California Conquered — by Mistake: October 19, 1842

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America.


The secularization of mission lands, along with the Mexican government’s approval of more land grants to white settlers, increased the number of private ranchos in California. These great cattle ranches centered on the hacienda — a long one-story adobe building, sometimes with porticoed wings enclosing a courtyard, but always with a shaded verandah. Rancho dons were noted for their extravagant hospitality to strangers, their rodeos, bull fights, balls, and feasting. Besides cattle raising, which was practically his sole occupation, the Californio filled his hours with singing and dancing.


1838 map of Alta California

For some in California, politics added a needed spice to an otherwise quiet, pastoral life. Before his death in 1836, Figueroa had appointed José Castro as civil governor; nevertheless, Lt. Colonel Nicolás Gutiérrez, a companion of the former governor, decided to unite civil and military affairs under himself. It was 1836, and centralism was triumphant in Mexico. When Governor Mariano Chico left only three months after arriving from Mexico, handing the government back to Gutiérrez, certain Liberal Californios, tired of rule by non-Californios, rose in revolt. Led by Juan Alvarado of Monterey and José Castro, Californios, Indians, and Anglo-American foreigners under Isaac Graham, attacked the governor’s residence in Monterey. When his house was struck by a cannon ball, Gutiérrez decided he had had enough and retired to Mexico.


Juan Bautista Alvarado

The rebels were triumphant. Juan Alvarado’s uncle, Mariano Vallejo, became commandante general, and Alvarado convinced the diputación to proclaim California an independent state, at least until centralism was overthrown in Mexico. But the south objected, opposed independence, and denounced the foreign influence of Isaac Graham and his cohorts. Leading an armed force south, Alvarado brought the southerners over to his views; but, only a short time later, in a bid for power, Los Angeles joined San Diego in adopting the centralist constitution. Not to be outmaneuvered, Alvarado also adopted the centralist constitution, and, not long after, the Mexican government recognized him and Vallejo respectively as governor and commandante general of both Californias, alta y baja.


Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo

With the forces in the south cowed — at least for the time being — Alvarado and Vallejo turned their eyes east. They were uneasy about the future of California. Anglo-Americans were arriving overland, an Anglo-American expedition had surveyed the Sacramento and San Jacinto Rivers, and the Swissman, Johann August Sutter, who had bought Russian properties at Fort Ross, had established his own, nearly independent domain, which he called New Helvetia, on the Sacramento River. More soldiers, more Mexican colonists were needed in California, Vallejo told Mexico City. Mexico’s answer was Brig. General Manuel Micheltorena, who arrived as governor at Los Angeles in August 1842 with 300 troops. Marching thence to Monterey in October, the new governor heard the shocking news that seemed to confirm Vallejo’s fears —


The American navy had captured the capital!


Thomas ap Catesby Jones

Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones, commander of the United States Pacific squadron, had received intelligence that Mexico and the United States were at war. Sailing for the California coast, Jones, in his flagship, the United States, with another ship of the squadron, the Cyane, entered Monterey bay on October 19 and demanded the surrender of the garrison. Juan Alvarado, who was still acting governor, agreed to the surrender, saying his small force and decrepit artillery could not stand up to Jones’ 800 men and 80 cannon. However, the following day, realizing his mistake — the U.S. and Mexico were not at war — Commodore Jones returned California to the Mexican officials. The Mexican flag, which had been lowered, was again raised, and both sides fired salutes in each other’s honor.


Though the whole affair ended amicably, with fiestas, dances, and courteous visits, the Jones episode was ominous. It showed how easily a foreign power could seize the rich land of California.

A Tragic Mexican Folk Song


The legend of La Llorona, “The Weeping Woman” forced after death to wander the earth in search of the children she murdered, was the subject of folk song throughout the regions ruled by Spain and Mexico. It was likely sung on the ranchos of old Alta California. The following version is performed by folk singer, Chavela Vargas. (For more on the legend of La Llorona, go here.)




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