“You are a devil!” the Mexican governor of California shouted at his American prisoner, a shaggy-haired fur trapper named James Ohio Pattie. Then, with the eye of “an enraged beast” and the “growl of a grizzly bear,” the governor skulled Pattie with the flat of his sword, shouting an “abundance of curses which his language supplies.”
“An officer and a gentleman doesn’t beat unarmed prisoners,” Pattie complained as soldiers dragged him away. “If I only had a sword to meet you on equal terms, I could easily kill as many dastards as come at me.”
Back in his damp cell, the American “never expected to see the sun rise and set again.”
A mere 50 yards stood between Pattie’s rusting, iron-barred door and the governor’s quarters. “Ah, that I had my trusty rifle,” Pattie cursed. He’d gladly die for “the pleasure of that single shot…But wishes are not rifle balls, and will not kill.”
“Such is the power of the oppressor,” Pattie wrote later, “every word he pronounced was a vile and deceitful lie.” One of the first Americans to come overland to San Diego, Pattie, in 1828, spent months in prison at the Presidio, arrested for espionage. His accuser, a “cruel and arbitrary man” given to “capricious whims,” was José María Echeandia, political and military governor of Alta and Lower California.
Pattie’s ghost writer, Timothy Flint, called Echeandia “juiceless.” The historian Father Zephyrin Engelhardt says he “belonged to the class of heartless and irreligious usurpers that tyrannized poor Mexico.”
In San Diego’s popular history, Echeandia’s the villain of three famous events: the arrival of the fur trappers, the Franklin affair, and the elopement of Henry Delano Fitch and Josefa Carrillo.
It’s time to hear his side.
Echeandia probably didn’t want the job. A talented architect, he was a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Engineers. When Mexico won its bloody independence from Spain, he commanded a company. During the siege of Fort Ulua in Veracruz, he caught a fever — malaria, most likely — and suffered ill health for the rest of his life.
He hoped to head a military college of engineers in the new republic. He had a wife, María Saucedo, and four daughters to support. Being a professor of architecture would have suited his refined tastes and temperamental constitution.
Over six feet tall, gaunt as El Greco, with small brown eyes and chestnut-colored hair, he spoke — some say affected — an elegant Castilian accent. As governor-general, he demanded to be addressed as “Your Lordship.”
Echeandia was “an intelligent architect who would have done honor to Mexico if he had been encouraged,” wrote Tadeo Ortiz de Ayala. But in a turbulent country that had just overthrown a monarchy, Echeandia couldn’t make a living. “Circumstances made him enter the army” and leave his family behind.
He wasn’t Mexico’s first choice. Juan José Miñón, named governor-general of Alta and Lower California in 1824, declined the position a year later. Having to oversee a primitive 800-mile coastal strip influenced the decision, along with lack of funds, restless natives, and the challenges in changing the region from a feudal system to a republic.
Mexico appointed Echeandia, an unknown, early in 1825. Soon after, the director-general of engineers resigned. Echeandia applied for his dream job. President Victoria refused.
Echeandia had never sailed before. The voyage from San Blas to Loreto was such an ordeal, into prevailing winds and endless arching whitecaps, he decided to head north overland from there. He arrived in San Diego in late October. Although his party galloped up the Presidio Hill trail in a dusty flourish, the long trek exhausted Echeandia. If his condition didn’t improve in six months, he wrote President Victoria, he wanted to return home.
For someone accustomed to the abundant flowers, choruses of church bells, and rich culture of Mexico City, San Diego resembled brown smudges on a beige canvas. Barren hills, spotted with cacti, overlooked a sandy plain, where three dozen adobe houses huddled together as if trying to keep warm. The bay, a sparkling expanse doglegging west to a dark green promontory, was a remarkable sight, at least until Echeandia went for a swim in the ocean. “They had to pull him out,” said Angustias de la Guerra Ord. “He was stiff from the cold.”
As the first Mexican governor-general of Alta California, Echeandia was supposed to seat his capitol at Monterey. When he heard the fog was worse there, he made San Diego his official base. His reason: it was centrally located between Alta and Lower California.
He moved into the lieutenant’s quarters, which, like the rest of the fort, were run-down. “A sad place is the presidio of San Diego,” wrote Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, French sea captain, in 1827, “the saddest of all we have visited in California.” Sloping down an arid hill, the presidio still housed over 300 people, but near-constant wind had eroded the 12-foot adobe walls. The fort had two cannons: one was spiked; the other hadn’t been fired in years.
“Some uncharitable persons,” Duhaut-Cilly added, “claimed that the company of a certain lady of San Diego had embellished in Echeandia’s eyes a spot so unattractive in itself.”
She was Josefa Carrillo. Whether or not 37-year-old Echeandia became smitten by the 16-year-old who lived near the base of the hill, one of his first edicts declared that foreigners could not marry California women without his sanction and without becoming baptized in the Catholic faith.
The new Mexican government wanted Echeandia to do more than hold the fort. He must be an apostle for republican liberty, the ideal behind the Mexican revolution against Spain.
The Spanish feudal system fixed one’s lot in life. Mexico’s War of Independence — in theory, if not in practice — demanded equality. The ideal omitted women but, almost unthinkable for the time, included Indians.
“For so many years the yoke of semi-slavery had been imposed” on Indians, wrote Antonio María Osio, “they never had been allowed to own anything or to say ‘this is mine’” — until Echeandia spread the word.