by Barbara Zaragoza
In 1943 the Supreme Court in Mexico City decreed that Susana Lucero de Regnier of the Argüello family could take possession of 26,000 acres that constituted parts of the City of Tijuana, including Agua Caliente. By then Agua Caliente was a lucrative racetrack where famed horses such as Trigger and Seabiscuit had competed. Immediately after the court decision, de Regnier traveled from Mexico City to Tijuana. She was ready to supervise the takeover of the property, which had been granted to the family prior to the US-Mexican War. Victory in hand, de Regnier checked into a Tijuana hotel. Then, during that very night, she died of a heart attack.
The lawsuit was one of many court cases that began after 1852 when the United States Land Commission decided that Santiago Emigdio Argüello did not rightfully own Rancho Melijo, an area which covered parts of Tijuana as well as South San Diego, Imperial Beach, and Chula Vista. The many decades-long court cases that followed demonstrated how a founding family of San Diego and their ties to Mexico remained intertwined long after the US takeover of the territory. The lawsuits also showed how little care the newcomers had for the region’s past and its old families, a legacy that continues into the present day.
The 250th commemoration is an appropriate time to contemplate the long-lasting, trans-border implications of Spanish colonial rule in the region. The founding of the mission and presidio marked the beginning of Spanish civil society and the creation of the class of Californios who would remain in San Diego well after the decline of the missions. It is therefore important in our commemorations to think in terms of this population and its continuing legacy—a legacy that is more glaring today due to its omission within San Diego history. For example, despite the family’s early renown, not one book exists dedicated to the Argüello family. There are only mentions of the Argüello legacy scattered throughout California and Tijuana, located in various archives.
Starting with the Spanish colonial period, the Argüello family could boast illustrious political titles, military service, and the ownership of vast tracts of land. The family proudly traced its lineage back to fifteenth-century Spain. However, it is unknown which Argüello ancestor traveled from Spain to Mexico. Extant records only begin with Captain José Darío Argüello, who was born in Queretaro, Mexico in 1753. We know nothing more about him until 1781 when he embarked on a journey to Alta California with Fernando Rivera y Moncada.
In 1769 Rivera had traveled by land on the so-called Sacred Expedition with Father Juan Crespí and a party of frontiersmen. Following behind in a second party were Captain Gaspar de Portolá and Father Junípero Serra. The two land parties founded the presidio and Mission San Diego de Alcalá, solidifying Spain’s claim to the area as part of its colonial empire. Thereafter, Portolá, Serra, and many other frontiersmen traveled extensively up and down Alta and Baja California, settling areas all the way up to Yerba Buena (today’s San Francisco) and sailing back down as far south as San Fernando, Baja California in order to obtain supplies for the missions. From Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History of California we learn that Rivera also traveled to many places in modern-day Mexico in order to find recruits willing to come north.
When Rivera recruited settlers in Sinaloa, he met José Darío Argüello, who appears to have lived there for a long time. Colorful descriptions exist of how and why someone would be chosen to make the journey to Alta California. According to Spanish colonial rules, the twenty-four settlers on the Sinaloa expedition had to be married men, accompanied by their families, healthy, and set a good example to the local Indian people. The party also had to include a mason, a carpenter, and a blacksmith. All settlers had to commit to ten years of service.
José Darío Argüello first reached the pueblo of Nuestra Señora de la Reina de Los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula and became one of the founding officers of what today is the City of Los Angeles. Once settlers arrived in Alta California, they were regularly on the move, stationed at various posts where they obtained military rank, held political positions, or ran cattle ranches. José Darío and his fourteen children were no exception. José Darío spent time as a lieutenant in Santa Barbara (1787), became a comandante (commander) in San Francisco (1789), and then settled in Monterey (1792), where he held the title of comandante once again. From 1814 to 1815 he became acting Governor of Alta California. As Bancroft noted, “For many years Don Jose [sic] was the most prominent, influential, and respected man in California.”
José Darío’s seventh child was Santiago Moraga Argüello. Born at Monterey in 1791, he was later described as “… tall, stout, and of fine presence, with fair complexion and black hair, reserved in manner, yet of kindly disposition. His record, public and private, was an honorable one. He was a man of peculiar reserve or haughtiness of manner, attributed to family pride.” In 1810 Santiago married Maria del Pilar Ortega and together they reputedly had twenty-two children. Other records maintain that they actually only supported twenty-two family members, of whom fifteen were children and nine reached adulthood. The Old Town San Diego State Historic Park records offer a glimpse into the rugged lives of these settlers:
Like the proverbial old woman of the shoe, it was with the same consequences. The problem was complicated by the constant moves necessitated by the father’s duties. Because of assignments covering civil responsibilities administrated by the military, Santiago made frequent moves throughout the province. Considering the traveling this early family did with infants and small children, by horseback and cart over rutted trails through primitive wilderness, it is little wonder only nine reached adulthood.
By the time Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, the Argüello family had been in Alta California for forty years. Their renown only increased after independence when the mission system came to an end. In particular, Mexico wanted to give as many land grants as possible to secular men in order to secure their hold on Alta California and undermine the power of the Franciscan priests. The prominent Argüello family benefitted handsomely from this administrative change. In Northern California, for example, José Darío received land grants that covered much of today’s San Mateo County and Stanford University. Santiago Moraga Argüello continued in his father’s footsteps in San Diego. At some point he became aduanero (customs officer), and then alcalde (mayor and judge) of San Diego. Between 1838 and 1840 he also served as administrator of Mission San Juan Capistrano. In 1841 he was granted Rancho Trabuco, encompassing 22,184 acres in present-day Orange County, a property he sold two years later. He also received what remained of the old Mission San Diego lands, which came to be 58,000 acres, including today’s East San Diego, Normal Heights, Kensington Heights, Kensington Park, Talmadge Park, State College, La Mesa, Encanto, and Lemon Grove.
The land that would turn into a century-long lawsuit centered around two ranchos located at the future US-Mexico border. In 1829 Santiago received Rancho Tijuan, which covered most of today’s Tijuana. Then in 1833 his son, Santiago Emigdio Argüello, received the adjacent Rancho Melijo. Santiago Emigdio built a fourteen-room adobe on a bluff with a magnificent view of the Otay River Valley to the west and the Tijuana River Valley to the south—where Captain Portolá, Junípero Serra, and Rivera once trekked on their Sacred Expedition. The Argüello family grazed cattle on the property, and their hide and hallow trade became especially lucrative.
Throughout this period, the Argüello family maintained a complex relationship with local Indian peoples, a topic that has not been fully explored by scholars. We only know that Santiago Emigdio and his family were forced to leave their La Punta home in 1837 because of what articles refer to as “Indian raids.” Furthermore, the Argüello family likely used an Indian labor force, which included vaqueros (cowboys) on their ranches and servants in the home.
Although Santiago Emigdio fought on the side of the United States during the war with Mexico (1846-1848), notably serving as a captain in Stockton’s battalion, his prominence as well as that of the entire Argüello family took a definitive turn after 1848. The United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, whose terms included the transfer of 525,000 square miles of territory for which the United States paid Mexico $15 million. During treaty negotiations both countries vied for the strategic San Diego port. The Americans won and determined that the international boundary would be one marine league south of the southernmost point of San Diego Bay. When surveyors arrived along the shores of the Pacific Ocean in 1851 to erect Boundary #1, they determined that the boundary line would cut right through the Argüello property of Rancho Melijo.
Article VIII of the treaty promised that Mexican-American families like the Argüellos on the US side would rightfully retain their properties or could sell them without restrictions. However, the treaty coincided with another development in Alta California: the gold rush. By the end of 1849, some 50,000 to 60,000 people had spilled into Northern California searching for riches. As the gold rush craze subsided, some went south to Baja California in hopes of finding more gold deposits. This began to attract a few easterners to the border who hoped to establish hotels and restaurants for those passing through. More importantly for the Argüello family was how these newcomers treated the founders of San Diego. First and foremost, these newcomers deemed the Argüello landownership unfair.
Indeed, in 1849 an estimated 200 families owned 14 million acres of land in all of Alta California. In response, the newcomers often became squatters on the unfenced ranches. Then, in 1851 Congress passed the California Land Act, which required all holders of land from the Mexican period to validate their grants before a Land Commission. As Leonard Pitt notes in The Decline of the Californios, the 1851 act had a disastrous effect on the ranch owners. Many could not procure the deeds they had received many generations ago. Moreover, the boundary lines of the properties had been poorly demarcated for several reasons: the diseños (deeds) had been created when very few people inhabited Alta California and the economic activities of Mexican-era California did not make precise boundaries necessary, since cattle roamed freely and ranching was extensive rather than intensive. Also, there was a basic difference of legal cultures between the United States and Mexico. Since most of the prominent families spoke Spanish, not English, they had trouble with the English technical language of the courts. They also hired attorneys whom they paid in land rather than cash. Pitt explains further, “… of the fifty or so attorneys who specialized in claim law in the 1850s, most were shysters who lacked not only honesty but also knowledge and experience.” Over the course of about two decades most of the Mexican estates in Alta California were either taken over by squatters or were sold by the families in order to pay legal fees.
It was the Land Commission that precipitated the Argüello lawsuits at the border. Santiago Emigdio submitted his grant of Rancho Melijo, but in 1852 the Land Commission rejected it. By the late 1860s white, Anglo settlers began to establish farmsteads on the grant, especially in the Otay and Tijuana River Valleys so that in 1870 about fifty squatters were making preemptive claims to the land. Santiago Emigdio’s widow, Guadalupe Argüello, attempted to reclaim the grant under an 1865 act of Congress that allowed claimants of Mexican grants rejected by the Land Commission to purchase portions of the grant that they had occupied. However, in 1873 the US court rejected the claim once again. The court allowed her to keep only a small homestead around the La Punta home.
By the early 1900s the founding family’s fortunes had whittled down into obscurity. The Argüellos also had lost their military and political titles. A newspaper article in 1908 read like a “Where Are They Now?” feature when reporting that Santiago Emigdio Argüello’s son, Francisco, had died. The article explained that Francisco had been a stagecoach driver from the terminus of the National City and Otay railroad to the Mexican line. Thousands of tourists had ridden his vehicles. He had also continued to own 3,000 acres of land just over the border in Mexico. Perhaps the biggest symbol of the erasure of the history and legacy of the secular founders of San Diego during the Spanish and Mexican periods happened in 1951. In that year, the abandoned and dilapidated La Punta home built by Santiago Emigdio was razed to make way for Interstate 5.
The Argüello land on the Mexican side took a bit longer to disintegrate. In 1852 Santiago Moraga died without leaving a will. His many heirs began to fight with one another and lawsuits ensued. It took until 1889 for Rancho Tijuan to be divided into two parts, with the southern part going to the heirs of Ignacio Argüello, Santiago’s son who had already passed away. The northern part went to José Antonio Argüello, the only living son of Santiago.
Nevertheless, at least some Argüello heirs continued the fight to recapture their prominence—namely on the Mexican side. Although in 1889 the Argüello family sold a small portion of their land for the sake of town development, which initially was named “Zaragoza de Tijuana,” the heirs kept much of their property well into the early 1900s. However, over time, squatters started to occupy the Argüello ranches. In 1929, the Mexican Department of the Interior decided to remedy the situation by expropriating the lands. Susana Lucero de Regnier would not accept the insult. Instead, she sued the government for her rightful ownership of Rancho Tijuan even as wealthy American businesses had just opened a $10 million luxury hotel, golf club, spa, casino, and racetrack on the property and named it Agua Caliente. While the racetrack experienced its heyday, the lawsuit inched its way up through the courts. Twenty years later, the Supreme Court in Mexico finally ruled in her favor.
According to the 1943 newspaper article that reported on her sudden death, Susana Lucero de Regnier was born in Ysleta, Texas in 1870 and spent much of her life in Arizona. She had a son and a daughter who settled in San Diego and Los Angeles, respectively. The newspaper noted that at one time she had taken a shotgun, sat down in the middle of railroad tracks, and held up a freight train for twenty-four hours, claiming that she considered the railroad a trespasser on her property. In Mexico she was called the “madrina” because she organized the Boy Scouts there. She had planned to turn Agua Caliente into a hospital in which the poor would be treated for free. She also planned schools in arts, crafts, and technology.
De Regnier’s visions, however, did not come to fruition, and the lawsuits did not end. Within two weeks of de Regnier’s death, the Mexican government seized the property on behalf of seven Argüello heirs. However, sportsman James A. (Foghorn) Murphy filed a lawsuit claiming back rent. The complaint maintained that he and the other lessees had made many improvements on the property and the heirs owed them money. The court cases raged on for another ten years until, in March 1953, the Mexican Supreme Court ruled again. This time, the court decided that the Argüello heirs would need to pay $2 million to the owners of the racetrack for their lease improvements. The lawsuit demanded that the heirs pay the amount within the week or lose title to the land.
The 1953 decision marked the culmination of nearly a century of lawsuits. Today, the Argüello heirs still remain scattered throughout San Diego County, Baja California, and beyond, but their numbers are unknown. Their visible legacy has whittled down to one gravesite in Old Town San Diego located at El Campo Santo Cemetery. There, Santiago Emigdio Argüello—grandson of José Darío and son of Santiago Moraga—rests in peace, fittingly surrounded by a small plot of land that is bounded by a white picket fence.