“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.”
Pattie didn’t believe a word: everything “was a vile and deceitful lie, yet such is the power of the oppressor.”
One day, Pattie refused to translate. Echeandia, called “easygoing” even by his enemies, drew his sword. Spewing a litany of Spanish curses, Echeandia slammed the flat side down on Pattie’s head. The mountain man flopped to the floor — then leapt up and, spitting rage, reached for the governor’s throat. Guards restrained Pattie. As they dragged him back to his cell, Echeandia swore he would rather deal with the devil himself than with Pattie.
Six weeks after Sylvester died, Captain John Bradshaw sailed the Franklin, a three-master, into San Diego Bay. A vagrant named William Simpson sent Echeandia word from Loreto: Bradshaw had transferred cargo illegally — and may have contra bando on board.
Bradshaw had been to San Diego before and promised to help Pattie recover his furs on the Colorado. When Bradshaw came ashore, he expected Echeandia, flanked by a military escort, to doff his hat and make a deep bow. He might even offer a cup of aguardiente — the local firewater — to commemorate the occasion.
Instead, soldiers aimed muskets at the American’s eyes. Unload your cargo at a warehouse, Echeandia commanded, until an investigation determines its legality.
Bradshaw promised to obey. But when he rowed back to the Franklin, he ordered his crew to re-anchor farther west.
Stunned soldiers watched the 333-ton ship turn tail and head, it seemed, back out to sea. When the Franklin halted off La Playa, no one knew what to think — except Echeandia, who had heard yet another American lie.
The governor-general sent word: Bradshaw could go free if he discharged the suspicious cargo, valued at 13,000 silver dollars.
“The ship and cargo have been lawfully condemned,” said Echeandia. “If not given up peaceably, I have soldiers enough to take the ship!”
“I came to trade on the coast, not to fight,” Bradshaw countered.
Echeandia wanted depositions from the crew. When he asked Pattie to translate, the mountain man replied, “That’ll be easy, because unlike Californians, Americans can’t say anything but the truth.”
Pattie could barely understand his fellow countrymen from New England: “What a new set of people were the sailors! How amusing and strange their dialect!” But the depositions pleased Echeandia; he promised Pattie that, after the Franklin affair was over, he and his trappers could retrieve their furs.
Echeandia wanted soldiers on board the Franklin but lacked a vessel — not even a small “customs” boat — to do it. According to Auguste Duhaut-Cilly, a Frenchman whose Heros was anchored near the Franklin, the local government was so poor it didn’t “have even a canoe at its disposal.”
Echeandia knew that Duhaut-Cilly had enough wood for a 24-foot craft. Echeandia asked the French captain to build it. Although Duhaut-Cilly thought the governor pompous and despotic (“he enjoyed extensive power and often misused it”), he agreed to the purchase, unaware that the boat would ship guards to the Franklin to prevent it from sailing away.
When he discovered the governor’s motive, Duhaut-Cilly stalled. His carpenters, in a tent at La Playa, measured and fitted each plank into place with the patience of diamond-cutters. Somehow, they forgot to caulk the craft.
On July 11, Echeandia rode up the pebbly La Playa trail with a squadron. He had a “most urgent need,” he told Duhaut-Cilly, for the boat that day.
Almost done, replied the Frenchman, but we have no oars.
“Find some,” commanded the governor. “You will do me a notable service.”
Duhaut-Cilly said he’d try. A few hours later, he sent word that he couldn’t offer oars “without stripping my other boats.” The Frenchman asked to void the contract. “Thus I gained part of the day,” he wrote later, “hoping from moment to moment to see the Franklin set sail, but she did not do so.”
Early on July 12, Echeandia sent Duhaut-Cilly a letter: “Deliver the boat at once.”
“With no further way to hold back without compromising myself,” the Frenchman handed over the small craft. But when the soldiers boarded it, water seeped through the planks, and it almost sank. Duhaut-Cilly told his shipbuilders to tow it high and dry and apply sealant.
Bradshaw watched from the Franklin. When the caulking neared completion, as every eye focused on the result, Bradshaw cut the ship’s cable, spread the sails, and slowly headed westward.
That Bradshaw could move from a standstill to full sails stunned everyone on shore, including Duhaut-Cilly, who wrote that it would take a better writer than he to describe “the ingenious maneuvers employed by Captain Bradshaw.”
But the Franklin wasn’t free. The ship still had to pass within 200 yards of Fort Guijarros, the 12-cannon garrison on Ballast Point.
As soon as the Franklin slipped its cable, it became an enemy of Mexico. Officers and at least 38 soldiers readied for battle. “In a fusillade that continued for 20 minutes,” writes Duhaut-Cilly, the garrison fired grapeshot and chain, an estimated three dozen #24 cannonballs — roughly the size of “kelp globes” — at the fleeing ship.
In an act that “spread alarm in all of California” (Bancroft), since it constituted an international incident, Bradshaw ordered two broadsides at the fort.
Fourteen days later, the Franklin wobbled into Honolulu harbor.
According to Louis Monto, who kept a ship’s log for the Plough Boy, the Franklin received “two balls in the hull and two others in the rigging.” Bradshaw, wounded in the fray, had to replace the main and mizzen yards.
Dealing with foreigners lay beyond Echeandia’s daily stack of woes. Richard Batman: the governor may have “tired of the whole business” with the trappers and was “anxious to find an excuse for releasing” them. He was certainly tired of American lies and ruses that swarmed like Presidio fleas.
On December 20, 1828, Echeandia vowed to let Pattie go if the mountain man would vaccinate the region against smallpox. Pattie boasts he did much more: he vaccinated 22,000 people and single-handedly saved California from the dreaded disease — which, historians agree, was the biggest lie of all. ■
— Jeff Smith
Next time: There go the lovers.
- Herbert Howe Bancroft: “I have no hesitation in pronouncing Pattie’s complaints of ill-treatment grossly exaggerated.”
- Fr. Zephyrin Engelhardt: “It seems that young Pattie, or more probably the man who wrote his narrative, had an unreasoning hatred of Catholics and Spaniards.”
- Richard Batman: Pattie’s smallpox “numbers are impossible, for by his claim he vaccinated more people than actually lived in California.”
Bancroft, Herbert Howe, History of California, vol. III, San Francisco, 1885.
Batman, Richard, James Pattie’s West: The Dream and the Reality, San Diego, 1984.
Duhaut-Cilly, Auguste, A Voyage to California and the Sandwich Islands and Around the World, Berkeley, 1999.
Engelhardt, Fr. Zephyrin, O.F.M., San Diego Mission, San Francisco, 1920.
Hutchinson, C. Alan, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California, New Haven, 1969.
Monto, Lewis, “Honolulu Fragment #1,” Plough Boy ship’s log, November 10, 1828.
Osio, Antonio Maria, The 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.