Welcome, readers, to the second episode of On the Hidalgo Treaty Road: the twisted path leading into and out of the Mexican-American War in the Nineteenth Century. Once again, I’m focusing on good old California.
Raise your hand if you can define the word, “Californios.” Do I detect some uncertainty out there? Do words stumble out of your mouths? No problem. My mouth stumbles and bumbles like it was going out of style.
I went online and found all sorts of definitions for “Californios,” some based on ignorance, some on snobbery, some on political correctness, and others on the actual geography of what was once called Alta California, which extended way beyond California’s current borders. For purposes of this blog, let’s just call “Californios” those Mexican citizens living in what is now US California between the time Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1810 until it ceded Alta California to the US in 1848. If my simplistic (and inaccurate) working definition blasts smoke out your ears, shake your head in dismay and mentally substitute your words for mine. I’m cool with that.
Today’s subject is General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, one of California’s most distinguished citizens in the 1800s. Definitely a Californio by my working definition or yours. In a time when the Mexican government’s poor choice of Alta California governors and lack of support pissed off the Californios, Vallejo and others realized a powerful country (such as Britain or the US) could ultimately annex their territory. Vallejo favored the US. Plenty of others didn’t. Hold that thought.
When I fell and broke my hip at work in 2006—on my way to give a safety lecture about slips, trips and falls—I ended up stuck in a hospital for a few days. My physician pinned my hip in place, so to speak, which meant minor surgery instead of major. There were only so many times I could hobble out to the nursing station to chat. My husband, David, brought me Alan Rosenus’ award-winning biography of General Vallejo to read, to keep my mind occupied and my nurses sane.
General Vallejo wasn’t what we in the US today would classify as a “general.” You know, like General Colin Powell or President Eisenhower. I believe Vallejo’s top military rank was colonel of cavalry. He did, however, become commandant general and military governor of Alta California. Now that’s a mouthful. Thus, he became known as General Vallejo. Hold onto that thought, too.
The landowner-peon relationship on most of the 19th Century Mexican-California ranchos has bothered me for ages, ever since I learned too many of the servants had a status far too close to slaves—despite the fact Mexico abolished slavery in 1829. Additional research on General Vallejo, however, helped me to identify with him and his parents in one way. Didn’t most of us as youths try to push the limits? Don’t we as parents want our kids to behave as we think they should? According to more than one source, the Catholic Church unofficially excommunicated Vallejo as a young man for refusing to turn over a banned book—likely by Voltaire—to a local priest. Imagine the horrified expressions on his parent’s faces! In comparison, me hiding my library copy of Peyton Place from my mom back in 1959 didn’t even come close.
I’ve incorporated the juicy Voltaire possibility into my latest novel (a book under consideration by my publisher), if only in the background. A single quote from Voltaire affects the life of my protagonist, Catalina Delgado.
Which reminds me, Catalina’s grandfather has taught her to read, a skill that many in early California—particularly women—didn’t have. (When I hold up the audience-response placard, please shout “boo.”) To be fair, whether or not wives in Mexican California could read, they had half-way decent property rights when compared to their US counterparts at the time. Remember, a lot of US laws originated from British ones. Under “coverture,” US women back then lost all control over their property and money once they married. In the US, coverture was discarded only state-by-state. The final US sackful of coverture didn’t hit the legal trash can until 1880.
Excuse me, I digress. Back to the Hidalgo Treaty Road.
Enter the “Bear Flaggers” in 1846: Mostly a rag-tag bunch of “Yankees” (that is, from various parts of the US) who wanted to claim Alta California for the US. They created their own flag, one picturing their rendition of a California bear—a feeble attempt on the level of early elementary school art.
Remember that first thought I told you to hang onto? Many of the Californios knew General Vallejo’s positive feelings toward the United States. Apparently, a fair number of the Bear Flaggers didn’t. Or they let their leaders whip up their emotions into a rabid froth. Recall that second thought you’re holding, the one about Vallejo’s true title? The Bear Flaggers probably thought a “general” would have a stash of military weapons they could confiscate and use against Mexican soldiers.
If only Google had existed.
The Yankees should have done their homework, then approached Vallejo for his advice on annexation, worked with him. Instead they captured and tortured him, threatened and scared his entire household. Either some of the Bear Flaggers weren’t the brightest candles in the dining room chandelier, or their leaders had already decided to confiscate the lands of all Californios for themselves—and to exterminate most of California’s remaining Native American population in the process.
At any rate, I bet a lot of Californios mumbled “We told you so,” when hearing the news about Vallejo’s imprisonment. But that’s for another entry.
Laurel Anne Hill
Author and Former Underground Storage Tank Operator