San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


On the last day of August 1846 Commodore Stockton appointed Captain Gillespie of the California battalion commandant of the southern military department, with headquarters at Los Angeles, and sailed for the north three days later. Gillespie was instructed to maintain martial law but to administer it with leniency. He was a brave and gallant officer, but he despised the Californians and was not the man to conciliate a proud and humiliated people and change them into friendly and willing citizens of the United States. He cared as little for the carefully drawn instructions of the home government as did his chief, Frémont, and he laid down very strict rules and regulations to be observed, the Californians thought, for the purpose of humiliating them. Los Angeles was ever the hotbed of a turbulent, lawless, and uncontrollable element, and it was not long before there was an outbreak. A few drunken vagabonds headed by one Cérbula Varela created a riot and fired on the barracks garrisoned by Gillespie and his men. The commander considered the affair an attempt at general insurrection and arrested several Mexican officers who had given their parole and were quietly living with their families. Many other prominent citizens, fearing arrest, fled to the ranchos and prepared to defend themselves. They had no sympathy with Varela and his crew, but considered the arrest of the officers a breach of faith, and the affair, which, properly handled by Gillespie, would have ended with those who began it, ripened into a general revolt. A force of three hundred men gathered in camp outside of the pueblo, issued a proclamation and summoned Gillespie to surrender. They had but a few flint-lock muskets, escopetas (shot-guns), and lances, but no powder. John Temple's wife (a daughter of Francisco Cota) sent them two kegs of powder from her husband's store in Los Angeles and they sent out on the Colorado desert and got saltpetre and sulphur and made powder for themselves at the mission of San Gabriel. It was poor stuff, would throw a ball only five hundred yards, and when used in a flint-lock musket would flash in their faces. The first engagement of the war was the siege by fifty Californians under Varela of Chino rancho, where Don Benito Wilson with a party of twenty foreigners were in garrison. After an exchange of shots, during which one man was killed and several wounded, the Americans surrendered and were turned over to José María Flores who had been made commander-in-chief. The Californians now invested Los Angeles and called on Gillespie to surrender, offering to permit the garrison to march unmolested to San Pedro. Gillespie, who had sent a messenger to Stockton for relief, found his position untenable and accepted the terms. He marched out with his colors flying and drums beating and embarked on the merchant ship Vandalia at San Pedro. Santa Barbara was taken, Talbot and his nine men fleeing to the mountains whence they made their way to Monterey. On October 6th the Savannah sent by Stockton, reached San Pedro and the commander, Captain William Mervine, landed three hundred and fifty men and joined by Gillespie and his men from the Vandalia marched on the morning of the seventh for Los Angeles with a force of four hundred men. He could obtain no horses and took no cannon from the ships. Remembering the promenade of Stockton with the men of the Congress the previous August, Mervine anticipated no trouble, though he took all the precautions of a good commander. Flores sent José Antonio Carrillo with fifty horsemen to observe the movements of the Americans, and in the afternoon shots were exchanged between Carrillo's men and Mervine's skirmishers. At night the Americans occupied the buildings of the Dominguez rancho (San Pedro), below Los Angeles, and Carrillo received a reinforcement of forty men and an old four-pounder mounted on a pair of wagon wheels. There was more or less firing during the night by Carrillo, whose orders were to harass and delay the enemy but risk no general engagement. Early on the morning of the eighth the Americans resumed the advance, the marines and sailors marching in a solid square with Gillespie's men thrown out on either side as skirmishers. Soon they came upon the Californians drawn up in line of battle, waiting to receive them. In Carrillo's center was the gun in charge of ten men while forty horsemen were deployed on either flank. As the Americans came within range the gun was discharged and immediately dragged away by the reatas of the horsemen. At a safe distance it was reloaded and again brought into action. This operation was repeated several times with a loss to Mervine's force of six killed and six wounded. That the casualties were not greater is due to the poor quality of the home-made powder. Mervine, realizing the futility of attempting the pursuit of cavalry and flying artillery by seamen on foot, retreated, and his men exhausted by the heat and fatigue returned to their ships carrying their dead and wounded. Carrillo had fired his last charge of powder, but Mervine did not know that. The dead were buried on an island in San Pedro harbor, called Dead Man's island. { Dana says: "It was so named because of the burial there of an Englishman, commander of a small merchant brig, who was supposed to have been poisoned. Two Years Before the Mast.}

José Antonio Carrillo, whose name has frequently appeared in this narrative, was the fourth son of José Raimundo Carrillo, soldier of the Portolá expedition. He was born in San Francisco April 11, 1796, and baptized José Antonio Ezequiel. He became alcalde of Los Angeles, member of the diputacion, elector, member of (Mexican) congress, lieutenant-colonel of militia, comandante de escuadron, etc., and signed the peace of Cahuenga as Mexican commissioner. In 1849 he was member of the constitutional convention. He was a man of remarkable natural ability with a great taste for politics and intrigue. Hospitable and generous he would go far to oblige a friend or discomfit an enemy, and though easily placated, he was prone to sharp and cutting remarks. Foster relates that at a ball in Los Angeles Carrillo remarked of an officer of the Mormon battalion who was laboring through a dance with one of the California ladies, that the lieutenant danced like a bear. This being repeated made the Mormons very angry, and claiming they were insulted they stirred up a good deal of feeling over the matter. Colonel Stevenson wishing to pour oil on the troubled waters sent Foster to ask Carrillo to withdraw the remark. Carrillo received Foster with the greatest cordiality and in the most courteous manner. Foster explained and Carrillo at once announced his readiness to withdraw the obnoxious remark, adding with the most winning grace that the bear was a paisano (countryman) of his and great injustice had been done him in regard to his dancing. This was the best Foster could do and Colonel Stevenson arranged a meeting of Mormons and Californians to reconcile matters and promote good feeling. The meeting was held at the house of a prominent citizen who in the most hospitable manner received all that came, setting before them whisky, brandy, and native wines, and some of the early comers imbibed very freely. The company was so great that they adjourned to the yard. Stevenson stated the matter and then gave Carrillo the chance to explain his remark. Carrillo began in a dignified manner but had uttered only a half dozen words when Captain Hunt {Jefferson Hunt. He went to Salt Lake with the battalion, but returned to California later with the San Bernardino colony, and represented San Bernardino in the legislature in 1855. In 1856 he was made brigadier general of the First brigade, First division, California militia.} of the battalion, who had seven or eight stiff drinks under his belt, interrupted him and in a violent speech began a recital of the wrongs of the Mormons from the time of their being driven from Kirtland, Ohio, to their arrival at Council Bluffs; and how, in spite of it all, they had raised a battalion of five hundred men for the service of the United States and had marched two thousand miles, ill-clad and on half rations, and after all that an unregenerate Mexican with the blood of the Americans still red upon his hands dared to ridicule one of the officers because he could not dance. Then raising his arms aloft Hunt shouted: "By the sword of the Lord and of Gideon I am for free trade and sailors' rights." At this an old sea dog of a ship-master who had been left inside with the bottles came to the door, and in his anxiety to drink to sailors' rights lost his balance and rolling down the steps came charging among them like a cannon ball. In the confusion which followed Carrillo walked quietly to where his horse was tied, saying to Foster as he passed, "Sus paisanos son un atajo de pendejos borrachos" (His countrymen are a pack of drunken cowards), mounted and rode away, much to the relief of Foster who feared that his apology would be worse than his original offense. {Foster: Angeles from '47 to '49 MS. 36.}

In person Don José Antonio was tall and handsome, had a most urbane and courteous manner, and no man had greater power in winning friends. In his private affairs he was indolent and careless, like so many of his class, and never bothered himself about where the means were to come from, so that they came. In 1844 he was grantee, with his brother Cárlos Antonio, of Santa Rosa island. He died in Santa Barbara in 1862. His first wife was Estéfana Pico and the second, Jacinta Pico, both sisters of Don Pio.


Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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