relative who had fought in King Philip’s War. Around 1800, when Henry was one or two years old, the Fitch family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, across from Nantucket Island. New Bedford had become a thriving port at the turn of the century, partly because a sandbar across the channel at the mouth of Nantucket harbor had made it impossible for heavily laden ships to use the island anchorage. Young Henry’s childhood was spent there. He lived with his family in a house on the west side of Water Street, sold to his father in 1801 by William Rotch, Beriah Fitch’s employer. Henry had two sisters, Eliza and Lydia, and a brother, Frederick. The family attended the First Congregational Church which had been built about the time Henry was born.3
Sometime after 1810 Beriah Fitch purchased a farm in Charlestown, New Hampshire. The Embargo of 1807 and the later blockade of New England ports by the British fleet during the War of 1812 severely curtailed shipping until peace was restored. Evidently Henry’s father did not wish to return to the sea, although at forty-four years of age, he was still relatively young. Henry remained with his family in Charlestown until 1815 and probably continued his schooling in that small New Hampshire village. Though he may have attended Harvard College, he did not graduate from that Cambridge institution as some of his descendants believe.4 In 1815 Henry chose to follow his father’s occupation as merchant seaman and eventual sailing master.
Young Fitch took his certificate of citizenship, a necessary document for sailors at this time, and went to sea. Unfortunately, there is no extant evidence to indicate how or when he cast his fortunes along the path taken by his father. There is an unsubstantiated story that Fitch sailed to the Pacific Coast in a Bryant and Sturgis ship in 1822. Another favorite family story is that Henry’s father bought him a ship to sail to the Pacific for trading purposes.5 The fact that no actual documentary evidence has been found to corroborate these items does not mean they should be rejected outright. In the first instance it is quite probable that Fitch made one or more voyages to Central or South America and possibly in a Bryant and Sturgis ship. Further, it is conceivable that his father did have at least a part ownership in a vessel on which Henry sailed since it was not uncommon for many New England citizens to buy small shares in ships and cargoes destined for South America and China markets.
Fitch was along the California coast in 1826 as master of the brig Maria Ester, 170 tons, which was owned by Henry Virmond, an enterprising Danish merchant who had settled in Acapulco.6 A story recounted in later years by John D. Grant, a grandson of Fitch, supposedly had Fitch along the California coast in 1819. According to Grant, Fitch was a member of a cadet sailing crew in the Pacific. The ship touched on the coast when the master died and Fitch was elected captain for the return passage to Boston.7 Again it is not inconceivable that such an event occurred, but there are no extant documents to prove it. However, Fitch must have made a voyage to the Pacific prior to 1826 for his employer, Virmond, indicated in a letter of agreement on February 13, 1827, that Fitch was to receive the same wages and privileges on the pending voyage to Peru “as I granted to you when you took command of the North American brig Pallas.”8
Virmond undoubtedly sent Fitch on voyages to Callão, Peru and Valparaiso, Chile, for goods to be used in the growing trade along the west coast of Mexico and California. Fitch, who was not quite thirty at this time, evidently showed considerable skill in business affairs, for he probably made three trips to the South American ports to buy and sell cargos for Virmond.9
During his trading voyages along the California coast, the young Massachusetts captain also found time for other matters. Sometime in 1826 as he sailed the Maria Ester in the coastal waters of California, he met Señorita Josefa Carrillo of San Diego.10 Smitten by the beautiful Californian, Fitch found it difficult to carry on a courtship during this period for he was constantly traveling up and down the coast selling goods in return for hides and tallow from the ranchos and missions. But his love for her was constant and in 1827 he gave a written promise of his matrimonial intentions to her parents.11 So that his motives would be considered completely honorable, he also began preparations in that same year to become a Mexican citizen.12 Josefa Carrillo was not immune to his attentions for “being pleased with the good manners and handsome presence of the young Massachusetts gentleman she accepted when he proposed to lead her to the altar.”13
The future Señora Fitch was born in San Diego on December 29, 1810, to the parents of Joaquín and María Ygnacia López Carrillo. Three days after Josefa’s birth her godmother, Señora Doña Josefa Sal de Mercado, took her to be baptized. Upon returning, Señora Mercado was asked the child’s name. She apparently had forgotten the baptismal names of María Antonia Natalia Elijia, for she stated it was Josefa.14
Josefa Carrillo’s father was born in Baja California at San José del Cabo. He came to San Diego around 1800 as a member of the presidio garrison.15 He married María Ygnacia López on September 3, 1809, in the presidio chapel. The Carrillo family must have lived in or around the garrison area until sometime after 1820 when they took up residence in the adobe house of Comandante Francisco Ruiz. He had built the first dwelling on the flat land between the presidio and the bay sometime between 1810 and 1820. Besides being the first building away from the presidio, the lot was noted for its orchard. In 1835 Ruiz deeded the house and orchard to three of the Carrillo children, for whom he had been godfather. Joaquín Carrillo served for two decades as a soldier in the San Diego garrison. He retired around 1827 and died about 1836, though the exact date is not known.16
Little is known about Josefa Carrillo’s childhood, but it was probably typical of life in any Spanish frontier garrison town. She had some rudimentary schooling in the small adobe village. The lack of any formal education was no disgrace, for girls during this period were not taught much beyond reading, handwriting and simple arithmetic. The female was to be knowledgeable and concerned only about household affairs and the raising of a family. Her beauty was as obvious compensation for her slender education, and was most likely the reason Captain Henry Fitch became enamored with her.
Fitch pursued his courtship of Josefa whenever he was in San Diego. While in port in March 1829, he made arrangements for the wedding with Josefa and her parents. Herein begins the story that has plucked the heartstrings of all romantics and especially those glamorizers of the romance of California’s age of the Dons. Fitch had found time to take instructions in the Roman Catholic faith, and on April 14, 1829, he was baptized by Padre Antonio Menéndez, chaplain of the San Diego garrison.17 The marriage ceremony was to be performed the next evening in the Carrillo home.
Besides the family, Captain Richard Barry of the English brig Buitre [Vulture], 101 tons, Máximo Beristain and Pío Pico were present for the ceremony. As Padre Menéndez began the marriage rite, Josefa’s uncle Domingo Carrillo entered the dwelling. He had the day before become godfather to Fitch and witness to his baptism. However, he appeared that evening in the official capacity of adjutant to the governor, José María Echeandiá. He ordered a halt to the proceedings in the name of the governor. The wedding party was thrown into a state of confusion with the appearance and command of Domingo Carrillo. Menéndez did not continue the ceremony and Fitch apparently left shortly after the priest’s departure. Before leaving, Menéndez was supposed to have reminded Fitch and his betrothed that there were other Catholic countries where they might be married. Perhaps during this conversation, Doña Josefa asked the oft quoted question, “Why don’t you carry me off, Don Enrique?”18 Plans for such an elopement were drawn up then.
The actual events surrounding the interrupted marriage ceremony are clouded by those romantics who have distorted the proceeding to their fictionalized wishes. Josefa Carrillo’s memoir of 1875 indicated Governor Echeandía had the marriage stopped because she had chosen Fitch instead of Echeandía. “I calculated that his persecution of me and my husband was only prompted by the wrath which possessed his soul when he realized that I preferred a rival whom he detested.”19
The probability of Echeandía’s interest in Josefa is debatable. Supporters of this story point to his residence in San Diego rather than the capital at Monterey as an indication of his interest in her. If his motives were of an amorous nature, then perhaps they were not the most honorable because there is some proof that Echeandía was already married.20 His decision to stop the marriage probably came from a mixture of jealousy and his strong antipathy to foreigners.21
The family also must have known that there would be some opposition to the marriage, for they attempted to have the ceremony performed in the evening with a degree of secrecy. The social standing of a family such as the Carrillos would have certainly required the usual days of fiesta and illumination. Apparently no such plans were made.
Because Virmond had given Fitch instructions on April 15 to accompany the brig Vulture to Valparaiso and Lima, Enrique realized that if he were to make Josefa his wife he would have to take her with him on the ship. Virmond wrote:
I enclose you by this bill of lading, containing 7,953 hides shipped in the English brig, Vulture, Richard Barry, master, and bound for Valparaiso and Lima. Said bill of lading I have enclosed in your favor and after embarking in the before mentioned brig please to procede with her to Valparaiso.22
Fitch was further ordered to sell the hides in Valparaiso. If the prices for the cargo were not adequate, he was to procede to Lima to sell them.
The elopement was carried off without interference from the officials. The event took place on the same evening of the wedding or in the early hours of the next day. Pío Pico, a cousin of Josefa, is said to have taken her to the shore where she was picked up by a boat from the Vulture. She boarded Captain Barry’s brig, where Fitch was waiting.
On June 28, 1829 the Vulture dropped anchor in the harbor of Valparaiso after a passage of seventy-four days from San Diego. The young couple sought a parish priest, Vicente Orrego, who married them on July 3, 1829. This ceremony and the resulting certificate were to cause further problems for the elopers upon their return to California.23
During their stay in Valparaiso and later Callão, Fitch worked to dispose of the cargo of hides for Virmond. Virmond had further instructed Fitch to secure a new ship if possible for the California trade. He had written, “I wish for a brig of two hundred tons berthen in good condition and good as possible accommodations.” He even directed Fitch as to the naming of the vessel: “My indication is to give the name of Eleanor to the said vessel.”24 Fitch purchased in Valparaiso a brig of 207 tons berthen which was of United States registration. In an obvious attempt to follow Virmond’s orders he christened the brig Leonor which is similar to the “Eleanor” which Virmond had desired. There is no reason for the discrepancy in the naming of the ship. Either Fitch forgot the exact name or had it changed in the translation during registration. In any event it became known as the Leonor and was owned by Virmond with Fitch as its master on this voyage.25 After the purchase the Fitches started their homeward passage with a stop in Callão to take on a cargo of sugar and skins of brandy. Virmond had instructed Fitch to stop at Acapulco on his return passage: “After you have done all your business, please sail with her to Acapulco where you will find other instructions from me.”26 Upon arrival in the Mexican port, Fitch had the Leonor registered under the flag of the Republic of Mexico. This change of registration was probably part of Virmond’s orders. Flying the Mexican flag enabled the Leonor to engage in the coastal trade in California. If the United States flag had been flown, the brig would have been restricted to trading in the only open port at that time — Monterey.
Fifty convicts were on board the Leonor when she sailed from Acapulco, arriving in San Diego in July, 1830. The shipment of convicts to the frontier province was a policy of the Mexican government at this time. The government offered the prisoners the opportunity to work during their sentence and a place to settle when their prison terms had expired. About half of the convicts were left in San Diego. Fitch transported the remainder to the presidio at Santa Barbara.27 The Californians were not happy to have these convicted felons working among the general population. The matter became a source of friction.
Hearing of the Leonor‘s arrival with Josefa and her infant son on board, Señora Carrillo, her daughters, and other women of the town came aboard to visit. She told Josefa of her father’s anger against his daughter for dishonoring the family name. When Josefa learned that her father’s rage was so great that he declared he would kill her if she entered his house again, she decided to seek his forgiveness. Leaving their infant son, Enrique Eduardo, in the hands of the women, she went ashore and made her way to the Carrillo house.
Upon entering the house, she saw “her honored father who was sitting near a little writing desk with a musket beside him.” When he made no response to her plea, she fell to her knees and pleaded that she had disobeyed his authority because of the tyranny of the governor. His silence continued, but “noticing that her father was no longer gazing at the weapon, she dragged herself along on her knees and went toward the middle of the sala.” Her incessant pleas on bended knees evidently stilled Joaquín Carrillo’s anger. He arose and took her in his arms saying that he forgave her: “Daughter, indeed the fault is not yours if our governors are despots.” With the reconciliation accomplished she beckoned for her mother and sisters to come and bring her infant son. The ladies of the town also entered the house in great excitement. With the approval of the local authorities a grand ball and illumination was held in honor of Josefa, her marriage, the birth of her son and reconciliation with her family.28 Evidently, the “tyrannical” Governor José Echeandía was not in San Diego when these festivities were held.
Following these events, Josefa Carrillo de Fitch joined her husband on the Leonor for the windward passage to Monterey where duties on the ship’s cargo had to be paid. The first stop was not Monterey but San Pedro. There was no clear reason for it, but Fitch and Virmond, who apparently was on board, were probably doing a little business though they had not been cleared at Monterey for trading on the coast. While at San Pedro Fitch received a summons from Padre José Sánchez, vicar and ecclesiastical judge as well as president of the California missions and of Mission San Gabriel. Padre Sánchez informed Fitch that there appeared to be irregularities in the marriage certificate. Fitch ignored the summons, but Virmond carried the marriage certificate to San Gabriel as Fitch sailed the Leonor up the coast.29
Dissatisfied with the marriage certificate and Fitch’s failure to answer his summons, Padre Sánchez, along with Fiscal José Palomares, sent an order to Governor Echeandía at Monterey for Fitch’s arrest when the Leonor put into port. Before Fitch and his wife could go ashore, Alferez Nieto, an aide of Echeandía’s, came aboard to inform Fitch of the arrest order. Consequently, on August 29, 1830 Henry D. Fitch entered the military lock-up at the Monterey presidio, which was under the command of Lt. Mariano G. Vallejo, who would later marry one of Josefa’s sisters.30 Josefa was not taken to the jail, but was put under house arrest in the home of the John B. R. Coopers.
Fiscal José Palomares drew up the charges against the young couple. He declared that the marriage was null and invalid. He charged that the certificate was torn and blotted; that the document included no parish or church name where the ceremony was performed; the certificate was not signed by three escribaños as required in church law; the couple had not obtained the written consent for their marriage from the Chilean Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the proceedings performed by Padre Vicente Orrego were null because Henry and Josefa were not members of that particular parish’s congregation.31
Señora Fitch had asked for permission to travel by sea to a leeward port and thence journey overland to Mission San Gabriel. On October 27 her request was granted. Fiscal Palomares felt that it would be safer for her to be in the south where she would be nearer her family and farther away from her husband.32 Captain Joseph Snook33 agreed to take Josefa Fitch in his brig, the Ayachucho, 232 tons, to Santa Barbara.34 From Santa Barbara Josefa was given passage in the ship Pocahontas, Captain John Bradshaw, master.35 Josefa arrived at San Pedro on November 23 and was deposited at the Mission San Gabriel.36 At first she was lodged in the house of Doña Eulalia Pérez, a widow.37 After Fitch’s appearance in San Gabriel, she was moved to board with the wife of William Richardson,38 for the authorities feared Josefa might be too accessible to Fitch.
Captain Fitch, who was complaining bitterly about the inconvenience of his imprisonment in Monterey and the loss of his business opportunities, was finally given permission to go to San Gabriel. The authorities agreed to send him by ship to San Pedro and then overland to San Gabriel. He arrived at San Pedro on December 5, 1830 and after a short stay in Los Angeles he was received at the Mission San Gabriel on December 8. Henry Virmond, the owner of the Leonor, was forced to put up a bond in order to insure Fitch’s arrival in San Gabriel. Palomares apparently thought the young merchant might sail away from the province without resolving the ecclesiastical difficulty.
Though Fitch had complained strenuously about the loss of his profits during his enforced stay in Monterey and had asked permission to sail down the coast to conduct some trading as he went, another factor, possibly of greater significance than his desire to sail for business purposes, was his physical condition. He had indicated in his petition to travel by sea that he could not go overland the 130 leagues from Monterey to San Gabriel. The church and political officials approved his petition after an investigation of his condition. “He has been found to be ill, suffering from hemorrhoids, so ill in fact that he could not make the trip by land.”39 Evidently, his bothersome physical ailment did not become chronic, for there is no mention of the condition again in the records.
Shortly after Fitch’s arrival at San Gabriel the tribunal, under Padre Presidente José Sánchez’s guidance, began its interrogations of the principals. According to Josefa, her marriage to Fitch had been halted in San Diego by her uncle, Domingo Carrillo, who had acted on behalf of the governor. She indicated that her parents did not know of her decision to elope with her betrothed. She went of her own will and was not violently abducted. Josefa pleaded ignorance of the canon law that required them to be members of the parish where the ceremony was performed.40
In his interrogation Fitch replied candidly to the questions of Sánchez and Palomares. He stated that he had given a written promise to Doña Josefa’s parents three years earlier and that his motives were of the highest. He had anticipated the marriage being performed in the Casa de Carrillo in San Diego, but when the proceedings were interrupted by the appearance of Domingo Carrillo, Fitch first thought of taking Josefa to Mexico. The plan was not practical because he was scheduled to leave the next morning for Valparaiso with no stops in Mexico. He corroborated his wife’s contention that she went with him voluntarily and there was no forceful abduction. She had been aided by Pío Pico in finding her way to the shore to meet the boat from the Vulture. He indicated that Padre Orrego had assured him their marriage in Valparaiso was legal and conformed to church law. In the only real contradiction in his testimony Fitch next declared, as his wife did, his ignorance of the regulations of the church which forbade the marriage of persons not members of the parish.
In response to questions of the torn and blotted marriage certificate, the young sailing master replied that the paper had been lying on his desk in the ship’s cabin when some ink was spilled on it, possibly by the rolling of the ship. In his haste to save it from becoming totally covered with ink blots, he hurriedly snatched the paper up thereby tearing it in places.41
In a concluding statement Fitch argued that the marriage should not be null because the certificate became torn and blotted, Further, because of his ignorance of the church and governmental laws and the assurances of Padre Orrego, he felt he had every reason to believe the marriage was valid. He stated he would not mind if the marriage were declared, null, for he would marry Josefa again, but the nullity of the ceremony would make his infant son illegitimate, a situation which he did not desire.42 Finally, merchant as he always was, he petitioned the tribunal for compensation for his commercial losses, which he indicated had been substantial since his incarceration in August. According to his wife’s later account, many obstacles were put in her husband’s way toward recovery of these losses and in the end he gave up his suit of compensation and forgave them for the persecution as she had done.43
After the interrogation of the couple and Fitch’s final arguments, Fiscal Palomares reiterated the charges. He argued that Fitch could not be excused for his ignorance of the law. If the priest had been legitimate, he would have informed Fitch of the church law and the regulation requiring consent by the national minister of foreign affairs.44 The fiscal’s arguments are lengthy but he appears to have altered somewhat his vehemence against the legality of the marriage. It is possible that Fitch’s arguments and Padre Sánchez’s moderating influence contributed to this change.
Padre Sánchez, vicar and ecclesiastical judge, made his official pronouncement on December 28, 1830. He declared that the marriage was not legitimate but that in spite of the infractions of the church law, the marriage was valid. He indicated that the fiscal had not fully substantiated his charges against Don Enrique. The young couple would, henceforth, be called velados and they would receive in the church at San Gabriel the sacraments which should have preceded their marriage. They were required to appear in church with lighted candles for a specified time and were to jointly recite one-third of the rosary of the Holy Virgin for a month. In a final statement for further penance, Padre Sánchez wrote that because of the scandal Fitch had caused in California, “I condemn him to give as a penance and reparation a bell of at least fifty pounds in wight for the church in Los Angeles which barely has a borrowed one.”45
Since that pronouncement, a controversy has raged as to whether he ever gave such a bell. The fact that there is a bell there which bears the inscription “G.H. Holbrook, 1828” has been proof enought for most.46 As Fitch’s concern for his business affairs and the making of profits is revealed through his correspondence, it becomes clear that he did not present such a bell. Furthermore, in a letter to his friend, John B.R. Cooper, dated January 9, 1831 Fitch wrote of rumors relayed to him by Virmond. “I received a few days since from Mr. Virmond [a letter] in wich he says it is reported at Santa Barbara that I have been wearing the padre’s garment by way of penance.” Fitch indicated that the rumor was not true. “I have never lived more independently in any mission. I do pretty much as I please in everything except conversing with my wife. . . I went to the Pueblo whenever I thought proper.” In his correspondence with Cooper, Fitch wrote of the trial in an angry yet humorous vein:
They thought at first of nulling my marriage, but after going through a long war of examinations of me and my wife they found that we were lawfully married and all the devils in Hell could not separate us. So all those busybodies who had had too much to say about my marriage being unlawful may go to Hell and f – – k spiders and if you hear any of them speak any more about it please damn their eyes on my account.
Still in a very angry mood, Fitch wrote that he would not leave his wife with her parents when he sailed for Mexico. “My reason for not leaving her with her parents is that after she left Monterey her father abused her most shamefully frequently threatening to flog her and telling her I was a heretic and that she was living with me as a common prostitute and such like stuff.” Fitch stated that he would not have his wife and child living in such a house. He hoped his father-in-law would go to Hell.47
With the trial over Fitch began to make plans for a voyage to Mexico. He would be master of the Leonor, but Josefa and their son would have to remain with relatives or friends in California. His employer, Virmond, would take passage with him on the Leonor. The Danish merchant had been kicked by a mule and had suffered a broken leg, which was not healing properly. Consequently, there would not be accommodations for Josefa. Fitch also feared political turmoil in Mexico might jeopardize their safety.48
In spite of his adamant statement against residing in San Diego, Henry and Josefa settled there during their nearly twenty years of marriage. All of their children, except their first child, Enrique Eduardo, were born in the southernmost port of Alta California. Fitch opened the first store in San Diego and continued to trade on the California coast as well as in Mexico and Hawaii. During his storekeeping on shore, Fitch served in a number of governmental positions, including war-time alcalde under the United States military occupation of the province in 1846-1847. At the time of his death in January 1849 he was planning to move his family to their ranch, Sotoyome, in Sonoma County.
Literature on the Fitch Elopement
A considerable quantity of narrative accounts of the Fitch elopement, marriage and subsequent ecclesiastical trial have been written-the first was apparently in 1846 and the most recent in 1969. Since the 1880s most of the writers have borrowed, poco mas o menos, from Bancroft’s multivolume History of California (7 vols., San Francisco: The History Company, 18841890), in which he gives a brief account of the episode.
For the most part, the primary sources which Bancroft used are still in existence. Josefa Carrillo de Fitch dictated for Bancroft in 1875 a narrative of the events in 1829-1830, and although it was recalled forty-five years later and was somewhat over-dramatized, the dictation remains a good source, especially for the details of Josefa’s meeting and reconciliation with her father after the elopement. It appears that the majority of the affidavits, charges, and decision of the ecclesiastical trial have been preserved in the Santa Barbara Mission Archives. Some of the correspondence in the Fitch and Vallejo Documentos, as well as other collections, were helpful in ferreting out details of the story.
Alfred Robinson’s Life in California (San Francisco: William Doxey, 1891) is the first mention in literature of the Fitch elopement. On February 1, 1846, he wrote to Fitch of his literary publication, “My book . . . has just appeared . . . and will soon give the public an idea of the former state of the missions and the different changes in the government . . . Your marriage adventure I thought proper to mention and I hope no offense will be taken.” (Fitch Documentos, 3:645-647.) Robinson indicated that about six books were being shipped and he hoped Fitch might acquire one.
Robinson’s description of the elopement and subsequent events is fairly accurate. Because he was on the scene at the time of the elopement and for over a decade thereafter, he probably had numerous opportunities to talk with Fitch about the incident. Robinson inaccurately claimed that Fitch had tried to get the marriage ceremony performed by Menéndez without becoming a Roman Catholic; the records prove that Fitch was baptized and given limited instruction in the Holy Faith before his marriage. Further, he contended that Josefa’s parents sought action from the ecclesiastical officials to nullify the marriage. His information in this instance may have come from Fitch himself because the latter certainly felt that way, according to his letter to Cooper in January 1831.
Besides Robinson, the only other person who knew Fitch and later wrote about his marriage was William H. Davis who gave a brief account in Seventy-Five Years in California (San Francisco: John Howell, 1929). Because Davis did not write until many years later, his version contains some errors. For example, he gave 1832 or 1833 instead of 1829 as the marriage date.
The publication of “The Bell of the Plaza Church” by Jessamine Jones in The Western Magazine (August 1906) inaugurated the romantic interpretation of pastoral California. Nearly all of these accounts viewed Fitch as a dashing hero, who swept Josefa off her feet in a whirlwind courtship, foiled the despotic governor by eloping, eloquently pleaded his case before the ecclesiastical tribunal, became very rich, and nearly singlehandedly won California for the Americans. A strong anti-Mexican bias runs through many of these articles.
In Miss Jones’ article, Fitch arrogantly states, “The more Americans you Dons condescend to marry, the better off you will be twenty-five years from now,” (p. 238). Continuing his tirade, Fitch says that any governor who thinks he can tell an American whom he must marry or what religion he should follow is badly mistaken. As is the case in most of these romantic portrayals Fitch’s Americanism, anti-Mexican and anti-Catholic sentiments are blended with the romantic picture of his eloquent defense at the trial and his alleged presentation of a bell to the Los Angeles church for penance. The inconsistency in their accounts is that, if Fitch were so hostile to the Mexican authorities, he would have stood for neither the trial nor the purported giving of the bell.
The most extensive fictional treatment of Fitch’s elopement was written by Clarissa Garland Goodwin. In a novel, The Sea King: The Building of a Nation (London: Dingby, Long & Co., 1922), Goodwin spent more than half of the book detailing the romance, elopement, marriage and trial. It contains the typical romantic approach to the marriage and Fitch’s later life, especially his considerable financial support of the American occupation force while it was stationed in San Diego. In 1931 Goodwin wrote a four-act play entitled The International Marriage, which concentrates on the elopement, marriage and trial. The marriage episode fills the first three acts. In most respects the play is a dramatized stage version of Goodwin’s novel and its literary value is no better. In both the novel and the play Goodwin managed to incorporate most of the undocumented stories which are very much a part of the myth surrounding Fitch’s life: the presence of a chaperon on the lengthy premarital voyage to Chile, the journey to Boston where all the relatives met Josefa, Fitch’s feeding and clothing the American forces during their stay in San Diego, and Fitch as the first agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship line in 1849. The idea that a chaperon was present on the Vulture is a product of the Victorian age and has never been proved; it was possible for Fitch to have made the long voyage to Boston and back while he was gone, but because he had to purchase a vessel and cargo and meet Virmond in Acapulco within a specified time, it is unlikely that such a voyage occurred; although he sold some supplies to the military force in San Diego, he did not have the resources to supply the entire force for an extended period, and there is no evidence to indicate that Fitch applied for employment as agent for the Pacific Mail Steamship Line. These myths were perpetuated by later writers. In The Mission Bells of California (San Francisco: Harr Wagner Publishing Co., 1934) by Marie T. Walsh, the bell for the Los Angeles church was supposedly brought from Boston when Fitch made his voyage to the east coast in 1829-1830. Walsh does indicate that there is no evidence that the particular bell in question was given by Fitch as his penance after the trial. Gardner Bradford repeated the story in “California’s Sweetest Love Story” for the Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, June 7, 1936. Following the general theme, Bradford added a twist of his own — he placed emphasis on Josefa’s part in initiating the elopement and pointed out that she had Fitch write out a promise of marriage as security.
None of the authors reached the romantic heights as did Mrs. Fremont Older. In a brief account in California Missions and Their Romances (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), Older stated in no uncertain terms that the Holbrook bell in the church at Los Angeles was bought by Fitch. In a later book, Love Stories of Old California (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1940), Older indicated that Echeandía’s love for Josefa was so strong that he serenaded her in the evening, but to no avail. To help in changing her mind Don Joaquín, Josefa’s father, sent her aboard the trading ship in the harbor to buy new dresses and red silk stockings. Josefa is supposed to have met Fitch then, since he was captain of the vessel. Older described Fitch’s uniform as a “blue American sailor suit Californianized by a serape over his shoulder and a broad-brimmed black felt hat on the back of his head” (p. 80). Of all the authors, Older’s account is most filled with pro-American touches. Because it was written in 1940, it is possible that the patriotic sentiment of a world in crisis affected her writing. The following are examples of such sentiment which are conversely anti-Mexican: “A music box on deck was playing Yankee Doodle. The United States flag with red and white stripes and twenty-four stars on a square as blue as the San Diego sky, topped the mast” (pp. 80-81); “In moonlight they stood together on the deck of the brig, wrapped in the American flag” (p. 85) ; “I love your stars and stripes she [Josefa] said” (p. 85), and finally they led the first July 4th celebration in Chile during their stay in 1829.
Two accounts between 1900 and 1940 which were objectively written were authored by H. D. Barrows and Elizabeth R. Rhoades. In 1914 Barrows wrote “An Early Romance,” Grizzly Bear 14 (April 1914). Barrows, who was the superintendent of the Los Angeles City Schools, indicated that his material was taken from Bancroft’s history and therefore it is more objective than the other accounts. In an unpublished master’s thesis entitled “Foreigners in Southern California During the Mexican Period” (University of California, Berkeley, 1924), Rhoades briefly covered Fitch’s life in California. Her portrayal of the elopement episode also follows Bancroft’s closely. She included statements which were contrary to the one made by Dana.
For over two decades Mrs. Winifred Davidson, a San Diego journalist, gathered material on Fitch and wrote numerous articles about the elopement and other aspects of his life in San Diego. She was instrumental in gathering information from the family and published sources and made an accurate translation of Josefa’s narrative. Numerous scrapbooks filled with Davidson’s articles for the San Diego Union frequently mention the Fitch elopement. These scrapbooks are entitled “Old Tales of the Southwest” (3 vols. of San Diego Union clippings) and “San Diego Historical Highlights” (San Diego Union, 1931). Her writings “Old Town: Persons and Places” (manuscript copy, 1930) and a book entitled Where California Began (San Diego: McIntyre Co., 1939), reiterate the material in her columns. (All of the previous are located in the San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library, San Diego.) Davidson was largely responsible for renewing interest in the Fitch elopement and in the fact that he was San Diego’s first permanent American resident.
In 1946 the story was told in another medium. Radio Station KGB in San Diego recreated the events in a broadcast entitled “In a Little Spanish Town” on February 15, 1946. The scriptwriter successfully incorporated most of the inaccuracies perpetuated by the previous writers.
In “Doña Josefa” for Westways 43 (May 1951), Idwal Jones wrote a short sketch of the marriage. His story also followed what were by now traditional lines. He added a new dimension, though, by noting that Fitch’s ship, Vulture, was always honored because “It was the one vessel in the hide and tallow trade that was never black with a hurricane of flies” (p. 8).
In The California I Love (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1961), Leo Carrillo is the first descendant to write of the Fitch marriage. He claimed that Josefa was his great aunt. Using his wit in an absurd manner, Carrillo found many sarcastic comments to make about Echeandía’s appearance: “He had ants in his pantalones” (p. 92); “He looked like a shrunken version of a method actor” (p. 93); “He probably weighed 123 pounds with rocks in his pockets” (p. 93); and “The sight of this little thin squirt out singing love songs in the street before dawn under the window of his beloved Josefa . . .” (pp. 93-94). Carrillo turned his metaphoric language upon the other principals: Josefa was the Marilyn Monroe of her day without the calendar. Retaining the family mania for the protection of its name, Carrillo wrote that:
So now at last I’m going to tell the secret that Captain Henry Fitch confided to his wife’s parents that night in the sala. He revealed to them the courageous priest, Padre Menéndez had risked his ecclesiastical standing by marrying Josefa and Captain Fitch in the middle of that horrible night after the originally scheduled ceremony had been prevented by the refusal of Don Domingo to procede as he had promised. (p. 107).
This theory, which is still held by some of the Fitch descendants, is totally unsubstantiated and completely irrelevant.
With the discovery of Fitch’s grave at the San Diego Presidio, interest in the elopement and subsequent events was renewed. Mary Stewart, whose sister married a descendant of Anita Fitch Grant, staunchly repeated all the old myths and added one of her own in “Josefa,” which appeared in the San Diego Magazine in July 1969. Although the bibliography contains a few primary sources, Mrs. Stewart apparently based her account on the books by Leo Carrillo and Mrs. Frémont Older and unsubstantiated family stories. She includes the legendary accounts of the secret marriage to uphold the legitimacy of the family and the trip by the newlyweds to Boston, “where Josefa was received with pride by the Fitches, Delanos, and Gormans” (p. 73). If she had previously met Josefa, it is unlikely that Fitch’s mother, Sarah Delano Fitch, writing to her son on May 17, 1838 would have written, “I wish I knew her name” (Fitch Documentos, 1:65-68).
Using the family stories as her basis, Mrs. Stewart repeats the totally undocumented account of the $50,000 that Fitch gave to the United States army in the Mexican War. Fitch was generous, kind-hearted, and probably patriotic but not to the extent of giving such a large sum of money. Further, Mrs. Stewart indicates that Fitch did not die a natural death, but that he was poisoned by unscrupulous land grabbers in San Francisco before his return home. She implies that it was the poison administered by the land speculators which forced or duped Fitch into signing away the Paraje del Arroyo grant. According to Mrs. Stewart, he was carried home unconscious to San Diego where he died after learning of this action. It is probable that Fitch sold a lot in San Francisco while under the influence of aguardiente, but Mrs. Stewart indicates that Fitch did not drink nor would he tolerate alcoholic beverages in the house. There is sufficient documentation to refute this story without going into detail here.
In the next issue of the same magazine Frances L. Bardacke presented a rebuttal to Mary Stewart’s article. In “Josefa’s Courage; Captain Fitch’s Independence: A Letter of Amplification,” San Diego Magazine (August 1969), Bardacke succinctly rebutts Stewart’s reiteration of the myths about the elopement and the marriage. She claims that the concern about the fact that Josefa was married before the seventy-four day voyage is totally irrelevant and is “a multiplicity of genteel fictions” (p. 16). To put the entire affair in its proper perspective Bardacke emphasizes the fact that the myth-shrouded elopement undermines the great courage of Josefa “who, for love, denied her country, church, and family” (p. 18). Bardacke also concludes that Fitch showed his independence of the political, religious, and social customs of California and asserted his independence by ignoring the ecclesiastical order to give the Los Angeles church a bell. As proof of his independence, she reproduced Fitch’s letter to John R. Cooper, in which he used rather strong language to complain about Josefa’s family and the other busybodies who interfered with his marriage. Hopefully, Bardacke’s article is the beginning of a more objective approach toward the Fitch elopement, which in its reality is fully as interesting as in the over-dramatized versions.
1. See bibliographical essay at end of article.
2. Letters from Charles W. Deasy, City Clerk of New Bedford, Mass., July 2, , Margarite H. Fairbanks, Town Clerk of Charlestown, N.H., June 27, , Charles C. Coffin, Town Clerk, Nantucket, Mass., July 2, , Henry Delano Fitch Biographical File, San Diego History Center, Serra Museum, San Diego, California. Roscoe Conkling Fitch, History of the Fitch Family, A.D., 1400-1930 (2 vols., Haverhill Publishing Co., 1930), 2:187-188. Nantucket Vital Records to the Year 1850 (5 vols., Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Societp, 1927), 1:459. The dispute rises from the fact that there is no date beside Fitch’s name in the Nantucket record book. His baptismal certificate issued on April 14, 1829 in San Diego indicates Fitch was then 30 years old. Since he listed his birthdate as May 7, one can conclude that at the time of his baptism he was still three weeks away from his 31st birthday. For the sake of convenience, May 7, 1798, will be considered Fitch’s birth date.
3. William A. Wing, “Notes of Henry D. Fitch” (March 19, 1940), written for the San Diego History Center, Serra Museum, San Diego, California. Alexander Starbuck, The History of Nantucket (Boston: C. E. Goodspeed and Co., 1924), p. 265.
4. Letter from Kimball Elkins, Curator, Harvard University Archives, Harvard University Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 18, 1970.
5. Guillermo Fitch Narrative, given on board the S. S. Latham on April 16, 1874. Translated by Los Hispanitas Spanish Club, C. K. Maclatchy Senior High School, 1941. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
6. U.S. Department of State, Despatches from U.S. Consuls in Monterey, Upper California, February 20, 1834-November 15, 1848, Record Group 1, National Archives Microfilm Publication, Microcopy No. 138.
7. Winifred Davidson Notes, Letter from John D. Grant, Fitch Bibliographical File. San Diego History Center, Serra Museum and Library.
8. Virmond and Fitch agreement, Acapulco, February 13, 1827, Henry D. Fitch Documentos para la Historia de California, 18271856 (4 pts., Bancroft Library), 1:6. (Hereafter cited Fitch Documentos.) The brig, Pallas, could have brought Fitch to the Pacific and Mexico. A ship, 242 berthen, of that name was built in Bath, Maine in 1804 at the Weston yards according to the custom records and contemporary lists of insured ships in Lloyds of London found at the Peabody Maritime Museum and the Essex Institute at Salem, Massachusetts. Richard F. Pourade, “Presidio Hill’s New-Found Grave Recalls an Old San Diego Romance,” San Diego Union, June 23, 1968, pp. G-1 and G-2. It is pure speculation, but it is possible that Fitch commanded the Pallas to the Pacific for Virmond.
9. Virmond and Fitch agreement, Acapulco, February 13, 1827, unsigned letter to Fitch, April 14, 1829, San Diego, Fitch Documentos, 1:22.
10. “Narrative” of the widow of Capt. Henry D. Fitch, translated by Winifred Davidson, Bancroft Library, p. 3.
11. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego: Time of the Bells (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1961), p. 194.
12. Hubert H. Bancroft, History of California (7 vols., San Francisco: The History Company, 1884-1890), 3:739. He was finally naturalized as a citizen in 1833.
13. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” p. 3.
14. Brian McGinty, “The Carrillos of San Diego: A Historic Spanish Family of California,” The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, 39 (March 1957), 7; Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” p. 1.
15. McGinty, “The Carrillos of San Diego,” p. 4. Richard F. Pourade, The History of San Diego: The Silver Dons (San Diego: Union-Tribune Publishing Co., 1961), p. 11.
16. McGinty, “The Carrillos of San Diego,” pp. 6-7.
17. Baptismal certificate of Enrique Domingo Fitch, No. 6323. Copied by Fray Fernando Matin, December 6, 1830. No. 1150 in the Santa Barbara Mission Archives, Santa Barbara, California; Bancroft, California, 3:739.
18. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” pp. 3-5; Pourade, Time of the Bells, pp. 194-195; Bancroft, California, 3:140-144.
19. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” p. 5.
20. Bancroft, California, 3:244. In June Echeandía wrote to Guerra to send 100 pesos to his mother without letting his wife know. There is also a notation that the commissary general alludes to the payment of $100 to María Salcedo, Echeandía’s wife and finally Echeandía complained to Mrs. E. C. O. Ord on one of her visits to Mexico in 1855-1856 that his wife had never received the half pay authorized by the government from his salary as director of the college of military engineers during his governorship of California.
21. Bancroft, California, 3:140-144.
22. Unsigned letter to Fitch, April 14, 1829, Fitch Documentos, 1:22.
23. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” pp. 5-7.
24. Unsigned letter to Fitch, April 14, 1829, Fitch Documentos, 1:22.
25. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” p. 7; Bancroft, California, 3:49.
26. Unsigned letter to Fitch, April 14, 1829, Fitch Documentos, 1:22.
27. Bancroft, California, 3:140-144.
28. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” pp. 7-9.
29. Bancroft, California, 3:140-144.
30. Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” pp. 9-10; Marian Lothrop, “Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo: Defender of the Northern Frontier of California” (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley), p. 13.
31. List of charges against Fitch and Josefa by José Palomares, September 1830. No. 7-13. Expediente on the Nullity of Marriage between Enrique Domingo Fitch and Doña Josefa Carrillo. 92 pp. No. 1150 in the Santa Barbara Mission Archives. (Hereafter cited Fitch Marriage Expediente.)
32. Document sending Josefa to San Gabriel, October 27, 1830. No. 4. Fitch Marriage Expediente. Interestingly in the Expediente Josefa signed the first document as “Josefa Fitch” and then all the others as “Josefa Carrillo.” It appears that the officials were attempting in every way to give credence to their claim that the marriage was null.
33. Joseph Francisco Snook, an Englishman, had been on the Mexican coast in Virmond’s employ since 1824. At various times he captained the brig Ayacucho, 232 tons, the brig Catalina, the brig Joven Guipuzcoana, 210 tons, and the schooner Juanita, 102 tons. At one time he thought of going into partnership with Fitch, but nothing came of it. He married Maria Antonio, daughter of Juan Bautista Alvarado of San Diego. Bancroft, California, 5:725..
34. Statement by Captain Joseph Snook, November 3, 1830. Fitch Marriage Expediente, No. 15.
35. John Bradshaw, one of the best known Boston traders, was, at different times, master of the ship Franklin, 333 tons, the ship Pocahontas, and the Logoda. He was often in trouble because of his smuggling exploits. Bancroft, California, 2:727.
36. Josefa’s trip from Santa Barbara to San Pedro, November 23, 1830. Fitch Marriage Expediente, No. 27.
37. Appearance of Josefa at San Gabriel, November 24, 1830. Fitch Marriage Expediente, No. 23; “Keeper of the Keys, The Recollections of Señora Eulalia Pérez,” translated by Nellie Van de Grift Sanchez, Touring Topics, 21 (January 1929), 27.
38. William Antonio Richardson, an Englishman, came on the whaler Orion in 1822 and was permitted to stay by Governor Sola on condition that he teach his arts of navigation and carpentry. In 1825 he married María Antonio, daughter of Comandante Ignacio Martinez. He was a skillful sailor and an energetic man of business. Bancroft, California, 5:694.
39. Fitch to Mission San Gabriel, December 5, 1830. Fitch Marriage Expediente, Nos. 4-5.
40. Josefa’s interrogation, n. d. Ibid., No. 23.
41. Interrogation of Fitch, December 10, 1830. Ibid.
42. Document by Fitch pleading for the decision in his favor, n. d., Ibid., No. 47.
43. Fitch’s complaint to the Padre Presidente Sanchez, n. d. Ibid., No. 6; Mrs. Fitch’s “Narrative,” p. 10.
44. José Palomares’ arguments for nullity of the marriage, December 22, 1830. Fitch Marriage Expediente, Nos. 33 and 34.
45. Official pronouncement of sentence by Padre Jos&eaucte; Sanchez, December 29, 1830. Ibid., No. 48; Bancroft, California, 3:144.
46. George D. Lyman, John Marsh, Pioneer; The Life Story of Trail-blazer on Six Frontiers (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930), p. 201; Mrs. Fremont Older, California Missions and Their Romancer (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1938), p. 63; Marie T. Walsh, The Mission Bells of California (San Francisco: Harr Wagner Publishing Co., 1934), pp. 289-291.
47. Fitch to John Bautista Rogers Cooper, January 9, , Mariano Guadulupe Vallejo, Documentos para la historia de California, 1780-1875 (36 vols., Bancroft Library), 30:171.
48. Fitch to Cooper, December 3, . Ibid., 30:121.
Ronald L. Miller is Assistant Professor of History, Pepperdine University, Los Angeles. He was graduated cum laude from Pepperdine College in 1960, earned his M.A. degree from Pepperdine in 1961 and his Ph.D. degree from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles in 1972.