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The Concepción sailed in June 1800. For the two-month voyage, as the frigate tacked into tricky Pacific headwinds, young “recruits” wavered between feelings of exile — yet another abandonment — and the hope of finding a home.

On August 24, they rounded the white dunes of Point Pinos and sailed into Monterey Bay. To the children, who had come from the capital of Mexico and the bustling seaport of San Blas, Monterey must have seemed tiny. It wasn’t a city, or even much of a pueblo — just a presidio, a church, and a few houses dwarfed by dark, cypress-green hills. The orphanage had more people.

Military Commandant Pedro de Alberni distributed the children “like puppies” (“perritos,” writes Lorenzana) to the homes of various soldiers. Twelve of the youngest went to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Five women, along with María de Jesus Torres and Apolinaria, remained at Monterey.

“Those that were already women,” writes Lorenzana, “were married very soon.” That included María Francisca Ignacio (17) and María Josefa Pasquala (19). Young Inez was wed within the year. Macedonio Suárez and José Timoteo joined presidio families. And Valeriana Lorenzana, who went to San Diego, married Desiderio Ybarra, a soldier.

At first, five of the young women resisted marriage. They were already betrothed to “Mother Church,” they claimed. Eventually all but one followed orders and found husbands.

Within two years, the “orphan project” proved a failure. “Raymundo Carrillo, the children’s protector,” writes Salome Hernandez, “complained that female orphans generally lacked those skills appropriate to their sex, such as cooking and sewing, [which] caused suffering since Carrillo found it more difficult to place them.”

“I do not believe,” wrote Carrillo, “that there are any advantages to be gained by sending more children as these. The inhabitants do not want to take them in, because they have growing families of their own. These children are so unhappy, it seems pointless to take them away from the capital and expose them to hardship. They are too young.”

Sixteen-year-old María Gertrudis married José Truxillo, a Catalonian soldier. When he died two years later, she begged to return to Mexico. She had fulfilled her contract, she wrote. No, said officials. She must remarry and could not return “because the rest would do likewise using the same or another excuse.”

The officials stressed that if she couldn’t find a mate, one would be found for her.

By the time Gertrudis sent the letter, in 1803, the government had forgotten the orphans. Her request, followed by word that many girls couldn’t sew and some boys had become criminals, led officials to abandon the experiment. The Lorenzanas were the only orphans sent to Alta California.

Officials tried a new strategy: married convicts, with no “bad habits,” and their families could escape prison sentences in Cuba and become settlers. That experiment failed. Carrillo, in charge of their distribution, complained of “scandalous” conduct: “The majority brag about their ugly crimes and even worse, do so without thinking seriously of reform.” Plus, they were “corrupting the Christian and pagan Indians and the children of the gente de razón.”

José de la Guerra y Noriega, scion of the clan Savage wanted to interview, advocated sending the convicts “a million leagues [away] for a couple of centuries, an occurrence which would be of advantage to both God and king.”

Apolinaria and her “mother” María lived at the home of Raymundo Carrillo. He and his wife Tomasa Lugo had room because their four sons were fully grown and their daughter, María Antonia, would marry José de la Guerra y Noriega in 1804.

Carrillo may have come to Alta California with Gaspar Portola on the first expedition of 1769. He married Tomasa in 1781. Father Junípero Serra conducted the ceremony. On December 8, 1800, the 51-year-old lieutenant became commandante of Monterey.

The Carrillos didn’t adopt María and Apolinaria. His wife was an invalid, and María became her cuidadera. Along with performing household duties, young Apolinaria helped María nurse Tomasa.

Apolinaria could read the catechism. But she couldn’t write, a skill women weren’t encouraged to acquire. In her spare time, she took whatever book was nearby and whatever “empty cigarette papers or a blank piece of paper that somebody had thrown out” and copied pages from the book. She carefully drew each letter, memorizing its shape, listening to its sound. Discarded scrap paper became a blessing. It meant she could practice self-expression. “That is how,” she later wrote, “I managed to learn enough to make myself understood in writing whenever I needed something.”

Life settled in: long, full days of nursing and servant’s duties and study in free time. Then María de Jesus, who had never wanted to leave Mexico City, met Miguel Briot, a young artilleryman. They fell in love and married in 1802. Apolinaria, who calls Briot “stepfather” in her Testimonio, thought she’d found her family at last — and that, when his replacement arrived, all three would sail home to Mexico.

During this time Carrillo was named commandant of Santa Barbara. María, Miguel, and Apolinaria moved south with the Carrillos. When Miguel’s relief arrived later in 1802, writes Apolinaria, “he took my mother with him” to Mexico on the frigate Princesa. They left the child behind.

Because María wasn’t, technically, her mother? Because Apolinaria was under contract to marry an Alta Californian? Other reasons? She doesn’t say.

“That is how I became separated from my mother,” the blind old woman told Savage 76 years later. “I never saw her again. Shortly after she arrived in San Blas my mother died, perhaps from a broken heart because she had to leave me behind.”

An orphan once again, Apolinaria Lorenzana was nine years old.

Next time: La Beata: The Child Is Mother to the Children.

— Jeff Smith

SOURCES:

Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, eds., Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; Lorenzana’s recollections, pp. 165–192; Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2006.

Virginia M. Bouvier, Women and the Conquest of California, 1542–1840: Codes of Silence; Tucson; University of Arizona Press, 2001.

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MsP June 30, 2008 @ 9:58 a.m.

Fabulous article -- I love the perspective that Jeff Smith gives us not only on SD's past, but what it brings to the present of this wonderful area and California -- amazing stories, all of them, thanks for featuring his writing here and in the theatre section!

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