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Chapter 14: General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
Guadalupe Vallejo owned, at an early time, nearly all Napa and Sonoma, having princely estates. His commodious mansion upon the Plaza, fashioned in the old Hispano-Mexican style, was long the almost homelike resort of all its officers, and where many, besides, met with that open-hearted and frank entertainment characteristic of its hospitable proprietor. Being a gentleman of ample fortune—possessing near thirty leagues of choice land lying immediately around the northern border of the bay of San Francisco, and many thousands of horses and horned cattle—he dispensed his hospitality, as well as rendered much assistance to the newcomers, with a prodigal and generous hand.
- The Annals of San Francisco, 1855
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Just north of San Francisco, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo’s Casa Grande sat regally on the largest plaza in all of California. Vallejo and his family had administered Sonoma, the chief Mexican settlement in Alta California, since 1834, when Don Mariano had been the most powerful Mexican military governor in the upper state. Though Casa Grande’s military barracks and four-story tower were no longer in military use, the house and grounds were still considered the finest in California.
But today Don Vallejo’s elegant estate was in turmoil.
The preparations had been going on for days. The negotiations required just to coax the local californio matrons to attend the tea were delicate and considerable.
And now the guest of honor had gone missing.
The scandalous young cousin of Vallejo’s wife Francisca Benecia had been a bride at sixteen. But it was not Maria Amparo’s age, rather every other detail of her marriage to U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Henry S. Burton that the local women found objectionable.
When the higher classes of La Paz welcomed the invasion of U.S. forces led by Burton, it was in Vallejo’s highly knowledgeable opinion the most realistic course of action. Occupation of Baja by one imperial force or another had been inevitable. Nor could he fault young Maria Amparo for marrying her nominal conqueror. The future prosperity of los californios would depend on their integration with American settlers, including and especially by intermarriage.
Nonetheless, the Catholic communities of Monterey and Sonoma were in an uproar over the marriage. To marry the dashing Burton, Maria Amparo had thrown over the suit of a prominent older ranchero. Now she had rudely disappeared from the party meant to soften her entry into californio society.
As Francisca and the female guests searched for her through the Vallejos’ extensive gardens and orchard, Don Mariano followed a hunch.
He found Maria Amparo in his library, catching her in the very act of reaching for a book. She turned to him, fire-eyed, imperious, with the volume in hand. Vallejo noted with interest the title: Macauley’s Critical and Historical Essays. Since Vallejo was quite young he’d bought books off traders on ships stopping in Monterey and San Francisco, and given money to traveling friends to bring back volumes in bulk, until he’d built the most extensive collection in California. But Macauley was an interesting choice for anyone, let alone such a young woman.
“So it is my library that you are after,” he mock-challenged his obviously literate trespasser.
She boldly met his gaze. “Para un mexicano es insoportable la idea que una mujer pueda o deba razonar.”
For a Mexican it is unthinkable that a woman should be capable of reason.
The impudence of it startled him. She added slyly, “But I have heard that you are not a typical man. Mexican or otherwise.”
He laughed at the obvious manipulation. “For that bit of flattery you may take the book.” In truth he would have lent it gladly to anyone interested enough to read it.
Maria Amparo gave him a withering look. “I may not return for months,” she informed him. “I will need far more than one.”
By now he was utterly charmed. “Then you will have what you need, Señora Burton. But now you must return to the party, or we shall both suffer the consequences.”
For the first time there was a flicker of doubt on her face. She glanced at the tall windows overlooking the gardens. “They despise me. To them I am a traitor.”
Her tone reached for defiance and revealed her deep humiliation. A humiliation he understood intimately. On the surface, she was the captured bride of a conquering warrior—though he suspected this lively and clearly ambitious girl had engineered much of the “capturing” herself.
Don Mariano had been captured himself, not at all pleasantly, during the Bear Flag Rebellion, the uprising that was brief prelude to the conquest of California. It was a chapter of his own voluminous history that still stung like the lash.
It had been June of 1846, when no more than five hundred Americans were living in California, compared with its population of twelve thousand Mexicans, and the Americans were increasingly fearful that Mexican authorities would throw them out before the U.S. could annex the territory.
In fact the United States had already declared war against Mexico on May 13, 1846. But the news had not reached the Americans in California, and, encouraged by Pathfinder John C. Frémont, several groups took the matter into their own hands.
On June 14, 1846, a party of just a few dozen Americans under Mormon pioneer William B. Ide and Captain Ezekiel Merritt invaded the largely defenseless outpost of Sonoma, surrounded Vallejo’s home and informed him that he was a prisoner of war.
Don Vallejo was retired, but long a military man, and was utterly perplexed by the disorganization of the rebels. They seemed to have no understanding that he supported California’s annexation. He ordered the slaughter of a bullock to feed the half-starved crew and invited Merritt and his top men into his elegantly furnished home, certain that it could all be ironed out over brandy and his home-grown wine. Indeed, it almost had been, with Vallejo helping draft and then signing Articles of Capitulation. And then William Ide barged in, interrupting the well-lubricated chat and trumpeting that “The bottles have well-nigh vanquished the captors!”
With Ide in command, the Americans issued a declaration of independence, hoisted a hastily painted flag—white, with a grizzly bear facing a red star—and declared California its own independent republic, before marching Vallejo off to Sutter’s Fort. Even then, Vallejo expected Frémont would be reasonable. Instead he found the Pathfinder possessed an elastic conscience, refusing Vallejo an audience and demanding that he be treated “as any other prisoner.”
Captain Frémont took command of the Bear Flaggers and went on to occupy the unguarded presidio of San Francisco on July 1. Vallejo sat quietly and patiently in his cell, sure that the United States would soon take over the territory from Frémont and the Bear Flaggers. And that quickly came to pass. Ten days later, American forces under Commodore John D. Sloat occupied San Francisco and Sonoma, replaced the Bear Flag with the Stars and Stripes, and claimed California for the United States.
By the time Vallejo was released, the Americans were in complete control of the northern area of California. During his two miserable months of imprisonment, the Don contracted malaria and nearly died, while much of his estate was looted.
But Vallejo’s own dignified acceptance of the situation, and his work to convince other wealthy californios to do the same, gave him great power to shape the laws of the infant state. He was one of just a handful of californios appointed to the first Constitutional Convention, and was elected as a member of the first session of the State Senate.
There is always opportunity, for one who can keep a clear mind.
All this ran through the Don’s head in an instant. It was proof of how deeply he still felt the wounds from that time. And as he returned to the present, it was himself he saw in this defiant, conflicted young woman.
“Ah, mija,” he sighed. “Tu tienes un alma atravesada.”
You have a soul at the crossroads.
Maria Amparo frowned. Vallejo effortlessly picked up the thread of their conversation. “Treason is nothing to my wife’s friends. Your offense is far greater. You have married a Protestant.”
He saw the struggle in her face, then the stony look softened. “That is foolishness.”
“But of course it is.” He gave her a piercing look. “It is you yourself who believe you are a traitor.”
Her eyes flashed. “¡Ah! Si yo fuera hombre! ¡Qué miserable cosa es una mujer!”
He shook his head at the outburst. “And if you were a man—what? You would have fought, like the guerrillas? Foolishness is fighting the inevitable.”
She was angry—but he could see she was also curious.
“The guerrillas would never have prevailed,” he told her. “California would always have been conquered. It has always been too large, too far from Mexico’s government for her to defend, and Mexico never had any willingness to do so.” He looked at her pointedly. “So whose rule would you have preferred: that of France, Russia, Spain?”
He took pleasure in watching the implications of each playing out on that lovely face.
“Better to join los Estados Unidos where every state has say in its own unique governance, than to be under the yoke of the older imperial powers. We are present at the dawn of a new state. As it is, we can write Mexico into the history of California.”
He saw a lightness dawn in in her, as though he had removed some heavy weight.
- - -
He told Francisca Benecia that night, “I did not kiss her, though I felt a great temptation to do so, as she is very beautiful.”
It had long been his habit to confess his attractions to his wife, being of the firm belief that the practice had sustained them through thirty years of marriage and nineteen children, three of whom were by other women but adopted by Francisca.
Maria Amparo was certainly very beautiful. But he was old enough to know his attraction was to her soul, which he sensed was a twin of his own.
Un alma atravesada.
To be Mexican in California was to be a soul at the crossroads.