The Vanishing World of Mariano Vallejo

Mariano Vallejo

Mariano Vallejo, photo courtesy Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley

Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo was born in 1808 in Monterey, California. By the time he died in 1890, California was a profoundly different place.

Only 38 years before Vallejo’s birth, Monterey had been founded on a barren piece of land by soldiers and Franciscan missionaries from Spain.

At the arrival of the Spaniards, the area around Monterey Bay was a wilderness of brush, pine and oak trees, and rocky landscape sparsely populated by rag-tag bands of mostly passive natives. It was territory virtually unchanged since the last Ice Age.

But change was just over the horizon.

Vallejo, a native-born Spanish-speaker known as a Californio, began life as a citizen of the Spanish Empire in what would be one of the last outposts of European imperialism in the New World. During Vallejo’s youth, Monterey–the capital of the colony–was a small town. Los Angeles was merely a dusty pueblo. San Francisco was an isolated, pest-ridden harbor.

As a young man, he became an officer in the army of Mexico after New Spain declared independence. By 1836, California had become an essentially autonomous region of less than 13,000 Mexican citizens and an unknown number of Indians spread across thousands of square miles. Life centered on the towns that had sprung up near the Franciscan missions and around the ranchos.

For his service, General Vallejo was given several land grants, including a rancho of about 50,000 acres in Sonoma County. His Rancho Petaluma was small compared to some ranchos of 300,000 acres. Land was cheap and nobody else seemed to want it.

Rancho life was patriarchal and pastoral. Labor was almost entirely manual. The only export products were cow hides and tallow. A Californio could ride for days and not see another person.

But all this changed. In 1846, a band of misfits claiming to represent American interests staged the “Bear Flag Rebellion” that claimed California as a territory of the United States. By 1848, a treaty with Mexico gave the land to the U.S. and, coincidentally, gold was discovered in the mountains. In 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. Nineteen years later, the transcontinental railroad would open the door to a flow of migrants that continues to this day.

As a new state, and one abundant with gold that could fund American progress, settlers flooded in. The Californios quickly became a minority and their ranchos decimated by squatters and land speculators, or just sold to pay debts. When, at 55 years old, Vallejo was able to travel to Washington D.C. to meet Abraham Lincoln to advocate for land rights, he was little more than a curiosity.

Mission Solano

Mission Solano in Sonoma, California

This rapid pace of change–in the span of one man’s life–is remarkable, and rare. Up until this time, most societies had changed gradually over centuries. California, in contrast, went from an isolated feudal society to the Industrial Revolution in essentially one generation.

Living through such overwhelming change takes its toll. People lose their livelihoods almost overnight. Social conventions that had been working just fine become irrelevant or even counter-productive. That which gives citizens purpose vanishes or becomes culturally unacceptable. It can make outcasts out of those who once were kings.

We are living through a period of rapid change today. We are transitioning from an industrial economy to an information and service economy, even as we export most of our industries overseas. California, once again, is at the forefront of this change, but it’s being felt everywhere. Additionally, nations across the world are in an almost constant state of unrest. On any given day, it is difficult to know whether what you are doing now is going to feather your nest tomorrow or leave you in an empty hole. It is, to say the least, unsettling.

Vallejo was lucky. He lived a full life and is well remembered in California to this day. There’s even a town named after him. But I can’t help feeling he would have traded it all–the honorary town, the meeting of Lincoln–just to avoid going through the social upheaval and to remain living in the Californio society he grew up in.


Note: No consultation of Wikipedia was performed in the writing of this post. All information was sourced by me.

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