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The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez
By John Boessenecker
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
Sons of the Conquistadores
The heat came up out of Sonora and struck them like a drawn blade. Juan Atanasio Vasquez, his wife, and three sons bent over their horses as they trudged north through the Mexican desert. With them were almost two hundred fellow travelers—neighbors, friends, and strangers; women and children; the poorest of the poor, soldados, peones, and campesinos—recruited in Sinaloa and Sonora to make the long trek to California. The hooves of five hundred horses and mules shook the ground and stirred up clouds of dust, turning the men's white pantalones brown. Women swayed in their saddles, clutching their rebozos tightly over their heads as protection from the merciless sun. Amidst the neighing of horses and the groaning of pack mules was an overwhelming sense of fear and anticipation. But they were sturdy and strong, spurred on by the promise of a little money, clothing, and livestock; the protection of the Virgin of Guadalupe; and hope for a new life in a distant land.
Their leader was Lieutenant Colonel Juan Bautista de Anza, a nails-tough Indian fighter and trailblazer, commander of Tubac presidio, the last of the conquistadores. A year earlier he had led a party of leather-jacketed soldiers from Tubac to the Mission San Gabriel, near what is now Los Angeles, and then north to Monterey. For the first time an overland route, 1,200 miles long, had been blazed from northern Mexico to Alta (Upper) California.
California had first been explored more than two hundred years earlier by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who sailed up the Pacific Coast in 1542, and Sebastian Vizcaino, who mapped the coast in 1602, reaching Monterey Bay at year's end. They found a landscape of mild climate, populated only by Indians, lush with flowing streams, high grass, dense forests, wild game, flocks of fowl, and endless rolling hills and pastureland perfect for grazing cattle. By 1767, a string of Catholic missions had been established on the Baja California peninsula. In 1769, Gaspar de Portolá, at the head of an exploring party that included Father Junípero Serra, landed by ship in San Diego. They established a mission and presidio, then marched north through Alta California to San Francisco Bay. Portolá and Serra returned to Monterey the following year, founding another mission and presidio there. A year later Father Serra established Mission Carmel four miles south of Monterey at the mouth of the Carmel River. Eventually twenty-one missions would be built in Alta California, from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north. Each was a day's ride apart, about thirty miles, and connected by a dusty trail: El Camino Real, The King's Highway. At the missions, Franciscan priests strove to convert the Indian population to Catholicism and train them in trades and farming skills. Their religious mandate was to save souls, but their political purpose was to make the Indians loyal subjects of Spain.
The province was a raw frontier, and the Spanish government, fearing it would be claimed by Great Britain or Russia, wanted colonists to settle it. In early 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza was ordered to bring a contingent of settlers to Alta California on the trail he had pioneered. He set out personally to recruit colonists in the dusty, impoverished, mixedrace pueblos of Sonora and Sinaloa. On March 28, 1775, he began seeking volunteer soldiers and pobladores (settlers) in the plaza at Culiacán, the principal town of Sinaloa. Each family was offered two years' pay, five years of rations, new clothes, weapons, horses, and cattle. Anza's popularity and stature attracted many potential recruits, but only the most desperately poor seriously considered the dangerous journey. The first man to sign Anza's roster, enlisting as an army private, was forty-year-old campesino (farm laborer) Juan Atanasio Vasquez. He was listed as a mulato—of mixed Spanish and African blood, a descendant of one of the many slaves brought to Mexico by the Spanish. Like most volunteers, Vasquez agreed to bring along his family: wife María Gertrudis Castelo, and sons José Tiburcio, age twenty; José Antonio, age eight; and Pedro José, age seven. In September, most of the company assembled at San Miguel de Horcasitas, the adobe capital of Sonora, then departed for the presidio of Tubac, two hundred miles distant on the northern frontier in what is now southern Arizona. Along the way, the eldest Vasquez son, José Tiburcio, became enamored with María Ana Bojorques, the fifteen-year-old daughter of another colonist. She was a mestiza, of mixed Spanish and Indian blood.
On October 23, Anza left Tubac at the head of a column of 240 men, women, and children, including thirty-eight soldiers. They numbered among them many of the founding families of California: Moraga, Pico, Bernal, Castro, Soto, Alviso, Pacheco, Bojorques, García, Peralta, Berreyesa, Valencia, Sánchez, Sotelo, Galindo, Linares, Higuera, Tapia, and Feliz. Due to the size of the company, which included 340 horses, 320 head of cattle, and 165 mules laden with provisions, they traveled slowly, covering only ten to twenty miles a day. Two days out they arrived at Mission San Xavier del Bac, just south of what is now Tucson, Arizona. In the morning the young lovers, José Tiburcio Vasquez and María Ana Bojorques, along with two other couples, were married in the mission by Father Pedro Font, the company chaplain. Within hours they resumed the northward march. Passing through the little presidio of Tucson, they pressed on to the Gila River, following it west to its junction with the Colorado. Fortunately, they had no trouble with Indians, but the trip took months and was arduous in the extreme. Long stretches without water forced well-digging, which yielded but a few quarts of alkali liquid. The blistering heat of Sonora was soon replaced by bitter cold and lashing rain, hail, and snowstorms. There was little wood for fires, and many fell sick. Others continually had to chase cattle that strayed to find water, and a hundred head died of thirst. But Anza pushed the colonists on relentlessly across the Mojave Desert.
On January 4, 1776, amidst great rejoicing, the settlers finally arrived at Mission San Gabriel. Here they rested for six weeks, before setting off north behind Anza. Although slowed down by heavy rain, deep mud, and flooded streams, they reached Monterey on March 10. Along the way, there had been but one death—of a woman in childbirth—and eight new colonists had been born along the trail from Sonora. Two weeks later Anza led an exploring party of soldiers farther north to explore San Francisco Bay and locate the site for a presidio. On his return to Monterey, Anza ordered his lieutenant, José Joaquín Moraga, to lead twenty soldiers plus a small group of settlers, including the Vasquez family, to San Francisco Bay. Arriving on June 27, 1776, they built brush huts the following day, and a day later celebrated mass under a brush arbor at a spot that would become Mission Dolores. These events marked the founding of the city of San Francisco, six days before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a continent away.
Small communities quickly grew up around the missions, especially at San Diego, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. In 1797 Mission San Juan Bautista and its satellite San Juan pueblo were established in the Pajaro River valley, east of the Gabilan Mountains and thirty miles from Monterey. In addition to founding missions, the Spanish government established civilian pueblos at San Jose, Los Angeles, and Branciforte, now part of Santa Cruz. Despite these developments, California became even more isolated in 1781, when mistreated Yuma Indians retaliated against the Spanish. They attacked the missions and settlements near the Colorado River crossing, killing all the male adults and herding the women and children into slavery. The Yuma Massacre effectively closed the Anza trail to California, halting overland immigration. With few incoming settlers, the original families of the Anza expedition intermarried, and within several generations many Californios were related through blood or marriage. At the same time, the horses and cattle brought by Anza multiplied into vast herds which ranged and fattened freely on the grassy hills. California's non-Indian population of 600 in 1781 grew to about 3,700 forty years later.
Juan Atanasio Vasquez remained at the San Francisco presidio, but within a year his son José Tiburcio—along with the latter's wife, infant daughter, and sixty-three other soldados and pobladores—were persuaded to try their luck at starting a new pueblo at the south end of San Francisco Bay. Lieutenant Moraga led them to a spot eight miles below the southern tip of the bay, where on November 29, 1777, ground was broken. This new settlement, a few miles southeast of Mission Santa Clara, which had been founded earlier that year, was christened San Jose. As was customary, the Spanish government provided the settlers with enough basic necessities to start a new life. José Tiburcio Vasquez and his wife, like almost everyone in the little pueblo, received an allotment of one horse, one mule, two mares, two oxen, two cows, one calf, two sheep, and two goats. Thus, in little more than a year the Vasquez family had helped establish what would become two of the largest cities in the western United States.
In the new pueblo José Tiburcio Vasquez was, like his father before him, listed in government records as a mulato. Yet this did not prevent him from becoming a prominent citizen of San Jose. Of the nine heads of families in the pueblo, only he could read and write. He lived out his life in San Jose, serving in 1794, 1802, and 1807 as alcalde (chief town administrator, a combination of mayor and judge). José Tiburcio and his wife had thirteen children, of whom four died in early childhood. Their fifth was a son, José Hermenegildo Vasquez, born in 1784. In time, Hermenegildo would sire Tiburcio Vasquez, the bandido.
Like his grandfather, Hermenegildo Vasquez served as a Spanish soldier. In 1808 he was stationed at the garrison in Monterey, where he served for many years. There he met María Guadalupe Cantúa, first-born daughter of Juan Bautista Cantúa. Her grandfather, Ignacio Cantúa, was likewise a soldier who had been garrisoned at Monterey in 1782, and remained there long past his retirement in 1813. Hermenegildo Vasquez and Guadalupe Cantúa were married in the Royal Presidio Chapel in Monterey on February 26, 1821. Hermenegildo was thirty-six and Guadalupe just sixteen. Their twenty-year age difference was not unusual in that era; because of the lack of women, older men commonly married teenage girls. The relationship was undoubtedly passionate, for when they wed, Guadalupe was already six months pregnant.
Among the upper classes, courtships were rigidly conducted, and señoritas were not allowed in the company of suitors unless a dueña, or chaperone, was present. This was frequently not true of the lower economic classes, however, who often could not afford elaborate customs to preserve their daughters' chastity. Often young unmarried women of the Vasquez family's social class were allowed to mingle freely with men and boys, and as a result, premarital sex was more common than among the wealthy ranchero families. Despite the active efforts of Catholic priests and government officials to suppress illicit sex, Mexican California saw a fairly high degree of illegitimate births.
The couple's first child, Fernando Vasquez, was born on May 30, 1821, and baptized at Mission Carmel the next day. Infant death was common, and in less than three weeks the baby was dead. The grief-stricken couple promptly conceived another child, a daughter, Manuela, born the following year. Like most Californios of that era, they raised a large family. In 1824 a son, José Miguel Pedro, who was always known by the nickname Claudio, was born. More children quickly followed: Antonio María in 1826, María Concepción in 1828, Francisco (nicknamed "Chico") in 1830, José Joaquín in 1832, María Antonia in 1833, Tiburcio in 1835, and finally María Josefa, 1837.
For the first five years of their marriage, Don Hermenegildo and Doña Guadalupe Vasquez lived in the Monterey area. He quit soldiering, and in 1826 they moved north with their growing brood to San Jose, where they lived near his father, José Tiburcio. The elder Vasquez, then in ill health, died a year later and was buried at Mission Santa Clara. Like his father, Hermenegildo was a prominent citizen of San Jose. He too could read and write, and served for a year as regidor (councilman). An unpaid position, it was nonetheless an office of prestige. After living in San Jose for six years, he and his family moved to the area of Rancho San Ysidro, near what is now Gilroy, forty miles north of Monterey. Doña Guadalupe's uncle, Julián Cantúa, was the son-in-law of the rancho's owner, Ignacio Ortega, and Cantúa and his wife had been granted a 4,000-acre section of the rancho. Hermenegildo went to work for the Ortegas. Possibly he was a vaquero, but as an educated man, he probably also performed clerical duties. Hermenegildo, however, longed for his own rancho.
The Spanish government at first required that settlers live in the pueblos. Much of the range land was set aside for support of the missions and controlled by the mission padres, who opposed private landownership. They believed that the settlers, if allowed to commingle with their Indian wards, would corrupt them morally. The Spanish government soon allowed private land grants, provided that they were outside the pueblos and did not conflict with mission lands or Indian villages. After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, grants of land became even more liberal. In 1790 there were but nineteen private ranchos in California; by 1830 there were fifty, with fourteen in the Monterey district alone. The smallest grants were four leagues, almost 18,000 acres. By the 1830s some of the most desirable grants, such as those in the Salinas and Pajaro river valleys, had been subdivided into much smaller tracts. In 1834 the Mexican government secularized the missions, and hundreds of square miles of verdant grazing land were opened to private ownership. Now, any Mexican citizen could apply for a land grant, and by 1840 there were more than one thousand private grants in California, large and small. Retired soldiers were also granted small plots of land. In the Monterey district, the number of private grants increased to ninety-five during the 1830s.
Some of the ranchos were vast indeed. Francisco Pacheco, who owned several ranchos in what would become Monterey and Merced counties, held a total of more than 125,000 acres, with 500 horses, 14,000 head of cattle, and 15,000 sheep. David Spence, a transplanted Scot who married into a prominent Californio family, owned 25,000 acres and 4,000 cattle on the Salinas River. Most ranchos in the Monterey district were far more modest, however, ranging from 2,000 to 8,000 acres. In such a vast, underpopulated territory, land was plentiful and the borders of ranchos were vaguely defined. Fences were unknown. Rancheros allowed their half-wild cattle to graze widely. As most local rancheros were related by blood or marriage, there were few complaints when cattle strayed onto a neighbor's land.
Ranch life in California produced some of the world's finest horsemen. Californios learned to ride in early childhood, becoming so attached to their mounts that laws were passed prohibiting the riding of horses into places of business. Men were commonly bowlegged and pigeon-toed from spending much of their lives in the saddle. California mustangs (from the Spanish word mesteño) were sturdy, fast, well adapted to working with cattle, and unlike American horses, could be fed on grass rather than grain. Stock herders, or vaqueros (a term later corrupted by Anglos into "buckaroo") were the prototypes of the American cowboy. The cowboy's hat, chaps (chaparreras), lariat (la reata), saddle, spurs, and branding irons were all adapted from those of the vaqueros of California and Texas.
Because the California range was open and unfenced, cattle were rounded up in rodeos and marked with the owner's brand. Californios herded sheep and cattle on the same range, a tradition that carried over into the American era. The result was that California saw little of the conflict between cattlemen and sheep men that was so common in the West during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Cattle raising became the cornerstone of California's economy. Although most Californios lived near the ocean, few ate fish. Beef was the principal food. Cattle hides provided leather for boots, saddles, reatas, and even door hinges. Fat from butchered cattle was boiled and melted into tallow to make candles and soap. In the mid-1820s Yankee merchant ships from New England began making regular visits to California ports, principally San Diego, Los Angeles, and Monterey. Soon a bustling trade developed, with Californios obtaining both necessities and luxuries from Yankee traders in exchange for hides and tallow. So important was this trade that Yankee merchants called a dried steer hide, which had a value of one dollar, a "California bank note." The larger merchant ships could carry as many as 30,000 hides back to the New England shoe industry. Many Yankee traders settled permanently in California, learned to speak Spanish, were baptized in the Catholic faith, married Californio women, and became socially and politically prominent. During the 1830s, American trappers began to arrive in California. These rough, uneducated mountain men were less likely than the merchants and seafarers to embrace Catholicism and the Californio culture.
Excerpted from Bandido by John Boessenecker. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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