September 5, 2003

San Diego’s First Tax Roll

by Albert Simonson

San Diegans wondered what it all meant when the U.S. Navy first sailed into our bay. They wondered again when the Army invaded and made themselves comfortable at the old mission, the very place that had once been the essence of Spanish San Diego.

Up north, rancheros who traced lineage back to Mexico and Spain (but with a lot of Native American DNA), wondered what it all meant when our California founding fathers proclaimed a “California Republic.” Those founders seem to have been a greasy, rough bunch, according to Bancroft’s authoritative 1886 “History of California.” They made the first version of our California flag, using Dirty Mat-thews’ wife’s petticoat. Or maybe not, depending on which founding father you believe. And lettered the flag using pokeberry juice and a chewed-up stick for a brush. The grizzly looked rather pig-like, some thought. Our present flag is a much-improved version. Our state government is less improved.

But now, with 20-20 hindsight, we know what all that Americanization meant. It meant taxes. Lots of taxes.

In 1850, as military rule in California yielded to civil government and a new state constitution, tax revenue was needed. And the easiest victims to tax were the Mexican era Indians and rancheros. It would be several decades before Mexican-era land titles would be confirmed or rejected by the United States Land Commission and the courts. In contrast, taxation began without hesitation, of course. Bancroft condemned the process as a very bad beginning.

The Indians, who were suffering “taxation without representation,” revolted in 1851. Their leader, Antonio Garra, was shot by a firing squad in Old Town San Diego and still rests in the Campo Santo cemetery, his soft slumbers reverberated by rumblings of San Diego Avenue traffic.

Almost all rancheros lost their cattle ranches, by a combination of taxes, lawyers and lenders. The tax roll of that time did not overlook many assets. It was enough to make a leathery, vicuña-sobreroed ranchero look back in nostalgia to a kinder, gentler, taxless California ruled by Spain’s “Law of the Indies,” and handshakes between caballeros.

The new tax roll of 1850 was literally a big roll of paper, measuring about 3 feet high and 6 wide, with assessments handwritten in Spanish. Values were shown in pesos, equal to the dollar at that time. There simply were not many dollars around here yet.

Most trade in the new world was conducted in pesos, or piezas, which got abbreviated as Ps, according to F. Cajori’s “History of Mathematical Notations.”

Sometimes the two letters got superimposed and when scribbly clerks left out the round part of the P the result was the present Mexican and U.S. notation for the peso or dollar, the $ symbol venerated throughtout the world.

A typical tax roll entry was for the San Dieguito Rancho (now Rancho Santa Fe) of Juan Maria Osuna. Osuna was an old-time enforcer of the Law of the Indies as first alcalde (mayor) of San Diego in 1835. His title reflects an Andalucian Moorish heritage. His home, too was Andalusian, from a town near Seville, but he was more Indian, and from a Loreto family.

Osuna got hit pretty hard on the tax roll. His two houses (one of which was later remodeled by Bing Crosby) were valued at 1825 pesos; the land was twice as much. A corral was assessed at 100 pesos. Tame horses and “broncos” got written up. Four yokes of oxen at 50 pesos each were not overlooked; nor 150 “fanegas” of grain.

The venerable old mayor may still have had some influence, though. The column for household furniture remained blank.

José Antonio Estudillo signed the tax roll as “asesor del condado” (county assessor). He assessed himself for a half million acres at Janal, San Jacinto, and Cajon. His ranch house at the old El Cajon mission rancho was located in present downtown Lakeside at the corner of River and Lakeshore. With two flour mills, a forge, five oxcarts, and many cattle, he was heavily taxed. Estudillo’s house in Old Town San Diego still exists. In the fifties, it was trendy to have both ranch and town houses.

Santiago Arguello was even more heavily assessed. He had houses around the bay at La Punta and Otay, and ranch land at Cuyamaca and Jamacha which brought him up to almost 50,000 pesos.

Shipowner, philanthropist and Pacific Rim trader, José Antonio Aguirre, was even assessed for his cash and liquid assets, over 20,000 pesos. No wonder he soon became a proponent of secession. He is buried under the floor of a chapel on Conde Street. He donated the chapel to San Diego in 1858. His elegant Casa de Aguirre nearby has now been reconstructed as a small museum and shops.

Some of the rancho names hearken back to a quiet, unfenced California, names like Soledad (Solitude), Peñasquitos (Little Boulders), Buena Vista (now just Vista), Encinitos (Little Oaks), or El Cajon (The Box).

Some ranchos, like San Pascual, San Bernardo, or San Marcos recall the mission era with devoted padres organizing skeptical natives into tidy Spanish-style pueblos. Some are humorous, like Rincón del Diablo (Devil’s Nook) or Agua Hedionda (Stinky Water, now Carlsbad). Jamul and Jamachá likewise berate the local water, but in the Kumeyaay language. The list reminds us of the culturally rich and diverse past which makes us more interesting than the rest of the country.

Many Anglo taxpayer names were hispanicized. John Forster became “Juan” and was assessed over 20,000 pesos for “La Nación” (National City) and San Felipe (between Julian and Borrego). “Juan” Warner of Valle San José (Warner Springs, now a private mountain resort) must have had the worst house in the county, not counting Indian jacales (huts). His was worth only 12 pesos. One writer who passed through Warner’s with the Army commented on wretched and feudal conditions in which Warner’s Indians lived.

Guillermo (Cockney Bill Williams) and Julio Sandoval’s house at Volcán de Santa Ysabel (now Volcan Preserve near Julian) was the next worst place, valued at 100 pesos. Another “Guillermo,” the famous William H. Davis, who in that same year subdivided present downtown San Diego, got to pay tax on two boats totaling 8500 pesos.

The assessment included pueblo dwellers too: otter hunters, soldiers, merchants and whatnot. They had a surprising quantity of livestock and not many corrals. This lends credence to early settlers’ memories of dusty streets plagued with scratching chickens, rooting pigs, braying donkeys and, most memorably, hyperactive fleas.

The “asesor” added a handwritten note in Spanish at the bottom of the tax roll, revealing some disgruntlement. It seems he had not been furnished necessary maps and data from the “agrimensor” (land surveyor). Similarly, the land title documents for Santa Ysabel and Santa María (Ramona) were not available to the county. And then there was a question of Bandini’s Tecate rancho, and how much of it was in the county. The office had not yet settled into a routine, and perhaps rancheros were not very forthcoming with information. Understandably not. They probably sensed that nosey inquiries were like a camel’s nose under the tent of their way of life.

The total county assessment, including fruit trees, vines, and all wild cattle that could not be hidden away in side canyons came to a then-outrageous sum of 570,997 pesos. San Diego had always been short of hard cash and so cowhides came to be called “California Banknotes.”

There was something ominous about having one’s possessions assigned specific value in terms of hard cash, which did not grow naturally and effortlessly on the back of a cow.

The first county tax assessment was seen as a mortal blow to the cash-strapped cattle rancheros of the southland. And indeed it was just that, in combination with costly procedures for confirming old land titles under U.S. law. Especially when severe droughts hit in 1857 and 1862, together with a plague of grasshoppers and epidemics stalking the native vaqueros at a time when all evils combined to bring a tragic end to the proud old rancho way of life.

Since the first tax assessment, we have learned well the old adage that only two things are certain in this life - death and taxes. Luckily, the former gives lasting relief from the latter. In Old Town’s Campo Santo, not far from the grave of tax rebel Antonio Garra, you may doff your sombrero to honored taxpayers who have gone before you - Osuna, Williams, and many others. May they sleep the dreamless sleep of the unassessed.

But just think how wonderful it would be if you could buy San Diego County today for its 1850 valuation! You probably wouldn’t even mind paying taxes on it!

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