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In the great romantic legend of early San Diego, Josefa Carrillo falls in love with Henry Delano Fitch, a Massachusetts seaman. But Governor José Maria Echeandia forbids their marriage. So late one night, the star-crossed lovers sneak aboard a ship and elope. They take their vows 74 days later at Valparaiso, Chile.

Why prevent the ceremony? According to Leo Carrillo, Echeandia had “ants in his pantalones.” Josefa was “the Marilyn Monroe of her day.” One look at her “flashing dark eyes, laughing mouth with full red lips so inviting,” and the governor “was smitten.”

According to Carrillo, Echeandia was a “thin little squirt” who serenaded Josefa beneath her window. But though her parents approved of the governor, Josefa, Carrillo has her say, “could never love a funny, ugly little Bantam rooster of a man like that.” And since marriages in those days were often by arrangement, “It was almost unheard of for a young girl to be so outspoken in her opposition to her parents’ choice.”

The last part, at least, is accurate. When she sailed south on April 16, 1829, Josefa Carrillo rejected all for love: her parents, the church, social obligations. But as the tale evolved into a legend of her extraordinary courage, a scapegoat grew as well. To Leo Carrillo, who wrote in 1961, Echeandia was a “sneaky little fellow.” He “sprayed perfume on himself” and kicked servants “for not polishing his boots properly.”

Echeandia actually stood three or four inches taller than Jedediah Smith, the six-foot fur trapper. Echeandia had a wife and four daughters in Mexico City, the eldest roughly the same age as Josefa (who was 15 when he first saw her in 1825). The 40-year-old may have been smitten or, just as likely, may have been protective. As governor, Echeandia had run-ins with Jedediah Smith, James Ohio Pattie, and John Bradshaw — Americans all. Fitch may have looked like just another lying Yankee.

When he came to San Diego, Echeandia made an instant impression. Trained as an architect, the thin, chestnut-haired, often sickly official spoke with a precise Castillian lisp. His cultivated manners, the norm in Mexico City, struck locals as affected, even snooty. He expected civility. He may have acted superior but, and this was new, he came to preach equality. As the first wave of republicanism in Alta California, Echeandia threatened unprecedented changes.

He rode to San Diego with Fijo de Hidalgo (“noble child”), a squad of infantry. At Mission San Vicente Ferrer, in Lower California, an Indian complained that Father Antonio Menendez, a Dominican, had committed acts “of a private nature.”

Echeandia yanked the priest from office. The new government, he assured the natives, would always respect their rights.

The ousting was unprecedented. Never before, writes Manuel Clemente Rojo, had the “simple accusation of an Indian” removed a friar. Equally astonishing, the “modest republican general” treated “everyone courteously, instilling in them a new disposition unknown up to that time.”

The natives were so impressed, they escorted Echeandia triumphantly from one mission to the next. At San Diego, the governor-general sent Menendez to the Presidio chapel, where he’d have “little contact with the Indians.”

To Echeandia, San Diego must have been a letdown. The governor’s house — approximately where the Father Serra Cross now stands on Presidio Hill — overlooked the crumbling garrison and roughly 30 structures spread across the flatlands. The first house built down the hill, Casa de Carrillo, stood amid a large garden, shaded by pear, olive, and pomegranate trees. The owner, Joaquín Victor Carrillo, was a leather-jacket soldier from Loreto. His eldest daughter, tall, hazel-eyed Josefa, attracted enough suitors to have her pick of mates.

Known as “el rey del mar” (“king of the sea”), Henry Delano Fitch was a ship’s master. He sailed up and down the California coast trading in hides, tallow, and furs. Richard Henry Dana Jr. called him “fat and vulgar,” with an unquenchable thirst for strong drink. William Thomas hailed Fitch as a “generous and whole-souled American.” All agreed on one thing: Fitch’s ship, as Idwal Jones observed, was the one vessel on the coast “that was never black with a hurricane of flies.”

Thirteen years her elder, Fitch first saw Josefa in 1826. A year later, he gave her parents a written promise of marriage.

In February 1827, Echeandia went to Monterrey (he stayed there 14 months: an odd absence if he were truly in love with Josefa). While up north, in ill health from the Monterrey Bay fog, the governor decreed that foreigners could only marry Californians under special circumstances: they must become a Catholic and a naturalized citizen.

But Fitch, who traveled extensively, retained his Congregationalist faith and American status. Did Josefa “keep the governor at arm’s length for so long because of Captain Fitch,” asks Frances Bardacke, “or did she keep Fitch waiting for Echeandia to declare himself? Was Echeandia waiting impatiently” — as rumor had it — “for a sick wife to die in Mexico, or was his whole courtship of Josefa a legend?”

On April 14, 1829, Fitch honored the first obligation. Father Menendez had a reputation for loving wine, women, and cards — y sabe barajar: knew how to cheat. He baptized Fitch in the presidio chapel. Lt. Domingo Carrillo, Josefa’s uncle and Echeandia’s chief assistant, acted as godfather.

The wedding ceremony, scheduled for the next day, was hardly the gala one might expect. Menendez erected a small altar at Casa de Carrillo. Late that evening, along with Josefa’s parents, only four men attended: Domingo Carrillo, Captain Richard Barry, Pio Pico, and Maximo Beristain. Why the secrecy? Keep the jealous governor in the dark?

Domingo was late. Menendez decided to start without him. Just then, Domingo burst in. “The governor forbids the wedding! I refuse to be a witness!”

Acting in his official capacity, Domingo warned that the ceremony would incur “the wrath of the civil, military, and ecclesiastical authorities.”

Hearing these words — and most likely in hot water with the governor — Menendez flung off his ceremonial robes and refused to continue. As he left he whispered to Josefa and Fitch, “There are other countries where the laws are less stringent.” He even offered to join them but vanished before they could reply.

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Comments

David Dodd July 22, 2010 @ 2:36 p.m.

Jeff, you're a wonderful historical writer. I demand (DEMAND!) more of this sort of thing. Should you decide to invest the time, you will find many more tales of gringo madness in Alta California. Most of these tales ended in "happily-ever-after", because after all, the gringos were willing to work their tails off in appreciation of those beautiful Mexican maidens from the Rancheros where they found them. You know, the Mexican authorities kept trying to lock them up until their Mexican fathers-in-laws rode into town protesting the detainment of their sons-in-laws.

It's a great part of California history.

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nan shartel July 22, 2010 @ 5:34 p.m.

i loved this convoluted tale of love and betrayal and love...thx Jeff

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MsGrant July 22, 2010 @ 6:34 p.m.

"Although their 19 years together were rocky — in 1835, because she gambled heavily, Fitch began legal steps for a separation — the couple had 12 children"--rocky, indeed....

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David Dodd July 22, 2010 @ 6:41 p.m.

Yeah, Ms. Grant, I caught that too. Awesomesauce. Nineteen effing years and THEN he discovered that she had a gambling problem? Pu-lease ;) 12 kids later? Great stuff.

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nan shartel July 24, 2010 @ 11:12 a.m.

my grams had 12 kids...3 sets of twins...it was the depression and her husband left her to fend for herself

the blaggard!!!

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MsGrant July 24, 2010 @ 2:34 p.m.

You how hear about this all the time. Men left women with all these kids back then and just disappeared. Your gram must have been really something to raise all those kids. How did she do it?

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nan shartel July 24, 2010 @ 5:12 p.m.

i got no idea Grantie...she began picking cotton...took the kids into the field...all the kids stopped being educated...my mom only had a 4th grade education...they migrated to California...i had an auntie that was an RN and she helped her mom...took 2 of the girls

one set of twins died of starvation ..they were born early and slept 2 to a shoe box near the wood stove...my grams rubbed olive oil over them every day...it's nutrients are absorbed thru the skin...

one set was born dead (Flu Babies)

think of grapes of wrath and u lookin at my Okie relatives

Steinbeck thought they were the NOBLE POOR...HAH!!!

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MsGrant July 24, 2010 @ 6:38 p.m.

And they call us the "weaker" sex. Nan, have you kept records of your family history? You could write your own "grapes".

Steinbeck was at least somewhat sympathetic to the plight of women. I just read "The Chrysanthemums". To those suffering during the Great Depression, he tried, but noble was not a good choice of words to those burdened beyond their strength but still did whatever they needed to do to survive. Most were women, not men. Many men wandered during that time, and many women fed them and gave them shelter as they moved from place to place. The women kept our country together and the children fed.

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David Dodd July 24, 2010 @ 6:54 p.m.

@ #8: You know I totally agree. My grandmother might have well as been Ma Joad. Remind me to tell you her story sometime, it was awesome.

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nan shartel July 24, 2010 @ 10:26 p.m.

Grantie everyone wandered during the depression...more kids hobo on freight trains then adults...many times the men left to look for work and never return their heart broken because they couldn't find any

i would like to hear about ur grandmum refried...i hope u write a blog about her soon

Roosevelt saved this country...i wish he was around now...he created jobs where there were none...instead of Unemployment these guys and gals could do city and state improvement work like they did in the 30's

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nan shartel July 24, 2010 @ 10:28 p.m.

like the CCC did...lots of country improvement occurred because of them

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Fred Williams July 25, 2010 @ 12:55 a.m.

To anyone who doesn't like this article, you "may go to Hell and f--k spiders"!

Great article. Great story. Greatest quote!

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MsGrant July 25, 2010 @ 12:43 p.m.

I'd like to hear about both of your grandmas, nan and RFG. It had to have been an awful feeling, to be a man who wants to provide for his family and cannot find any work. People literally died from having their dignity taken away from them. Kids orphaned, left to fend for themselves. Some of this is happening again today. Wall Street has a way of doing that. Maybe it's time to tear down "The Wall".

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David Dodd July 25, 2010 @ 1:14 p.m.

I will certainly write about mine. It's the least I can do. She should have been immortal. All women like her should be immortal. They hoist the World on their shoulders and think nothing of it.

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Jeff Smith July 26, 2010 @ 11:50 a.m.

Refried: If you're going to write the story, then WRITE IT! All day I hear people talking the talk: "I'm gonna write this, I'm writin' that, and it'll be soooooo great," and they talk the idea to death. I don't make demands (unlike some bloggers), but I will say, if the story means that much to you, then WALK THE DAMN WALK. Jeff

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MsGrant July 26, 2010 @ 12:01 p.m.

Refried always walks the walk!! He just wrote an amazing story about a dear friend of his. He said he would, and he did.

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David Dodd July 26, 2010 @ 12:08 p.m.

Well now Jeff, I write PLENTY! Of course, there has to be a context to write this around, and I usually let my head play with a story for a few weeks before attempting it. And, of course, the usual amount of conceit has to work its way into everything or I feel like I haven't done an honest job.

And my demand of you, of course, is simply a high compliment, a term of endearment. Having spent a great deal of time in my youth reading about the early stories of Mexican California, your works in the Reader are quite special to me.

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David Dodd July 26, 2010 @ 12:14 p.m.

I've actually tried to write about my grandmother several times, MsGrant, and I've wound up trashing the stuff every time. It has always come off sounding like I'm making her out to be something she wasn't. Maybe by now I've matured enough as a writer to actually pull it off. I reckon we'll see.

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Jeff Smith July 26, 2010 @ 12:15 p.m.

Refrito: okay, then. I'll call off the Paragraph Police (who rankle when they hear loose talk of writing this or that). J.

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nan shartel July 26, 2010 @ 1:04 p.m.

ya know Refried...ur work is more then just factoids...it's ur soul unraveling brilliantly (hey i like that word) for those of us who treasure reading u

do not listen to these peeps who prompt u to be something other then the writing artist u r

jsmith..be patient...and u'll be glad u have been

Monday mornin' hello RF and Grantie..chin up mi amigo!!!

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MsGrant July 26, 2010 @ 1:11 p.m.

Top o' the afternoon to you, Nan!! I must say, it's a brilliant day!!

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