August 5, 2005

Homeland Security in 1846 or The Scary Summer of ‘46

by Albert Simonson

There were some jittery nerves in southern California when news arrived that President Polk had declared war on Mexico. At the time, this WAS Mexico.

It was easy enough for people at drowsy ranchos and pueblos to scoff at the rawhide revolutionaries up north who had just proclaimed a so-called “Bear Flag Republic.” The original flag’s bear looked more like a pig, and the flag had been painted with a chewed stick dipped in pokeberry juice. It was said the stripe was made from the petticoat of “Dirty Matthews’” wife.

Maybe I sound irreverent or unpatriotic, but I swear I am not making this stuff up. This was verily one “greasy” bunch of rough low-life founding fathers and you can read all about it in Bancroft’s famous 1886 “History of California.”

Bancroft based his account on interviews with actual witnesses. They contradicted each other a lot, but you get the impression that there sure weren’t any Jeffersons or Hamiltons in that bunch.

You can visit the Bancroft house and museum on Memory Lane, off Bancroft Drive in Spring Valley. The area got its name from the spring that still exists next to the old house, which was built using lumber from a ship that had broken up at the inlet to San Diego Bay. A gale had driven it from its moorings.

Even before the “Bear Flag Revolt,” it was well known that spies, secret agents and John Fremont’s adventurers had long been preparing for an American takeover of California. Windbag politicians called it “Manifest Destiny.” It had a nice ring to it.

The ranchos were operated by old-family Californios and Indians, but the pueblos were, by the summer of ‘46, full of Yankees, Hawaiian “kanakas,” footloose deserters from trading vessels looking to marry into a land owning family, and other kinds of undocumented aliens, so to speak.

Like some others, Don Miguel Telesford Pedrorena openly supported an American takeover. He had married a local Estudillo girl, the ranchera of El Cajon rancho, formerly the mission rancho of “Santa Monica” on the “San Luis” (San Diego) river. Artifacts of the main ranch house have been found at the corner of Lakeshore and River Street in Lakeside, but there is no marker to commemorate that important frontier site.

Don Miguel had come from Spain via Lima, where he had been a trader. He spoke fluent English and was a man of the world. He had been educated at universities of Madrid and Oxford. His brother was a holder of the “Golden Key,” giving access to the royal apartments. The Pedrorena coat of arms showed a plumed and armored knight in red, green, blue, gray, silver, and gold, with four fleurs-de-lis on the shield.

There is a large stone house in Monterey where Don Miguel was one of the two San Diego signatories at the convention which was to draft California’s state constitution. The house is now a museum and it has in its files a letter from Don Miguel, then in Santa Barbara, to Abel Stearns, a cattle baron.

In exquisite penmanship and perfect English he wrote, “Owing to my being ‘de novio,’ I have had no time to think of writing to my friends - - - I have the pleasure to inform you that I joined your society of respectable married people, joining in holy wedlock with Doña María Antonia Estudillo.” “We are now as happy as people can be,” he added.

Happy though he was, events of the next four years led him to believe that his adopted province of California would do better as part of the expanding United States.

An American man-of-war, the U.S.S. Cyane, rounded San Diego’s Point Loma on July 29, 1846. It had 22 guns and was heavily loaded for an invasion. The old Spanish coastal battery at the bay entrance was already derelict. San Diego was defenseless. Just to make sure, Don Miguel spirited away a cannon, El Jupiter, cast in Manila in 1783.

Beside his regular crew of 120 sailors, the captain wrote that he had aboard the “Cavalry Battalion of Major Fremont consisting of 165 American Arabs of the West.” These included swarthy trappers, Delaware Indians, backwoodsmen from Tennessee in rough deerskin coats and dangling leather thongs, Kit Carson, some marines, a spy and Bear Flag revolutionaries.

Captain duPont wrote his wife, “You may conceive the condition of our decks, etc., with the addition of this motley group.” As they sailed into the bay with an onshore breeze, they may well have been smelled by townsfolk before they were sighted.

The vessel anchored in the channel very near the southwest end of present Shelter Island. La Playa (the beach) had a cluster of hide houses for the cowhide trade, stores for trade goods, a custom house, a cemetery, as well as improvised shelters for the human flotsam that formed the sinews of Pacific Rim Trade in the days of wooden ships and iron men.

It was a colorful, ragtag beach scene made famous by an old bestseller entitled “Two Years Before the Mast.”

The launch Alligator was dispatched to hoist the stars and stripes in the plaza of what is now called Old Town. The next order of business was to round up some horses for the campaign. About a hundred changed ownership, quite informally.

Ten days later, San Diego quieted down as most of the invasion force rode north to take over the dusty pueblo of “La Reina de los Angeles de la Porciúncula,” a name which recalls a church on a little remainder portion of land in Assisi, the peaceful Italian town of Saint Francis. There were still Franciscans in California, relics of bygone mission days.

San Diego was precariously exposed, with little homeland security (as we would now call it) and not even horses to flee on. San Diegans were keenly aware that many Native Americans would be tickled pink to see them vanish along with the newcomers. People still recalled with terror an attack on Rancho Jamul, when several were murdered and two small girls were kidnapped.

Don Miguel, with his El Cajon rancho at the outermost frontier in a land of divided loyalties, must have felt vulnerable. He had stuck his neck out very far to support the invaders, and had been appointed by them to be a judge and was given military rank as a cavalry captain.

Don Miguel’s open disloyalty to the Mexican homeland rankled some citizens, including the crack shot Jose Orosco. Don Miguel’s splendid red uniform jacket made him a tempting target one day on Juan Street in Old Town.

Orosco, hoping to “make Miguel run” gave him two near misses, for which Don Miguel gallantly waved his hat. But a third shot hurried his steps noticeably.

Three weeks after the invasion, “Captain” Miguel Pedrorena penned a directive as “Provisional Justice” of the new “First District.”

“I have just received an order from the Commandant of the military forces of the United States in this place that this territory is being invaded by a party of fanatic adventurers called Mormons who arrived by sea at San Francisco in order to join a large number of others who come by land, well armed, with the purpose of taking over this country by force.”

He continued, “I have also been informed that on the other hand we are threatened by another party of five hundred Indians called Paiutes, already in this territory, intent upon our complete destruction.”

Thereupon, he requisitioned horses for the few troops remaining in San Diego. Fear was in the air. No one had asked the natives what kind of government they wanted, if any.

Often, the things we fear the most never materialize, whereas the things we never expect suddenly jump up and bite us in the backside. So it was for Don Miguel.

The Mormons came and made themselves useful in San Diego, then departed. The Paiute threat never amounted to anything.

But some Mexican patriots did revolt, and Captain Miguel’s own company had a shootout with an advance guard of the son of San Diego’s first mayor under Mexican rule. It took place alongside present Interstate 15, just up Soledad (now Murphy) Canyon from Friars Road. One of the local rancheros became his prisoner.

There was a serious Indian revolt some years later. But it was about “taxation without representation” and Paiutes had nothing to do with it. They pretty much remained in Nevada and are still there, minding their own business.

Don Miguel died in 1850, not from a bullet, lance or arrow, but in an apoplectic fit. At the time, he was involved in subdividing what is now downtown San Diego, south and west of Broadway and First. Four small children were left fatherless.

The moral of this story is - don’t worry because you probably don’t know exactly what you should be worried about.

When the fickle finger of fate beckons to you, that will be soon enough to worry.

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