Birthplace of democracy in Spanish California | Ross Eric Gibson, Local History – Santa Cruz Sentinel
Miguel de la Grua Talamanca – Marquis de Branciforte, was governor of the Canary Islands in 1787, then Commander General of Spain’s military forces, as a protégé of Manuel de Godoy.
Godoy was the trusted advisor of the clueless Spanish King Charles IV, and the ambitious Queen Maria Luisa, who was rumored to be Godoy’s lover. Branciforte married Godoy’s sister Maria Antonia in 1790, and with the Queen’s help, Godoy was appointed Prime Minister in 1792. Godoy got Branciforte appointed the 53rd Viceroy of New Spain in 1794, over protests the Sicilian-born Branciforte was a “foreigner.” This gave Godoy influence over the King of Old Spain and Viceroy of New Spain. Yet the Spanish Empire was corrupt, crumbling, and in financial ruin.
The French Revolution had thrown a scare into Europe’s monarchies, and tainted the image of Democratic reformers as just mob-ruled anarchy. When Louis XVI was beheaded, Spain joined an alliance against the French Republic, leading to a French border war with Spain. As former Commander General of Spain’s military, Viceroy Branciforte looked to the security of the Americas. Fearing a local French uprising, he declared all French residents of New Spain and the Louisiana province (then under Spanish control) to be enemy aliens, subject to arrest and confiscation of their property.
Alta California was geographically remote and cut-off from the rest of New Spain, yet it was where Spain’s Manila Galleons arrived before heading down the coast to central Mexico. Any French, British, or Russian settlements on this coast would threaten New Spain’s lucrative trade route with piracy, so this unappreciated coastline had to be protected. Alta California had only 1,275 Spanish citizens, defended by 218 soldiers divided between four inadequate presidio forts built to control the indigenous populations, not defend the coast.
The presidios had few canons: San Francisco two, San Diego three, Santa Barbara two unmounted, and Monterey the only eight working canons but with just six cannon balls. Viceroy Branciforte consulted a report and letter, both by Catalonian engineer Miguel Costanso (one of Portola’s explorers), about reinforcing California’s defenses. Costanso said the Britain succeeded through colonies and commerce, showing permanent settlers they were more important than temporary soldiers. California had to get soldiers to settle the province, instead of taking their skills back to central Mexico when discharged.
Yet Spanish authorities feared replicating California’s other two pueblos, San Jose and Los Angeles, considered unproductive and ungovernable centers of vice. Costanso felt this could be remedied by establishing the new town as a “Villa Palatine,” with royal privileges. It would be a retirement community for the elite Catalonian soldiers, men with engineering skills and disciplined habits, who could be called out of retirement at a moment’s notice as an unpaid militia to defend the province. It would be named “Villa de Branciforte” in the Viceroy’s honor.
California Governor Diego de Borica was an Enlightenment progressive, advocating science and civic improvements. Borica said the Villa should follow the 1789 “Plan of Pitic” in Chihuahua. By this plan, the Villa would be 10 square miles, with a grid of orderly streets laid out around a Spanish Commons, and governed by a “comisionado” serving as magistrate and land agent. The Viceroy provided generous royal privileges, offering each patriarch an adobe home with tile roof, a nearby rancho and farm equipment, and a yearly pension for the first five years. Each settler would be selected for his skill in a craft or trade. For assimilation, every other house was supposed to be an indigenous leader, but the Santa Cruz tribal bands were too democratic, making decision by general consensus, rather than singular authority.
In April 1796 Viceroy Branciforte sent a contingent of 90 highly-skilled Catalonian volunteers to California, 72 headed by Alberto de Cordoba, the most talented engineer in California. In 1796 Cordoba collaborated with Borica, exploring sites with six escorts. They determined Santa Cruz was the most important coastal site between the tip of Baja and San Francisco Bay, for its fertility and abundance of resources, both for construction and export. It was expected the 5-year-old Santa Cruz Mission, already destroyed three times (twice by flooding, once by roof collapse), had converted all the natives that could be converted, and was dying out.
Failing to find soldiers who’d stay in California, or Mexicans of good character willing to be exiled to California, the government sought the least objectionable members of its prison population, for whom California was a less punitive confinement. The 17 settlers were chosen from among vagrants, debtors, and petty offenders like gamblers and drunks. They were each given $20-to-$25 to board the Concepcion for a life of “Royal Privileges” in California. Except the ship was headed not north, but due west to Asia, the only Spanish route to California. This was one of the Manila Galleons. Under good conditions, the voyage took four to five months, crossing the Pacific to Manila in the Philippines, then returning via Hawaii and California.
The settlers traveled with seven California missionaries, Padre Gonzales bound for Santa Cruz Mission, others sent to replace two insane, and two sick, padres. The Concepcion arrived in Monterey May 12, 1797, and Borica was shocked as the settlers disembarked in tatters, some half-naked, many ill from the voyage, with a few cases of syphilis. They were not just convicts, but spoke the Spanish cockney dialect of Guadalajara, by dropping their H’s. All nine convicts were named Jose; two had nicknames Joker and Gallant. There were three farmers, three tailors, a miner, a saddler and a carpenter. And the government had failed to include settlement supplies.
On July 17, Borica appointed the stern Gen. Gabriel Moraga as Comisionado of the new town, and they escorted the settlers on horses, plus two ox-powered carts full of Borica-provided tools for farming, carpentry and ironwork.
Then on July 24, 1797, Borica dedicated the new township. Yet nothing had been built, except for arrow-straight North Branciforte Avenue, a marvel as the first surveyed road in California. After the ceremony, they crossed the San Lorenzo River to the Mission, where accommodations were provided. The mission was undergoing repairs for storm-damage, and padres Fernandez and Gonzales resented those setteling in the mission’s designated buffer zone, which by law was supposed to be at least three miles from a pueblo, but was 3/4ths of a mile instead.
In October, the bill to construct an adobe town was calculated at $23,405 in materials alone. Spain went to war with Great Britain that month, so construction was put on hold to fund the war. Borica got his soldiers to at least construct two large, temporary thatched-hut dormitories for the settlers. The free-living settlers may have made the Mission neophytes (converted natives) homesick for their ancestral lifestyle. In January 1898, after a crackdown on neophyte fornication, a rainstorm damaged the mission, and 138 neophytes escaped, leaving only 30 to do the mission labors. Three months later, 90 were caught and returned to the mission. The padres used this as proof that settlers had a bad influence on Mission discipline, and that settlement funds should wait until a “legal” site was found elsewhere.
The next batch of 22 settlers arrived in Monterey on March 31, 1798, and Borica learned the soldiers had been withheld for the war effort, sending instead Guanajuato convicts so hardened, only six were permitted to live in Branciforte. Unable to build in adobe, the settlers resorted to building six homes of split logs, rammed upright in the earth as palisades, and covered in a thatched roof.
While each family was assigned ranch land, they were not allowed to live on it, only in town, where guards could watch them. Workers were to end each day at the guard house reciting the rosary, had mandatory church attendance, and at one point were forbidden any trips to the gambling mecca of San Jose. Every week, guards would go through each house to make sure they had all their assigned goods. They were not allowed to sell or exchange them for needed supplies, or gamble them away. Punishments were fines, whippings, or hours in the stocks.
Viceroy Branciforte left office in May, 1798, leaving Borica as the Villa’s last advocate. In 1799 Borica grew ill, and requested retirement to Mexico, but stayed into 1800 to settle 10 veterans at the Villa. The new Viceroy Azanza was loath to send money to build a Villa glorifying the “foreigner,” Branciforte. Borica returned to Mexico, and was dead within six months. His successor Gov. Pedro de Alberni spent all his time in Loreto, Baja California, and Monterey couldn’t further the Villa’s construction without the governor present.
In his absence, Brancifortians feared Alberni could only know them through government criminal records, and the Padres’ depiction of gun-toating convicts undermining the morals of Mission neophytes. The Mission blocked Villa use of water, arable land, and funds, hoping to force the Villa to fail. Yet the settlers were not allowed to speak for themselves, simply because they had no political government. However, the Plan of Pitic said once a settlement surpassed 30 residents, they could elect their own leaders. Branciforte had reached 83 residents in 1801.
Taking the initiative, they elected an Alcalde (judge-mayor), several City Councilmen, and a Justice of the Peace, thus becoming the birthplace of Democracy in Spanish California.
Politically, Villa de Branciforte was the opposite of what the Spanish wanted. Far from defending the coast for the Empire, they were the first to call for California’s independence from Spain, the first to call for the closing of the Mission system, and the first to welcome non-Spanish settlers.
Santa Cruz may credit its activist streak to the settlers of Villa de Branciforte.
Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.
Sign up for email newsletters