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.