“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.
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.”
Alvarado, Juan Batista, Vignettes of Early California: Childhood Reminiscences of Juan Batista Alvarado, San Francisco, 1982.
Batman, Richard, James Pattie’s West: The Dream and the Reality, Norman, 1984.
Duhaut-Cilly, Auguste, A Voyage to California, the Sandwich Islands, and Around the World, 1826–1829, Berkeley, 1997.
Hutchinson, C. Alan, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California, New Haven, 1969.
Killea, Lucy Lytle, “A Political History of a Mexican Pueblo: San Diego from 1825 to 1845,” Journal of San Diego History, fall 1966, vol. 12, no. 3.
Morgan, Dale L., Jedediah Smith and the Opening of the West, Lincoln, 1953.
Ortiz de Ayala, Tadeo, México considerado como nación independiente y libre, Guadalajara, 1952, vol. I.
Osio, Antonio Maria, History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California, Madison, 1996.
Pattie, James O., The Personal Narrative of James O. Pattie of Kentucky, Cincinnati, 1833.
Sanchez, Rosaura, Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonials, Minneapolis, 1997.