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Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe

Vallejo, Mariano Guadalupe

Born July 4, 1808

Monterey, California, New Spain (Spanish territory)

Died January 18, 1890

Lachryma Montis, near Sonoma, California

Rancher, politician

"We are republicans—badly governed and badly situated as we are—still we are all, in sentiment, republicans.... Why then should we hesitate still to assert our independence?"

Vallejo in a speech to Californians, urging them to push for annexation by the United States, quoted in General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans

In the middle of the nineteenth century, one of the biggest boosters of the U.S. annexation of California was not a miner, an army soldier, or a U.S. politician, but rather a longtime Mexican rancher and landowner named Mariano G. Vallejo. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Vallejo had become one of the biggest landowners and most powerful politicians in the Mexican territory of California. But Vallejo had grown impatient with the mismanagement of Mexican rule, and he longed to bring his beloved country under the more democratic and enlightened rule of the United States. His crafty political maneuvering and well-forged alliances helped him survive the transition to American rule and play an important role in the growth of California as a state. Though not an American himself, Vallejo contributed greatly to the Americanization of the West.

Youth in a distant colony

Mariano Vallejo was born on July 4, 1808, in the coastal town of Monterey, the capital of the territory of California, at that time a distant outpost of the Spanish colony of New Spain (Mexico). His father was a government administrator and an engineer who never rose to a high position in the town of three hundred people. His son would do better. Mariano was one of three local boys who attracted the attention of the territorial governor, Pablo Vicente de Sola. Governor de Sola helped Vallejo obtain formal schooling from an English tutor, but perhaps more importantly, he taught Vallejo how to handle the delicate balancing act that defined early California politics.

During Vallejo's youth, California was in a precarious position. Because it was distant from the Spanish colonial government in Mexico (which declared independence from Spain in 1821), California received little official attention. Territorial governors like de Sola and his successors managed affairs without much interference from the Spanish government, and the territory was soon visited regularly by ships from Russia, Britain, France, and the United States. Each of these countries had some hope of claiming California, if the opportunity arose. Following Mexican independence, Spanish soldiers (including Vallejo's father) were given large land grants, and they became rancheros (ranchers). Vallejo joined his father on their nearly nine-thousand-acre parcel north of Monterey in 1822.

An important landowner

By the time he was twenty-two, Vallejo was already an accomplished young man. He had received military training in his teens, and in 1829 led a force of Californians to victory over a local Indian tribe. Moreover, he had already served as a member of the territorial legislature. In 1833 he married Francisca Benicia Carrillo, a beautiful, strong-willed woman who would remain his partner for life. That same year he was sent to establish a military post at Sonoma, about forty miles north of San Francisco. For his services, Vallejo was given a vast land grant of nearly sixty-six thousand acres that included the Sonoma Valley, the Sonoma Mountains, and the Petaluma River. Along with the land, he received six thousand cattle, six thousand sheep, a vast orchard, and numerous buildings and shops. "This land," writes Vallejo's biographer Alan Rosenus in General Vallejo and the Advent of theAmericans, "was Vallejo's to dispose of as he wished—the beginning of his personal empire."

General Vallejo

Vallejo and other ranchers who owned a lot of land and had become fairly powerful in California society grew to resent the influence of Mexican governors. When the well-liked Governor Figueroa died in 1835 and was replaced by the corrupt governor Nicolás Gutiérrez, the ranchers decided to take action. Organizing their own armies and encouraging some American settlers to pose as rebel armies, the ranchers intimidated Gutiérrez into resigning and named Vallejo military governor of the "Free State of Alta California." Vallejo was chosen for the position not because he was a fiery leader, but because he was a careful thinker who would not lead his peers into trouble. Vallejo's cousin, Juan Bautista Alvarado, was named civil governor. The cautious Vallejo made peace with Mexico; Mexico later acknowledged the wisdom of the takeover by confirming Vallejo's position and thanking him for his patriotism.

One of the biggest problems facing ranchers like Vallejo was the difficulty of finding colonists to settle in the region. Most Mexicans didn't want to travel north to the distant colony, and the Mexican government placed strict limits on the number of non-Mexicans who could live there. To the ranchers, it felt like the government was limiting their right to grow. Over the years, as Vallejo tried to develop his empire and negotiate with the Mexican government for policies that would help his empire grow, he became convinced that the best way to develop northern California was to welcome the small but growing stream of American settlers who were beginning to discover the region. In 1841 he offered his hospitality to the Bidwell-Bartleson party that had crossed the Sierra Nevada mountain range, not least because several of the party members had skills that were needed in his area. In the years to come, Vallejo would often ignore official restrictions on American immigration if he felt that the immigrants would benefit his community.

Vallejo's goal was the long-term prosperity of northern California. While he was certainly looking out for the good of the region, as the largest landowner he also stood to profit from the growth of towns, commerce, and agriculture in the region. Vallejo's pursuit of prosperity for his region often took unexpected forms. For example, in 1844 when it appeared that the troops he commanded might be asked to fight for the Mexican governor against some of his allies who resisted the governor, Vallejo simply dismissed Vallejo's troops and resigned from his position as general. Without troops, Vallejo could not participate in a coming civil war or be asked to expel American settlers. It was a subtle move that avoided armed conflict and furthered his own goal.

By 1845 outside influences began to speed California toward change. The former Mexican colony of Texas was admitted into the Union, and many in America thought that California would be an even better addition to the growing country. Also, the popularity of manifest destiny—the idea that the United States was destined to extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean—encouraged many to dream that one day the United States would control California. In that same year, 1845, an adventurer and explorer named John Charles Frémont (1813–1890; see entry) marched into California with 150 men. Settling in at Sutter's Fort (see John Sutter entry) in the Sacramento Valley (inland from Vallejo's ranch), Frémont's men would prove to be both a disruptive force and the catalyst that made California part of the United States.

The Bear Flag Republic

Soon after he arrived in California, Frémont began to stir things up among the American settlers who were already eager to see a change in California's government. Evicted from California by the governor for his disruptive activities, Frémont plotted to return and capture California for the United States. Frémont mistakenly believed Vallejo to be his opponent, and on June 14, 1846, he encouraged local settlers to storm Vallejo's compound in Sonoma. (Historians have debated whether Frémont was authorized by the U.S. government or acting on his own; most believe he was acting on his own.) Taking the compound peacefully, the raiders raised a flag that had on it a bear and a star; they declared themselves the leaders of the Bear Flag Republic. They took Vallejo and several of his allies hostage and imprisoned them at Sutter's Fort. Once Frémont determined that the raid had been a success, he resigned from the U.S. Army and took charge of the independent California Republic.

The Bear Flag Republic lasted less than a month, for Frémont rejoined the American forces when he learned that the United States and Mexico were at war (the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848 and was fought over the position of the southern border of Texas). After nearly a year of small-scale clashes and political maneuvering, American forces under army general Stephen Kearny secured all of California by January of 1847, helped along by the cooperation of ranchers in the northern part of the territory. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed on February 2, 1848, made the conquest of California official and guaranteed California landowners that their property rights would be respected. Californios, the name for California's Hispanic inhabitants, would have to negotiate a new place in this new American territory.

Finding a place in the new order

Vallejo was released from his imprisonment on August 2, 1846, and he spent the remainder of the Mexican-American conflict—and indeed his life—trying to protect his position in the rapidly changing political order of California. One of his most pressing problems was the lack of respect American settlers paid to his land and property. Squatters set up homesteads on his property, and rustlers frequently stole his cattle and horses. Though he tried to reclaim his property through legal means, the courts would never return all of Vallejo's lost property to him. (He later received $48,700 in damages from the U.S. government, less than half of what he had claimed but still the largest payment made in all of California.)

Nevertheless Vallejo was far from powerless in the new California. Many of the U.S. officers and officials looked to him for his experience and judgment in dealing with local matters. Also, Vallejo controlled most of the best land in the fertile and beautiful Sonoma Valley. (He would later become involved in a complicated and ultimately failed attempt to provide the land for the state capitol.) Vallejo was asked to serve on a legislative committee to oversee the American settling of California, and he accepted the post on February 15, 1848. According to Rosenus, Vallejo "hoped to promote legislation that would benefit the country, and this would vindicate his faith in the course he had taken" (by allying himself with the Americans).

Fools Rush In: The California Gold Rush

The California gold rush that began in 1848 with the discovery of gold at John Sutter's mill (see John Sutter entry) transformed the once quiet Mexican territory of California into the fastest growing state in the United States. For Californios (Hispanic California natives) like Mariano Vallejo, the changes that swept California were nothing less than breathtaking. A quick look at the numbers reveals just how dramatically the gold rush transformed California.

In 1841, the non-Indian population of California numbered between sixty-five hundred and seven thousand Hispanics and fewer than four hundred foreigners of all nationalities (including American settlers). Those numbers rose slightly over the course of the decade, until 1849 when thirty-two thousand people entered California by overland routes, followed by another forty-four thousand in 1850. Many others came by sea. California officially became a U.S. territory in 1848, and only two years later it had enough inhabitants to petition for statehood. By 1852, the state was home to 250,000 people.

The Californios who had once exerted unquestioned rule over California soon found themselves overruled and outvoted by thousands of white American settlers who paid no heed to traditions and laws. The new settlers voted their representatives into power, took lands that belonged to Californios, and discriminated against Hispanic natives in a variety of ways. Vallejo, whose dream it was to draw settlers into the region, could never have expected what happened in California.

Gold rush and beyond

Vallejo might have returned to a position of real prominence in California were it not for one important event: the California gold rush. After the discovery of gold on John Sutter's land in the Sacramento Valley in 1848, thousands upon thousands of miners poured into California in pursuit of instant wealth. Many settled in California even if they didn't strike gold, snatching up whatever land they could and soon establishing such a large American presence in the state (statehood was granted in 1850) that political power was stripped from the once dominant figures of old California, including Mariano Vallejo. In Vallejo's account of the gold rush, titled "What the Gold Rush Brought to California," he complained bitterly about the "swollen torrent of shysters who came from Missouri and other states of the Union," who "took from us our lands and our houses, and without the least scruple, enthroned themselves in our homes like so many powerful kings. For them existed no law but their own will and their caprice."

Vallejo was bitter about the fate he had been dealt, and he did lose most of his land and his fortune, which had been vast. He ended his days on a ranch north of Sonoma, operating a small farm and selling produce from the farm in local markets. Despite these difficulties, Vallejo had accomplished his dream: he had helped California achieve state-hood, and his beloved country was now one of the most prosperous and quickly growing states in the Union. He was honored throughout California. According to Rosenus, "During the 1870s and 1880s, hardly a public event took place to which Vallejo was not invited—either as an honored guest or speaker." Late in life Vallejo wrote to his son, in a letter quoted in General Vallejo, "Everything turned out for the best.... [W]e are in the United States, soon to be the foremost nation on earth. Love everybody. Be good. Obey just laws.... Harbor no rancor in your heart."

The eighty-one-year-old Vallejo died in his home on January 18, 1890. His death was commemorated in ceremonies throughout the state, and he is remembered today as one of the men who made statehood possible. That he did so without bloodshed and with so little anger and hostility shows that he was one of the kindest-hearted builders of the modern United States.

For More Information

Comstock, Esther J. Vallejo and the Four Flags: A True Story of Early California. Grass Valley, CA: Comstock Bonanza Press, 1979.

Harlow, Neal. California Conquered: The Annexation of a Mexican Province, 1846–1850. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Rosenus, Alan. General Vallejo and the Advent of the Americans. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1999.

Vallejo, Mariano G. "What the Gold Rush Brought to California." In The Course of Empire: First Hand Accounts of California in the Days of the Gold Rush of '49, edited by Valeska Bari. New York: Coward-McCann, 1931.

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