Cradle of Democracy in Spanish California


Miguel de la Grua Talamanca РMarquis de Branciforte, was governor of the Canary Islands in 1787, then commander-in-chief of the Spanish military forces, as a prot̩g̩ of Manuel de Godoy.

The viceroy of Branciforte of New Spain was known as the “stranger,” a Sicilian who was the only non-Spanish viceroy. (Contributed)

Godoy was the trusted advisor to the ignorant Spanish King Charles IV and the ambitious Queen Maria Luisa, who was said to be Godoy’s lover. Branciforte married Godoy’s sister, Maria Antonia, in 1790, and with the help of the Queen, Godoy was appointed Prime Minister in 1792. Godoy had Branciforte appointed 53rd viceroy of New Spain in 1794, continued protests that Branciforte, born in Sicily, was a “foreigner”. This gave Godoy influence over the King of Old Spain and the Viceroy of New Spain. Yet the Spanish Empire was corrupt, in ruins, and in financial ruin.

The French Revolution sowed fear in European monarchies and tainted the image of Democratic reformers as mere mob-led anarchy. When Louis XVI was beheaded, Spain joined an alliance against the French Republic, leading to a French border war with Spain. As the former Commander General of the Spanish Army, Viceroy Branciforte focused on the security of the Americas. Fearing a local French uprising, he declared that all French residents of New Spain and the province of Louisiana (then under Spanish control) were enemy aliens, subject to arrest and confiscation of their property.

Trade route

The Alta California was geographically remote and cut off from the rest of New Spain, yet this is where the Spanish galleons from Manila arrived before heading into central Mexico. Any French, British or Russian colony on this coast would threaten New Spain’s lucrative trade route with piracy, so this little-known coastline had to be protected. The Alta California had only 1,275 Spanish citizens, defended by 218 soldiers divided between four inadequate presidio forts built to control the native populations and not to defend the coast.

The presidios had few cannons: San Francisco two, San Diego three, Santa Barbara two unmounted and Monterey the only eight cannons in working order but with only six cannonballs. Viceroy Branciforte consulted a report and letter, both written by Catalan engineer Miguel Costanso (one of Portola’s explorers), on strengthening California’s defenses. Costanso said Britain had succeeded through colonies and trade, showing permanent settlers that they were more important than temporary soldiers. California had to get soldiers to settle in the province, instead of bringing their skills back to central Mexico once demobilized.

However, the Spanish authorities feared to reproduce the two other pueblos of California, San Jose and Los Angeles, considered as centers of unproductive and ungovernable vice. Costanso believed that this could be resolved by establishing the new town as “Villa Palatine”, with royal privileges. It would be a retirement community for elite Catalan soldiers, men with engineering skills and disciplined habits, who could be called into retirement at any time as an unpaid militia to defend the province. It will bear the name of “Villa de Branciforte” in honor of the Viceroy.

California Governor Diego de Borica was an Enlightenment progressive, advocating scientific and civic improvements. Borica said the Villa should follow the 1789 “Pitic Plan” in Chihuahua. According to this plan, the Villa would have an area of ​​10 square miles, with a grid of orderly streets arranged around a Spanish commune and governed by a “comisionado” acting as magistrate and land agent. The viceroy granted generous royal privileges, providing each patriarch with an adobe house with a tiled roof, a nearby rancho and farming equipment, as well as an annual pension for the first five years. Each settler would be selected for their skills in a trade or business. For assimilation, every other house was supposed to be an indigenous chief, but the tribal bands of Santa Cruz were too democratic, making their decisions by general consensus rather than by singular authority.

In April 1796, Viceroy Branciforte sent a contingent of 90 highly trained Catalan volunteers to California, 72 led by Alberto de Cordoba, the most talented engineer in California. In 1796 Cordoba collaborated with Borica, exploring sites with six escorts. They determined that Santa Cruz was the most important coastal site between the tip of Baja and the San Francisco Bay, for its fertility and abundance of resources, both for construction and for export. The 5-year-old Santa Cruz Mission, already destroyed three times (twice by flooding, once by roof collapse), was expected to have converted all the natives who could be and s ‘turn off.

In 1803, there were 25 houses in Villa de Branciforte, but only one in adobe. More adobes would be built, but today only one remains at 1351 North Branciforte Avenue. (Contributed)


Failing to find soldiers who would stay in California or Mexicans of good character ready to exile in California, the government sought out the less objectionable members of its prison population, for whom California was a less punitive imprisonment. The 17 settlers were chosen from vagabonds, debtors and petty criminals such as gamblers and drunkards. They each received $ 20 to $ 25 to board the Concepcion for a life of “royal privilege” in California. Except that the ship was not heading north, but due west towards Asia, the only Spanish route to California. It was one of the Manila galleons. Under good conditions, the trip lasted four to five months, crossing the Pacific to Manila in the Philippines, then returning via Hawaii and California.

The settlers traveled with seven Californian missionaries, Padre Gonzales to the Santa Cruz mission, others sent to replace two insane chaplains and two sick. The Concepcion arrived in Monterey on May 12, 1797, and Borica was shocked when the settlers landed in tatters, some half-naked, many travel sick, with a few cases of syphilis. They were not only convicts, but spoke the Spanish Cockney dialect of Guadalajara, dropping their H. The nine convicts were called José; two had nicknames Joker and Gallant. There were three farmers, three tailors, a miner, a saddler and a carpenter. And the government had not included supplies from the settlements.

On July 17, Borica appointed the stern General Gabriel Moraga Comisionado of the new city, and they escorted the settlers on horseback, along with two ox-carts full of tools provided by Borica for agriculture, carpentry, and ironwork.

Then on July 24, 1797, Borica consecrated the new canton. Yet nothing had been built except North Branciforte Avenue, a straight line, a marvel as California’s first surveyed road. After the ceremony, they crossed the San Lorenzo River to the mission, where accommodation was provided. The mission was undergoing repairs for the storm damage, and Padres Fernandez and Gonzales resented those settling in the mission’s designated buffer zone, which by law was supposed to be at least three miles away. of a pueblo, but 3/4 of a mile instead.

In October, the bill to build an adobe town was calculated at $ 23,405 in materials alone. Spain went to war with Britain that month, so construction was suspended to finance the war. Borica asked his soldiers to build at least two large temporary dormitories in thatched huts for the settlers. The free-living settlers may have made mission neophytes (native converts) homesick because of their ancestral way of life. In January 1898, after a crackdown on neophyte fornication, a rainstorm damaged the mission and 138 neophytes escaped, leaving only 30 to do mission work. Three months later, 90 were captured and returned to the mission. The chaplains used this as evidence that the settlers had a bad influence on mission discipline, and that settlement funds had to wait until a “legal” site was found elsewhere.

The next group of 22 settlers arrived in Monterey on March 31, 1798, and Borica learned that the soldiers had been selected for the war effort, instead sending convicts from Guanajuato so hardened that only six were allowed to live. in Branciforte. Unable to build in adobe, the settlers resorted to building six houses from split logs, sunk into the earth like palisades and covered with a thatched roof.

Although each family was given ranch land, they were not allowed to live there, only in town, where the guards could watch them. The workers had to finish each day at the guard house reciting the rosary, had compulsory church attendance, and at one point were prohibited from going to the game mecca of San José. Every week, guards roamed each house to make sure they had all the belongings assigned to them. They were not allowed to sell or trade them for needed supplies, or play them. The punishments were fines, lashes or hours in inventory.

Viceroy Branciforte left office in May 1798, leaving Borica as the last lawyer of the Villa. In 1799 Borica fell ill and requested retirement in Mexico, but stayed in 1800 to install 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 died within six months. His successor, Governor Pedro de Alberni, spent all his time in Loreto, Baja California, and Monterey could not continue construction of the Villa without the governor’s presence.

In his absence, the Brancifortians feared that Alberni could only find out about them thanks to the government’s criminal records and the Padres’ representation of convicts armed with weapons that undermine the morals of those new to the Mission. The Mission blocked the use of the Villa’s 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 did not have a political government. However, the Pitic Plan said that once a colony exceeded 30 residents, they could elect their own rulers. Branciforte had reached 83 inhabitants by 1801.

Taking the initiative, they elected an Alcalde (judge-mayor), several city councilors and a justice of the peace, thus becoming the cradle of democracy in Spanish California.

Politically, Villa de Branciforte was the opposite of what the Spaniards wanted. Far from defending the coast for the Empire, they were the first to demand the independence of California from Spain, the first to demand the closure of the Missions system, and the first to welcome settlers. not Spanish.

Santa Cruz can attribute his streak of activists to the settlers of Villa de Branciforte.

Ross Eric Gibson is a former history columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.


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