“What nameless tortures and miseries Americans suffer in foreign climes from despots,” complained the mountain man James Ohio Pattie. “They hate the victims of their oppression, as judging their hearts by their own.”
One of the first Americans to come overland to California, Pattie, his father Sylvester, and six other fur trappers got lost near the Colorado River tidewater. They buried their pelts and headed southwest across an uncharted desert looking for “Christian” settlements. “We were one thousand miles from the point where we started,” Pattie wrote, “and without a single beast to bear either our property or ourselves.”
They faced as many hardships as the Mormon Battalion and Kearny’s Army of the West. The difference: there were only eight of them, on foot.
On March 12, 1828, they reached Santa Catalina Mission in Lower California. The governor-general, José Maria Echeandia, ordered the suspicious strangers arrested and brought to San Diego under an armed guard of 16 lancers.
Their arrival became the parade of the year. Most San Diegans had never seen the like: stencil-thin from malnutrition, in soiled leather leggings, frayed red flannel shirts, and hair as long as Jesus’, the trappers looked like famished wolves and smelled like a slop bucket.
At least the townsfolk were polite. When the strangers stopped at San Vicente in Baja, locals fed them a cow so sickly it “reeled as it walked.” As the trappers tried to eat the “blue flesh,” a crowd circled them and sniffed.
“You think we’re animals?” Pattie asked in Spanish.
A man answered: Since you’re such uncivilized brutes, you certainly can’t be Christians.
“We’re much better Christians than you!!” ill-tempered Pattie shouted back, defending his fellow Protestants.
At San Diego, Pattie assured his comrades, the commanding officer would be a reasonable man.
But Echeandia offended the trappers even more. The six-foot-three-inch, 40-year-old governor-general accused them of a crime worse than robbery or murder: they were spies for Spain.
Pattie fumed: he and his fellow “born-and-bred, full-blooded republicans” would rather die than ever aid a monarch.
Echeandia declared the trappers’ passports illegal and locked each in a separate, eight-by-ten cell on the western side of the Presidio. After Pattie’s first night, flea bites splotched his skin and bloodied his threadbare shirt.
“Feverish, stiff, sore, and withal testy,” the 19-year-old grew to loathe his captors, “this vile people and the still viler general.” Echeandia, he said, was a verbose, “arbitrary and cruel” man. Pattie wanted to murder the “miserable despot.”
But what was the governor-general to make of men who forded mighty rivers, battled grizzlies and native arrows for beaver hides? Not long before, Mexico had won its independence from Spain. Surely the trappers came west for a greater reward than pelts. They must be agents of the king, inspecting the California coastline for a northern invasion of Mexico.
Almost all of Echeandia’s duties had no precedent. He was the first to be both governor and general of the Californias, and the first to bring republicanism — equal rights for all, including Indians — to the colonies. He had little administrative experience and received little, if any, help from Mexico. Although he never pushed his program far, in the eyes of the friars, the Spanish citizenry, and unpaid soldiers, Echeandia became a tyrant with new, dangerous ideas: he was radicalismo.
Grief also came from an unexpected source: Americans infiltrating the region from the east. When Jedediah Smith promised to leave California but didn’t, Echeandia became convinced that Americans lied. Events following Pattie’s incarceration magnified his distrust.
Accustomed to roaming free, Pattie hated imprisonment. Echeandia permitted a Señorita Pico — possibly Estefana, whom Pattie called “Miss Peaks” — to bring him food. But owing to the governor’s strictness, hers “were like all angel visits, few and far between.”
A month after they arrived, James’s father died. Around the same age as Echeandia, Sylvester had suffered from severe dehydration on the long trek and never recovered. According to his son, Sylvester died of neglect.
Others recall a different story. Sylvester was never imprisoned. He stayed with a family down on the flats. As the gray-haired mountain man neared his end, he asked Echeandia to assemble the trappers around him: “Boys,” he said, “your ole captain is dying. He will never see Kentuck again.
“The women here have been urging me to become a Catholic,” Sylvester said in a scratchy voice. “I don’t know much about it and have little time to learn, but it will do me no harm, and it must be a good religion that makes these women care for a poor old man like me.”
Sylvester died April 28, 1828. The first American buried on California soil, he received the “grandest funeral San Diego ever saw,” an observer wrote (his memorial lies near the “Witches Tower,” the white, one-story structure at the Presidio that may originally have been a guardhouse or jail).
“My father now was gone,” writes Pattie, “gone where the voice of the oppressor is no more heard.... I expected to rejoin him in a few days.”
Herbert Howe Bancroft says the young, “self-conceited” Pattie had “a freedom of speech often amounting to insolence and unlimited ability to make himself disagreeable.” Echeandia called his nemesis “Don Santiago,” finding irony in the name, Iago and Diego both meaning “James.” That Pattie could be a “don” and a “saint” tripled the irony. It was as if the young buck — who, if set free, would kill the governor in an instant — symbolized the place that gave Echeandia a hundred headaches.
A change came when the governor needed Pattie’s help. English letters arrived. Echeandia, who couldn’t read the language, required a translator.
“Can you read writing?” he asked Pattie.
Pattie said yes. The mountain man translated a letter into acceptable Spanish. In the days that followed, Pattie did others. Echeandia always began their work by saluting him, asking about his health, and offering food and drink.
“He regretted exceedingly that circumstances on our part seemed so suspicious,” wrote Pattie, but said he must execute the laws of his country. He never wanted “to punish any one unjustly and would be glad if we could produce any substantial evidence to acquit us from the suspicion of being spies.”