REPRESENTATIVE AND LEADING
MEN OF THE PACIFIC
JOSÉ ANTONIO DE LA GUERRA.
By ALFRED ROBINSON.*
DON JOSE ANTONIO DE LA GUERRA Y NORIEGA was born in Novales, in the province of Santander, Spain, A. D. 1776. He emigrated to Mexico in 1778, where, soon after his arrival, he entered the mercantile house of his uncle, Don Pedro Noriega, a wealthy gentleman residing in the capital, with the intentions of becoming a merchant; but finding the business unsuited to his taste, and being ambitious of distinction, and desirous of serving his country and sovereign, he obtained, in 1798, * the appointment of cadet in the Royal Army. In 1800, he was promoted ensign to the company then stationed at Monterey, Upper California, where he arrived the following year. In 1804, he married the daughter of Don Raimundo Carillo, Commandante of the Presidio of Santa Barbara. In 1806, he was again promoted, and received the commission of lieutenant in the company stationed at Santa Barbara. In 1810, he was named “Habitado General” of both Upper and Lower California, and immediately embarked with his family for San Blas, on his way to the city of Mexico. On his landing, he was taken prisoner by the curate, Mercado, a partisan of Hidalgo in the revolution of that time, and carried to Istlan, where he fortunately escaped from the cruel assassination of his fellow-prisoners.
The revolution of Hidalgo having deprived him of his office, he remained some time in Tepic, where he servedas Ayudante Mayor in the army there stationed, much to the satisfaction of the government. In 1811, he returned with his family to California. For several years thereafter he held command of the troops quartered at San Diego.
In 1817, he was promoted captain and commandante of the company stationed at Santa Barbara. Thiter, in that year, he repaired with his family. In 1819, he again went to Mexico as Habitado General. After a short official service, the revolution of 1821 caused him to return to California.
Upon his return, he forwarded to the Mexican Republican government his resignation. It was not accepted. The President, Guadaloupe Victoria, feeling the great need for his services, continued him in the command at Santa Barbara.
In 1828, he was named Diputado to the General Congress of Mexico, but did not fill the office, in consequence of his seat having been already taken and occupied by the “Suplente,” Don Gervasio Arguello. He returned to Califorina the following year, in a vessel which he purchased and loaded with an assorted cargo.
He embarked with him as passengers, Abel Stearns, Sherman Péck, and a Scot named Kinloch. Mr. Stearns’ visit to California was to receive a large grant of land which his partner had obtained from the Mexican government, and to make arrangements for opening the same to American colonization.
It was in July, 1829, when they landed at Monterey. Their arrival caused considerable commotion and excitement among the Spanish population which, at that time, inhabited the little town. After passing a few days of feasting and enjoyment among his friends and old companions, Don José took leave of them and started overland for San Francisco, (Yerba Buena). He dispatched his vessel to meet him at the last named place. On his route, he was received at the different missions at which he tarried with all the respect and attention due his rank, by the ringing of bells and firing of guns. In consequence of his great intimacy and friendship with the old Fathers then at the head of the missionary establishments, he was enabled to negotiate very important and satisfactory sales, and soon disposed of his entire cargo.
On reaching San Francisco he found his vessel awaiting him. He immediately discharged his merchandise and set sail for Santa Barbara. His vessel was stranded in attempting to enter the narrow inlet near that port, but all on board were saved and reached their destination.
From that time, Don José lived almost entirely at home in the midst of his family, devoting himself to their welfare and happiness. He took no active part in the political troubles and frequent revolutions of his country, except as a counsellor and mediator, in which capacity, from his great reputation as a man of unspotted integrity, patriotism, humanity and wealth, he wielded immense influence in California.
All the people of Santa Barbara looked up to him as the patriarch of their little community. On every emergency, to him they resorted for advice and succor. Oftentimes, during the periodical visitation of earthquakes in that region, men and women, with their children, would encamp on the square of ground upon which stood his noble mission, and there remain until their fears subsided, subsisting the while on his hospitality and generosity. It seemed as if they considered his person endowed with supernatural grace. To their simple minds his presence was a sufficient guaranty for their protection.
The children of the little settlement were taught to revere him. As they passed the door of his dwelling they would remove their hats and give the customary obeisance, in the same manner as they did when passing the entrance to their religious sanctuaries.
Don José’s family was extensive, and at his death, which occurred in February, 1858, he left behind him over one hundred descendants.
Several of his sons made themselves conspicuous in the history of California under the Mexican dynasty. Since its annexation to the United States, Don Pablo de la Guerra and Don Antonio Maria de la Guerra have represented their county in the State Senate. The former is District Judge of the Judicial District comprising Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties. The daughters of the old gentleman were all married to foreigners. The eldest was the wife of Wm. E. P. Hartwell, once a celebrated merchant and connected with the house of John Beggs & Co., of Lima, when considerable traffic was carried on in the country in the purchase of hides and tallow. The second daughter espoused Don Manuel Jimeno, who, at the time of the surrender of the Mexican power, was secretary to the Governor then commanding in California. She afterward married Dr. James L. Ord, brother of Major General Ord, of the U. S. Army. The third married Alfred Robinson, of Boston, and the youngest married, first, Don Cesareo Laitillade, after whose death she became the wife of Don Gaspar Oreña— both of her husbands being native of Spain.
Don José’s residence was invariably resorted to by strangers who visited California in those early days, when the name of the now prosperous and powerful State was seldom heard spoken beyond her own limits. The excellencies of his table, and the noble hospitality which he extended to his numerous guests, are yet fondly remembered by the few survivors who partook of his bounty.
Doña M. Antonia, his wife, added to the charm of his establishment, and her ladylike manners and amiability of character were admired by all. An American lady who visited California in 1832, in speaking of the many good qualities of Doña Maria Antonia, observed that there were two things supremely exquisite in Califorina — one of which was the grape, and the other the lady of Don José de la Guerra y Noriega.
At times when the political disturbances which agitated the country were most annoying, Don José would frequently exclaim: “Cuando vendran los Americanos para tomar posesion de este pais? — When will the Americans come to take possession of this country?” He has an extraordinary aversion to the Mexican government, and was ready to welcome any change which promised to put an end to the repeated political convulsions harassing the people and ruining the country. Therefore, when war commenced between the United States and Mexico, his ardent love of permanent peace, order and prosperity moved him to call down the blessings of heaven upon the American arms, whose success he predicted. He lived to see the issue of that great conflict, and its happy effects upon the interests and prosperity of his adopted land. It may be said of him, truthfully, paradoxical as the expression may seem, that he was a man of true patriotism, yet beheld his country conquered without regret. When the American flag was unfurled over his own home, he greeted the triumphant banner as the symbol of justice and peace.
At his death, the whole town turned out to do homage to his remains, which were followed to the grave by the largest funeral procession that had ever been seen in Santa Barbara. Many an old veteran, companion of his youth, was seen, whose cheeks were moistened with tears of regret, and whose feeble gait indicated that he, too, would soon be laid by the side of the virtuous and upright old pioneer.
* For forty-one years a resident of California.
Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.
Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 23-27.
© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.