The government ordered him to move “prudently and slowly” with his reforms — “more a work of policy than authority” — so the “oppressed Indians might experience the advantages of the liberal system.”
As in all matters, Echeandia proceeded with caution. (Some said he “acted as if trying to please everybody.”) But to those accustomed to the old ways, every word he uttered smacked of radicalismo.
He advocated “partial emancipation”: if mission Indians had been Christians for 15 years, or since childhood, and had a skill, they and their families could “go where they wanted, like a member of the Mexican nation.” Echeandia also abolished severe punishment of neophytes.
Within two years, he alienated the Franciscan friars, by undermining their authority; the original Spanish population, who saw secularization of the missions as a potential land-grab for Mexico; and unpaid soldiers, who made the governor a scapegoat.
Echeandia became such a friend of the natives, wrote Angustias de la Guerra Ord, that “they began to demand those rights be put into practice.” She also remembered her father warning the governor to “temper his enthusiasm and try to keep the Indians in check…[otherwise] they could revolt and kill the white people, including Echeandia, the man giving them so much encouragement.”
(In March and April 1832, to help him combat an insurrection in the north, Echeandia promised to free all neophytes that fought for him. An estimated 1000 armed natives assembled at San Gabriel. They carried him on their shoulders, shouted “soy libre” — “I am free” — and horrified the region’s Spanish-speakers with their show of solidarity. That so many banded together may have frightened Echeandia as well; after the insurrection subsided, he forgot his promise.)
Although Osio found him verbose, obstinate, and “a beast incapable of governing,” he admitted that “Echeandia’s liberalism struck a chord among the younger generation…who read books that dealt with the ‘goddess we called Liberty’ when growing up…and got in trouble when discovered.”
If Echeandia was in love with Josefa Carrillo, he did something unexpected. In March 1827, he left for a disputacion — a meeting of Alta California’s territorial assembly — in Monterey. To reflect the new equality, many cohorts voted to change California’s name to “Montezuma.” A coat of arms would show an Aztec holding a bow, watched over by an olive branch and an oak. Those averse to liberal reform voted the idea down.
Echeandia was away from San Diego for a year. When he returned in April 1828, many noticed a change. “Quite likely his health and nerves were in poor condition,” writes Richard Batman. “He was not a strong traveler and had just returned from a long trip.” Plus, he had spent 12 months at foggy Monterey Bay haggling with dissidents. Back at the Presidio, his regular adversaries renewed their railings, along with a new complaint: Americans.
While Echeandia was gone, Josefa Carillo became engaged to Henry Delano Fitch, a Boston trader. Also, soldiers had brought eight grimy American trappers, who stank like tanning hides, up from Lower California. Their leader, Sylvester Pattie, was a kind and sickly man, his son James, a hot-headed 20-year-old.
Invaders! Wasn’t keeping the territory in line trouble enough? American ships had come to San Diego for years. Most of their captains acted like gentlemen. Now one of them dared to marry a Californian! Whether or not Echeandia was in love with Josefa, Fitch’s brashness felt like another boundary trampled.
The trappers, who scratched themselves and talked like wild beasts, had come overland. Until they arrived, San Diego had been vulnerable from the north, west, and — if the monarchy regained power — the south. The tall mountains and bleak deserts had made the east an impregnable, invader-free barrier.
“Who are these people?” Echeandia wanted to know. “What do they really want?”
Fur-trapping was a flimsy excuse for coming this far west. Plus, he said, “If they were truly what they claimed to be, they never would have left without a passport from their Chief Executive.”
The Patties weren’t the first trappers in San Diego. In 1826, Jedediah Smith led a near-starving band down the San Bernardino Mountains. All he wanted, he told the padre at Mission San Gabriel, was food, horses, and a rifle for each of his 14 men. Having no precedent, Father José Bernardo Sánchez sent Smith to San Diego.
The governor-general had never seen the like. The Spanish language lacked a word for someone who hunted beaver like a “pescador” (fisherman). Odder still, Smith’s long hair couldn’t conceal eerie scars: no right eyebrow, half a right ear, a glob of tortured flesh across his right cheek. When Smith explained that a grizzly bear once had his head in its mouth, Echeandia’s perplexity increased.
People don’t cross mountains and deserts to hunt animals, Echeandia reasoned. Fernando VII, the King of Spain, must have sent the Americans to spy. Every time a ship entered the bay, San Diegans grew wary, since the region was so poorly defended. If they knew its weaknesses, even a small Spanish fleet, armed with cannons and soldiers, could overpower the Presidio and make the harbor a base to attack Mexico.
Echeandia was “Much of a Gentleman but very Suspicious,” Smith wrote in his diary. After several days of interrogation, Echeandia released his prisoner. Told to immediately leave California the way he came, Smith didn’t. He left but returned — snowed in, he said. He headed east the next spring.
To Echeandia, Smith’s erratic behavior became a marker: Americans not only spy, they tell lies. In 1828, three more would make his life miserable. ■
Next time: Here come the trappers, there goes the Franklin.
- Juan Batista Alvarado: “Echeandia was the one who had most helped his generation understand the true principle of republican liberty.”
- Lucy Lytle Killea: “Liberalism as a political creed in California often seemed little more than a screen for obtaining mission property or a means for fostering private schemes.”
- Auguste Duhaut-Cilly: “In the intoxication of newly gained freedom, the people are easily alarmed, fearing always that it may be taken from them and, at the least suspicion, they throw themselves into the most cruel fits of rage.”