On February 7, 1831, the German-born merchant Heinrich Virmond set sail on the Leonor from San Diego after a six-month stay in California. Two weeks later he had reached Mazatlan where he penned a remarkable six-page report on affairs in California to Lucas Alamán, one of Mexico’s most outstanding statesmen and intellectuals, who was then serving as secretary of foreign affairs and domestic relations.1
Virmond’s report to Alamán touches upon a remarkable range of subjects, providing a concise view of California in the midst of profound economic, political, and social change, just a scant decade after Mexico had won independence from Spain. The Franciscans were dying and no priests came to replace them. The growing population demanded a greater share of mission land. Brisk commerce was carried on with Russians, Americans, and Britons, whereas a decade before Spain had prohibited trade with foreigners. Overland trade with New Mexico had just begun and American trappers had recently made their way into California by trails that spanned the continent. Finally, California was beginning to drift away from the Mexican Republic: “A deep hatred for Mexicans,” Virmond said, “is gaining fashion among the native Californians.”
One item of special interest in Virmond’s report is the new light it sheds on the treatment of convicts in California. Lucas Alamán, along with some other Mexican leaders, believed that sending convicted criminals to California would be a humane and wise course of action which would benefit all parties involved: the convicts would become rehabilitated in their new environment; society would gain as convicts became useful, contributing citizens instead of occupying jail cells at state expense; and California would prosper as its sparse population was augmented with new laborers and defenders.2 Many writers, however, have suggested that sending convicts to California was a terrible mistake because the convicts proved to be poor citizens and the californios resented their arrival. Virmond, however, whose ships had brought two groups of convicts to California in 1830, reported that they were very well received in San Diego and Los Angeles. On the other hand, the convicts who were sent to Monterey were not so well-treated and Virmond explains why.3
At the time Virmond wrote, California was on the verge of political upheaval. Restless and unpaid troops had revolted at Monterey in 1829, led by Joaquin Solis whom Virmond mentions. The next year, a new governor, Lieutenant Colonel Manuel Victoria was sent to replace Lieutenant Colonel José María Echeandía, who had held office since 1825. This change of governors reflected a change of administration in Mexico City, which had brought Anastasio Bustamante and Lucas Alamán to power in December 1829.
Manuel Victoria, who had been appointed governor on March 8, 1830 by Alamán, reached his new post toward the end of the year. Victoria had come overland from Loreto, where he had been serving as comandante principal, and so arrived first at San Diego. There, Pío Pico went out to meet him. Victoria carried a letter of recommendation which Pico later recalled, “had been given to him for me by my merchant friend, Don Enrique Virmond.”4 Such, then, was Virmond’s influence among the californios and with the new governor, whom he had known at least as early as June 1829 when he termed him “a person of great accomplish ments.”5
Virmond optimistically reported to Alamán that Victoria had won popular support in California, but the new governor instead became embroiled in a dispute with Echeandía over the secularization of the missions. Echeandía had pushed through a plan to turn some missions into pueblos, fully aware that Bustamante and Victoria would disapprove. Tension mounted over this and other matters and before the year 1831 was out, Pío Pico, Juan Bandini, Juan Antonio Carrillo and other californios had issued the Plan of San Diego. They ousted Victoria and sent him back to Mexico, thus making him the first of a series of Mexican governors to feel the strength of the growing spirit of anti-Mexicanism which had been called to Alamán’s attention by Enrique Virmond.
Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote of Virmond that “he was a skilful [sic] intriguer, had extraordinary facilities for obtaining the ear of Mexican officials, and was always the man first sought to solicit any favor, commercial, military, civil, or ecclesiastical, for his many Cal. friends.”6 How Bancroft arrived at that assessment is not entirely clear, but it seems justified if one can judge by Virmond’s relationship to the administration of Bustamante and Alamán.
Of German birth, Heinrich Virmond seems to have become a Mexican citizen at an early date, but nothing is known of his origins. He apparently visited California for the first time in 1825, arriving on his ship the Maria Ester. That year Fray Narciso Duran, head of the California missions, entertained him at Mission San José and pronounced him “a gentleman entirely worthy of my confidence.”7 Virmond had come to talk business. He worked out an arrangement with the padre to transport mission supplies to California the following year in exchange for hides and tallow.
From 1825 on, Virmond’s ships, such as the Leonor, the Maria Ester, and the Catalina, visited California regularly, flew Mexican flags, and competed for California’s coastal trade. Employed on those ships at one time or another were such well-known foreigners as Henry Delano Fitch, Edward Vischer, Joseph F. Snook, and Ferdinand Deppe.8 Virmond continued to do business with Father Duran and the Franciscans at least until the late 1830s, and seems to have been on close terms with such California oligarchs as Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo of Sonoma.9
Virmond’s role in the events of 1830-31 suggest that he was serving as an informal government agent and advisor in California. In addition to the report to Alamán which is published here, Virmond sent at least two letters concerning affairs in California directly to Vice President Bustamante.10 When Bustamante ordered California officials not to secularize the missions, he did so through Virmond.11 Following Victoria’s ouster from California, Virmond journeyed to Mexico City and met personally with Bustamante and Alamán in March 1832. His reputation for influence with the government was such that California’s deputy to Congress that year, Carlos Antonio Carrillo, noted that “Virmond gets away with whatever he wants.”12
Virmond’s interest in serving the Bustamante administration by providing information on California affairs was far from altruistic. Instead, his political and commercial interests seem to have coincided. In 1828, for example, he alerted the government to an agreement that former governor Luis Arguello had made with Russians to hunt sea otter in California waters.13 Then, as in his 1831 report to Alamán, Virmond noted that otter were nearly extinct and his warning led to an investigation and to the termination of contracts with Russians. By criticizing the arrangements that Arguello and Echeandía made with Russian hunters, Virmond was probably as interested in protecting his own involvement in the sea otter trade as he was in conserving an endangered species. Similarly, Virmond’s stance against the secularization of the missions and his support of the conservative Bustamante government did no harm to his business affairs with the Franciscans.
Virmond’s services to the government did not go unrewarded. José Figueroa, who replaced Victoria as governor of California, had instructions from Alamán to grant Virmond a tract of land near Sonoma and to give a parcel of property near San Francisco to Virmond’s employee, Henry Fitch.14
Although several writers have recognized that Virmond exercised considerable influence in California, and that he was well-connected in Mexico City, the secret of his success, the nature of his business, and the character of the man await the telling by some industrious researcher. Meanwhile, the following letter is the first piece of his writing to be published. This letter has never appeared in either Spanish or English and seems to be completely unknown to California historians. The original forms part of the Hernández y Dávalos Manuscript Collection in the Latin American Collection of the University of Texas Library, and is here published with permission.
To the most excellent Lucas Alamán, Minister of Relations,
Most Excellent Senor:
Allow me to direct this letter to your Excellency, since I agreed on my departure that as soon as I returned from the Californias, I would write you to verify what I saw there. I left San Diego on the 7th of this month, and I left the political situation of the territory in a rather critical state of affairs, as your Excellency will ascertain better from the dispatches of the Commandante General Vittoria [Manuel Victoria], whose letters are going in the same mail as this one to the Supreme Government. After it was learned in San Diego that Sr. Victoria had left for Monterey to receive command, it was doubted that Sr. Echeandía, because of the strange manner in which he behaved after the arrival of Sr. Victoria in the territory, would turn the command over to him. After six years of thinking of nothing, on the eve of turning over command, Sr. Echeandía decreed that the missions at Carmel and at San Gabriel, the latter being of the most importance, be transformed into communities with administrators.15 This order was very unexpected and caused a great deal of surprise in the territory. The missionaries were especially displeased, to such a degree, that in the northern missions they were already denying supplies necessary for the troops. It seems that Sr. Victoria kept this decree from being published in Santa Barbara and south of there, and that Lieutenant [Agustin] Zamorano,16 who received the order from Sr. Echeandía to carry out the decree in San Gabriel, suspended it until he received further orders from Sr. Victoria.
More information will go out on another ship which will be leaving soon for San Blas and Your Excellency will then know of the results of the meeting between these two leaders in Monterey. Opinions were very divided and it was asserted that the Indians were making disturbances [sus movimientos] in the missions. However, Your Excellency should not have complete faith in what I say, since it is merely conjecture and rumor. Sr. Victoria has been received very favorably by the majority of the inhabitants and the missionaries, and no matter in what situation he finds himself, he will not lack support.
When I arrived last July, the Province had just recovered from the misery which they had been suffering due to the lack of provisions during the last year and also due to the Solis revolt.17 The last harvest was rich and abundant and this year’s also gives hope. The convicted criminals 18 who were brought by the brigantine Maria Ester were received with disgust by some of the inhabitants of Monterey because they arrived at a moment when the people were still languishing from hunger and from the results of the Solis War. Sr. Echeandía left the prisoners aboard ship for more than three months before deciding what to do with them. Finally, he ordered that half of them disembark on the uninhabited island of Santa Cruz where these unfortunates have remained until now. It has been only a short time since he had them brought onto the mainland to make them work in the presidios of Monterey and San Francisco, whose buildings are falling apart. The 53 prisoners who were brought by the frigate Leonor, disembarked in San Diego and the military commander of that presidio divided them amongst the inhabitants and among the inhabitants of the Pueblo of Los Angeles. Since almost all were laborers from the State of San Luis Potosí, their arrival and distribution was well received by those inhabitants. As for the work of these unfortunates, they planted more in one day than had ever been done before. The general desire was that the Supreme Government should have them bring. their families so that they might remain in the territory. It was required that each family which took a prisoner be responsible for him, support him, and pay him 6 pesos each month and that the money be for the prisoner’s own use. It seems that both parties were content with this and the public treasury is not burdened. The majority of the prisoners remained in San Diego and if there had been 100 more they all would have been provided employment in the town of Los Angeles.
The clamor for land is greater than ever because in this last revolt they have discharged many soldiers who do not know how they are going to settle with their growing families. Nevertheless, on each trip, I see new ranches built and even though Sr. Echeandía has lent them very little help, the cultivation of the land and the raising of cattle is progressing in an astonishing manner. The wine has especially done well and is abundant. I will have the honor of presenting to Your Excellency a sample of this year’s wine as well as some of the aguardiente and oil so that Your Excellency will be convinced of the goodness of these products. With a little aid and encouragement, California will be able to supply the Republic with these goods so there will not be the need to get them from Europe. The grain grows in abundance but only one Russian ship has come in search of it. Another shipment of wheat and dried meat was being prepared to be sent to the port of Sitka. An English brigantine from the Hudson’s Bay Company had arrived in Monterey, coming from the Columbia River, and was procuring salt and dried meat. The production of hides continued as usual by the Anglo-American boats. Tallow was almost without buyers because the price for it in Lima was so low and only I have loaded my two boats with these goods and some skins.
Recently an overland trade has opened between this place and New Mexico. Various trading groups have come, one with 160 men, procuring mules and horses. There is little communication with Sonora because the Indians at the mouth of the Colorado River are very hostile.19
The trapping of beaver has been very abundant. The Franciscans of the Mission of San José have collected around 2,000 skins from the Sacramento, San Joaquin and other rivers, but I am informed that one group of Anglo-Americans alone took with them 10,000 skins from the banks of the Jesus Maria River.20 If there were a government establishment in the north at San Francisco Bay, these abuses could be easily remedied.
Not too long ago, Sr. Echeandía was able to go to the Port of San Francisco and finally made a contract with the Russians allowing them to hunt otter on the coast.21 This measure caused a great deal of displeasure among the inhabitants, because many make their living by hunting this animal. The Russians who hunt them with their canoes will kill them all off quickly. I think that Sr. Victoria was going to take away this privilege.
Captain Beachy, the commander of the ship of War H.M.S. Blossom, was in San Francisco in 1827 and he made a map of the port, the best one which exists to date.22 I know that he gave a copy of the map to Sr. Echeandía dedicated to the President of the Mexican Republic, but I doubt that it is in government hands now, because I knew how to obtain a copy of it; it is an interesting document which should not be lost sight of.
In the class of curiosities, despite Your Excellency’s recommendations to the Commandante Generales, I am not bringing anything except that which I have been able to personally collect and a few plants and animals gathered together by Sr. Deppe. I hope that I will be able to bring back more interesting things on another trip, because Sr. Deppe23 has been invited by Sr. Victoria to accompany him on an excursion which he was planning to make to inspect the Sacramento and Jesus Maria rivers and another trip to the Colorado River.
The scarcity of cash is a great problem, hardly a peso is to be found anywhere in the Province. Sr. Victoria, as his troops, lives in hope that Your Excellency will remember them and send them some assistance, perhaps with my boat which should return in May or by any other boat. If Your Excellency should need my boat for this, please be advised that it would be an honor for me to do this for my government. From here, I am going to San Blas and Acapulco. I am recovering from a leg which was broken by a mule in California.24 If I am able to get about, I am thinking of going to the capital in early April to put myself at Your Excellency’s service.
The elected deputy of the territory is Don Carlos Carillo,25 who should follow in the boat I mentioned earlier.
The missionaries are slowly decreasing in number. Some are dying and many are entirely useless due to old age. Ten to twelve new friars are needed.
A deep hatred for Mexicans, or as they are called, those who come from the other shore, is gaining fashion among the native Californians. Some ill-disposed people are bent on encouraging this hatred more and more each day, perhaps for their own designs. Although the matter in itself is still of little importance, I still believe I ought to advise Your Excellency. The causes may be many, but the most important ones are the great ignorance and the little determination of the individuals to know the facts.
I have the honor of being in highest regard of Your Excellency, your attentive and obedient servant who kisses your hand.
Enrique Eduardo Virmond
Port of Mazatlán, February 21, 1831
1. Alamán’s title was Secretario de Estado y del Despacho de Relaciones Interiores y Exteriores.
2. For Alamán’s position on rehabilitating convicts, see for example his Memoria of November 8, 1823. That document is translated in Joel Roberts Poinsett, Notes on Mexico, Made in the Autumn of 1822 (Philadelphia: 1824), P. 323. See, too, Tadeo Ortiz de Ayala, Resumen de la Estadistica del Imperio Mexicano, 1822 (Mexico: 1968), p. 3.
3. For a recent discussion of the reception of convicts in California see Daniel J. Garr, “A Rare and Desolate Land: Population and Race in Hispanic California,” Western Historical Quarterly, VI, 2 (April 1975), 137-41.
4. Don Pío Pico’s Historical Narrative, translated by Arthur P. Botello and edited by Martin Cole and Henry Welcome (Glendale: 1973), p. 37.
5. Virmond to José de la Guerra, Acapulco, June 25, 1829, in the De la Guerra Family Papers, facsimile at the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
6. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California (7 vols.; San Francisco: 1889), V, 764.
7. Francis Price, ed. and trans., “Letters of Narciso Duran,” California Historical Society Quarterly (CHSQ), 37 (September, 1958): 254-55.
8. Erwin Gustave Gudde, ed., “Edward Vischer’s First Visit to California,” CHSQ, 19 (September, 1940): 193; 214, n. 14; 215, n. 21; 216, n. 35. Adele Ogden, ed., “Business Letters of Alfred Robinson,” CHSQ, 22 (December, 1944): 305; 319, n. 50.
9. Bancroft, California, III, 350. See, too, Virmond’s letters to Fray Duran, 1835 and 1836, and to José María Zalvidea, October 25, 1839, in the De la Guerra Papers. George Tays, “Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Sonoma: A Biography and a History,” CHSQ, 27 (March, 1938): 55, 65.
10. Mazatlan, December 27 and December 30, 1831, cited in George Harding, Don Agustin V. Zamorano. Statesman, Soldier, Craftsman, and California’s First Printer (Los Angeles: 1934), p. 144. In addition to these 1831 letters to Bustamante and the report to Alamán published here, Virmond sent a short letter to Alamán from San Blas on March 10, 1831 (Hernández y Dávalos Manuscript Collection, Latin American Studies Collection, University of Texas). That March 10 letter summarized news that Virmond had just received from San Diego (dated February 18), which told that Victoria had countermanded Echeandía’s secularization orders, and that opposition to Victoria was growing.
11. C. Alan Hutchinson, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California: The Hijar-Padres Colony and Its Origins, 1769-1835 (New Haven: 1969), p. 143. Bancroft, California, III, 47, 97.
12. To José Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega, Mexico City, March 15, 1832, quoted in Harding, Zamorano, p. 146.
13. Adele Ogden, The California Sea Otter Trade, 1784-1848 (Berkeley: 1940,103-04.
14. Alamán to Figueroa, Mexico City, May 17, 1832, copy in the Archives of California, Superior Government State Papers, Bancroft Transcripts, vol. 57, pp. 88-90, Bancroft Library, Berkeley, California.
15. On January 6, 1831, Echeandía issued a decree secularizing the California missions. San Carlos Borromeo at Carmel and San Gabriel near Los Angeles were to be organized as pueblos at once, as Virmond reported. Other missions were to be converted to pueblos as soon as possible. Virmond’s statement that Echeandía had no plan regarding the missions for six years is incorrect. Echeandía had wrestled with this problem since his arrival in 1825, when he brought instructions from the central government to begin secularization. On September 7, 1830, after gaining approval of the territorial assembly, Echeandía sent a secularization plan to the central government. When he failed to receive word of its approval, he correctly surmised that the Bustamante government would not agree to the plan and so issued it himself in January 1831 without authorization from the central government.
16. Agustin V. Zamorano, who first came to California in 1825, is best known for introducing the printing press to the province in 1834. His biographer speculates on his reaction to Echeandía’s decree (Harding, Zamorano, p. 50), but Virmond’s letter is more explicit. Following Victoria’s ouster, Virmond recommended that Zamorano be appointed governor (ibid., 144-46).
17. On the night of November 12, 1829, troops at Monterey, led by a former convict Joaquin Solis, seized the presidio and imprisoned their officers. The soldiers probably revolted because of lack of pay and provisions, and found support at other presidios in the north. The rebel force disintegrated, however, in a confrontation with Echeandía and its leaders were captured and exiled.
18. Like his contemporaries, Virmond used the word “presidiarios.” This term could be translated as “presidial soldiers,” and some historians have mistranslated it as “convict soldiers” (see, for example, Alleine Howren, “Causes and Origin of the Decree of April 6, 1830,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, 16 [April, 19131; 409). In the context of the time, the word clearly meant “convicts.”
19. Overland trade between New Mexico and California began in 1829-1830 when Antonio Armijo of New Mexico brought trade goods into Los Angeles. For a discussion of the route and Armijo’s journal, see LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen, Old Spanish Trail: Santa Fe to Los Angeles (Glendale: 1954), pp. 155ff.
20. In 1808 Gabriel Moraga bestowed the name “Jesús María” to that portion of the Sacramento River north of the Feather River junction. See Donald C. Cutter, Diary of Ensign Gabriel Moraga’s Expedition of Discovery, in the Sacramento Valley, 1808 (Los Angeles: 1957).
21. Echeandía signed at least two contracts with Russian otter hunters, but both were very restrictive. In March 1831 Victoria declined to grant further concessions. Adele Ogden, “Russian Sea-Otter and Seal Hunting on the California Coast, 1803-1841,” CHSQ, 12 (September, 1933), 236-38.
22. Frederick W. Beechey, who visited the California coast in 1826-1827, and published his Narrative of a Voyage to the Pacific in London in 1831.
23. Ferdinand Deppe, a German naturalist employed by Virmond as a supercargo. Bancroft, California, II, 779.
24. Virmond’s broken leg also caused pain for his employee Henry Fitch. Because of his injury, Virmond decided to return to Mexico in February 1831 on the Leonor, captained by Fitch, 1831. Virmond occupied the quarters which Fitch had reserved for his own wife and infant child, forcing them to remain behind in San Diego. Ronald L. Miller, “A California Romance in Perspective: The Elopement, Marriage and Ecclesiastical Trial of Henry D. Fitch and Josefa Carrillo,” Journal of San Diego History, 19 (Spring, 1973): 9.
25. Carlos Antonio Carrillo, elected deputy from Alta California on October 3, 1830 to serve a two year term in Congress. Carrillo reached Mexico City in April 1831. Bancroft, California, III, pp. 50, 214-15.
Dr. David J. Weber, Professor of History, and Dr. Ronald R. Young, Assistant Professor of Spanish and Linguistics, both teach at San Diego State University. Professor Weber’s most recent book, Foreigners in Their Native Land: Historical Roots of the Mexican Americans (Albuquerque: 1973) was one of twenty-three titles in American history chosen by Choice as “Outstanding Academic Books” for 1973-74. Dr. Young has served as Director of the San Diego State Mexico City campus and is on the Board of Directors of Amity Institute in Del Mar. Among his publications are Alto Lucero: Observaciones Linguisticas (Madrid: 1975) and “Rehilamiento of Spanish /y/” to be published in a forthcoming issue of Hispania.
Professor Weber’s editing of this document was facilitated by a fellowship (1974-75) from the National Endowment for the Humanities.