Three new books provide many of the little-known details of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, his rise to wealth and power in California under Spanish and Mexican flags, and the loss of that staggering prestige after California entered the Union in 1849.
The books include the two-volume Recuerdos: Historical and Personal Reminiscences Concerning Alta California, 1769-1849, and over 400,000 words written in Spanish by Vallejo in the late nineteenth century and newly translated and edited by scholars Rose Marie Pape and Robert M. .
The third book, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Life in Spanish, Mexican, and American California, was written by Pepe and Sinquewich as a companion volume based on Vallejo’s Recuerdos and other just-translated Vallejo family documents to examine the significance of his life and career.
Vallejo was a leading military and political figure in the Mexican state of California, deeply involved in the founding events of the US state of California. The ancient historian H. H. Bancroft commissioned Vallejo to write Recuerdos in the 1870s, but contrary to some of Vallejo’s views, he sent the voluminous work to the archives.
Over the years, parts of Recuerdos have appeared in various writings. Produced in a 10-year effort by Beebe and Senkewicz, who are married and attend Santa Clara University, the two-volume edition is the first accurate and complete translation to be published.
In their third book, the authors describe Spanish and Mexican rule in California, the mission and rancho system, and the bloody conflicts resulting from efforts to change the culture of, and in some cases enslave, the native Californians.
As an officer in the Mexican Army, Vallejo was involved in those conflicts and found an important ally in a Native American chief, Solano. In 1836 Vallejo was appointed military commander-in-chief of the northern frontier of Mexico, which included northern California, and established a post at Sonoma. The title of “General” remained, although his highest rank was that of colonel.
With the establishment of the state, Vallejo remained a prominent figure, serving in the state constitutional convention and in the state senate. One of the wealthiest people in California at the time, he splurged on the creation of the new city of Vallejo, named after him, which did not last long as the state capital. But further developments following statehood were disastrous for Vallejo and many other Californians.
The California Land Act of 1851 resulted in Mariano and Francisco Benicia Vallejo fighting unsuccessfully to keep their vast land holdings—more than 170,000 acres—and ending up in near-poverty at their La Shrima Montes home in Sonoma.
Congressional approval of the law, championed by U.S. Senator William Gwynn, “ultimately led to the loss of land and financial ruin for most of the Mexican rancheros—which was his intent from the beginning,” states Pepe and Sienkiewicz.
The stress of those losses is evident in the letters between Mariano and Francesca Benicia that are included in the book—letters in which they criticize each other and also accuse their son-in-law, John Frisbie, an American who married their daughter Epifania, of making poor financial decisions that exacerbated their financial crises.
Writing home during an 1865 trip to New York, Vallejo stated, “The only reason I made up my mind to go away and leave my family behind was that I needed to see if I could arrange my business dealings with Frisbie and work together for him. I hope it all works out for me.” And if not, I’d be a flogged mean bastard.”
In another letter to his wife, Vallejo wrote, “It is not my fault to end poverty because the most powerful government in the world has seized my most prized possession.” “It’s just that I wasn’t able to fight for them successfully due to lack of physical strength ($$) to face them.”
Pape and Sienkiewicz write that Francisca Benicia’s letters to her husband “reveal that she was a very strong woman”. “Although she often resented his frequent absences, she soon grew into her role as the manager of a growing household. She became the one who sought to continue to provide for the necessities of life for her growing children despite continued financial uncertainty.”
In a letter from 1881, Francisca Benicia reflected on the suffering she and Mariano had endured, saying that their sixteen children did not know everything that had happened to them. “And I don’t know what happened to you in the past,” she added.
The authors describe the comment as a thinly veiled reference to one of Vallejo’s five children born to other women as a young man. That child was Prudinciana Lopez, born to Francisca Benicia’s cousin, Juana Lopez, about a year after Vallejos’ marriage.
By the mid-1880s, Vallejo was “sometimes counting on a small allowance that a Frisbee, now living in Mexico, would send occasionally”, according to the states of Pepe and Cinkiewicz. “His financial decline was emblematic of a larger trend based on race, with many of his old friends and colleagues forced to the margins of Anglo society.”
The Vallejos made ends meet by renting out small plots of land to grow gardens and operate a water company using a spring on their property. Vallejo will deliver water, even repair fences and transport lumber. Francisca Benicia sold vegetables to a local hotel and eggs to a baker.
Despite the financial setbacks, Vallejo maintained a public life. He was an honored guest or speaker at many public events over the years, served on the State Horticultural Board, wrote Recuerdos, and collected many documents that formed one of the mainstays of the Bancroft Library.
Vallejo died at his home in La Shrima Montes on January 18, 1890, at the age of 82. And Francisca Benicia died a year later, on January 30, 1891, at the age of 74. Homepage.
Vallejo and other Solano County communities are a treasure trove of early California history. My “Solano Chronicles” column highlights various aspects of that history. If you have local stories or photos you want to share, contact me on Facebook.